October 29, 2008

The Tragedy of the Commons Still Holds

Last week, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan dropped a series of epically-proportioned bombshells on fanatical free market ideologues and Republican politicians. The man at the helm of the Fed for 18 years - and one of the heroes of financial deregulation - admitted that he had been wrong to believe that self-regulation was the best way to police the excesses of America's financial sector. Mr. Greenspan, testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said in reference to the current financial crisis, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief."

Mr. Greenspan further conceded, in an exchange with committee chairman Henry Waxman, that his personal faith in the ideology of Milton Friedman had led him to ignore sound advice on regulation:
“You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, chairman of the committee. “Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?”

Mr. Greenspan conceded: “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”
Chairman Greenspan's final salvo was reserved for Republicans, who have attempted to provide political cover for the collapse of modern conservative ideology as it applies to Wall Street by attempting to lay the financial crisis at the feet of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, focusing on Democratic resistance to reform of those two quasi-public companies:
But Mr. Greenspan, who was first appointed by President Ronald Reagan, placed far more blame on the Wall Street companies that bundled subprime mortgages into pools and sold them as mortgage-backed securities. Global demand for the securities was so high, he said, that Wall Street companies pressured lenders to lower their standards and produce more “paper.”

“The evidence strongly suggests that without the excess demand from securitizers, subprime mortgage originations (undeniably the original source of the crisis) would have been far smaller and defaults accordingly far lower,” he said.
While all of this is edifying, what is most striking about Alan Greenspan's mea culpa is the willful blindness that apparently underpinned his thoughts on deregulation. In a speech at Georgetown University earlier in the month, Mr. Greenspan made it clear even then that he placed no value on market regulation:
“In a market system based on trust, reputation has a significant economic value,” Mr. Greenspan told the audience. “I am therefore distressed at how far we have let concerns for reputation slip in recent years.”
He reiterated these same sentiments throughout his tenure as Fed chief, and, in direct response to a 1994 congressional study that identified "significant gaps and weaknesses" in the regulation of the derivatives market, noted:
Risks in financial markets, including derivatives markets, are being regulated by private parties... There is nothing involved in federal regulation per se which makes it superior to market regulation.
Flatly, only a naif with no knowledge of human nature or history - or a corrupt shill - would look at Wall Street, and think to himself, "Yes. These guys are all about collective responsibility." The crucial - but obvious - thing that Mr. Greenspan missed (or refused to see) was that, for those most concerned with amassing as much wealth as possible in as short a period as possible, it is only the appearance of responsibility that has economic value.

The absence of regulation creates a lack of transparency that makes it impossible to tell if an institution is exercising real responsibility or merely cultivating the image of doing so. As long as there was no requirement for genuine accountability - and as long as there were enough people driven by greed to the exclusion of all else - investors were left to cross their fingers that financial institutions were sound, and it was only a matter of time before the meltdown we are seeing today took place.

As infuriating as this is however, it is no more maddening than the fact that Mr. Greenspan himself warned that derivatives could magnify financial crises because they link the fortunes of seemingly independent institutions:
“The very efficiency that is involved here means that if a crisis were to occur, that that crisis is transmitted at a far faster pace and with some greater virulence,” he said... But he called that possibility “extremely remote,” adding that “risk is part of life.”
He was amazingly prescient in his analysis of the inherent risks, but just as amazingly tin-eared on the odds of catastrophe.

For all of the smoke and mirrors surrounding the alleged complexities of derivatives and the financial meltdown, there is a very simple fundamental question here that was either ignored or overlooked. Specifically, if derivatives like mortgage-backed securities are instruments for transferring risk (and making money in the process), and the market is driven by self-interest manifested as the desire to accumulate profits (in the best tradition of Milton Friedman), what other outcome, other than eventual collapse, was there going to be if risk was effectively removed as a consequence to either short term finances or institutional reputations?

