Face off.

Face off.

Face off.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Dec. 16 2005 5:13 PM

Face Off

Brain-dead politics shops for a new look.


Friday, Dec. 16, 2005

Mirror, Mirror: In the 21st Century, it is no longer accurate to say that life imitates art. If that were true, the remake of King Kong would have prompted conservatives to introduce a constitutional amendment to require same-species marriage.

Every week, Will Saletan reminds us how much science imitates life. This week, the gory details of the world's first face transplant showed us how much life imitates science.


Even in the best of circumstances, the idea of a face transplant ranks with eugenics and human cloning in the category of ethical genies most of us would like to put back in the bottle. But as the New York Times recounted on Wednesday, this particular case is riddled with ethics problems that would make Jack Abramoff blush.

It's bad enough that Isabelle Dinoire, the French woman who received the transplant, signed a movie deal months beforehand. Even more troubling, as the Times reports, is the reason she needed a new face: her black lab chewed off the old one after Dinoire overdosed on sleeping pills in an attempted suicide. Friends told the Times that the woman had long battled depression, making her a dicey choice for what may be the most controversial and identity-rattling transplant in history.

To make matters worse, the Times suggests the strong possibility that the face was available for transplant because the donor may have committed suicide by hanging herself. A doctor from the hospital in Amiens where the operation took place says he would have advised against the surgery because hanging would damage the blood vessels too much for the transplant to work. More important, as the Times notes, is the daunting moral burden of one suicide victim staring another in the face every morning for the rest of her life.

Cage Aux Folles: At first, I tried to tune out news of the face transplant as an example of bad science imitating bad art – in this case, the 1997 Nicholas Cage self-slasher film "Face/Off," which impressed David Edelstein but gave me nightmares. Edelstein thought it was "a blast" to watch Cage's face floating in a fish tank after "a state-of-the-art morphogenic transplant." I thought it was like taking popcorn to watch a med student's first encounter with cadavers. Maybe I just have a chip on my shoulder after years of people thinking I just had a Ralph Reed transplant.


But the case of the faceless French women makes me do a double-take for another reason. Let's see … a double suicide, in which the heartless, money-grubbing survivor takes on the face of the victim. Wait a minute – isn't that the perfect metaphor for the current, brain-dead state of American politics?

Deep in despair, the Democratic Party looks for every excuse to hang itself. The Republican Party intentionally overdoses, continues to slumber even as it is becoming permanently disfigured, and finally wakes up in a panic, desperate to find a new face. Blind as ever to ethical issues, Republicans coldly make the case for a face transplant from the only available donor – the Democrats.

At least, that thought crossed my mind as I re-read last month's fascinating Weekly Standard cover story, "The Party of Sam's Club," by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. Douthat and Salam are bright Young Turks who don't want to become twenty-something Has-Beens saddled with what they rightly call "the intellectual exhaustion of the current majority."

Their basic argument is that after all these years, Republicans should try doing something to help the middle class, instead of just trolling for votes from them. Douthat and Salam acknowledge what John Edwards and other Democrats have pointed out for some time now: "You can't have an 'ownership society' in a nation where too many Americans owe far more than they own." They contend that "the economic anxieties of middle and working-class voters are likely to be the domestic political issue of the coming years."


Many of their proposals come straight out of Bill Clinton's 1992 playbook: a dramatic, pro-family expansion of the children's tax credit; going after health care costs as a way to make health reform pay for itself; scrapping Bush's gooey, do-nothing compassionate conservatism with an ambitious "self-help agenda" of rewarding work. They call for middle-class tax reform that sounds more like Democrats Ron Wyden and Rahm Emanuel than Grover Norquist.

Douthat and Salam even borrow an idea that David Cameron's New Tories in Britain borrowed from Tony Blair's New Labour, who in turn borrowed it from Clinton's New Democrats: Because so much of the political debate consists of false choices (a phrase borrowed from E. J. Dionne), the party faithful often fall into the trap of a conventional wisdom that has it precisely wrong. Far from it being a contradiction in terms for a party to be committed to principle and innovation at the same time, reform is absolutely essential for a party's principles to survive.

I don't agree with everything these two new conservatives have to offer, and I have my doubts that the transplant will take. In the 2000 campaign, Bush promised to put a new face on his party, but as soon as the movie started, the mask came off and revealed that it was Dick Cheney all along.

But Douthat and Salam deserve credit for recognizing that "the greatest danger facing any political majority is ideological sclerosis." The moment a party in power starts believing it will live forever usually coincides with the moment it is about to be declared brain-dead.


Democrats don't have to wait for a movie deal. If Republicans are so traumatized that they're willing not only to look more like us, but think more like us, we should be happy to help them save face. ... 5:06 P.M. (link)


Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005

Wrong Again: Jim Barnes, the savvy political reporter who created National Journal's poll of Washington insiders, sent a tongue-in-cheek e-mail reminding me that last week's 2008 survey was not the first of the cycle:

No self-respecting group of "insiders" would wait until just 25 months out from the Iowa caucuses to weigh in on the next presidential race. Indeed, NJ's Democratic and Republican Political Insiders first ranked their respective 2008 fields last April, a healthy 33 months before actual voters get to say anything.


I foolishly thought the April 2005 poll asked Washington insiders who had won the 2004 election, as a baseline to see whether we're more accurate in hindsight. But the genius of the Barnes poll is his insight that anybody can be wrong about the past—it takes years of Washington experience to be consistently wrong about the future.

A Beltway consensus is often a self-fulfilling prophecy—of doom. For example, back in April, one Republican insider predicted that Arnold Schwarzenegger could win in 2008. The Terminator's career has been in free fall ever since. The Insiders poll could be the next Sports Illustrated curse.

Dim Bulb: There is one primary that should be front-loaded—the Idea Primary. In the run-up to 2004, some of us naively hoped that the fight for the nomination could be a battle of ideas. Instead, it turned into a spirited debate over whether to hate Bush for being a liar, a scumbag, or just a "miserable failure." (Dick Gephardt, who coined that last phrase and even created a Web site around it, had to drop out after finishing a poor fourth.)

In 2008, Democrats won't have Bush-Cheney to kick around anymore. Saying goodbye to your favorite bogeymen isn't as easy as you might think. The last time Democrats contested an open seat, when Reagan was departing in 1988, his name still echoed through the primaries. Democrats sounded like John Birchers who had failed to notice the end of the Cold War.

At the first 1988 primary debate in Houston, everyone recited their tired anti-Reagan talking points, which earned the field the indelible nickname The Seven Dwarves. That year, the Idea Primary took place in the dull, reflected light of dull, unreflective, second-term exhaustion. Al Gore promised to fire Ollie North and turn the White House basement into a child-care center, not a covert arms operation. Mike Dukakis promised "Star Schools, not Star Wars." Even Democratic primary voters found it hard to get excited about driving their children to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for day care and Alpha Centauri for elementary school.

Post-Bush Syndrome could easily turn the 2008 contest into a debate about "What did you do in the Iraq War, Daddy?" As Tom Friedman points out, Democrats are still debating the 1993 vote on NAFTA vote. That means some in the party may still be arguing about the 2002 Iraq vote during the primaries in 2016.

Your Option: Fortunately, some Democrats don't want to be the party of the History Channel. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, former Clinton speechwriter Paul Glastris has written a brilliant cover story on a Democratic vision that might emerge from the wreckage of Bush's failed ownership society.

Glastris highlights the central flaw in the conservative vision: "They are committed to a strategy of using choice as a Trojan horse to undermine government, yet it's impossible to make choice work in the real world without strong measures from government." In other words, individual empowerment actually has greater potential as a progressive theme, because choice is far more appealing when you're willing to offer voters appealing choices.

Glastris makes the important point that having too many choices can be as paralyzing as too few and that a proposal won't fly unless it factors in the most likely choice, which is not choosing at all. He notes the remarkable success of 401(k) plans with automatic enrollment, which lets workers "opt out," but covers them in the more likely event that they can't make up their mind.

American politics is once again stuck in the endless loop of what E. J. Dionne long ago dubbed "false choices." Washington makes progress whenever someone finds a way to bridge that divide, as Clinton did on crime, welfare reform, and balancing the budget, and as Bush has gone out of his way to avoid doing on taxes, energy, and national security.

In an "opt-out" world, false choices get left behind. For example, liberals and conservatives agree that we pay more for health care because millions of uninsured people are outside the risk pool, but the two sides can't possibly choose between their respective prescriptions.

The opt-out dramatically increases the potential for both sides to get their way. Imagine a health-care plan that required (and helped pay for) individuals to purchase health insurance but allowed them to opt out. Conservatives can no longer say that's government telling everyone how to live their lives; liberals can't say that's government throwing the vulnerable to the whims of the market.

In the same way, an opt-out might open the door to more sweeping visions of tax reform. Tax-reform schemes almost always founder because they create losers, often inadvertently. Under any tax-reform plan, no matter how progressive, you don't have to be the next Josh Bolton or Gene Sperling to find a few sympathetic families who will pay more than they do now—even if the overwhelming majority are better off. The result: We're stuck with the tax code we have, not the tax code we wish we had.

In theory, a carefully drawn tax-reform plan could opt its way to victory. Instead of suffering death-by-anecdote at the hands of sympathetic losers, give the losers the option to continue to pay taxes under the current system. Giving people that choice would cost the government some revenue and make it harder to put accountants out of business. But it might also enable tax-reform proponents to have a debate they can win: how their plan will help sympathetic winners at the expense of unsympathetic losers. In return for letting some people hold on to outdated complexity, we could offer most Americans a choice they don't have now: more progressivity and simplicity.

Opt-outs won't solve everything. Some choices are real, not false, like no longer spending money we don't have. But any proposals that enable us to opt out of the tired debate over how much we won't miss the Bush administration will help get the Idea Primary off to a good start. ...  1:55 P.M. (link)


Monday, Dec. 12, 2005

Dating Game: This weekend, a Democratic National Committee task force on presidential primaries and caucuses issued its recommendations for the 2008 calendar. Unfortunately, the group didn't have the power to make the change that would do Democrats the most good, which would be to have the 2008 election right now.

The chairs of the task force, Rep. David Price and former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, have been around long enough to know that more often than not, tinkering with the calendar does more harm than good. The primary calendar has been to Democratic politics what the Bowl Championship Series formula is to college football: constant recalibration in an effort to keep one step ahead of common sense.

In 1982, the creation of "superdelegates" helped secure the nomination for Walter Mondale, who lost 49 states. In 1988, the creation of a southern Super Tuesday produced a cakewalk for the very northern Michael Dukakis, who lost 40 states. In 2004, the DNC's plan to front-load the contests to crown an early winner before Republicans could define him handed John Kerry the nomination before he had defined himself.

With that litany of unintended consequences in mind, the Price-Herman commission wisely avoided any grand schemes to fix everything. The change that attracted the most attention—squeezing in a caucus or two between Iowa and New Hampshire—will probably have little impact on those two states' longstanding role in narrowing the field to a frontrunner and one or two underdogs. Except for Iowa, caucuses never carry as much weight as primaries and shouldn't, because far fewer voters actually take part.

Less-noted changes have more potential to create a real race: getting rid of mega-state primary days like Super Tuesday, and awarding more delegates to states with late primaries. In 2004, so many early contests were so close together that it produced a domino effect: After winning Iowa and New Hampshire, John Kerry lost only three state primaries the rest of the way.

Long ago, before Democrats started endlessly reforming the nomination process, the old system had one genuinely exciting feature: late primaries that were winner-take-all. In 1968, when Robert Kennedy beat the late Gene McCarthy by a whisker, and in 1972, when George McGovern beat Hubert Humphrey 44 percent to 39 percent, the winner-take-all California primary was the decisive blow. Although McGovern wrote the party rules that would eventually lead Democrats to replace winner-take-all primaries with proportional representation, a floor fight to uphold the winner-take-all rule saved his first-ballot victory at the 1972 convention.

Of course, McGovern managed to lose 49 states, which suggests that like most primary reforms, "winner-take-all" is a relative term.

Early and Often: The DNC commission had a furious debate about whether to force Iowa and New Hampshire, now likely to take place on Jan. 14and Jan. 22,2008, to wait until Feb. 5. Again, we can probably thank them for doing nothing. Considering that presidential candidates will start declaring their candidacies right after the midterm election in November 2006, actual voting in Iowa and New Hampshire may be an even more eagerly anticipated arrival than bird flu vaccine.

With no incumbent president or vice-president in the field for the first time since 1952, both parties have the chance to create a thrilling, wide-open contest. Now that the DNC has chosen not to pioneer new ways to screw it up, the rest of us will have to do our part, too.

For starters, it might be time for a horserace non-proliferation treaty. This past week, the National Journal e-mailed its first 2008 poll to Washington insiders in both parties. I take part because I like Jim Barnes, the NJ reporter who created the poll, and because it serves a useful purpose: If the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom is always wrong, it's all the more important to gather a statistically valid sample.

During the 2004 primaries, I had a perfect record in the National Journal poll: Like most participants, I never predicted the right result. We're like the losing contestants in the movie Quiz Show: We guess the wrong answer every week so the winner looks like a bigger surprise than he otherwise would.

This year's 2008-in-2005 poll presents a new challenge. Insiders specialize in being wrong about next week or next month. The law of averages makes it much harder to guarantee that we will be wrong about what will happen three years down the road.

Together, We Can Do Worse: If we put our heads together, I'm sure we can still figure out a way to get it wrong. We do have one advantage: We don't even know who will run. Pre-season polls are notoriously unreliable in any sport. Imagine how far off they'd be if coaches and sportwriters had to vote three years in advance and didn't know which colleges would have teams.

If you're going to guess wrong with consistency, you need a system. Here's mine: First, I use my decades of political experience and the latest public poll to figure out the frontrunner. With savvy insider flair, I promptly write off that candidate as a hothouse creation of Washington professionals who stands no chance in the real world. Then I panic and start to wonder whether every other Washington insider is thinking exactly the same thing. After all, people who live in hothouses shouldn't throw stones.

Fortunately, self-doubt gives way to a firm conviction that while I may not have been right the first or second time, the third time is a charm. To be sure, I still have no earthly idea who will actually win, but I know that as an insider, whichever candidate I pick to win cannot possibly win—and whichever candidate I am confident will lose is sure to come close to winning.

This system worked brilliantly in 2004. I was consistently wrong—but more important, I was able to pick the wrong result ahead of everyone else. I knew Howard Dean couldn't win—he was at the top of the insiders poll for weeks—but I predicted that John Kerry wouldn't win Iowa when most insiders were still stuck on the idea that John Edwards wouldn't win it.

Why stop now? The blogosphere has made so much inside scoop available that anyone who wants to be an insider can become one. That gives all Americans a greater voice in political punditry. But it also means we Washington insiders have lost our monopoly on being wrong. Sure, we're still better at it—we have years of practice—but the rest of world is catching up fast. Twenty years ago, Jack Germond and the "McLaughlin Group" had exclusive rights to the conventional wisdom. Now anybody with cable TV and a computer can play "Howard Fineman: The Home Edition."

In the run-up to the 2004 primaries, the Internet conventional wisdom was every bit as wrong as the Beltway CW. In fact, the two became so closely intertwined, it was difficult to tell them apart. Bloggers learned the hard lesson that insiders always learn, then promptly forget: Voters make up their minds by watching the horses, not the horserace.

I haven't worked out my system for 2008, but I'm ready to start guessing wrong: President Fitzgerald—you heard it here first. ... 11:59 A.M. (link)


Thursday, Dec. 8, 2005

All Rx's Live in Texas: Most Sundays, the lead story in the New York Times is the latest report from the front lines of drug war, with the incomparable Robert Pear tracking down still more senior citizens baffled by the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. But this past Sunday was different: a front-page account of why sales of impotence drugs like Viagra are declining.

It's nearly impossible to write a story about the rise and fall of Viagra without an embarrassing double-entendre, and the Times's Alex Berenson never had a chance. Every pharmaceutical representative he interviewed sounds straight out of Alec Baldwin's "Schwetty Balls" sketch on Saturday Night Live.

"We are firmly of the mindset that there is huge opportunity in this category," a Pfizer executive says about Viagra. "We will stand very positively on the growth of this marketplace," agrees the head of marketing for Cialis. A Wall Street analyst tells Berenson, "Viagra's sales boomed, then fell back, and then began to rise again."

According to Berenson, despite $400 million a year in advertising, the worldwide market for impotence drugs has leveled off at $2.5 billion, about half what analysts had predicted. Doctors are writing 10 percent fewer prescriptions this year than last.

This can hardly be what Republicans hoped for when they passed the huge prescription drug bill. As SNL's other master of the double-entendre, Christopher Walken's "The Continental," always discovers, there's no point in costly pandering when the subject finds you repulsive.

As the Times reports, Medicare will cover Viagra through the end of next year. Since coverage stops after that, economists might have predicted a run on impotence drugs, rather than a drop-off. Of course, seniors may just be so busy trying to figure out the new Medicare plan that there's no time to think about anything else.

Striking Out: Drug makers might want to consider a new spokesman. The Times says Viagra has lost its stigma "because of advertising featuring athletes like the baseball player Rafael Palmeiro." On the other hand, perhaps not everyone is looking for a drug that will make them lie to Congress and test positive for steroids.

But the larger point of Berenson's story is his fascinating conclusion: Sales are flat not because men have lost faith in impotence drugs, but because they've decided impotence isn't the end of the world. Urologists tell the Times that many older men face two problems the drug can't cure: No one particularly wants to have sex with them, and they feel like they've outgrown it anyway. Many appear to have found the same consolation as Jake in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises: more time to fish.

If Washington has anything to say about it, that could be the metaphor for the Bush era: an aging society coming to terms with its own impotence. Yesterday, for example, House Republicans called off their brief fling with fiscal discipline. They added nearly $100 billion over five years to the deficit by passing three new tax cuts, with a fourth on tap for today.

While at first glance those tax cuts may look like another dose of Viagra, they're really an admission of failure. As David Brooks points out ($), after years in office, conservatism is fat, unattractive, and out of steam. One can just imagine aging conservatives looking themselves in the mirror Monday morning and saying, "Who are we kidding? We lost interest in cutting government long ago."

Then again, maybe Americans are just tired of the choices being presented. Five years of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld have made them suspicious of political Viagra. But Bush's penchant for failure—in Iraq, in Washington, in New Orleans—has made people weary of American impotence as well.

Against that backdrop, we can take comfort in an aging society's mature decision to shrug its shoulders at dysfunction. No matter what the politicians or the drug makers tell us, failure is their problem, not ours. ... 1:59 P.M. (link)


Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005

Ho-Ho-Ho: Just when you thought the nation's political debate couldn't get any shallower, the New York Times reports that the right wing has a new sales pitch for Samuel Alito: He's the judge who'll save Christmas.

"This is going to be the dominant theme on the Alito nomination until the end of the year," Bush ally Jay Sekulow told the Times. "The convergence of a Supreme Court nomination, the Christmas season, and a judge who has a well-staked-out position on support for religious expression."

After weeks of having to defend Alito's personal beliefs on issues certain to come before the Supreme Court, such as civil liberties and abortion, conservatives are bursting with holiday joy over the prospect of magically conjuring a fake issue out of thin air, like Frosty the Snowman. "It is something that the other side can't really join or debate because they come out looking like the Grinch," says Manuel Miranda, the conservative who iced Harriet Miers.

Now we see the sum total of what conservatives have learned from two decades of judicial battles: Bork would have been perfect if he'd just put on the Santa suit.

Apart from changing the subject, the right's goal is to show that, like so many others who have saved Christmas over the years—Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Tiny Tim, Herbie the Dentist—Alito is more sympathetic than the enemy. Sure, he might subject Cindy Lou Who to a strip search, but he won't let some longhair stop the singing of "Fah who ramus" down in Whoville town square.

As the Washington Post reported this weekend, conservative groups "plan a major push beginning Monday to portray Alito's opponents as anti-God." Of course, liberal groups will have to work overtime to out-crank some of Alito's supporters, like Pat Robertson, who interrupted an interview with the author of The War on Christmas to observe that Kwanzaa is a Marxist "total fraud."

Conservatives suggest that Alito's opponents would filibuster the nomination of God Himself to the court. The right wing seems to have forgotten the scale of Alito's own ambitions. His high-school newspaper once jokingly reported, "SAM ALITO DEFEATS GOD IN LANDSLIDE ELECTION FOR RULER OF THE UNIVERSE."

