Saturday, February 25, 2006

Three, one, zero

Regarding its performance in Iraq, the Bush administration's best hope at this point is for the American citizenry to be stricken with amnesia. Here's today's case in point:
In a paragraph buried within the Pentagon's quarterly report that was released on Friday, it was stated that while more and more Iraqi security forces are being trained, there is not a single Iraqi battalion that can operate on its own without American assistance.
That's quite interesting, because last September, the top American commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, testified on Capitol Hill that one Iraqi battalion was capable of operating without American assistance.
And a few months before that, the Pentagon announced that three battlions were capable of operating without American assistance.
Non-amnesiacs might well ask these questions: how does this backsliding square with the ongoing administration assurances that "progress" is being made? And if the independent battalions have indeed gone from three to one to zero, how might that affect the administration's announced desire to begin pulling out U.S. troops this year (Bush on Friday again: "As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down")?

Friday, February 24, 2006

Deconstructing Rove

First of all, now that this blog is a week old, I wanted to thank those of you who have posted comments wishing me well in this new venture. Given the normal tenor of my emails, I'm not accustomed to the kindness. Hope I can sustain my end of the bargain.

Anyway, on to the topic at hand: Bush strategist Karl Rove, and his interview last night with Tony Snow on Fox News. I was going to touch on it in the piece I have written for the Sunday paper, but ran out of room. Just as well, because it warrants separate treatment. Let's just do a quick deconstruction of the key exchanges.
Midway through, Snow asks the big question: How did you guys allow yourselves to get "flattened" by this port deal? (i.e., Staying silent for days while congressional Republicans and the conservative grassroots went increasingly ballistic on a story that makes Bush look, of all things, weak on national security.)
Rove's response: "Well, I'm going to leave it to others to analyze the media play on this."
Whoa, there. Snow was asking about what the White House had done, not what the media had done.
No matter. Rove avoided the question and stuck with the topic of media play and said that the deal "was announced last October and November," without any public outcry. "I mean, this thing sat out there for essentially two months in the public press, known to the - printed in the business pages, printed in the press...And it didn't become contentious until the last few days."
Snow didn't contest that point. Perhaps he should have. I just went into Nexis and checked the Washington Post. That paper didn't run a single story in either October or November. Then I checked the New York Times. It ran one paragraph from the Associated Press on Nov. 1, a 537-word piece on Nov. 29 and an 1123-word piece on Dec. 1 -- all of them dry financial offerings without a word of political context. No wonder nobody got contentious.
At this point in the interview, Snow tried again: "Once more through the other thing. The president didn't know about it..."
Moments later, Rove responded, "Well, the president DID know about it" - because Chief of Staff Andrew Card "alerted him before the press kerfuffle."
Whoa again. Didn't the White House say last Tuesday that Bush DIDN'T know about it? Never mind. Even if we take Rove at his word, doesn't it therefore mean that Bush allowed the controversy to build by saying and doing nothing?
As for "press kerfuffle," it might be more accurate to describe it as a "House Republican and Senate Republican and conservative grassroots kerfuffle."
By that point in the interview, however, Snow was done challenging the president's emissary. Instead he offered all kinds of helpful remarks: "It's not like somebody comes in and shakes the president awake every time somebody has a sale that involves a foreign company...If so, he'd never get any sleep and he'd never get any work done."
Challenged by that "question," here was Rove's response: "Exactly, exactly."
Soon it was time for Fox News to let him go. Snow said thanks. Rove responded, "You bet, buddy."

Bush's Florida baggage

If Hillary Clinton is the Democrats' most polarizing celebrity (see yesterday's post), Katharine Harris might well wear the same crown for the GOP. Harris, you will recall, was the Florida secretary of state who, in her dual role as Bush-Cheney activist and neutral arbiter of the state's election laws, managed to rule in Bush's favor at every key juncture during the post-2000 election imbroglio. She has since won two elections as the Sarasota region's congresswoman - in a heavily Republican district - without erasing her image as a lightning rod for Democrats and Bush-averse independents.
And today that image is giving the White House a big headache. She may have been supremely useful in November and December of 2000, but she is sheer baggage in the winter of 2006. She is running for the U.S. Senate in Florida -- this should be one of the most entertaining races of the year -- and trying to unseat Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson. The White House would dearly love to topple Nelson, because that outcome would make it virtually impossible for the Democrats to take over the Senate.
The problem is, Harris appears to be anathema to everybody in Florida who is not a conservative Bush loyalist. She is so toxic, in fact, that the White House - which apparently is not bound by loyalty - has tried to recruit somebody else (ideally, someone with more broad-based statewide appeal) to either muscle Harris out of the race or at least challenge her in a primary. As this new piece makes clear, at least four Republicans have told the Bush team no dice.
It's inordinantly expensive to run statewide in Florida, and other GOPers know that Harris - who is personally wealthy anyway - will probably win the party primary, which tends to draw a disproportionate number of the conservative voters who still view Harris' 2000 performance as a profile in courage. And besides, as other events these days suggest, many Republicans don't necessarily think it's politically advantageous anymore to be seen as carrying water for Bush.
Result: Harris is getting creamed in the latest poll matchup with Nelson, particularly among the pivotal independents.