The idea that one party can lend money to another that it has no intention of - or even concern about - ever collecting, and that this practice can be made the norm, is patently ludicrous. While Mr. Greenspan's assessment that risk is "part of life" is dead on, he missed the obvious fact that if everyone wrongly believes there is no risk to themselves in a given pursuit, it encourages risky behavior on the part of an increasing number of people. The distribution or sharing of risk, then - as in the securitization of subprime mortgages - becomes meaningless; in the aggregate, once past a point of equilibrium, more people taking lots of small risks is no better than a few people taking horrendous gambles. Regulation is designed to ensure that such tipping points are never reached. Without it, the market frequently over-corrects, destroying lives, wealth and sometimes even the entire economy as it seeks to stabilize on its own.

Although the bloom is clearly off the rose of Alan Greenspan's legacy, even his meager acknowledgment that he was culpable in bringing about the current crisis on Wall Street through blindered ideology is at least laudable. Personally, my impression of Mr. Greenspan is that he is an honorable man who did what he thought was best; unfortunately, what he thought best was too-easily recognizable as foolhardy to have been left unchallenged as it was. But while his good intentions and his narrow admission of complicity place him head and shoulders above the rest of the right wing cult of no-accountability, the terrible damage from his steady determination to let the foxes police the hen house remains.

All of this is not to say that free markets don't work; they do, but they are cold and dispassionate beasts with no affection for people. A market will indeed naturally seek balance if left to its own devices, but it will also often inflict tremendous human costs in the process. The tragedy of the commons - in which individuals acting independently in their own self-interest ultimately destroy a shared resource from which they mutually benefit - cannot be averted through laissez-faire policy, and we are facing dire consequences in order to prove once again a lesson we should have learned for good, a long time ago.

October 23, 2008

A Visit to the Lone Star State

I'm off to Dallas with my wife to visit friends and family, so there will no posts until next week. Have a great weekend!

October 19, 2008

The Fraudulent Threat of Voter Fraud

During the presidential debate last Wednesday, Republican candidate John McCain pressed his ongoing attack on the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an organization focused on advocacy and voter registration for low- and middle-income families, claiming that ACORN "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy." Friday, his running mate, Sarah Palin, kept up the heat, continuing GOP efforts to both tar ACORN as corrupt, and tie the group to Democratic nominee Barack Obama, warning, "We can’t allow leftist groups like ACORN to steal this election."

The press is also reporting breathlessly that ACORN has submitted a raft of blatantly false voter registrations, including one for Mickey Mouse in Florida, enough to cover the starting line-up for the Dallas Cowboys in Nevada, and seventy-two for one man in Ohio. Thursday brought leaked word that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has launched an investigation to determine whether ACORN fosters registration fraud systematically, but as too often occurs with the majority of our ineffectual press corps, the real issues are being missed.

First and foremost, it is important to recognize the difference between voter registration fraud and voter fraud. The former means that a phony name is registered as an active voter; the second that a vote is successfully cast by someone who should not have been allowed to do so. With a minimum of reflection, it is crystal clear that, absent proper identification, Mickey Mouse will not be voting, nor will players for the Dallas NFL franchise, (except, presumably, in their home districts, and then only with proper identification) and despite having registered 72 times, the man from Ohio will not get to cast an equal number of ballots.

Second, ACORN pays its canvassers by completed voter registration. While there isn't really a more attractive alternative, it's clear that this compensation structure provides an incentive for dishonest workers to submit phony registrations with the aim of padding their paychecks. In most states, ACORN is required to submit all collected registrations - imagine the outcry if it was learned that completed registrations were being withheld! - so the group works to separate and flag for official review those that appear suspicious before they are turned in to state authorities. The result is that ACORN is reporting almost all of the fraudulent registrations itself, and far from creating an opportunity to defraud the election system, it is actually the target of financial fraud from a few dishonest employees. (13,000 ACORN employees have registered 1.3 million voters for this election cycle; the number of registrations that are fraudulent is a tiny fraction.)

