Potemkin Pilgrim

We’re not sure where John McCain really visited. The presidential hopeful described neighborhoods “you and I could walk through,” and his fellow traveler, Congressman Mike Pence, found a bazaar “like a normal outdoor market in Indiana in the summertime.” They claim to have been in Iraq. Perhaps being surrounded by 100 soldiers in armored humvees obscured their view.

Sen. Lindsey Graham apparently went for the shopping—“I bought five rugs for five bucks!”—but for McCain, the stakes are higher. He has wagered his White House hopes on the Iraq War, and with his poll numbers (and fundraising) going the way of President Bush’s approval ratings, the senator was eager to prove progress.

“Never have I been able to drive from the airport, never I have I been able to go out in the city as I was today,” McCain enthused. He neglected to mention that the seven-mile trip from the airport to downtown Baghdad costs a daring civilian $3500-5000 and that sharpshooters posted on rooftops tracked his trip to the Shorja market.

Once McCain’s delegation—and its security detail—left, carnage struck back. The following day, 21 Shia market workers were murdered. So much for Indiana in the summertime. Blogger Juan Cole remarked, “Yeah, those Indianans are hard core. Why, they’ll kidnap a couple dozen Methodists at the outdoor market, blindfold them, drill holes in them, expose them to acid, and dump them on Main Street just before dawn to get a rise out of the police patrolmen when they show up for coffee and donuts.”

Bush’s former chief strategist, Matthew Dowd, made news last week when he called the president “bubbled in.” Now the Republican who once led the list of replacements looks equally delusional.


Independence Day?

Chuck Hagel’s vote in favor of a timetable for ending the Iraq occupation may have clarified his own future as well. Three weeks after the strange non-annoucement regarding his presidential plans, the Nebraska senator was one of just two Republicans who crossed party lines to vote for the Democratic bill to withdraw combat troops by next March. Hotline commented, “One thing seems certain: Hagel’s no longer planning a WH ’08 bid, at least not as a GOPer. (Or, alternatively, not one he plans to win.)”

Those running the campaigns of his would-be competitors seem to agree. At a Harvard forum, senior advisers to John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney concurred that the war would define the upcoming campaign—and while the Republican base might tolerate criticism of the war’s management, it still supports the Bush Doctrine. But their theory won’t be tested if conservatives aren’t offered an antiwar alternative, and polls show that six in ten Republicans are dissatisfied with their current choices.

Hagel’s vote—decisive in the 50-48 tally—forces a collision by daring the president to defund his own war; delivering on his veto threat will require Bush to strike $122 billion in troop funding. It also distinguishes Hagel as the kind of principled realist the country most needs. Republican primary voters may be the least likely to recognize that, but the debate would be better for his dissent.


“Youths” of Paris

It was not long ago—less than a generation—that an American in Paris could wax envious about the safety of the streets in comparison to those of New York or D.C. Reading about the latest riot in the Gare du Nord—not in Paris’s slum-like suburbs but in a major train station less than a mile from the city center—is a grim reminder of the crisis the City of Light now faces.

One evening in late March, a 32-year-old illegal alien from the Congo tried to jump the turnstiles of the metro. He had a criminal record and had been resisting French government efforts to deport him. Faced with yet another arrest, he resisted. Within moments, the metro’s ticket agents were surrounded by hundreds of what the French papers euphemistically call “youths”—Africans and North Africans for the most part. The “youths” wielded metal bars, smashed windows, looted stores, and wounded eight transit workers and a police officer. Order was eventually restored, but all of Paris must wonder if the day will come when the police are no longer capable to doing their job.

It is a sign of French health that its mainstream politicians are finally addressing the vexing issues of national identity and immigration as the country finds that its old formulas of immigrant assimilation are no longer working. We are too removed to suggest solutions but not too far away to register our hope that France recovers herself before it’s too late.


The Telltale Frame

Big pharmaceutical companies are seldom beloved, and the Vioxx cases filed against Merck—which promise to pay off the mortgages of hundreds of lawyers and seriously enrich quite a few—haven’t exercised us.

But we couldn’t help noticing that Merck might have had a point when it argued that its arthritis painkiller wasn’t obviously responsible for the heart attack of 52-year-old Patty Schwaller, whose husband sued the company. Though the suit was brought in Madison County, Illinois, famous among trial lawyers for awarding big payoffs, jurors quickly decided that Schwaller’s heart had other major burdens—her 5’2” frame carried 280 pounds.

The plaintiff’s attorney responded to the defeat by claiming that “Goliath bested David.” Given the facts of the case, perhaps that wasn’t the best analogy.


Another National Debt?

If the first tallies are any indication, 2008 will be the most expensive presidential election yet. Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic pack, raking in $26 million during the first three months of the year. Republican Mitt Romney boasts $23 million in receipts, and Rudy Giuliani raised $10 million in March alone.

A generation ago, an unknown Jimmy Carter showed up in Iowa toting his own garment bag. But the age of the upstart has now yielded to poll-tested, precision-scripted media stars surrounded by legions of pricey consultants. Quarterly fundraising reports become their own caucus system, conferring an aura of inevitability on the money men’s bet.

But what do the trial lawyers who send checks to the Edwards campaign or the Mormons rumored to be ponying up for Mitt expect in return for their support? And what about the corporations that can’t vote on Election Day but can buy more access than most citizens? The next president will begin his (or her) term with a longer list of outstanding favors than any previous occupant of the office.


Tolerate This

It seems that only yesterday we were bowing to pressures to re-christen Christmas “Winter Holiday” and lump Easter in with “Spring Break.” Now it appears that Baltimoreans will have a new celebration to learn about when their schools close on Eid-al-Fitr.

The county school board is in the midst of heated decision-making process —not quite a battle, but it’s early yet—about whether to designate a vacation day to mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

We offer a modest counter-proposal: go back to the old system. Christmas vacation and Easter break were wonderful holidays—and wonderfully labeled. Sensible teachers have long obliged Jewish students by not scheduling important activities on Yom Kippur or Passover. Certainly a similar accommodation could be made for Muslim pupils.

Should their families find this insufficient and insist on living in a society where Eid-al-Fitr is universally acknowledged, that shouldn’t be difficult to find—in countries where converting to Christianity is illegal.