Speaking of baggage, however, the Democrats still have Howard Dean. One year after he took over as chairman, he still can't seem to get the requisite respect from party bigwigs. Usually, his problem is that southern Democrats avoid him like the plague, figuring that his antiwar northern liberal profile will turn off the locals. But the other day, the governor of the state of Washington, Democrat Christine Gregoire, followed suit, by decreeing that there shall be no photographs of her and Dean swapping the usual smiles -- as reported here (closing paragraphs).

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Hillary Conundrum

A stunning stat dropped into my in-box today: according to a new national poll, only 33 percent of Americans believe that Hillary Clinton could win the '08 presidential election if nominated. The survey, by the New York-based Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, also reports that she'd be trounced by 10 points if pitted against Republican John McCain.
For Hillary lovers, those aren't encouraging numbers, considering the fact that she has labored diligently as a U.S. Senator, has reached out and worked with her Republican counterparts, has steered clear of the Democratic party's liberal wing (especially with her backing of the Iraq war), and, except for her recent remark that the House Republicans have run their chamber like a "plantation," she has uttered hardly a syllable of colorful Bush-bashing rhetoric (the kind that the liberal wing loves to hear).
What it means is that Democrats will spend much of the next two years pondering the electability factor: can she win? and if not, should she be denied the nomination? I can't help but recall what transpired in Iowa in January 2004, when Howard Dean went in like a lion and was reduced to a lamb, thanks to the verdict of Iowans who decided he shouldn't win the caucuses because he'd never win in November. They gave the electability nod to John Kerry (not knowing, of course, that he'd spend valuable time in August wind-surfing and doing nothing while the GOP methodically Swift-Boated him).
So the Hillary electability debate arguably will be the biggest Democratic story in the impending presidential race. And as a public service, here's a worthy magazine article which contends that no she can't win. To mangle a phrase from a great television network: Amy Sullivan reports; you decide.

Impugning one's friends

Here's a big reason why Republicans and conservatives have grown more frustrated with the Bush administration over the past six months: When the White House is criticized, it lashes back by pinning pejorative labels on the critics. Last fall, when Bush allies assailed high court nominee Harriet Miers as singularly unqualified to wear a robe, they were dismissed as sexists. And now, as Bush allies assail the port deal with the United Arab Emirates, they are being tagged as anti-Arab racists.
Bush said today, in a Cabinet meeting, that people didn't seem to mind when a British firm was running the affected U.S. ports, but now seem upset that an Arab company will be taking over. The same point was made yesterday by Bush press secretary Scott McClellan: "it sends a terrible message" that an Arab country "should be held to a different standard."
But Bush's disgruntled friends don't like being called racists. One prominent conservative website,, argued yesterday that a different standard is revelent in this case, given the fact that the UAE "has a history of terrorist citizens and princes who go hunting with bin Laden, not to mention being officially sworn to destroy Israel." Ditto this, in paragraphs seven and eight. Ditto this piece in the conservative Washington Times, which features several disgruntled Bush administration security officials (neither of whom wanted their names used) airing their concerns about potential port vulnerabilities under UAE management.
The danger, in the Bush regime's ongoing impulse to label, is that the White House risks worsening its relations with restive Republican allies at a time when the national mood doesn't auger well for a healthy GOP performance in the '06 elections.

By the way, I think that perhaps the most revealing remark thus far has been uttered by Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff, when he said the other day that security concerns must be "balanced" against the imperatives of global commerce. No wonder the GOP is divided over this port deal: politically, it pits corporate free-traders against national-security hawks.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bubble Disease

Being the leader of the free world is obviously a heady experience. Traffic halts when the guy sweeps by. On State of the Union night, lawmakers and robed jurists and military brass all leap to their feet in Pavlovian appreciation of every sound bite. Journalists jump when the commander in chief crooks a finger and ushers them to the front of his plane (OK, such invites don't come very often). So naturally it's easy to fall into a state of splendid isolation. Think Lyndon Johnson in '67-68. Think Richard Nixon in '73-74.
And think George W. Bush today, as evidenced by this flap over U.S. ports security (I wrote about the immediate political fallout today). Put aside the substantive arguments, pro and con, over the administration-approved deal that will put six key ports under the management of a firm owned by an Arab nation with a history of terrorism links. What's most glaring, right now, is the fact that Republicans outside the White House were caught flat-footed by the deal. They weren't alerted by the Bush team that such a deal might, um, look bad politically, and make it appear (in the brutal shorthand of today's politics) that the president was potentially compromising national security. So today the administration is out there virtually alone, dispatching its own people to spin the deal as best as they can, competing with the uproar.
It's that presidential bubble again, and perhaps the most damaging remarks in recent hours have come from Republicans who know something about smart communications. Witness Rich Galen, former press aide to Newt Gingrich and faithful Bush supporter. He said it best, in his own online column: This administration "has a continuing problem with understanding how these things will play in the public's mind..."
By the way, the White House is now saying that Bush didn't know about the deal before it was approved. It's hard to see how this is a good defense. A case can be made that it merely confirms the bubble disease.
I hope to explore, in much greater depth, the pitfalls of presidential bubbles in a weekend newspaper piece.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

WWWWD? (What would Woodrow Wilson do?)

For most of his presidency, George W. Bush has sought to channel Woodrow Wilson - the chief executive who believed it was his mission to spread democracy worldwide, who believed that free elections would thwart tyrants and insure a peaceful future. Bush's credo reached its apogee during his second Inaugural speech. I can remember flirting with hypothermia in the press seats right below his podium, yet the messianic theme still got my full attention ("The concerted effort of free nations to promote democracy is a prelude to our enemies' defeat").
Contrast that soaring idealism, and the visuals of blue-painted fingers, with the current reality of Iraq. As evidenced here and here, it has become clear that the cleansing virtues of free elections are often overrated.
One month after the latest round of Iraqi elections, at least 54 people have died in two days of bombings early this week, as various religious sects and political parties jockey for supremacy. Bush's oft-stated claim that "freedom is on the march" doesn't quite square with U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalamy Khalilzad's warning yesterday that unless the factions stop fighting and killing each other, Iraq "faces the risk of warlordism that Afghanistan went through for a period." Then came today's reaction from Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (who is backed by a radical anti-American cleric), telling the U.S. ambassador to mind his own business.
Iraq has held free elections - and the religious camp beat the secular camp, with a coalition of Shiite religious parties and groups winning the most seats in Parliament. And election results contrary to Bush administration interests have been the norm elsewhere as well: They voted in Afghanistan, and the warlords made gains. They voted in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood made gains. They voted Lebanon, and Hezbollah made gains. And they voted in Palestine, and Hamas took over the legislature.
The Republican party is just beginning to address the shortcomings of the Wilsonian credo (Wilson said in 1913, "I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men," and wound up stoking anti-American sentiment there). As the Bush administration winds down, there will be debate among conservative thinkers about democratization, and whether and under conditions it is still worth pursuing. Already, there are people in the GOP camp, known informally as "realists" or "nationalists" who don't sing the inherent virtues of free elections. One substantive discussion of the various strains of GOP thinking can be found here. And there is still strong sentiment among traditional conservatives that Bush has badly overreached, and that the Wilsonian impulse should be tamped down in the future.
As George Will put it, at a conservative conference earlier this month, "The phrase 'nation-building' is no better than 'orchid-building.'...We shouldn't believe that we can simply subdue turbulent reality...We are suffering the consequences today in Iraq."