Third, despite being a frequent target of the Republican Party, there has never been a single conviction against ACORN, because on the rare occasions when investigations have led to court proceedings, no one has ever been able to prove that false registrations are an effort to defraud the electoral process. Spurious registrations are about money for dishonest individual workers, and they are about defrauding ACORN, but they are certainly not about "destroying the fabric of democracy."

The voter fraud described by Senator McCain and Governor Palin would require a massive operation that warehouses fake voter data and hires thousands of operatives - each devoted to cheating the system at the risk of federal prosecution - to cast ballots posing as these phony voters. It is wholly impractical, it is impossible to carry out, and recent reports in states like Missouri - which has had zero voter fraud in the last 10 years - bear this out.

So why is ACORN an issue at all? Well, if there is one thing that the Bush years have taught us, it is this: If the Republican Party is vociferously attacking the actions of some group, you can be just about certain that it is deeply and nefariously involved in something close to that which they accuse others of doing. That is the case here, as well.

While using a docile press corps to help stoke the fires of outrage among the Republican base, - outrage that has now spilled over into the vandalism of ACORN offices and intimidation of ACORN workers - the GOP is actively working to suppress as many Democratic-leaning votes as possible. The ACORN faux scandal is one part of that scheme - casting doubt on the validity of massive registrations for lower-income citizens who tend to vote Democrat - but the other piece of the puzzle is the widespread effort to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. For instance:
  • In Michigan, the state GOP had planned to challenge the eligibility of voters who had lost their homes through foreclosure, but were stymied by press attention and a successful lawsuit that appears to have stopped their plan.

  • The Montana state Republican party moved to challenge 6,000 registrations in Democratic-leaning counties, once again, ostensibly to combat "voter fraud". The challenge was ultimately dropped because of public controversy.

  • In Texas, a report by a rightwing think tank alleged, in an effort to stir up both anti-immigrant sentiment and generate a voter fraud controversy, that as many as 333,000 non-citizens were likely registered to vote in the state. An investigation by county election administrators, however, debunked the report declaring that there is no evidence whatsoever of widespread voter fraud.
While the examples above represent efforts that (at least for now) have been unsuccessful, it must not be forgotten that the strategy of disenfranchising opposition voters in a wholesale manner has a long history in the Republican Party. Further, it goes directly to the heart of the recent U.S. Attorney scandal, which saw qualified and high-performing federal prosecutors fired for demonstrating insufficient zeal in pursuing voter fraud allegations made by GOP politicians against Democrats. David Iglesias, perhaps the best known of the dismissed U.S. Attorneys - and a Republican himself - believes that there are a host of red flags associated with the attention being paid to ACORN and the FBI's investigation. As reported by Talking Points Memo Muckraker:
"I'm astounded that this issue is being trotted out again," Iglesias told TPMMuckraker. "Based on what I saw in 2004 and 2006, it's a scare tactic." In 2006, Iglesias was fired as U.S. attorney thanks partly to his reluctance to pursue voter-fraud cases as aggressively as DOJ wanted - one of several U.S. attorneys fired for inappropriate political reasons, according to a recently released report by DOJ's Office of the Inspector General.

Iglesias, who has been the most outspoken of the fired U.S. attorneys, went on to say that the FBI's investigation seemed designed to inappropriately create a "boogeyman" out of voter fraud.

And he added that it "stands to reason" that the investigation was launched in response to GOP complaints.
As we noted earlier, last year, Senator Dianne Feinstein publicly highlighted changes made to DOJ's election crimes manual, which lowered the bar for voter-fraud prosecutions, and made it easier to bring vote-fraud cases close to the election.

Speaking today to
TPMMuckraker, Iglesias called such changes "extremely problematic."

The way in which the news was revealed today - Associated Press sourced its report to two "senior law enforcement officials" who "spoke on condition of anonymity because Justice Department regulations forbid discussing ongoing investigations particularly so close to an election" - is also raising eyebrows.

