Thursday, November 16, 2006

How's that new era in Washington working out?

Sixty percent of eligible Americans didn’t bother to vote in the high-stakes ’06 midterm elections. They probably figured that a few minutes of democratic participation would be a waste of time, that nothing in Washington would really change no matter how they voted.

Right now, many of them might well be saying, “We told ya so.”

On Nov. 7, the 40 percent electorate essentially told the politicians that it was fed up with partisan warfare, petty power plays, and sleaze in high places. In response, the victorious Democrats declared that a new day had dawned in Washington; meanwhile, President Bush vowed to make nice with the new powers across the aisle.

But a mere nine days later, here’s what we see thus far: Partisan warfare, petty power plays, and sleaze in high places. For instance:

1. On the petty front, consider the Democrats. Usually they start cutting each other up after they have lost an election, assigning blame and hurling insults. But here they are, having actually won the House and Senate, in part because they promised to govern better than the Bush Republicans…yet they’re still cutting each other up.

I refer to the fact that Democratic national chairman Howard Dean has been jumped in a back alley by three heavyweight brethren – strategist/commentator James Carville, pollster Stan Greenberg, and House campaign leader Rahm Emanuel. They contend that because Dean refused to spread his money around, he wound up costing the party at least 10 winnable House seats; they charge that Dean had $6 million available during the final week, but didn’t put any of it in play, thereby hurting Democratic candidates (such as Lois Murphy in the Philadelphia suburbs) who wound up losing by only one or two percentage points.

Carville, not surprisingly, has been the guy with the sharpest tounge; yesterday he assailed the Dean performance as “Rumsfeldian in its incompetence,” which, on the viciousness scale, is the equivalent of one Republican assailing another Republican as “Clintonian.” Carville also calls Dean “a C-minus general” who should be canned prior to the 2008 election cycle.

Dean hasn’t responded to any of this, clearly preferring not to be drawn into a tit-for-tar spat that would confirm the suspicions of many Americans that the Democrats are as whacked out as ever. Dean’s supporters, however, are wading into the fray. Chris Bowers, the prominent liberal blogger, skewers Carville as (a) a hack who just wants his Washington consultant pals to get their mitts on Dean’s money, and (b) a closet conservative who represents “the anti-Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”

In the wake of this embarrassing episode, Don Fowler, a former national party chairman, said yesterday that this was no big deal: “We’re a diverse party. We have different people from different backgrounds…” Nice try. That’s what parties always say when their people are cutting each other up. Whenever Republican moderates and religious conservative war with each other, party leaders always say it’s just a sign of the party’s big-tent diversity.

I’m not particularly interested in figuring out which side is right in the Dean spat, because that would require refighting the past. What does interest me is the fact that the Dean detractors are delivering a not-so-subliminal message about the future. Carville, Greenberg, and Emanuel are prominent members of the extended Clinton family network, having all worked for Bill. My sense is that, with Hillary in the wings as a possible ’08 presidential nominee, the Clinton camp – which never liked Dean in the first place, going back to the ’04 primaries – is essentially telling Dean, “Get out, before we come for you and throw you out.”

2. On the petty power play and sleaze fronts, we now have the spectacle of Nancy Pelosi humiliating herself before she even picks up the House Speaker’s gavel.

She put herself on the line by backing John Murtha in his bid to become her majority leader – only to be soundly rebuked this morning by her own Democratic rank and file, which instead elected Steny Hoyer to fill the post. What better way to signal the expectant nelectorate that the Democrats don’t have their act together?

One can always argue that House Democrats saved Pelosi from an act of hypocrisy; after all she was championing Murtha - an ethically-challenged practitioner of pork and special-interest earmarks – at a time when she was also promising an era of ethical and clean government. But, as it turns out, Hoyer isn’t exactly a fresh breeze, either. He’s a politics-as-usual guy who has long promised to nurture close ties with the K Street special-interest lobbying crowd that has financed him heavily for years.

The bottom line, in any case, is that Pelosi’s first act on the hot seat was to burn herself. For those Americans who voted last week for a return to government competence, it can’t be reassuring to watch the new House leader get stiffed by her own people. Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan Washington analyst, got it right today when he said: "Instead of generating front page stories about the Democrats’ agenda, Pelosi has made herself and divisions within her party the story du jour."

All told, it’s been quite a mess, with all these nasty intramurals. As liberal activist David Sirota lamented the other day, “Look, I'm tired. We're all tired…I mean, can we at least get a few days rest from this? And more importantly, can the Democratic rank-and-file in Congress please put its foot down and reject this comedic-yet-sad B-movie parody? I mean, come on people - it's embarrassing.” He’s got that right.

3. On the partisan and sleaze fronts, remember how President Bush spoke so glowingly last week about a new era of bipartisanship? Well, that didn’t last long.

Yesterday, he sent up to Capitol Hill the same list of controversially conservative judicial nominees that have been rejected in the past. The list includes William Haynes, a Defense Department official who reportedly helped craft the administration’s torture guidelines overseas; William Myers III, a mining industry lobbyist who is viewed by Democrats as hostile to environment laws; and Terrence Boyle, a former Jesse Helms aide who, as a lower-court federal judge, has ruled repeatedly against plaintiffs alleging racial discrimination.

Just as tellingly, Bush has renominated Kenneth Tomlinson to chair the federal board that overseas Voice of America and other U.S. broadcast programs abroad – despite the fact that even Republican Senate has been balking about this guy. And why? Because Tomlinson has already been exposed by State Department investigators for using his board office to run a horse-racing operation and to put a pal on the federal payroll. This is the same, by the way, who Bush previously appointed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he violated a federal law prohibiting CPB officials from applying political litmus tests to their employes.

Apparently, not even a decisive “accountability moment” has changed the Decider, contrary to last week’s initial impressions.

4. And one last observation (for now). Even though the voters on Nov. 7 were apparently pleading for some clarity on Iraq, they may not get much help on that score from the number two Senate Republican.

Yesterday, by a one-vote margin, Trent Lott returned to the hierarchy, after having been banished four years ago for showing up at a Strom Thurmond birthday party and waxing nostalgic about the Old South segregation era. (Dean Barnett, a prominent conservative blogger, was scathing yesterday: "If there’s one message that the electorate sent the Republican Party last week, it’s that we hadn’t given them enough of Trent Lott.")

But can this Senate leader help us comprehend the Iraq crisis? Decide for yourself. Here’s what he said, on Sept. 29: “Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”