Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Texas barbecue?

We who get paid to report and prognosticate about politics have been saying for months that 2006 could be a rough election year for Republicans. We've been citing the polls which all suggest that voters are in a throw-the-bums-out mood -- the bums, in this case, being the Republicans, who control everything in Washington, including the special-interest spigots and other sources of pay-for-play corruption. I myself weighed in recently, here.
But, as the studio execs like to say in Hollywood, about the slippery art of reading the public mind, "nobody knows anything." Until people actually start casting ballots, all we've got to work with are the vibes....which is why the Texas primary that takes place on Tuesday, in the 22nd congressional district, is potentially so important. Finally, we might get empirical evidence, in the form of actual votes.
I'm talking about Tom DeLay, the indicted congressman and fallen House leader, who is fighting for his political survival. We may soon learn whether real voters want to roast him on a spit.
He's on the Tuesday primary ballot in his district just south of Houston; he's pitted against lawyer and ex-federal official Tom Campbell, as well as two lesser opponents. It's not likely that the Republican voters in his district, whom he has served for 22 years, will summarily oust him (by giving a majority of their votes to Campbell, who would then face a Democrat in November), although some Houston political analysts wouldn't be surprised, since his favorability rating in his own backyard is now around 38 percent.
What bears watching, however - as a guide to the mood of the Republican rank and file - is whether DeLay wins in an underwhelming fashion. Under Texas rules, if DeLay wins renomination but draws less than 50 percent of the vote in the four-person race, he must face the number-two finisher in an April runoff. That distinct possibility, while politically embarrassing, would prove there is a fair bit of restiveness within the GOP electorate.
DeLay does have his loyalists, as I reported here, during a trip I took last year to his home base in Sugar Land (a place of malls and greenery where, as I noted, the only people seen on foot are golfers and landscapers). And ever since he was dumped as a House leader, he has been able to focus exclusively on bringing home the federal bacon for his district (so much for small-government conservatism). He has also swamped Campbell in the money-raising competition. Nobody in previous primaries against DeLay has ever scored higher than 20 percent.
Yet Richard Murray, a University of Houston political analyst whom I met last year, a canny reader of Texas politics, insists that "DeLay is in trouble. The primary is no sure thing." Meanwhile, Tom Campbell says, "This (primary) is the epicenter of a national debate on how we conduct the public's business." So let's see what the folks say on Tuesday.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Remember "Clinton fatigue"?

One of the great open secrets within the Democratic party is that many of the activist worker bees would love to see Bill and Hillary Clinton go away. I hear it all the time, abeit off the record: Bill put us through the mill with his sex scandal and made us the party of immorality; Bill and Hillary are all about themselves, at the expense of everyone else; if Hillary runs for president, with all her Bill-era baggage, Bill will inevitably upstage or undercut her in some fashion - not because he wants to, but because he's larger than life, he has too many connections in too many places, and besides, an alpha male simply can't help himself.
Sure enough, here we go again. At a time when Hillary, in her capacity as New York senator, is leading the charge against the Dubai port deal, Bill, in his capacity as far-flung private citizen, took a phone call not long ago from some old pals of his - the rulers in Dubai - and offered them some help in managing all the damage control over the port deal. That's not surprising, in a way, since Bill has given six-figure speeches in Dubai, and the rulers have given six figures to the Clinton presidential library.
Anyway, in a story broken first by the subscription-only Financial Times, Bill proposed to Dubai that they hire a veteran damage control expert, Washington strategist Joe Lockhart - the ex-Clinton White House press secretary. The proposed deal apparently reached Lockhart via another longtime Friend of Bill, ex-environmental protection agency head Carol Browner...who works with another Friend of Bill, ex-secretary of state Madeleine Albright..whose lobbying firm represents Dubai Ports World.
Lockhart turned the deal down. Maybe that decision was tied to the fact that he is a Friend of Hillary, a member of her farflung political network.
One report today says that Bill never told Hillary about his February phone conversation with Dubai. One can only imagine how the spouses sorted out this latest tiff; nobody has yet said whether Hillary wanted to "wring Bill's neck" (her self-confessed reaction during the Monica scandal). Publicly, of course, she says there's no problem: "The president, my husband, supports my position." And there was Paul Begala, another Friend of Bill/Hillary, on CNN yesterday, defending the First Couple just like in the old days. (Bring back the '90s! Team Clinton spin on the cable nets! Folky Jewel CDs! New spongeworthy Seinfeld episodes!) Said Begala: "She's going to put what she thinks is best for New York and the United States first, and whatever speeches that her husband gives comes second."
Exasperated Democrats - and bemused Republicans - recognize that, as Hillary charts her ascent, this kind of episode probably won't be the last.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

"Heckuva job," the prequel

President Bush, four days after Katrina hit New Orleans: "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees."
Scientist Max Mayfield of the National Hurricaine Center, speaking to President Bush during a briefing one day before Katrina hit New Orleans: A major breach of the levees, he warned, "is obviously a very, very grave concern."
But just in case your knowledge of the English language, and your basic auditory skills, might tempt you to think that the release of this video makes the president look bad (he didn't ask a single question during the session), a White House spokesman is here to help. From Trent Duffy: "I hope people don't draw conclusions from the president getting a single briefing."
Actually, hang on a second, here's an even more helpful one, from a Department of Homeland Security flak: “There’s nothing new or insightful" on the video - or on any of the other Katrina videos that will not be released to the public.
Wait, hang on another second, this one is even better: The administration's diehard supporters, who have never met a Bush miscue that they cannot defend, have settled on a rebuttal theme. It can be found on the conservative powerlineblog (see link at right-side of this page). They note that Mayfield never uttered the word "breach," that in fact he was literally warning that the levees would be "topped" by the flooding waters. And because Mayfield only said "topped" as opposed to "breached," that somehow means that Bush didn't later mislead Americans when he said nobody anticipated a "breach."
But the Bush defenders are being a tad Clintonian, since they are basically splitting hairs over what the meaning of the word "breach" is. And the fact is, water engineering experts have long argued that one of the most common causes of "levee breach initiation" is "overtopping of the levee by high water levels and subsequent downward erosion." (Those quotes come from the engineers at
Keep trying, guys.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The "threat" of a Hillary victory

With regards to the Hillary Clinton factor in '08 presidential politics (see my Feb. 23 post), it appears that there are four camps:
Those who like Hillary and think she can win.
Those who like Hillary but think she can't win.
Those who dislike Hillary and think she can't win.
Those who dislike Hillary but think she will win.
One noteworthy member of the latter camp is Dick Morris, the one-time Bill Clinton pollster who was forced to quit in the middle of the '96 campaign after being exposed as a prostitute's john. Morris used to be in the I-like-Hillary camp (see page 39 of his '97 memoir: "The more often people heard Hillary speaking out for her beliefs, the better they would like her...she is a sound, practical thinker"), but has since moved to the I-dislike camp in more recent books and in the column he writes for a Capitol Hill weekly. He can be quite obsessive about Hillary, calling her a faux moderate and riffing about her sexuality. No doubt his banishment from the Clinton inner circle had absolutely nothing to do with his conversion.
In any case, today he does offer an intriguing argument about why he thinks she'll win in '08 (a scenario which he nevertheless views as a threat to the republic), and, more significantly, his belief clashes with the predictions offered by President Bush and Karl Rove in "Strategery," the latest pro-Bush book hot off the conservative presses.

"Solid granite"

A guy can get weary talking so much about the "Bush bubble," but how can one ignore the topic when the president keeps supplying fresh evidence of its existence? Witness his interview yesterday on ABC News. He was asked at one point about a statement that he made right after his 2004 re-election ("I have political capital, and I intend to spend it"). That prompted the question, Does he think he still has political capital, given the fact that the national polls show him to be more unpopular than ever before?
His answer: "I've got ample capital, and I'm using it to spread freedom...If I worried about polls, I would be -- I wouldn't be doing my job."
Let's unpack that one. By any objective measure, he does not have "ample capital" anymore, because his own Republican allies on Capitol Hill are in open revolt - defying his stance on the Dubai ports deal, and insisting that his domestic spying program be subject to congressional oversight, among other things. As one House staffer told the conservative Washington Times, in today's paper, "No longer will Republicans simply fall into line on major issues when they disagree with the president." In fact, they have already derailed a key facet of Bush's second-term agenda - the Social Security privatization plan, which he kept stumping for long after it was politically dead - because they were afraid of running on that issue in the 2006 congressional election. And currently they are girding for a fight with Bush over illegal immigration, which they (and many of their voters) see as a critical national security problem that Bush has refused to address.
The point is, even if Bush isn't "worried about the polls," his Republican allies are. They can't help noticing that Bush in the polls is heading toward Richard Nixon territory (or Bill Clinton territory, circa 1994). That affects how they do their job. And that has to affect how Bush does his job, even though his statement above doesn't seem to take into account congressional sensitivities.
As for the other part of his remark, that he is "spreading freedom," one need only note the grim developments these days in Iraq - as well as in Washington, where the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency testified yesterday that, contrary to Bush's claim again yesterday that "we're making progress," the anti-American insurgency actually "remains strong and resilient."
No wonder Conrad Burns, a Republican senator facing a tough re-election fight, told an audience on Monday that Bush is a stubborn guy, that his head is "solid granite."
Yesterday, Burns' PR guy rushed forward to say that Burns was just joking.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