Both Iglesias and Bud Cummins - another of the U.S. attorneys who, according to the IG report, was also fired for political reasons - told TPMMuckraker that DOJ guidelines do allow U.S. attorneys to speak publicly about an investigation, even before bringing an indictment, if it's to allay public concern over an issue.

But that certainly wouldn't cover anonymous leaks. "If you can't say it with your name on it, it's fair to say you should not be saying it," Cummins told TPMMuckraker.
To be blunt, the Republican Party has this down to a science. Voter rolls are purged right before the election, with the result that duly-registered voters arrive at their polling place to discover they can't vote, and are then forced to use provisional ballots which are almost never counted and routinely discarded at the earliest opportunity. Meanwhile, easily-hackable electronic voting machines - manufactured by companies headed by partisan GOP supporters and already switching early votes from Obama to McCain in West Virginia - are forced on the public, and laws requiring photo IDs at the polls are put into effect, all despite the fact that there is almost no evidence of voter fraud at all, never mind voter fraud on a grand scale.

Yesterday, the Obama campaign sent a letter to Attorney General Michael Mukasey explicitly linking the very real U.S. Attorney scandal with the very much less real ACORN controversy, and calling for an investigation into the manner in which ACORN is being targeted by the federal government at the behest of the Republican Party. Robert Bauer, Senator Obama's general counsel, writes:
History is repeating itself. As Election Day approaches - just as in 2004 and 2006 - Republican Party officials and operatives nationwide, including the candidates themselves, are fomenting specious vote fraud allegations, and there are disturbing indications of official involvement or collusion.
Gerry Hebert, a former acting head of the Department of Justice's voting rights section, agrees, calling the FBI investigation "a continuation of injecting DOJ into what has clearly become a political issue." In a follow-up conference call, Mr. Bauer declared :
This is a sham anti-fraud campaign that comes 24-hours after John McCain’s dramatic pronouncement about tearing the fabric of democracy and now you have a leak of this supposed fraud from the Department of Justice. It’s creating an environment of fear and intimidation.
But then, that's the whole idea behind the fraudulent threat of voter fraud.

For a sense of the anger that the McCain campaign has stirred up among the Republican rank and file over the ACORN "issue" - the same anger that is now turning to violence and threats - take a look at the video below.

October 14, 2008

More Strands in the Noose

In late 2006, I wrote a post entitled Martial Law Made Easy, which discussed the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007 (JWNDAA), and noted:
... what is most striking and frightening about the Warner Defense Authorization Act is that it explicitly targets citizens of the United States.

Two federal laws, the Insurrection Act of 1807 and the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, govern the president's ability to deploy troops on domestic soil for the purposes of, respectively, putting down "lawlessness, insurrection and rebellion," and broader law enforcement. Together, they are highly restrictive of presidential power, and they are the primary bastion against the use of America's military against its own citizens. H.R. 5122 removes this safeguard by modifying the Insurrection Act and effectively gutting Posse Comitatus provisions.

Section 1076 of the Warner Defense Authorization Act states:
The President may employ the armed forces, including the National Guard in Federal service, to... restore public order and enforce the laws of the United States...

In short, it allows the President to declare a "public emergency" and station troops anywhere in the United States, commandeering state-based National Guard units without the consent of governors or local authorities.
The JWNDAA has, to date, passed largely beneath the public radar, but last month brought new developments when the Army Times reported that:

The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home.

Beginning Oct. 1 for 12 months, the 1st BCT will be under the day-to-day control of U.S. Army North, the Army service component of Northern Command, as an on-call federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters, including terrorist attacks.
But this new mission marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to NorthCom, a joint command established in 2002 to provide command and control for federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate defense support of civil authorities.

After 1st BCT finishes its dwell-time mission, expectations are that another, as yet unnamed, active-duty brigade will take over and that the mission will be a permanent one.

Even in isolation - if this were the only effort by the government to diminish civil liberties - this is a development that should be of concern to every American who cherishes the Constitution and loathes the creeping police state transformation of the United States since September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, the deployment of active duty troops to home soil for use in quelling civil unrest didn't happen in isolation.

