Saturday, April 15, 2006

Saturday mailbag: the corruption issue, the anti-Rummy revolt

Two items today:

1. Some eagle-eyed blog readers detected a contradiction in several of my posts this week.
Previewing a special congressional election in California on Tuesday, I had written that the Democrats would be sending a potent national message if their candidate, Francine Busby, managed to pull at least 40 percent of the vote in California-50, the heavily Republican district on the north side of San Diego.

Yet, after the results were finally tabulated, I wrote on Wednesday that the Democrats had failed to send a potent national message because Busby had managed to pull only 44 percent of the vote.

You ask, Huh?
I reply, mea culpa.

After my first post, I received two calls from Democrats whom I have long respected for their honesty, even when it hurts their side. They persuaded me (it didn't take much persuading) that I had the race all wrong, that Busby's failure to clear 50 percent plus one will probably doom her bid for office. If she'd cleared the majority mark, in the crowded field of candidates, she would have won outright. But by failing to do so, she must now face Brian Bilbray, the second-place Republican, in a June runoff. And it's likely that most Republican voters in this Republican district will coalesce behind the GOP candidate; by contrast, they split their votes among 14 Republicans on this week's open ballot.

All this thinking, and more, was reflected in my Wednesday post. I would have been smarter, however, if I had mentioned the interim impact of those persuasive Democrats. Meanwhile, a non-partisan analyst in Washington, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, underscored their point in remarks on Thursday: "Did voters send a message? The answer is no."

My thinking has further evolved this week, not to the Democrats' benefit. The Democrats want to push a "culture of corruption" theme during their '06 bid to retake the House, and certainly Duke Cunningham, the now-jailed Republican congressman who represented California-50, is Exhibit A. But there is also growing evidence that the corruption theme is hardly a clear winner for the Democrats -- because they apparently have knaves in their ranks, as well.

Case in point, West Virginia Congressman Alan Mollohan. Here's a mere sampling of his suspected sleaze: Using the special-interest loopholes known as "earmarks," he parlayed his stint on the House Appropriations Committee to steer $250 million to five nonprofits that he played a role in establishing. The groups in turn paid big salaries to various associates and ex-employes. He has also worked some suspiciously lucrative real estate deals with one of those ex-aides (who runs one of the nonprofits), and then initially failed to pay real estate taxes.

And this guy is the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.

Today, the Washington Post editorialized that Mollohan should quit the committee until he is fully scrutinized. My point is that Mollohan is lucrative fodder for the Republicans, who can now demonstrate that they hardly have a monopoly on the "culture of corruption." Yes, it's true that the Republicans run everything on Capitol Hill, thus they are arguably more culpable - but the GOP now has ammo that can allow them to play to those many voters who simply say, "Both sides do it, they're all a bunch of crook."

And remember, in June Duke Cunningham won't be on the California-50 ballot.

2. Now, on the other matter: The revolt against Rummy by high-ranking retired military officers. I believe the latest number is seven.

This week I received some emails from thoughtful people who are troubled by the notion that military leaders are now so willing to speak out publicly against their civilian superiors. These emailers have no love for Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush. They just worry that a bad precedent is being established which -- down the road, and in other circumstances -- could imperil the important constitutional tradition of civilian control.

It's an interesting point, and it demonstrates why the anti-Rummy revolt may well become (as we say in the news business) a story with legs. And, sure enough, today I ran across a guest column that makes the same point. Authored by former military officer Andrew Bacevich, who's now a Boston University international relations professor (and an occasional source of mine), it posits the argument this way:

"...But in their eagerness to settle scores, Rumsfeld's pursuers are flirting with ideas that can only be regarded as subversive. (One military critic) has resurrected the notion that a senior officer's primary obligation lies not to those atop the chain of command but to the Constitution....To grant even the most narrowly drawn exceptions to the principle of civilian control is to open up a Pandora's box of complications.
In the short term, instigating Rumsfeld's ouster might secure him top billing in the list of bunglers who screwed up the Iraq war. In the long term, it would only exacerbate the underlying problem. Unless and until we can restore some semblance of civilian-military effectiveness, defective policies will be the norm rather than the exception. This — not the sins of Donald Rumsfeld — is the nub of the matter."

Bacevich, at least, is offering a high-road rebuttal to those dissenting military guys. By contrast, however, Rumsfeld's defenders seem to be trafficking the lower roads. The other day I cited an attack on the dissenters for being self-promoters in time of war. But now I find a new one; the same attack is here as well. And the gist is:
It's Bill Clinton's fault.
Or, in one attacker's words, "these generals appear to be mostly from the Clinton era."

No further comment is necessary.