Friday, March 10, 2006

What, you have something better to do on Sunday?

There won't be a Saturday entry, due to the workload at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference here in Memphis, where various '08 presidential hopefuls are peddling their wares. I am also scheduled to be busy eating a large amount of fried and barbecued food.
However, I am scheduled to assess the Memphis event and the GOP situation during a guest appearance on C-Span, 8:30 am EST. on Sunday morning. Tune in. Why should I be the only one getting up nearly?

The marketing of fear

So the Dubai ports deal has collapsed. It is a vivid testament to President Bush's current political weakness - and the flaws in his post-9/11 rhetoric.
The White House pulled the plug because its ostensible Republican allies on Capitol Hill no longer march to Bush's command. When the deal first surfaced in the press, Bush's defense was that he didn't know about it. Then, while still apparently knowing little, he immediately told Congress to bring it on: if it moved to block the deal, he'd veto it. Congress moved to block the deal anyway, voting 62-2 in committee. Guess who blinked. In the words of a Republican consultant who writes on the conservative website, Republicans on many issues are now treating Bush as if he was "a diseased person who is possibly infectious."
One big irony of this debacle, however, is that the United Arab Emirates is probably the most pro-western, America-loving nations in the Middle East. One factoid might be of special interest to my fellow Philadelphians: the chairman of Dubai Ports World is a graduate of Temple University who still has a yen for Philly cheesesteaks. One of my Republican contacts, strategist Rich Galen, told me recently, "Dubai looks like Disney World. It's not a bunch of terrorists running around and shooting AK47s into the air."
The problem, however, is that Bush since 9/11 never educated the American public about the distinctions among Arabs. They were all grouped together as enemies who "hate our freedoms."
There was a fundamental difference, for example, between Iraqis and the al Qaeda terrorists, but, through his rhetoric, he repeatedly allowed Americans to blur those distinctions, to the point where a substantial percentage of people truly believed that the 9/11 plot was hatched in, and financed by, Iraq.
No wonder the grassroots erupted at the news of the Dubai deal. Perhaps the fears of Americans were not justified. Perhaps Republican congressmen were not justified in their arguably kneejerk reactions to those fears. But this administration has been on record since the 2002 election season with the argument about eternal vigilance against faceless foreign enemies. It's too late now to put a friendly face on the UAE. The Bush team has reaped what it sowed, to its own political detriment.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The shelf life of politicians

As I truck on down to Memphis today (wow, I sound just like Elvis) to attend the Southern Republican Leadership Conference and hear from a slew of 2008 presidential hopefuls (oh well, so much for Elvis), I can't help but recall the last time I hung out at one of these confabs. Then, as now, the purpose was to watch GOP presidential hopefuls in action. But with a bit of perspective, it's clear these events are often a primer on the short shelf life of ambitious politicians.
I went to the SRLC meeting of 1998. We in the press, along with a thousand Republican activists, gathered at a casino hotel in Biloxi, Mississippi (that hotel no longer exists, courtesy of Katrina), ate a lot of barbecue chicken, and assessed the rhetorical efforts of the GOP notables who were thirsting to succeed Bill Clinton in the White House.
The people we heard from included:
Dan Quayle.
Steve Forbes.
Lamar Alexander.
Jack Kemp.
John Ashcroft.
See what I mean when I say short shelf life? None of those guys wound up being big players in the 2000 race. John McCain didn't show up, and nobody had an inkling about him anyway. And George W. Bush didn't show up either, and I remember a party consultant saying "he's busy running for re-election in Texas, and we want to be loved, up close and early."
So instead we had Quayle, who made Bill Clinton jokes ("The centerpiece of my anticrime policy is 'three interns and you're out!"); Forbes, the flat tax missionary, who was working on not sounding robotic while trying to pander to the religious conservatives in the hall; Alexander, who was everybody's third or fourth choice, and looked like the guy who played Patty Duke's father on the old Patty Duke sitcom; Kemp, who jabbered nonstop and ended with a lament about how he wouldn't live long enough to ski with his grandson's future children; and Ashcroft, who walked around with a sonogram photo of his future grandchild in utero. (Ashcroft dropped out not long after, went back to Missouri to seek a new Senate term, and literally lost his re-election race to a dead person.)
The point is, beware the burnout factor, and the absentee factor. But at least John McCain is coming to Memphis, to face some of the same southern Republicans who spurned him in 2000. That's a decent story. He'll try to win them over without forfeiting his maverick profile. He'll walk the line.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Another bite of apple pie