Bad Santa: If there's anything more painful than Alito running against God, it's watching him run for Santa. Since Halloween, he has been making the rounds on Capitol Hill, bringing each senator a dash of sugar and spin for Christmas. Last week, he told Sen. Arlen Specter that back in 1985, when he outlined a strategy to overturn Roe, he was just expressing a "personal opinion"—not much of a distinction, considering that Alito said in his infamous job application that same year how proud he was to "advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly."

Meanwhile, Alito has been telling senators how much he resembles his late father. He apparently tries to explain away his early objections to "one man, one vote" as a concerned son's resentment toward the heartache the court heaped on his father: "In his bedroom at night as a boy, Judge Alito told senators, he could hear his father clicking away at a manual calculator as he struggled to redraw the state's legislative districts with equal populations." In Alito's eyes, the Warren Court was Scrooge, and his father was Bob Cratchit.

Even after all that hard work, a federal court in 1972 struck down New Jersey's plan as "patently unconstitutional." Like Batman and Spiderman, the young Alito must have sworn to himself that he would spend the rest of his days working to avenge his father's loss.

One Pant, One Vote: Presumably, Alito leaves out inconvenient details about his father's personal opinions, such as the old man's refusal in the 1970s to allow women in his office to wear pants. You can see why Sam Jr. grew up hating the Warren Court: Once you let everyone vote, it's only a matter of time before women start wearing pantsuits to work and we're no longer allowed to give them aprons for Christmas.

In this respect, the younger Alito will bring balance to the Roberts Court, since in the '70s the chief justice once went so far as to wear a dress himself to high school.

Last week, Alito tried to distance himself from the Concerned Alumni for Princeton, the granddaddy of the "aprons, not Ivies" movement. He told the Judiciary committee, "I have no recollection of being a member, or attending meetings." Alito has something in common with George W. Bush after all: Their only comment on the '70s is "I have no recollection."

A woman who later worked with Alito told the Daily Princetonian, "I once joked to him that he must be very disappointed that women were admitted to Princeton, and he just didn't have a response." But the Prince found another explanation for Alito's involvement in CAP—he just wanted to tap the good old-boy network. One Alito contemporary suggested to the Prince that students who joined CAP "wanted to ingratiate themselves so that they had good summer jobs." Alito's former roommate says, "He wouldn't have put that in his job application if he didn't have a connection."

In hindsight, it might seem selfish to have spent the '70s and '80s advancing one extremist personal view after another for the sake of personal career advancement. But what holiday hero hasn't been willing to do whatever it takes to save Christmas? Frosty didn't want "two bits of coal for eyes"—he was personally opposed to coal, because of its role in global warming. But he let himself melt to death so children could learn the magic of Christmas.

It's too early to tell whether Sam Alito wants to be God, or Santa, or just go down in history like Rudolf. But so far, Alito is like a kid before Christmas: Whatever he wants, he'll say anything to get it. ... 2:59 P.M. (link)


Friday, Dec. 2, 2005

One Beer, One Vote: After another week of disheartening Republican congressional scandals in our nation's capital, the Washington Post recounts a charming story of extortion, fraud, and vote-buying in rural West Virginia. The tale drips with nostalgia for the good old days when bribes came cheap and voters, not officeholders, were the ones taking money.

As the Post explains, Thomas Esposito, the longtime mayor of Logan, W.Va., entered a plea agreement two years ago after being accused of paying the $6,500 bar tab of a local magistrate who was later indicted for extortion. The Justice Department then decided to have Esposito run a fake campaign for the state legislature to serve as "live bait" in a vote-buying sting operation. The FBI had Esposito give two men $2,000 to hand out in street money, then withdrew him from the race. Esposito received 2,000 votes anyway.

Such a scandal might seem quaint here in Washington, where people pay $2,000 to drop by congressional fundraisers every night of the week. But as a parable of our times, this small-town tale of small-change corruption is rich with meaning.

For starters, why is the FBI running a vote-buying sting in the state House of Delegates in West Virginia when there would appear to be so much more live bait in the United States House of Representatives?

Where's Abscam when we need it? In 1980, under a Democratic president, the FBI ran a bribery sting that sent a Democratic senator and four Democratic congressmen to jail. When it comes to bribery, the current Republican administration prefers to rely on the private sector.

As a general matter, I'm a big believer in market forces. But privatizing bribery is costing taxpayers a fortune. As Michael Kinsley observes, contractors shelled out $2.4 million to bribe Rep. Duke Cunningham and extorted $163 million in defense contracts in return. In 1980, the FBI persuaded congressmen to throw away their careers for a mere $25,000.

You can say this much about Jack Abramoff, Michael Scanlon, and Duke Cunningham: They may be thieves, but they've never been petty ones.

Then again, perhaps the House of Representatives is a giant FBI sting operation and we just don't know it yet. Maybe Justice Department higher-ups overturned their own lawyers and approved a seemingly illegal redistricting scheme in Texas as part of an elaborate FBI plan to entrap Tom DeLay.

W.Va. Confidential: As further proof, look at the FBI's impressive get-out-the-vote operation in West Virginia. In 2004, economist Alan Krueger estimated that both parties would pay about $50 a vote to mobilize voters in the presidential election. Michael Moore, who had already convinced voters to pay him a bundle for telling them what they wanted to hear in Fahrenheit 9/11, offered new Kerry voters a three-pack of Fruit of the Loom underwear—which adds up to at least $4.98 a vote, plus shipping.

But according to Gregory Campbell, the lawyer for a retired coal miner who was one of the bagmen in West Virginia, his client pocketed his half of the $2,000 and then said, "I ain't buying any votes." Esposito went on to win 2,000 votes even though he had pulled out of the race and the man he paid to pay off voters never lifted a finger.

The FBI's method—paying a retiree to do nothing—may lack the sophistication of the Democrats' 527s or Karl Rove's vaunted 72-Hour Project, but look at the results: 2,000 votes for $2,000. That's $1 per vote. Once again, the FBI—one of the most hidebound bureaucracies in the federal government—set the standard for efficiency.

The coal miner's lawyer tried to have charges dismissed on the grounds that the feds were corrupting democracy: "By placing a false candidate in the election, a sham candidate, one [the government] knew could not take office, every vote that was cast for Esposito was a vote that an honest voter could have cast for an honest candidate."

The court decided that was too high a burden for modern democracy to meet. How can we distinguish sham candidates from honest ones, when the main difference seems to be that sham candidates hand out bribes and drop out, while honest candidates take bribes and stay in?

In short, the West Virginia case turns a host of modern political assumptions on their head. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, but hardly any power corrupts pretty well, too. The federal bureaucracy may be more bloated than the private sector in other areas, but whether you're looking for someone to hand out bribes or take them, Washington is more efficient by far.

Justice Department gumshoes will drive six hours on winding roads to lower the boom on a crooked county, but won't take a 10-minute cab ride across town to clean up a crooked country. The FBI has no trouble finding out when the mayor of some town with 1,500 people pays somebody else's bar bill, but may not notice when foreign terrorists ask for visas to go to flight school.

Finally, Jon Corzine and Michael Bloomberg could have saved millions by hiring every retired coal miner in America to run get-out-the-vote operations from bar stools in Appalachia.

The Untouchables: Ever since its dismal performance before Sept. 11, the FBI has been struggling to find some way to be useful in the war on terror. Bob Novak may be right not to revere J. Edgar Hoover, who knew how to look tough in a dress long before Maggie Thatcher and Peppermint Patty. But at least under Hoover, the FBI always got its man. Under Louis Freeh, the FBI always got its book contract.

But the West Virginia case may be a turning point for the bureau. In two weeks, Iraq will hold parliamentary elections, and our ultimate success there may depend on the level of turnout from Sunni voters. Around 2 million Sunnis cast votes in the referendum on Iraq's constitution. In a war that has cost the U.S. more than $200 billion, that's a whopping $100,000 per vote – a hundred thousand times what we pay in the one of the poorest parts of America.

If the Bush administration wants to do more than stay the course in Iraq, it should stop having the Pentagon pay to plant stories in the Iraqi press, and send in an airlift of FBI agents with bagloads of street money.

That would give Bush and the Republicans a new slogan for 2006: "Crime doesn't pay—but corruption saves!" ... 1:59 P.M. (link)