Monday, February 20, 2006

Goodbye Bernstein and Woodward

On the occasion of the 30th-anniversary release of "All the President's Men" - a two-disc DVD goes on sale tomorrow - it is instructive to contemplate how much the world has changed since the dawn of the Bush era. Way back then, there was no cable TV or Internet or conservative media empire; there were just a few national newspapers and four broadcast networks (including PBS). Way back then, a movie featuring journalists as heroes could play in packed movie houses, while the president they brought down in the Watergate scandal was trudging on the beaches of San Clemente in disgrace...whereas today, Richard Nixon's party is busy changing the rules of the game, pushing back at the "old media" establishment and treating it as just another special interest group.
I was reminded of all this today while moderating a forum at the University of Pennsylvania. My guest was Gail Collins, the editorial page editor of the New York Times, who labors cheerily at the eye of the storm. She mentioned that, on the news side, several Times reporters are under threat of being subpoened, in connection with a Bush administration probe into alleged leaks of national security information; and that, in general, pressure from the right is now a staple of daily work life. Among conservative bloggers, she said, "the ideal way for a politically or intellectually-driven website (to succeed) is, can you take down somebody like Dan Rather? It's the notion that you have to take someone down in order to make your mark." Republicans, she said, have discovered that they don't necessarily pay any political penalty (certainly not with their core followers) if they freeze out the media establishment; in her words, "you discover that it can be pretty easy."
That observation was seconded a few days ago by Jay Rosen, an associate professor at NYU who writes a valuable media blog about these issues. He noted the other day: "Dick Cheney will look into the eyes of a journalist on television and deny saying what he is on tape saying!...The flagrant factual contradiction is not a problem, but itself a form of cultural politics," in which the administration frames all fact-checking reporters as pejorative "liberals."
Witness the way Cheney played cultural politics in his handling of the hunting accident; a passing remark that he made on Fox News said it all. Word was first passed to a small Texas paper, and, in defense of that decision, Cheney said: "It strikes me that the Corpus Christi Caller-Times is just as valid a news outlet as The New York Times is, especially for covering a major story in south Texas." (Translation: those effete big-city, blue-state easterners have no special standing in my world.)
I raise all this not to lament some lost world of media power and supine politicians. Just as Tom Hanks said there's no crying in baseball, there's no room for whining in politics. The Bush model is simply what the real world looks like today; new game, new rules, deal with it. But here's the more interesting question, as we look forward politically:
Have the Bush people permanently changed the relationship between media and (Republican) politicians? Will the Bush model (and the multi-faceted conservative media apparatus) transcend Bush and simply be adopted by the next Republican nominee? What if the GOP candidate is John McCain - the media darling who seems to treat reporters as real people who have interesting things to ask? The temptation is to predict that McCain's Straight Talk Express bus would hit the road again, but as Gail Collins noted earlier today, "We forget that in 2000, he was only a viable candidate for a short while (until the South Carolina primary). Let's see how he is with the press if it turns out he really has a chance to win."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Democratic divide, redux

I recently wrote a column about the rudderless Washington Democrats, and was promptly informed by a number of Democrats that the premise was wrong, and that, in fact, the Democrats have never been more united. Senator Frank Lautenberg echoed this argument in a letter to the editor.
But reality contradicts their argument.
Let's just go to the videotape. On Fox News Sunday this morning, the subject of Dick Cheney's hunting accident came up. Democratic Senator Evan Bayh, a 2008 presidential hopeful, was asked whether he agreed with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who last Thursday denounced Cheney's five-day silence as testament to his "arrogance of power" and his desire to operate "above the law." Bayh, in response, did not demonstrate that the Democrats are more united than ever. Instead, he dumped all over Pelosi.
OK, he did try to soften the dumping by saying that he had "a respectful difference of opinion on the magnitude of this issue." But he proceeded to say that her remark "goes to show how out of touch Washington is with the rest of this country," that she made "a mountain out of a molehill," and that when Democrats do things like that, "we run the risk of damaging our own credibility with mainstream America."
Bayh is a guy to watch in the early manueverings for the '08 nomination. He sits low in the polls at the moment, far behind Hillary Clinton, but these surveys are useless at this stage, because they're mostly about name recognition. Bayh, who hails from Indiana, is a red-state Democratic senator who also served several terms as a red-state governor, and therefore he could get traction with moderates/centrists in the party who want to prioritize the wooing of red-state voters (instead of currying favor with the liberal netroots/blogosphere). Bayh, who voted to authorize President Bush to wage war in Iraq, in the past has willingly picked fights with the antiwar liberal wing; I remember a Philadelphia event in 2003 when Bayh dumped on candidate Howard Dean for moving leftward.
If Bayh - or other potential candidates with red-state profiles, such as Virginia's Mark Warner - gain momentum in the runup to the '08 primary season, it will be instructive to watch the reaction of the grassroots liberal activists. Will they view Bayh or Warner as sufficiently hostile to Bush -- or too conciliatory? The potential for Democratic disunity is obvious.

On another Sunday morning matter: The record demonstrates that the Bush administration is almost congenitally incapable of admitting error on anything, so you know that something cataclysmic must have occurred if a mistake is being acknowledged. That cataclysm was Katrina.
It was stunning today to see Homeland Security director Michael Chertoff utter these sentences on Meet the Press: "In the evacuation, we really fell short...We didn't have assets on the ground...There are some areas, including disaster management, where we have a lot more to do." And here's my favorite: "This is an immature department."
Asked when all those taxpayer billions will bring maturity, Chertoff said, "this is a process that will take a little bit of time" - not a particularly hopeful remark, since he also observed that the maturity process will not be completed before the next hurricaine season.
If that's true, the Bush administration might want to hope for benign weather, because a new poll indicates that two-thirds of Americans (including 64 percent of swing-voting independents) remain troubled by the Bush team's handling of Katrina. Activists on the left and right might care most about ideology in politics, but most Americans probably care most about competence.