Concurrently, Attorney General Michael Mukasey finalized new guidelines for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) that grant the agency broad new powers to investigate groups and individuals with broad discretion and little or no supporting evidence. While the new framework is touted as a flexible tool that will enable the aggressive pursuit of terrorists, the simple fact is that the FBI was caught last year violating the already-lax civil liberties protections of the USA PATRIOT Act more than 1,000 times. Given the abusive, pre-emptive arrests of both journalists and peaceful demonstrators in Minnesota during the Republican National Convention (RNC), it is clear that the current culture of law enforcement remains focused on gaining new power at the expense of the citizenry.

Assigning active troops for deployment within our own borders is the logical next step in what began with the USA PATRIOT Act, which granted the government broad wiretapping powers and sneak-and-peak search powers. PATRIOT Act powers were in turn extended with the warrantless surveillance conducted illegally by the Bush Administration, and advanced by the Military Commissions Act, which allows the president to unilaterally deny individual rights and imprison people without access to counsel or even the right to trial. It has been carried even further by the JWNDAA, police tactics during the RNC, the removal of restraints on the FBI, and now, the stationing of the Army on American territory for use within the homeland.

The abridgment of civil liberties almost never occurs in one fell swoop. Instead, like the boiling of a proverbial frog it is incremental, and every bit as deadly. I have heard the argument made that this is a silly concern, and that we should trust the government because it is made up of people who only have our best interests at heart. But while there may have been no terrorist attacks on the United States since the anthrax mailings that followed 9/11, there is not a single shred of evidence indicating that the deliberate, coordinated erosion of civil liberties has had anything to do with that fact.

Ask yourself this: What has changed since passage of the JWNDAA in 2006 that makes it necessary to station active duty military personnel on American soil to quell domestic unrest? What makes the protections spelled out in the Insurrection Act and the Posse Comitatus Act no longer desirable, when the first has been in place for more than two centuries and the second for more than 125 years, a period spanning the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and the Cold War?

From the point of view of the citizenry, the answer to both of these questions is that nothing makes these changes necessary or desirable, but for an authoritarian government more concerned with power than individual freedom, these measures are highly advantageous. The John Warner National Defense Authorization Act, along with the deployment of active duty troops it permits, is another strand in the noose that is being woven slowly and inexorably around the neck of fundamental American freedoms. It is the next logical step in the systematic destruction of civil liberties carried out by the Bush Administration and the modern Republican Party, and it is one more betrayal by our government that must be undone.

October 10, 2008

A Mendacious Hack Identifies a Threat to His Job

In an opinion piece in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, James Taranto lashes out at what he calls the "fact checking fad," labeling it "opinion journalism thinly disguised as straight reporting." Although it would certainly be more credible coming from a source other than Mr. Taranto, who has made a good portion of his living parsing words, taking statements from those of whom he disapproves out of context, and sometimes just plain lying - in this modern age of political spin and institutionalized propaganda, it's an interesting premise.

Actually digging into this proposition, however, reveals that Mr. Taranto is operating true to form. As but one example, he cites as an instance of poor fact-checking an article in the New York Times that contains the following passage:
There is no way, of course, that Senator Barack Obama would ever nominate three controversial figures from his past to serve on the United States Supreme Court: the convicted felon Antoin Rezko; the former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers; or Mr. Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

Yet the names and faces of the three men appear in a new television advertisement - running in Michigan and Ohio this week and nationally on Fox News on Monday, at a total cost of $500,000 - arguing that Mr. Obama's judgment about his associates shows that he cannot be trusted to pick justices for the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately for Mr. Taranto, this article is not a fact check. Instead, it focuses on efforts by Senator John McCain to shift the focus of the presidential campaign to judicial nominees, not whether Senator Obama would nominate any of the men described in the commercial.