There are some things in this life that you can always depend on: a fresh steroid scandal in baseball, a new Van Morrison album every year, a "Sopranos" rerun marathon on HBO, a vow from Democrats that they will soon unveil an agenda, the four-cheese pizzas at Trader Joe's...the list is long.
And here's another item for the list: the GOP's flag desecration issue. From Senate Republican leader Bill Frist's office, in a press release yesterday:
"The American flag is a proud and sacred reminder of the principles of freedom and opportunity that form the foundation of our Republic. Our flag reminds us that there is more that unites us as Americans than divides us, and a constitutional amendment will give one of our Nation's proudest and most treasured symbols the protection it deserves. It honors the sacrifice of countless brave men and women who died defending our flag and the ideals it represents. I look forward to bringing the Flag Protection Amendment to the floor at the end of June so we can debate legislation that respects one of the principal symbols of our nation, and appropriately honors the sacrifice and commitment of all those who've acted to protect it."
Yes, it's that durable evergreen, the Flag Protection Amendment. This is how we know that the springtime buds are about to bloom, and that an election season looms: the Republicans decide to go after the national epidemic of flag-burning, and dare the Democrats to demonstrate their lack of patriotism by opposing it. The Senate vote, as always, will be timed to occur somewhere around July 4.
Maybe what's different this year is that the Republicans fear they have ceded some ground on the patriotism front because of their president's port deal.
But that aside, there's nothing really new to say about the flag flap -- as evidenced by this comment from a Republican strategist named David Murray, extolling the issue's political potency: "It's real simple. Get 10 people in a room, other than ACLU types, and ask them if they'd cross the street to punch out somebody who's burning the flag. In a campaign context, anyone saying 'the right of free expression comes first' is saying, 'I'm for legal flag-burning.' Very risky."
He made that remark to me. The year was 1990.

No liberal triumphalism today

It's a bad news morning for liberals everywhere. Tom DeLay, indicted but unbowed, has easily won the Republican primary in his Texas district, which means that he gets to run for re-election against a Democrat in November. Three GOP rivals were trying to knock him out of renomination (see my March 4 post), but clearly the fallen House Republican leader still retains the loyalty of the conservatives in his district who are most motivated to show up for a primary.
Those loyalists wanted to send a message to their perceived antagonists in the outside world. When I saw the vote results, I remembered something that a DeLay diehard said to me last year, when I spent a week in the suburban Houston district. Terese Raia, a feisty red-headed grandma, said: "Just the idea that the Democrats and the media will try to determine who will win or lose next year in our congressional district, that's the most frightening thing in the world. What they tried to do to President Bush, now they're trying to do it to Tom. It's pathetic."
But a triumphant DeLay (for now, anyway) isn't the only disappointment for liberals this morning. They had set up a purity test in a south Texas Democratic primary, a national test for Bush-hating bloggers and activist, but they lost big time.
In a heavily Hispanic district that stretches from San Antonio to Laredo, the faceoff pitted incumbent congressman Henry Cueller, a moderate Democrat, against a challenger, liberal Democrat Ciro Rodriquez. Grassroots liberals nationwide, using the Internet to raise money, backed Rodriguez. They wanted to knock off Cueller, who they viewed as a "DINO" (an acronym for "Democrats in Name Only)," because Cueller had worked with House Republicans on several big issues, and -- this was the worst sin of all -- because Cueller had allowed President Bush to affectionately grab his cheeks in the aisle of the House, prior to the Jan. 31 State of the Union speech.
Liberal activists had hoped to spin a Cueller loss as evidence that any consorting with Bush was political suicide, and that anti-Bush sentiment is a powerful political force. The latter might still turn out to be true in the '06 November elections. But there was no boon in south Texas last night, because political realities often foil a simple story line. There's a strong military presence in that particular district - where the heavily Hispanic electorate backed Bush in the '04 elections by six percentage points.
In this polarized era, there are still a few moderate Republicans and Democrats left in Congress, people who are willing to work with the other side sometimes. Cueller stays on that roster.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Shootout at credibility gap

One big reason why the Bush administration is having serious credibility problems - a new national poll reports that 55 percent of the people view President Bush as untrustworthy - is because its leaders keep contradicting each other on Iraq.
You have the happy talkers, like Bush ("we're making progress," he said again last week) and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Peter Pace (the war in Iraq is "going very, very well, from everything you look at"). But you also have the gloom and doomers, like Bush's ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, who now declares in a newspaper interview that the toppling of Saddam Hussein opened "a Pandora's box" of sectarian and ethnic tensions and violence.
Strangely, I don't recall, back in the prewar phase, that anybody in the administration was warning of a Pandora's box being opened.
Anyway, Bush also told an ABC reporter last week, "I don't buy your premise that there's going to be civil war." (Actually, that wasn't her premise, she was merely asking a what-if question, but never mind.) But whereas Bush was basically dismissing any talk of civil war, his own ambassador is now talking up that possibility.
The "potential is there," said Khalizad, and if another major incident occurs, equivalent to the bombing two weeks ago of a Shiite Muslim shrine, then "Iraq is really vulnerable to it at this time, in my judgment."
It's a sign of trouble when the Bush team's vaunted message discipline falters so blatantly.
And I'll stop here with a question:
A new argument these days, among many Bush supporters, is that anyone in the press who raises the possibility of civil war must, by definition, be rooting for civil war. Would they suggest that Khalizad shares that sentiment?

Abandoning ship..with a Ralph Reed addendum

Bill Thomas is not a household name - actually, it sounds like a name found in any household - but it's an important name in politics this morning. There's a Bill Thomas serving in Congress, a very powerful House leader who has advanced the Bush agenda since 2001, but now he has announced that he will not run for reelection in November.
What's significant is that he's merely the latest congressional Republican to announce his retirement, thereby fueling more talk about whether GOP lawmakers are starting to rush for the exits, in anticipation of a Democratic takeover on Capitol Hill in the sixth year of President Bush's increasingly embattled tenure. That's certainly what happened to the Democrats in 1994, when Bill Clinton's woeful initial performance inspired as many as 30 congressional Democrats to abandon ship (and we know what happened that November: enter the Newt Gingrich majority).
Naturally, the Democrats right now are acting gleeful about the prospect of more GOP retirements - three have been announced during the past two weeks - because retirements create open seats, and open seats (theoretically, anyway) are more ripe for the taking than seats defended by incumbents who have all the incumbent advantages, such as money and name recognition. With Thomas stepping down, there are 26 open seats -- 17 of them abandoned by Republicans. If Democrats can pick up 15 House seats in November, they take over the chamber.
But that's tougher than it sounds, even with these GOP retirements. Thus far, virtually all of the retirees hail from districts that are solidly Republican - voters in Thomas' California district gave Bush 68 percent of the vote in the '04 presidential election - so it's hardly a cinch for Democrats to turn those seats.
The future, however, may be brighter, if (as many predict) incumbent Republicans from more competitive districts decide to bail out in the months ahead. That could hinge on whether Bush's standing continues to slide, along with the prospects for succeess in Iraq, and along with the prospects for quick closure in the Jack Abramoff case.
Abramoff, the conservative idealogue who morphed into a super lobbyist and confessed felon, is still a wild card whose ties to the Republican majority may still provide fresh embarrassments -- check out the third and fourth paragraphs of this story -- for certain vulnerable incumbents. Such as Tom DeLay, who faces a competitive primary contest today (see my March 4 posting) and a tough re-election race in November.

And speaking of Abramoff: Another way to gauge his impact on GOP fortunes is keep an eye on Ralph Reed, the former Christian Coalition director who is trying to get elected as lieutenant governor of Georgia. To put it mildly, Reed is an ambitious guy who does not see the number-two Georgia job as his ultimate destination.
But his lucrative financial ties to Abramoff, his pal of several decades, may well trip him up.
Reed must first win a GOP primary in August, and he's facing tough competition from a state senator and fellow conservative, Casey Cagle. Cagle is raising more money than Reed at this point, and a majority of state senate Republicans sent Reed a letter the other day, demanding that Reed quit the race.
Reed hasn't been charged with any crime, but his Abramoff baggage is a big reason why his career plan might go awry; for starters, a U.S. Senate investigation has unearthed stacks of emails between Abramoff and Reed, indicating a close lobbying relationship. Moreover, Reed has been insisting for months that when he signed up in 2000 to lobby against a proposed congressional ban on Internet gambling, he had no idea that his client was an online lottery firm with ties to Abramoff. Yet now comes evidence, laid out here, which suggests that he knew all along. He's still deying it, though.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Are we, or are we not?

While researching my weekend column about our grim options in Iraq on the eve of the third anniversary of war, I had a conversation with former Democratic Senator Gary Hart, who had stopped in Philadelphia to give a speech. Only a fragment of that interview made it into the story, so I've decided to post more of his comments here. On the issue of U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq, he raised an important point that has gotten little public attention thus far:
"Are we or are we not building permanent military bases (in Iraq)? I keep trying to get anybody (in the press) to ask about this..I'll tell you what I mean by permanent: pouring concrete and welding steel. Yes or no? Not tents and ditch latrines. Concrete bases and structures. Yes or no? They (the Bush people) have never disavowed it...You can't say you are leaving Iraq if you're also welding the steel. Any why can't we seem to find out? I know the Republican Congress will not do its job of asking questions, even though that's the job of Congress.
"What are our plans there? The neoconservatives clearly had the idea that we'd put in an Iraqi government hospitable to us, and that we'd use Iraq as our base in the Middle East for the next 100 years. That was the plan. You can't tell me they have totally given up on it. I wouldn't be surprised to pick up the paper in the morning and it says, 'Iraqi government invites us to stay,' and Bush says, 'Gee whiz, they want us to stay there.'"
Hart was pretty passionate about the bases, and he's hardly alone on that. If we do build permanent bases and house some troops there, will it really be accurate to say that we have withdrawn from Iraq? And would permanent bases perpetually inflame the home-grown insurgency that wants the U.S. to go home? Larry Diamond, senior fellow at a conservative think tank and a former consultant to the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq, has been arguing that only an unequivocal renunciation of the idea by the Bush administration will truly neutralize the insurgents' "anti-imperial passion."
There have been sporadic reports that the U.S. has been building at least four such bases; in fact, the Washington Post has already published details of a walled-off facility that features four mess halls, a hospital, a huge airstrip, a miniature golf course, a 24-hour Burger King, a Pizza Hut, a Popeye's, and a store that sells TVs and IPods. There have also been reports of a fifth base in the works, near the Baghdad airport, that, in addition to thick blast walls, would feature a gym, swimming pool, beauty shops and a food court.
When top Bush officials have been asked whether such permanent bases exist in actuality or on paper, they have never issued a blanket ironclad denial. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld reportedly said last December that "at the moment there are no plans for permanent bases," and nine months earlier he told Congress that "we have no intention at the present time to put permanent bases in Iraq."
Because they decline to engage the issue, Bush officials might be passing up the chance to state the arguably positive case for permanent bases (i.e., keeping some troops in Iraq might help shore up the Iraqi unity government - if and when it is created - and prevent the various sectarian factions from launching a full-blown civil war). But while they stay mute on the topic, the critics of permanent bases are dominating the discussion.
Here, for example, is what Democratic congresswoman and defense specialist Jane Harman said at a Brookings Institition briefing on Iraq two weeks ago: "It is critical that the administration make clear that it does not intend to keep permanent military bases there. I've made this point to every moving part of the White House, and the military side of the Pentagon, and certainly including (Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman) Peter Pace. Every time he sees me coming, he says 'I'm working on it.' But it is absolutely critical to tell the Iraqi people - most of whom don't believe this - that we are not going to be permanent occupiers."
As for Pace, he appeared yesterday on two morning shows - Fox News Sunday and Meet the Press. He wasn't asked a single question about the issue of permanent bases.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Mea culpa politicking

John Edwards (remember him? Democratic veep candidate with the Bobby Kennedy forelock?) was on Meet the Press today, talking about his 2002 Senate vote authorizing President Bush to wage war in Iraq. See if you can spot the key word:
"I don't think I was the only one who was wrong...It was wrong...the vote was wrong and my judgement was wrong...saying that my vote was wrong is the truth...I was wrong...I was wrong, absolutely."
That's seven renditions of the W-word, all within roughly 60 seconds, and here's what it means: Edwards wants to run for president in 2008.
I'm not suggesting that Edwards doesn't sincerely regret his '02 vote and that his regrets are not substantive. But it just so happens that there will be a niche in the '08 Democratic primaries for a candidate who does a mea culpa on the war. Liberal antiwar voters want the party's pro-war senators of 2002 to show some contrition before the primaries commence. So Edwards is doing it. John Kerry actually did it before Edwards did, swapping his former Hamlet countenance for eating crow.
There has been so anxiety in Democratic circles about doing the mea culpa; as I wrote in a piece last autumn, some Democrats think that a confession of error would be tantamount to saying that they were easily duped by Bush, and therefore would be perceived as too naive for the top job. They also recall what happened in 1967 to Republican candidate George Romney, who said he'd been "brainwashed" by the military brass while visiting Vietnam, a gaffe that dashed his bid.
Nevertheless, doing the mea culpa will be good politics for any Democratic candidate who wants to harvest votes on the left during the primary season. After all, the first stop in '08 is Iowa, where antiwar liberals can be expected to vote heavily.
And maybe 'fessing up will also be spun as a character issue. Edwards took that route today, arguing that "the foundation for moral leadership is the truth." He's touting the message that admitting a wrong is an attractive contrast to a president who generally insists that he's always right.
Whether that, and an anti-poverty agenda, is enough to establish Edwards as the prime alternative to Hillary Clinton (who has yet to do the mea culpa) is another story.