"Mission Accomplished" update

Amidst reports today that insurgents have triggered another round of sectarian violence in Iraq and raised anew the specter of civil war (this insurgency was supposed to be in its "last throes," as Vice President Cheney contended last spring), the big question on the table is whether the deadly realities on the ground will impede the administration's desire to begin limited U.S. troop withdrawals in 2006. That very question was put to national security advisor Stephen Hadley on Sunday, and his response was, "we'll have to see, we'll have to see," because perhaps the violence will "incentivize" Iraqi security forces to more speedly stand up for themselves. The troop withdrawal question was also put to President Bush today, as he sat at the White House with the prime minister of Italy. Here is Bush's full response. Don't knock yourself out looking for even a phrase that addresses the question:

"The United States strongly condemns the bombing of holy sites. We believe people should be allowed to worship freely. Obviously, there are some who are trying to sow the seeds of sectarian violence. They destroy in order to create chaos. And now the people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice. The choice is chaos or unity. The choice is a free society, or a society dictated by the -- by evil people who will kill innocents. This weekend I spoke to seven of the Iraqi leaders. They understood the seriousness of the moment. They have made their choice, which is to work toward a unity government. The Iraqi people made their choice. Since last December, 11 million people, in defiance of the terrorists and the killers, went to the polls and said, we want to be free."

It is common, of course, for presidents to dodge questions, and at times it might even be prudent; however, at a time when Americans appear increasingly desperate for answers - the new CBS poll says that only 30 percent support Bush's handling of Iraq - the risks of non-responsiveness are bound to increase. Especially when he's sitting there with the Italian prime minister, who is in the process of withdrawing his own troops from Iraq.
And now comes new evidence today - from the U.S. inspector general for Iraq reconstruction - that the Bush administration is to blame for much of the current mess in Iraq. There was "insufficient systematic planning" for the rebuilding of postwar Iraq, according to the inspector general. And according to this report today in the conservative press, even "the Pentagon's initial plans for reconstruction crumbled when it encountered an unexpected foreign and domestic insurgency..." The key word in that sentence is "unexpected."

The politics of abortion, Chapter 10,000

I like South Dakota. I spent a week out there a few years ago, working on a story, and the people were nice, the undulating prairie was bewitching in the spirit of "Lonesome Dove," and the airport outside the state capital was the size of a bus station circa 1959. An easterner can be tricked into thinking that not much happens in such a place. But now, from the hinterlands, comes a potentially big national story.
Thanks to the actions of 50 legislators in a state with 750,000 people, abortion could well become a first-tier national political issue over the next few years. With South Dakota now poised to ban all abortions except those required to save a woman's life - the bill enacted last week needs only the Republican governor's signature, which is expected soon - we can expect a long countdown until the inevitable court case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, everybody in the increasingly fragile Republican coalition will be put on the spot...especially those GOPers who want to run for president.
Remember, the party's conservative grassroots wants all abortions banned, and the first major step toward that goal would be a high court renunciation of Roe v. Wade. The Republican party platform essentially echoes those desires. The South Dakota bill has been designed as a direct challenge to Roe. So, the big question will hang out there for awhile: Do the Republican presidential candidates favor or oppose the South Dakota bill? The conservative base has a new litmus test on abortion.
The early returns are already revealing. John McCain suggested on ABC two days ago that he thought the bill was too restrictive. He hedged a little, saying that he was unfamiliar with South Dakota's "technical" aspects, but he did say that he has always supported abortions in cases of rape, incest, and the imperiled life of the mother (actually, he said the "health" of the mother, but a McCain flak later said that he meant "life").
So, if he was governor of South Dakota, would he veto that bill? He replied, "If that (bill) is in keeping with (his position), yes, but I don't know..."
Wow, did the Straight Talk Express blow a tire? A flat-out endorsement of the South Dakota ban would please many of the social conservatives whom McCain has been assiduously trying to woo -- but it could tick off a lot of the moderates and swing voters who still seem to view McCain as an independent maverick.
Anyway, another '08 hopeful, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, is all for the South Dakota ban. But yet another, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts (the star of my Monday post) is said by a spokesman to be undecided about the ban.
Let the squirming begin.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Mormon factor

I wrote today at length about President Bush and the White House bubble syndrome, here.

But let's look ahead this morning to the post-Bush Republican presidential race of 2008. A very interesting dynamic is developing, with respect to the prospective candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. He is a Mormon, and that could be a problem for a lot of the evangelican Christian conservatives who vote heavily in the early primaries (especially make-or-break South Carolina). This issue came up yesterday when Romney was interviewed on Fox News, and he may not have said enough to defuse it.
Romney could be an important player, first of all. The GOP polls right now favor the better-known John McCain (who is not quite trusted by religious right), Condoleezza Rice (who says she's not running), and Rudy Guiliani (who probably doesn't have a chance because he supports gay rights and abortion rights). Romney is lesser known, but he is a governor (voters like governors, because they have executive experience), he's telegenic, and he's rich enough to keep a primary season candidacy alive. He can also present himself as a guy with crossover appeal to moderates and independents, because he has won in arguably America's bluest state.
But he is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and it's a fact that a lot of evangelical Christians - and particularly southern Baptists in the GOP's strongest region - view Mormonism as a cult that follows extra-biblical works of scripture. So Romney might find his religion to be the greatest challenge for any candidate since John F. Kennedy had to defend his Catholicism in 1960.
This all came up yesterday when Romney was interviewed by Fox's Chris Wallace. Romney at first recited his standard answer, which is that "people in this country want a person of faith to lead them," regardless of "what brand of faith" the leader has. But when Wallace noted the evangelicals' big concern - that Mormons "believe in books of scripture that are outside the Bible" - and asked whether Romney followed those tenets, Romney stonewalled:
"You know, I'm never going to get into a discussion about my personal beliefs and about particular doctrines of my church," because what matters most is the oath of office to "abide by a nation of laws and the Constitution."
Wallace dropped the subject after that. What he could have done, however, was to point out that, in the Bush era, Republican candidates have been openly parading their religiosity; it was Bush, after all, who told an Iowa audience that his greatest hero was Jesus. Wallace could then have asked how Romney expects to successfully navigate the Republican primary season by claiming that the details of his religious faith are essentially nobody's business.
I'll also make a prediction, based on my own belief that popular culture influences our politics and vice versa: A new HBO series, "Big Love," which debuts on March 12 right after "The Sopranos," won't do Romney any favors, fairly or not. The series is about a Mormon fundamentalist sect that practices polygamy; the lead character has three frisky wives. HBO is high on the series, and thinks it will be around for a few years. Wait until the grassroots evangelical conservatives get wind of that.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Hell freezes over

That inconceivable phenomenon has occurred twice this weekend:
A new Rasmussen poll asks Americans the question, Who do you trust more to protect national security - President Bush or congressional Democrats? The results are in: 41 percent say Bush, 43 per cent say congressional Democrats. I know, those numbers look like some kind of optical illusion, and there is only one explanation: a visceral backlash against the administration for approving the deal that puts those six U.S. ports under the management of a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. This is not a guess on my part; the same Rasmussen poll finds that only 17 percent of Americans like the deal.
Yes, this is only one poll. But Tom Bevan, a frequently Bush-friendly commentator, sees trouble ahead for Bush, as he explains here.
It may well be true that the public backlash is somewhat irrational, given the fact that UAE is an ally in the war on terror (despite having recognized the Taliban, and despite its current official position advocating the destruction of Israel). Even Richard Clarke, the ex-national security aide who in his book hammered the Bush team for allegedly poor pre-9/11 preparedness, thinks that Bush is right on the merits of the UAE deal, as Time columnist Joe Klein reports today.
But, at the very least, the White House, its political antennae seemingly on the fritz, has been demonstrably slow in making its case -- conservative commentator William Kristol said on Fox News today, "One has the sense sometimes that the Bush administration is just mailing it in" -- and, more generally, it now appears that Bush is being hoisted on his own petard. He and Karl Rove for years have been invoking 9/11 at every turn; now comes a port deal with a country whose banking system was a key conduit for the 9/11 terrorists.
This explains those Rasmussen numbers. Congressional Democrats being trusted more than Bush on national security? That's certainly not because of anything bold that the Democrats have done (the words "bold" and "Democrats" often don't belong in the same sentence). The Rasmussen numbers are strictly a thumbs-down verdict on Bush -- on his signature issue no less -- and that could spill over onto his congressional allies as they seek re-election this year.

And that's just the first weekend shocker. The second involves conservative analyst Fred Barnes, author of the new laudatory Bush book "Rebel in Chief," which might as well have been written by Rove himself. But now Barnes has written a piece that actually rebukes the White House for being "tardy" on its handling of the ports deal, for "not seeing political trouble on the horizon." His conclusion: "Bush's strength in Congress has significantly eroded...His Republican base is no longer secure." Barnes might need to write a new closing chapter when his book goes into paperback.

I have written a long newspaper piece exploring the question of whether, or to what extent, the president has become too isolated and out of touch - a common occupational hazard, he wouldn't be the first - with helpful input from Republicans and historians. Here's an advance peek (but it's only a partial version) that moved on the Knight Ridder wire today.