Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Sort of a Surprise

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Sort of a Surprise - Don't Hang Up!

It was clear on Monday, November 6, the day before Election Day, that there had been no October Surprise to shift everything around. And there had been no real November Surprise, unless it was the verdict and sentencing of Saddam Hussein. He will be hanged (or hung, if you prefer that usage).

In reaction to that, Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, dropped a line -

    If this was their October Surprise, then these guys have really lost their touch. With Iraq as an election issue having been totally overwhelmed with stuff that can only remind Americans of how the Republicans have screwed everything up over there, Karl Rove is lucky that this whole Saddam sentencing thing can safely be relegated to somewhere in the "back of the book," maybe even the "Where Are They Now" column.

And even the acerbic and pro-war Christopher Hitchens said Don't Hang Saddam -

    Before the arrival of coalition forces in Iraq, one of Kurdistan's most respected leaders, Barham Salih, was the target of an assassination attempt by the Ansar al-Islam group. He was saved only by the momentary impulse to duck back through his doorway for a cell phone he had left behind, but several of his entourage were murdered. The killers were apprehended, tried, and sentenced to death. Salih is now the deputy prime minister, but he was then the man responsible for signing death warrants in northern Iraq. He declined to sign the warrants for those who had murdered his friends and nearly taken his own life. At the time, he told me that he hoped the new Iraq would abolish capital punishment "even when we capture Saddam Hussein." Like many leading Kurds, he had been influenced by discussions with Danielle Mitterrand, the widow of former French President François Mitterrand, who was a great friend of Kurdistan as well as a stern foe of capital punishment. The idea was that the new Iraq would begin life without the death penalty. I have had discussions with many Iraqi dissidents who take the same view. Almost every preceding change of regime in the country was marked by the execution of at least some of the previous leadership. Perhaps it might be desirable to break with this depressing tradition. Moreover, now that even the Turks have abolished capital punishment just next door, in order to conform with European Union stipulations, why should Iraq not signal its membership of the community of civilized nations in the same way?

There's much more of course, but that's the gist of it. Executing the previous leadership is just no way to do business - if the business in question is civilized governance. Tony Blair too came out against hanging him. We seem alone in our own concept of civilized governance, and in the concept we will impose in Iraq.

Hitchens does add this detail -

    The case for carrying out the sentence of death, or for not protesting if it is carried out, is the following: Saddam Hussein has been tried under Iraqi law as it stood when he was dictator and has been sentenced according to that law. It is not for anyone else to tell Iraqi courts and judges what to do or to suggest retrospective changes in the system. He had the day in court that was denied to his victims, and the sentence should stand, even if the Iraqi parliament should later decide to abolish capital punishment. This might be technically correct, but then so until recently was the "sovereign immunity" defense, which said that those who were recognized heads of state could not be tried under the common law. Partly overturned by the British House of Lords in the case of Augusto Pinochet, and by the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, this doctrine is giving way to the idea of "universal jurisdiction," whereby crimes such as torture and genocide are akin to piracy and indictable and prosecutable in any place where the wanted person may be found. That being the case, the Iraqi courts should act according to a putatively universal standard. This standard might not include such features of the Saddam trial as the recent abrupt replacement of the presiding judge on the grounds that he seemed too soft on the defendant.

So the trail was a bit of a joke, and as a surprise that could change our elections, it passed with a shrug into obscurity without much impact.

But it was a game try, and does seem like a ploy, given the verdict of death was read out Monday, but not precisely what he was convicted of or why -

    The full verdict, a document of several hundred pages, explaining how and why today's judgment was reached was not released. U.S. officials said it should be ready by Thursday. So why issue the verdict today? U.S. court advisors told reporters today it was delayed mainly for technical reasons.

They put lots of caveats out there explaining how there's no proof the verdict was timed for political purposes, but they couldn't seem to actually get the full verdict ready for a "slam dunk" on the Sunday before the elections over here. So they announced the death sentence and they'll do their best to get the full verdict done by Thursday. Yeah, it smells a tad fishy. But then it didn't provide the necessary bounce, so it hardly matters.

So much for that surprise. And there was this -

    If the president of the United States made a special trip for your campaign, you might come out to say hello.

    But when President Bush turned up in Pensacola, Florida, today, Charlie Crist wasn't there.

    Crist is the Republican hoping to be Florida's next governor. And the White House sent out schedules indicating Crist would be at a rally to introduce Bush.

    Instead, Crist was 600 miles away in Delray Beach, at a restaurant called "Lox Around the Clock." And his absence from the Bush event upset some folks, including Karl Rove, the president's political strategist.

Oops. No one likes that kind of surprise. So the president spoke with his brother, the governor, at his side, and another fellow who wasn't running for anything, and the nutty Katharine Harris, who supervised the 2000 Florida elections that swung things Bush's way but has no chance at all of winning her election. It was a bit of a bust.

And the day before the election had few surprises, just symbolism like that. It was the birthday of John Phillips Sousa and at his grave the service bands played the marches, as they do every year - Stars and Strips Forever and so on. That was nice - something to get folks in the mood to do their patriotic duty and go vote.

Our friend the high-powered Wall Street attorney felt the symbolic event of the day before the election was this -

    The USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier that survived World War II bomb and kamikaze attacks, got stuck in the mud in the Hudson River on Monday as tugboats tried to pull it from its berth.

    The ship - a huge floating military museum that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists a year - was supposed to be towed across the river to a dry dock in Bayonne, N.J., for a $60 million renovation.

    Six tugs pulled with a combined 30,000 horsepower but moved the Intrepid only about 15 feet. Not even an unusually high tide could free the 27,000-ton, 872-foot-long ship from the ooze.

    "We had the sun, the moon and the stars in alignment, and it was just a very disappointing day for us," said Bill White, president of the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

There you have it, the heroic ship of state jammed in the muck, unable to move, the propellers caught in the slime. That about summed everything up, or so our friend said on his cell phone as he drove west out of the Holland tunnel, past Bayonne, off to his home. As a symbol of how things are going, that'll do fine.

But there was a surprise at the last, something to turn everything around. That would be the "robocalls" - hundred of thousands of pre-recorded, automated phone calls in many key states containing anti-Democratic political messages. The calls initially sound like they're coming from the Democratic candidates since they mention the Democrat's name in the opening line. And the robot part is interesting - if you hang up the system will keep calling you back, again and again and again, until you listen to the whole thing, to the very end. Only then, as required by law, is the call identified having been made by the National Republican Congressional Committee. Actually, they are required by law to put that up front, but by the time anyone gets a complaint together and forces them to cease and desist, as it were, the election will be over. It's pretty clever.

The calls were timed to go out around six in the morning, waking people up and irritating them no end. The idea was that you hear the Democratic candidate's name and hang up and try to get another few minutes of sleep - but the call repeats and repeats and repeats. So you're ticked off, and you won't vote for that Democrat no matter what.

Keith Olbermann did a segment on it on his "Countdown" show on MSNBC that you can watch here. You'll be amused by what happened to Tammy Duckworth, the Iraq War veteran running for congress in Illinois, the woman who lost both her legs in combat. Her supporters have been calling her office, screaming mad, asking why she's doing this. Her people explain that they are NOT making the calls, and if you'd have listened to the end the call clearly says it was coming from the National Republican Congressional Committee. But it's kind of hopeless. Most people just don't call the candidate's office - they simply change their vote in anger. She lost. Karl Rove had his surprise after all, and he was no doubt giggling.

Philadelphia Daily News columnist Jill Porter here describes her personal experience with the calls. But she's hardly alone. The calls went out in at least fifty-three congressional districts. In New Hampshire, the state's deputy attorney general said the National Republican Congressional Committee agreed to stop targeting voters with the prerecorded calls as New Hampshire makes it illegal to target anyone on the federal Do-Not-Call registry with prerecorded political calls, but quotes a National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman saying they will continue to make the calls to voters. The idea is they will work out the legal issues later.

The media was late to the story - it was a surprise after all - but the Washington Post finally got around to covering it. That's here, with this sort of thing -

    Whether "robo-calls" are positive or negative, mean-spirited or humorous, thousands of Americans are sick of them, according to campaign organizations that have been fielding complaints over the past two weeks.

    An Ohio woman, who did not leave her name, called The Washington Post in tears yesterday, saying she could not keep her phone line open to hospice workers caring for her terminally ill mother because of nonstop political robo-calls.

    Pamela Lorenz, a retired nurse in Roseville, Calif., called her own experience "harassment as far as I'm concerned" and said, "If I were voting right now, the opponent who's doing this, he'd be off my list for throwing that much trash."

    ... Many voters hang up as soon as a robo-call begins - without waiting for the criticisms or the NRCC sign-off at the end - so they think it was placed by the Democratic candidate named at the start, said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Our candidates are inundated with phone calls from furious Democrats and independents saying 'I'm outraged and I'm not going to vote for you anymore,' " she said.

    Feinberg said some voters have received robo-calls late at night, despite federal rules barring such calls after 9 p.m. NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said his organization ends all calls by 9 nightly.

    Democrats also cited Federal Communications Commission guidelines saying the originators of automated calls must identify themselves at the beginning of each call. Republican Party lawyers, however, said the requirement does not apply to political nonprofit organizations. They rebuffed a "cease and desist" letter sent yesterday by the DCCC.

    In a conference call with reporters yesterday, the DCCC chairman, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), compared the widespread robo-calling to a 2002 Republican effort in New Hampshire to jam Democratic phone lines to prevent the Democrats' get-out-the-vote effort. The Republican National Committee has spent more than $2 million to defend its officials in the case, he said. "Make no mistake, this is a dirty trick, one they've done before, one they've gotten caught on and one they continue to do," Emanuel said.

What the Post adds to the mix is the legal detail - the calls don't come from the Republican candidate himself (or herself), so the rules about when you cannot call and having to identify anything upfront don't apply. The Democrats can take their "cease and desist" order and shove it.

This is the surprise. Senior Democrats late in the day before the election called for a federal investigation of the calls, but who controls the federal government? They come off as ineffectual wimps again.

But does the law apply in some way to another matter? In Virginia there was this -

    Tim Daly from Clarendon got a call saying that if he votes Tuesday, he will be arrested. A recording of his voicemail can be found online at: www.webbforsenate.com/media/phone_message.wav

    The transcript from his voicemail reads:

    "This message is for Timothy Daly. This is the Virginia Elections Commission. We've determined you are registered in New York to vote. Therefore, you will not be allowed to cast your vote on Tuesday. If you do show up, you will be charged criminally."

    Daly has been registered to vote in Virginia since 1998, and he has voted for the last several cycles with no problem. He has filed a criminal complaint with the Commonwealth's attorney in Arlington.

Oops, he recorded it (listen here). And he's filing a criminal complaint. Rove and his guys could be in trouble, ten months from now, when it hardly matters There are reports in many states that these automated "you'll be arrested" calls and the others have gone out in massive numbers (see this) .

The other calls? There's more?

Note this excerpt from an email from the Webb for Senate campaign in Virginia -

    Widespread Calls, Allegedly from "Webb Volunteers," Telling Voters that their Polling Location has Changed.

    A couple of examples:

    Norman Cox has been registered to vote in the same location in Arlington since 1972. Someone from a 406 number (in Montana) called to tell him that his polling place has changed. [Note: The Webb Campaign is NOT making any such phone calls.] Cox said he believed that he was being mislead and the caller hung up.

    Peter Baumann in Cape Charles, VA (North Hampton) got a similar call from a "Webb volunteer" saying his polling location had changed. He said: No, I'm a poll worker and I know where I vote. The girl--who was calling from California - hung up.

    The Secretary of the State Board of Elections Jean Jensen has logged dozens of similar calls, finding heavy trends in Accomack County (middle peninsula) and Essex County (outer peninsula) [as reported by the counties' registrars].

    Fliers in Buckingham County Say "SKIP THIS ELECTION" (paid for by the RNC) have caused many in the African American community to call the Board of Elections to see if the election is still on. The full tag line says: "SKIP THIS ELECTION... (and then in smaller print): Don't Let the Tax and Spend Liberals Win."

    Voter Machine Problems:

    a. On many ballots in heavily Democratic neighborhoods, Jim's name is cut off. The ballots say: "James H. (Jim)" with no Webb. b. New reports that ballots in Essex County have Jim's name split on 2 pages. The "James H (Jim)" on one page, "Webb" on the next. c. Reports of voting machines in Isle of White that do not provide a clear image of the ballot, making voting a challenge.

    Voting issues need to be a foremost priority in the next Congress. This is unconscionable.

Yeah, but it all works. Surprise!

And it's not big deal, maybe. Note this from New York's Nineteenth District, where the former pop singer John Hall (Hall and Oates), a Democrat, was, Monday, trying to win the Republican seat from Susan Kelly -

    I was handing out leaflets for John Hall yesterday at a grocery store. There were two tables, a democratic one and a Republican one.

    When I was handing out palm cards, several people said to me something like, "I WAS going to vote for John Hall, until I got all those phone calls. I got seven or eight, right at dinner time."

    The guy from the Republican table, who was a local district leader - friendly and chatty - actually came over to me and said, "You know, most of those are coming from Sue's office, but don't tell anybody."

    I don't know how high his connections are to the Kelly campaign, but that's the information he volunteered.

It's all fun and games.

Or you can look at it this way -

    I think it's useful to take a step back and examine, in the simplest terms, what the Republicans are doing here: they are attempting to sabotage the American democratic process because it's inconvenient for their candidates.

    Of course these robo-calls are only one manifestation of a consistent theme, but when I approach the calls without the cynicism of a political news junkie, I find them breathtakingly despicable. The people behind this aren't schoolyard bullies, or even college kids. These are adults with years of political experience and a comprehensive understanding of what exactly their acts amount to. The NRCC simply does not believe that Americans should be able to make informed choices about their representatives in the voting booth. They are perfectly willing to dismantle the democratic process, which cannot function properly when voters are harassed (or even worse, harassed under false pretenses). I think it's fair to say that their behavior in this instance is "profoundly immoral and malevolent," which is how the Oxford English Dictionary describes "evil." Despite our desensitization to these types of transgressions, we cannot afford to take them lightly.

But we do. It's all about winning. But Hall won.

You do what you can as in Pennsylvania, as reported by Keystone Politics -

    Santorum Poll Released by Indicted Republican Operative

    Early this morning, Keystone Politics editors received and released a poll by McCulloch Research and Polling showing that Rick Santorum was within 4 points of retaining his Senate seat. Further research into McCulloch Research and Polling shows that Rod McCulloch, principal at the firm, has been indicted in voter fraud and forgery in Illinois.

No one was supposed to notice. But then it did so Rick much good.

Well, it's all about winning. It certainly isn't about civilized governance, or governance of any kind. Not much that they've tried has worked out, and no one is visiting New Orleans much this days. Or as Bill Montgomery puts it - "To me, this is practically the definition of a political train wreck: A party (or, in this case, an organized crime family posing a political party) that is remarkably good at grabbing and holding on to power, but incredibly bad at actually running the complex machinery of a modern post-industrial state."

Maybe that second part doesn't matter. Maybe it does matter.

In any event, we've had our surprise.

This item posted November 12, 2006

[Sort of a Surprise]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik