The Undemocratic Internet

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One of the most succinctly utopian statements about the potential of the internet came in response to the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act from John Barlow, a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, entitled, "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace." Freed of the material constraints imposed by government, the manifesto argued, a "civilization of the mind" could flourish in cyberspace (the term already feels dated) and "from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge." Yet within this statement of pure self-government the term "democracy" never appears. (It doesn't appear in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, either.) Perhaps it is an unwritten assumption, or perhaps it is considered a synonym for "liberty" or "freedom," each of which appear in the declaration. But this omission means that the mechanism by which we organize ourselves politically is wholly dependent on the assumption of equally rational actors.

An article in Slate last Friday about the dominant users at sites like Wikipedia and Digg ("The Wisdom of the Chaperones") shatters the illusion that these "Web 2.0" technologies are exemplars of democratic participation. The article points out that the authority of Wikipedia is not derived from it's inclusiveness -- anybody can participate -- but rather from the contributions of an elite (1% of Wikipedia users contribute half of the site's edits). So while it is not a closed system, an aristocracy, it has organically let the cream rise to the top -- the essence of a meritocracy. The very medium I am writing in, the weblog, functions according to this "power-law" distribution of influence (good academic summary here. [PDF]), rather than being an example of democratic participation. Perhaps at the beginning, before blogging was an integrated component of the new media, one could point to the egalitarian nature of the medium. But now, if traffic popularity is any indication, there is an undeniable blogging elite; and furthermore one that is very difficult to break into. (To be clear, I am not counting myself among these elites.) Presumably all these elite bloggers rose to the top on the merits. Whether they continue to exhibit meritocratic or aristocratic tendencies is an open question.

On balance, however, it is far more beneficial to weigh the impact of blogs, Wikipedia, etc. as a function of merit, rather than the bellowing of the mob. This is how critics like Andrew Keen or Lee Siegel characterize these technologies. Rather than looking to the top they fixate on the anonymity of the internet as its defining feature. They seem concerned that expertise and privilege will be washed away in a sea of illiterate and vulgar blog commenters. But the Slate article confirms just the opposite: merit, expertise and participation ultimately win out, which is to say, as it always was, that the message (and messenger) matter more than the medium.

The following website describes obsolete skills, such as "Cleaning head of a VCR," "Placing a coin on a tonearm to prevent skipping," and "Using a slide rule" that can immediately tell you how old you are. Others are less predictive, such as "Sword fighting" or "Polaroid photography," the latter of which might date you to the era of bell-bottom pants, but actually was only recently discontinued by the Polaroid company. Still others are of an incredibly recent vintage, namely "Assessing the relative merits of BluRay and HD-DVD."

At any rate, enjoy.

Economics Lecture Blogging

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Busy at TAPPED, but this is awesome:


Phoenix Rising: McCain-Gingrich

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October 2006, according to the archives, is when I first predicted that either John McCain or Newt Gingrich would be the Republican nominee for president. I greatly elaborate on that thesis here. McCain's implosion last summer caused me to reevaluate my prediction, and Gingrich's formal denial of presidential ambitions sealed it. But today, with McCain the nominee (barring something extraordinary), and the veepstakes heating up, suddenly the second half of my prediction might be looking a whole lot better, as Mike Boyer at FP's Passport blog surmises.

I don't actually think Gingrich will be McCain's choice (there are too many to choose from that would suit McCain's style), and in fact I think the importance of a VP selection is overrated in general (has there ever been a presidential campaign that won or lost on the strength of the running mate?). But like any writer who wants to influence people, making good predictions two years ago certainly helps.

Friday Update

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Lack of blogging here explained by increase of blogging here. With 100% less profanity! And real editors!

And for a good time, try going to one of these.


To Build a Political Movement

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The puzzling thing about Richard Viguerie's latest organizational enterprise is that it doesn't draw lessons from the technique that made his previous organizational effort so successful: direct mail. Viguerie's central insight was that one could build a movement by directly appealing to individuals whose sympathies might lie with that movement. Direct mail allowed Barry Goldwater to tap small donors for campaign contributions. Direct mail helped National Review build an audience. And direct mail helped conservatives build a formidable political movement.

But the reason direct mail worked was because conservatives were precisely targeted. ConeservativeHQ, by contrast, doesn't appeal to conservatives through their mailboxes (electronic or otherwise) -- rather, the site depends on gathering input from conservatives, as Viguerie himself pleads:

I'm urging conservatives across this country to start a national discussion, and to e-mail me at with their thoughts on these questions: Do you think opening up the race is a good idea? Do you have any other suggestions for candidates? Could someone come in off the sidelines, change the direction of the momentum, get the fans back into game, and lead us to victory?

Instead of soliciting conservatives for money or magazine subscriptions, this new model solicits conservatives for ideas. A top-down approach that culls random input from the rank-and-file isn't a grassroots movement, it's astroturf. And this demonstrates two things. First, that a hard ceiling has likely been reached on the number of conservatives that can be directly marketed to. Direct mail gave them a sense of identity and shared community, and now that identity is looking increasingly anachronistic and grossly unrepresentative of the public at large. And second, the conservative movement, as if were, has become so habitually reliant on a hierarchical power structure based on the personalities of specific Republicans that it doesn't so much draft candidates anymore as it is constantly in search of the next Reagan. (Notice how Viguerie describes each of the Republican candidates' positive traits in Reaganite terms.)

Rick Perlstein takes all this as evidence that the movement is exhausted and essentially at its end. That may well be. But as he also points out, you wouldn't know it from the degree of representation of people like Viguerie in the elite media.

Quote of the Century

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Passed along without comment, courtesy of Lance Mannion:

If the Goverment is a car setting out to give every one a ride to work, then for 40 years the Republicans have been puncturing the tires, pouring sand in the gas tank, stealing the distributer cap, and, whenever they can get their hands on the wheel, driving it straight into the nearest ditch and then, pointing to the wreckage as the tow truck backs up to it, saying, See, this proves that people were meant to walk.

And they do this so that they don't have to chip in on gas.

Labels and Morals

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I'm not sure who Andrew Sullivan is accusing of not wanting to use the word "evil" to describe "Islamofascists," but this insistence on label purity is getting rather annoying. Islamofasicsm might be a truly useless (and irresponsible) way of undestanding violent Islamic fundamentalism, but simply calling them evil doesn't solve the problem. They're still there whether we call them evil or not. And if the goal is some sort of moral clarity, then again, who exactly--specifically--is lacking this moral clarity?

It seems to me the point of these labels has always been to make the accuser feel morally superior compared to others.

Superficial Analysis Blogging

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Cato's David Boaz:

The Democratic candidates remind me of the Nixon-era TV series "The Mod Squad": One white, one black, one blonde.

And really, that's all I know about the show and about all I know about the candidates. What are the differences among them? Obama is eloquent and elegant. Hillary is earnest. Edwards is TV-actor cute and shouts more than the others-not that that ended up counting for much.

And like the TV show, the Democrats' Mod Squad is based on a lot of ideas that seemed cool in the early '70s -- energy independence, groovy kinds of alternative energy, national health insurance, fine-tuning the economy, higher taxes, cheap money, interest rate freezes, corporation-bashing, and ending the war but not any time soon.

So instead of a bridge to the 21st century, the Democrats this year are offering us a bridge to the post-Woodstock era.

Obviously someone who hasn't spent any time coming to understand the policy positions of the candidates is going to be tempted with this level of superficial analysis. (I've long suspected that libertarians are incapable of taking Democrats seriously on anything related to governance.) But for Boaz this is a sign of good things to come!

But the good news is that while the early '70s were marked by plenty of policy disasters--Nixon's wage and price controls, Ford's "Whip Inflation Now" buttons, Carter's "turn down your thermostats"--those things did make more people aware that the old regulatory policies had dramatically slowed down economic growth. As the '70s went on and turned into the early '80s, good things actually started to happen. Transportation, energy, finance, and telecommunications were deregulated. Capital gains and then income tax rates were reduced. Both large corporations and large unions were on the decline. CNN, Microsoft, and Apple were founded. Blacks, women, and gay people moved into the mainstream of society. After Watergate and Vietnam, Congress curbed some of the powers of the presidency.

First, it's not at all clear that people became "aware" that regulatory policies had slowed economic growth. That seems to me a direct result of the conservative movement's political efforts to reshape the debate. It was true enough for the public to buy it, but it wasn't like they came to that conclusion all by themselves.

Second, it doesn't follow that the deregulation of "transportation, energy, finance and telecommunications" led directly to CNN, Microsoft and Apple (the latter two were formed in the late seventies), to say nothing of minorities moving into the "mainstream of society." There's precious little correlation, and there's no causation. And what do you know! Those same regulatin' Democrats curbed executive power without creating a totalitarian state! Miraculous!

Stuff like this lends itself to the adage that "If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail." And that is the fatal flaw of this sort of libertarian reasoning.

The GOP's Priorities

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Courtesy of Sadly, No!, this gem of wisdom from Michelle "intern 'em" Malkin, is actually pretty descriptive:

So, Arnold Schwarzenegger endorsed John McCain. He extolled McCain for "reach[ing] across the political aisle to get things done."

We'll hear that annoying platitude a bazillion and one times through Super Tuesday and beyond.

To which I say: When did it become the Republican Party's top priority to "get things done?"


Why Obama?

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Ezra is right, this is the best endorsement of Barack Obama's campaign I have read.

Just read it.

With the departure of John Edwards from the race for the Democratic nomination yesterday, the focus now turns to how the vacuum left by his campaign will affect the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. First there is the question of delegates, which turns out to be the easiest puzzle to solve. According to the Democratic Convention Watch blog, all of Edwards' uncommitted superdelegates (27) will go back to a "no endorsement" pool. Edwards' delegates from the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries (12) will revert to uncommitted, while his caucus delegates from Iowa (17) will be reallocated to Obama and Clinton proportionately, based on their performance in those events.

The more important consequence of Edward's departure is where his supporters will go. Here, demographics appear decisive, yet inconclusive. A Times article yesterday on Southern Super Tuesday states notes widespread reluctance amongst white voters in these states to support Obama's campaign, although this doesn't automatically translate into support for Clinton.

Meanwhile, John Judis notes the significance of voters' age in determining candidate support. Older voters tended to support Edwards, he notes, which should translate into support for Clinton, given her past performance among older voters. And among "moderates" in New Hampshire, there appears to have been greater support for Obama than Clinton, based on a 19-point difference in disapproval ratings.

The exit polls in Florida might provide the most diverse demographic information, although it is unclear how voters in the Sunshine State were affected by the ongoing dispute between the state party and the DNC over the delegate slate. Given that turnout was quite high, however, these statistics would appear to have some value. Chris Cillizza notes that Edwards supporters are evenly divided on who to support next. Sixty percent of these supporters would be "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with Clinton, while 66 percent expressed the same sentiment for Obama.

All of this uncertainty might hinge on an Edwards endorsement, which could come before Super Tuesday, according to numerous reports. For now, Edwards has only sought a promise from Obama and Clinton to keep the issue of poverty front and center during the campaign, which each candidate readily accepted. According to Greg Sargent, though, the endorsement is highly coveted:

Top Edwards adviser Joe Trippi just confirmed to me by phone that the Hillary and Obama campaigns are already working overtime to woo Edwards to their sides -- even before his official dropout speech.

"They're banging down the doors," Trippi told me.

Whether these questions are resolved before February 5 or because of it, the new dynamics of a two-person race depend on who Edwards endorses. It does not seem likely that he will endorse Clinton, based on their past differences, which suggests that his dropping out before February 5 is meant to maximize his influence over the news cycle, should he endorse Obama. Whether an Edwards endorsement of Obama would substantially boost the latter's campaign is debatable, but it might prove decisive to marooned Edwards supporters, who are looking for someone new to back on the road to the White House.

Cross-posted, in slightly modified form, at TAPPED.

Electoral Puzzles

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Michael Ledeen writes:

I don't believe that events often have single explanations. We're complicated, and the things we do are the results of our many components, desires, thoughts, stupidities, etc. But doesn't McCain's popularity suggest that "the war" remains an issue of fundamental importance? That's the one thing that separates him from the rest of the Republican field. And it suggests that "winning the war" or "running from the war" will be important themes in the fall.

I'm not a poll-reader, and I am notoriously bad at predicting election outcomes, but doesn't this seem right?

Well, no, because if he had read the polls he would have discovered something odd. Republicans who were on balance against the war voted in favor of McCain, who has been the war's biggest supporter amongst the GOP's viable contenders. Now, Ledeen is confusing McCain's war support with a direct translation to electoral support. The polls say otherwise. But overall, the war ranks, along with health care and the economy, as the most important issue to Americans. It's just that McCain's supporters are a bit conflicted on this, which is the real issue. Either they are ignorant of McCain's record, or they believe he will be a better steward of the war -- I really couldn't say. The important point is that the war ranks high, although that doesn't necessarily mean support for it.

K-Lo offers an early retrospective on the Giuliani campaign:

It's a gracious, dignified speech. I disagree with him on some issues, but he ran a race he can be proud of.

Proud of what? Winning two delegates? Never placing better than third (and only then, once, tonight)? Running a campaign premised on evoking a catastrophe at every possible occasion? For using fear-mongering scare tactics at every corner? Yeah, a lot to be proud of there. As others have stated, and I will second, the United States dodged a bullet in 2008 by soundly rejecting this man for president.

Conservative Agreement Blogging

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The author of Liberal Fascism writes something I agree with (although, unfortunately, not about the subject of liberal fascism):

"Blogitics" [Jonah Goldberg]

That's the name of Fox News' "blog desk." It is, I am quite comfortable saying, one of the dumbest, least euphonious, labels to emerge from the blogospheric age, and that's saying something. It's not original to Fox -- a Google search suggests -- but that's no defense.

I agree with every word.

More Reagan/Obama Blogging

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Andrew Sullivan thought this post was worth flagging, But I don't see the connection.

if this man gets his party's nomination, he's going to be the next president. By a landslide. And he is going to transform this country. If I were a Republican, I'd be very, very afraid. Oh wait, I am a Republican. Dang. Lord have mercy, I wish that man were a conservative. Because there's no doubt in my mind about what he can accomplish for liberalism if he's elected. You've heard of Reagan Democrats? Barack Obama is the Democrats' Reagan...

I know, I know, it's only a speech. And you don't vote for a candidate solely because he gives a good speech, which is to say, entirely for therapeutic reasons. But if this Obama keeps talking like he does here, he's going to be president.

That's not really an argument, for starters. Plus, rhetoric aside, Obama and Reagan could not be different transformational figures. For one thing, Reagan actually changed over time from a New Deal Democrat to a New Conservative. That personal transformation gave him credibility when he spoke to audiences in the 1960s. This brings us to the second point. Reagan got involved in Republican politics as a celebrity, first gaining national attention with his "Time for Choosing" address for Barry Goldwater. As recounted numerous times before, some in the audience at the time wondered whether it was Reagan or Goldwater who was the presidential candidate. This success led to more speaking arrangements, and eventually the California Governorship. Reagan campaigned for president three times, succeeding the final time, and the rest is history. So we're talking about a 16-20 year climb to the top of a party, a political movement and eventually the highest office in the land.

Put that aside and consider Obama. His comparable "Time for Choosing" moment was his keynote address at the 2004 DNC. That was only three-and-a-half years ago. Now he stands a very good chance of being the Democrats' nominee for president. If successful, he will have surpassed Reagan in terms of how fast he accomplished Reagan's highest achievement. The other part of this, the transformative nature of politics, is up for debate. Reagan certainly changed things, at least how we talk them, although it's arguable how much of a lasting impact he had, especially if his would-be liberal counterpart--Barack Obama--is supposedly poised to change everything back to liberal hegemony.

Calling the Economists

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Maybe it's because the SOTU address is tonight, Bush's last, but do we really need to endure stories that begin with head-spinning statements like

Mr. Bush has spent years presiding over an economic climate of growth that would be the envy of most presidents. Yet much to the consternation of his political advisers, he has had trouble getting credit for it, in large part because Americans were consumed by the war in Iraq.

What? Envy of most presidents? The war has distracted Americans from the awesomeness of the Bush economy? What planet did the crack come from that allowed this to be written? Fortunately, we have these people called "economists" who can tell us about economics and all that stuff. Here's Dean Baker's take:

President Bush's growth record is better than his father's, but it is worse than the record of every other president in the last half century. It's not clear why they would be envious. It is also not clear what his political advisers have to complain about.

And here's Paul Krugman:

Looking at this, which presidents, exactly, would the Bush economic climate be the envy of? Even at its best, the Bush economy failed to deliver employment growth comparable to that under earlier presidents. And the Bush economy spent very little time at its best. Only Gerald Ford and Bush the elder failed to deliver performance better than the current occupant of the White House.(Jimmy Carter simply had the misfortune to have a recession at the end of his tenure.)

This tendency to treat Bush as some sort of misunderstood, even tragic figure is quite bizarre. He's the worst president in our history, and that opinion is more than likely to simply coalesce into fact after W leaves office.

An Editorial on the Clintons

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I've been arguing against the hyperbole associated with the Clinton political machine quite a bit lately so I really should say something about Hillary Clinton's decision to seat the Florida and Michigan delegates at this summer's convention.

It really is sleazy. There was an agreement in place to not campaign or participate in these states and Clinton put herself on the Ballot in Michigan anyway, even though they had an opportunity to debate the details of the arrangement. It is unclear why Clinton is doing this now, so far ahead of Super Tuesday, which she is almost certainly going to win. She may be threatened by Barack Obama in terms of splitting total delegates, but I think we can safely err on the side of her being the nominee in the aggregate.

Likewise, I am disappointed that Bill Clinton would cheapen his stature by engaging in dirty tricks on the campaign trail. He wastes a lot of his "elder statesman" status by doing this, although we should keep things in perspective. This primary has been pretty mild compared to others. And let's face it, the general campaign will be even worse. So I think it is a mistake to say this latest move by Clinton will create an unbridgeable rift in the Democratic party, and I think it is also a mistake to attribute this to some special deviousness on the part of the Clintons and their associates. They are a highly effective, competent, powerful and ambitious political machine. They play to win. This is rather appealing in a narrow sort of way, compared to the spinelessness of Democrats during the last 15 years or so. But if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, A) are Democrats going to remember this or any other primary-season dust-up when looking ahead to November and B) are they really going to abstain from voting just because Hillary is the nominee? No and no. 2008 is a huge year for Democrats and these things are not going to prevent them from taking the opportunity to win control of the federal government for the first time since 1992. The proof's in the pudding, so we'll need to see whether this latest move actually affects the results of primary voting or not. If it does, it could damage Clinton's chances. If it doesn't, then we'll know that this is essentially the internal politics of the party at work, and if voters are uninformed or don't care, then there's not much the rest of us can do about it.

Jonah Goldberg has taken to reviewing every review of his book that doesn't agree with his book on a blog devoted to his book. Fair enough. If I had written a tome with a weak premise ripe for criticism I'd feel obliged to defend it with all my might too. But this latest one from the American Conservative (a paleo-con rag) seems to have really confused poor Goldberg. Let me quote the excerpt that Goldberg uses:

Progressivism, for example, did not in any meaningful sense lead to liberalism. On the contrary, in 1922, Walter Lippmann, the leading liberal intellectual of the 1920s, wrote Public Opinion, one of the most trenchant critiques of populism and democracy (and, with it, progressivism) ever penned. Lippmann went on to become Mussolini's most unsparing American critic, precisely because Lippmann saw in fascism the same dangers that he saw in progressivism. If we must describe intellectual history in biological terms, then it would be more accurate to say that liberalism drove progressivism into extinction than that progressivism gave birth to liberalism.

To this Goldberg responds, "I'm not entirely sure what point Bramwell thinks he's making here" before going on to deflate the myth of Lippmann being some sort of paragon of political consistency. The point isn't whether Lippmann was consistently correct, the point is whether he was correct on this one point, to which the answer is, I believe, yes. That's a debate we could have, but Goldberg doesn't. He just plays dumb and moves on. Lippmann, he claims, explicitly desired a dictatorship in America and even counseled FDR to that effect. This is the heart of Goldberg's evidence, apparently, but what's strange is his summary of it:

It seems to me that when a liberal counsels a president to become a dictator it's not crazy to suggest that he's flirting with something that might even be called "liberal fascism."

Why does Goldberg put his argument in quotes, as if to say liberal fascism is some sort of pseudo phenomenon, not real, and certainly not something to be taken seriously? And indeed, this was one of the fatal flaws I earlier identified about the book: it doesn't argue strongly in favor of its thesis. If Goldberg himself is putting the term he chose (and borrowed from H.G. Wells, as he never hesitates to point out) in quotes, doesn't that weaken the strength of the term itself? Attributing it to Wells only exacerbates the problem. It's as if he's saying, "there's this thing called liberal fascism, which the brilliant English-language writer Wells described, which I am appropriating to A) add intellectual gravitas to my weak thesis and B) pass the ball to in case of pointed criticism." Putting "liberal fascism" in quotes is one of the most telling instances of denial I've encountered since this whole fracas began.

More on the Co-Presidency

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Fears of a co-presidency have spread to the NY Times editorial page:

SENATOR Hillary Clinton has based her campaign on experience -- 35 years of it by her count. That must include her eight years in the White House.

Some may debate whether those years count as executive experience. But there can be no doubt that her husband had the presidential experience, fully. He has shown during his wife's campaign that he is a person of initiative and energy. Does anyone expect him not to use his experience in an energetic way if he re-enters the White House as the first spouse?

Mrs. Clinton claims that her time in that role was an active one. He can hardly be expected to show less involvement when he returns to the scene of his time in power as the resident expert. He is not the kind to be a potted plant in the White House.

Which raises an important matter. Do we really want a plural presidency?

The argument seems to be that it is in Bill Clinton's nature to be an active political player, so thus he should never be allowed near the Oval Office ever again. And although the editorial doesn't mention the 22nd Amendment, it does recount a brief history of the struggles over unitary executive authority during the founding of the Constitution. Certainly, the piece suggests, B. Clinton's presence would violate nothing less than the spirit of the arrangement ordained by the Founding Fathers.

But most strange of all is the fact that another precedent is cited, only seven years too late:

One problem with the George W. Bush administration is that it has brought a kind of plural presidency in through the back door. Vice President Dick Cheney has run his own executive department, with its own intelligence and military operations, not open to scrutiny, as he hides behind the putative president.

No other vice president in our history has taken on so many presidential prerogatives, with so few checks. He is an example of the very thing James Wilson was trying to prevent by having one locus of authority in the executive. The attempt to escape single responsibility was perfectly exemplified when his counsel argued that Mr. Cheney was not subject to executive rules because he was also part of the legislature.

Let's see if I have this straight: Ambitious people who are associated with presidents in some way should not be allowed to be associated with presidents. Do I have that right? Where was Wills during the 2004 campaign, when it was clear how much influence Mr. Cheney had? Should the Times have recommended that Mr. Bush pick a more low-key running mate?

It should be clear that without an explicit law banning these sorts of arrangements, the presidency and the people associated with the presidency are simply going to be in a position of great power. And the degree to which these people check their own ambition or defer to the president's wishes is going to be a matter of personality. So this editorial is arguing nothing, except perhaps that Bill Cinton = Dick Cheney in terms of influence, which is pretty absurd because it is divorced from any policy results. And it highlights yet again that when it comes to the Clintons, the rules of journalism simply get thrown out the window.