While there are legitimate questions about the role of this particular passage in the article - it is not central to the main theme and injects the author's judgment into the piece - calling it a fact check is a deliberate misidentification. This obfuscation is, in turn, an effort to undermine a useful tool for vetting the statements of political figures, and is clearly a product of the frustration Mr. Taranto and other McCain supporters must be feeling about the fact that the Republican ticket is suffering badly because the press (for a change) is holding Senator McCain and Governor Palin accountable for their repeated lies, reversals and all-out negative attack ad strategy.

Mr. Taranto later goes on to claim, "If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be 'fact checked.' The facts themselves are sufficient." Ideally, this would be true, but in the real world, where politicians successfully misrepresent the truth by relying on public ignorance, and the press furthers falsehoods in the name of "balance" or drops the ball altogether, it is clearly not the case. To see the unquestionable need for fact checking, one need only observe that 13% of the populace still believes Barack Obama is a muslim after 2 years of campaigning and a significant controversy over his Christian pastor, or remember that, in the run-up to the Iraq War, fully 70% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.

While there is no doubt that reportage can be improved, and that even fact checks will not be 100% accurate, James Taranto's hope that the fact checking "fad" will "soon go the way of streaking and Mexican jumping beans," is just as doubtlessly rooted in self-interest. While he postures as an advocate for a world in which educated voters are served by a vigilant and honest press that covers candidates who feel shame or suffer consequences when they are revealed as liars, were such a world actually to come to pass, he would quickly need to find another line of work.

October 6, 2008

Using the High Ground to Counter Slung Mud

As we enter the closing weeks of the 2008 election cycle, the campaign of Republican John McCain is foundering. Confronted with a widespread economic crisis that not only serves to highlight the failures and greed of the modern GOP, but the culpability of policies championed by Senator McCain in particular, the Republican presidential nominee is resorting to gutter politics. Apparently unconcerned that the United States is facing a financial disaster with potentially catastrophic consquences, senior McCain adviser Greg Strimple stated:
We are looking for a very aggressive last 30 days. We're looking to turning the page on this financial crisis and getting back to discussing Mr. Obama's liberal, aggressively liberal, record and how he will be too risky for the Americans.
Taking her cue, on Saturday, Senator McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin, declared that "Our opponent … is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." This particular claim, which attempts to tie Senator Barack Obama to former Weather Underground bomber William Ayers, is a charge long ago debunked, and one particularly ironic given Governor Palin and her husband's own documented, lengthy and direct association with the radical, secessionist Alaska Independence Party (AIP).

This type of rank, fear-mongering hypocrisy from today's GOP is nothing new, but unlike recent Democratic presidential nominees - who have attempted to stay "above the fray" when confronted by the smear tactics of GOP opponents and their supporters - Senator Obama appears ready to respond. The Obama campaign has launched KeatingEconomics.com, a site dedicated to the last great American financial crisis - the savings and loan meltdown of the 1980s - as well as John McCain's close involvement as one of the notorious Keating Five. (Something about which, as I have written before, the media has distinctly under-reported.)

A thirteen minute documentary (see below) is the highlight, but KeatingEconomics.com also presents a wealth of research and documentation that convincingly makes the case that Senator McCain's personal corruption and opposition to oversight and regulation are directly related to the systemic rot we are witnessing within the financial sector today. Much can still happen between now and November 4th, but it is refreshing to see a candidate both well-positioned on the high ground and well-prepared to counter the worst the Republicans can sling. As Senator Obama noted at a rally in North Carolina:
They’d rather try to tear our campaign down than lift this country up. That’s what you do when you’re out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time.

October 2, 2008

Success Through Lowered Expectations

In a flurry of what can probably be best described as pre-emptive damage control, the McCain campaign and its surrogates are currently manufacturing outrage about what they perceive to be a pro-Obama conflict of interest on the part of Gwen Ifill, the veteran journalist who will moderate tonight's Vice Presidential debate between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin. The GOP is rightfully concerned about Governor Palin's abysmal performance in an extended interview with Katie Couric of CBS News (see clips at the end of this post), but the basis for their ire appears - perhaps unsurprisingly - to be more than a little thin.

Ms. Ifill first ran afoul of Republicans in 2004 as moderator of that election cycle's vice presidential debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney. When Senator Edwards attacked Mr. Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, the vice president said, "I can respond, Gwen, but it's going to take more than 30 seconds." Ms. Ifill replied "Well, that's all you've got," which, according to the debate transcript, drew laughter. (She also later clarified that she had not intended to be snippy toward the GOP candidate; she was simply enforcing the rules of the debate.) It is unclear what answer she could have supplied - other than the plainly-inappropriate "That's OK, sir - take as much time as you need" that would satisfy those grinding this particular axe.

Earlier this year, Ms. Ifill was again criticized by Republicans for appearing "dismissive" when offering a summary of crowd reaction to Mrs. Palin's speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention (RNC). In video of her report (below), she is certainly not jumping up and down in the exultation shared by the party faithful, but it is pretty hard to make the case that she either looks "disgusted" or that she fails to report on actual events, noting repeatedly the "pent up enthusiasm" that "exploded" repeatedly during the GOP number two's address:

Now, the right wing is claiming that, prior to selecting the moderators for the debates, no one was aware that Ms. Ifill had written an as-yet unpublished - but allegedly pro-Obama - book, making her unsuitable, in their minds, as a moderator. Unfortunately, for that argument, publicly available statements about the book were being made in late July - in other words, no one was concealing its existence - two weeks before the campaigns agreed on the selection of moderators.

Issues of timing aside, if the book is truly pro-Obama, it could reasonably be argued that Ms. Ifill should have proactively disclosed that fact, but the text, entitled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama" is described by the publisher as follows:
In "The Breakthrough...", veteran journalist Gwen Ifill surveys the American political landscape, shedding new light on the impact of Barack Obama’s stunning presidential campaign and introducing the emerging young African American politicians forging a bold new path to political power.

Ifill argues that the Black political structure formed during the Civil Rights movement is giving way to a generation of men and women who are the direct beneficiaries of the struggles of the 1960s. She offers incisive, detailed profiles of such prominent leaders as Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, and U.S. Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, and also covers up-and-coming figures from across the nation. Drawing on interviews with power brokers like Senator Obama, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vernon Jordan, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and many others, as well as her own razor-sharp observations and analysis of such issues as generational conflict and the "black enough" conundrum, Ifill shows why this is a pivotal moment in American history.
This is no more an inflammatory or inappropriate topic for a debate moderator and student of politics to cover than one entitled "The Breakthrough: Politics and Gender in the Age of Hillary Clinton". Some critics have honed in on adjectives in the above like "stunning" and "bold," but with the history-making rise of the first African-American to stand as the presidential nominee for a major political party, these descriptors seem apppropriate. Further, if the list of people interviewed appears to heavily favor Democrats, it is inarguable that there are simply more black Democrats than black Republicans at any level of either party, but most especially in the top ranks. Even if the book turns out to be a hagiography of Senator Obama, all indications to date are that it is not, and short of calling Gwen Ifill a liar, it would be pretty hard to justify dismissing her from her duties because of it.

Given the fact that Bob Schieffer - a golfing partner to George W. Bush who admitted "It's always difficult to cover someone you know personally," - was not only allowed to moderate one of the 2004 presidential debates, but will moderate one in 2008 as well - it's pretty difficult to make the case that somehow Ms. Ifill's reportage or her authorship rise to the level of a conflict of interest. (Unless one subscribes to the IOKIYAR doctrine.) Despite recent public pratfalls, by many accounts Governor Palin is expected to perform credibly within the structure of the vice presidential debate. The ginned-up controversy over Gwen Ifill then, is merely one more distraction designed to diminish expectations and help her claim victory in clearing a bar for success that has been set as low as possible.

Katie Couric Interviews Governor Sarah Palin: