Saturday, March 18, 2006

Networking news

I want to thank Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post staffer who tracks politics in his online column "The Fix," for citing me as one of his favorite reporter-bloggers. As you can see here, Chris singled out five blogs written by mainstream political reporters, and what's most interesting is that four of those blogs are authored by teams of people who share the workload. On Chris' list, yours truly is the only one going it alone.
So if I post something really lousy in the future, allow me to chalk it up right now to fatigue.

It's Jack's world, we just live in it

Caution: If you are not hooked on the TV show "24," and if you don't greet each of life's dilemmas with the thought, "What would Jack Bauer do?," then this post may not be of interest. However (as Jack might say), THERE'S NO TIME TO EXPLAIN, but all viewers of "24" are required to read to the very end, NOW! RIGHT NOW!
As someone who believes that American politics and American popular culture are inextricably linked, I can't help but wonder about the apparent sea change in the subliminal ideological thematics of "24" this season.
As any fan of the show well knows, until recently the Fox entertainment division seemed intent on mirroring the rightward tilt of Fox News, by depicting our hero Jack as a one-man torture crew who viewed the Geneva Convention as a pact for wimps; last season, he even juiced his lover's estranged husband, using wires ripped from a lamp. (The guy turned out to be innocent, but, naturally, Jack's lover has forgiven him.) I also recall, from last season, that a thoroughly meddlesome human-rights attorney from an Amnesty International-type group showed up at an inopportune moment to argue for the rights of suspected terrorists (who apparently had him on speed dial). Then there was the Arab family next door that really did turn out to be a terrorist cell, thus giving the lie to all that liberal politically-correct concern about racial profiling.
It was no wonder that veteran conservative activist, and former presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan could write so glowlingly about "24," chortling a few months ago that Jack's liberties with torture are mirrored by President Bush's priorites in the war on terror:
"The left may be right on the law (governing torture), but the people seem to be standing by Bush. Believing the character of this war, where the enemy's preferred tactic is to slaughter civilians with terror bombings, people seem to agree that we have to follow Jack Bauer's rules, not ACLU wonders what liberal Democrats of the ACLU variety would do to a real-life Jack Bauer?"
But hang on -- something new seems to be happening this year.
The entire plot appears to hinge on a neoconservative plot gone awry. A cabal of super-patriots inside the administration - embodied by White House aide Walt Cummings, who hung himself (or so we think) a few "hours" ago - hatched a conspiracy to extend American hegemony into central Asia. The idea was to manufacture an actual terrorist incident, and sacrifice Chechen rebels in the bargain, in order to give the U.S. a pretext to step in, put freedom on the march, and seize the region's oil for the next generation. The whole thing backfired, and now the Chechens (we think they are Chechens, there's always the possibility of a new Mr. Big) are retaliating by aiming their nerve gas at American targets.
In other words, this plot is about the dangers of misplaced U.S. patriotic overzealousness. And the idea of using pretexts to seize a region's oil...that's an accusation about the Bush administration that you can find on any placard at an antiwar rally.
But there's more: now we have a new character, a vice president who wants to boss around the president and circumvent the Congress at the same time. The veep wants to unilaterally declare martial law in Los Angeles, and he argues forcefully - to the point where the new conscience of America, the First Lady (who is off her meds but thinking clearly), has to remind her husband that he should not allow himself to be bossed around by the number two guy.
No need to put a shotgun in this veep's hands. We get the reference.
So I am just wondering. Is "24" mirroring the new political zeitgeist - tilting a bit leftward at a time when Bush and Cheney are down, after years of tilting rightward when Bush and Cheney were up? The only clue comes from the executive producer, Joel Surnow, who recently told the Washington Times that the show has both liberal and conservative writers. I suspect that the long-suffering camp is now in ascendence. Maybe it's just all about expanding the audience, beyond what the WashTimes calls its "conservative cult following." Whatever the shift in theme, it would appear that the new season of "24" brings a new wrinkle to the Fox notion of being "fair and balanced."

Friday, March 17, 2006

The modified limited hangout route

For those of you who are not as old as I am (my congratulations), the title of this post is a phrase uttered back in the '70s, during the Watergate scandal. A Nixon aide coined it as a synonym for a partial mea culpa. It sprang to mind this morning when I read David Frum's latest observations of his old boss, President Bush.
Ex-White House speechwriter Frum wrote a book a few years ago extolling Bush as "The Right Man" for the era. But now he's wrestling with that judgement. He does take note of what he calls "doubts and disappointments in (Bush's) performance," and says that performance has demontrated "the president's sometimes over-hasty decision-making, his disinclination to ask sufficiently probing questions, his aversion to detail, the overcentralization of decision-making, his often surprisingly poor personnel decisions, his unwillingness or inability to explain himself as fully and convincingly as a president ought."
But, for Frum, there's still a silver lining: "we need to remember how many of the problems of today originate in the drift and weakness of the 1990s."
Let's see...who was president during the '90s...of course! Whatever Bush's failings might be, in then end, it's all Bill Clinton's fault.

But lest anyone think that I am a reflexive Clinton defender, allow me to dispel the notion. It's not my job to build up or knock down Hillary Clinton's '08 presidential candidacy, because a journalist's first priority is to follow the facts where they go. The fact is that many Democrats are privately nervous that Hillary's past baggage might be too heavy for a future White House bid -- and this story in Editor & Publisher, a journalism magazine, demonstrates the point.
H0llywood gumshoe Anthony Pellicano, fresh from prison, has cut quite a swath in Tinseltown's seamy underside, as reported here and elsewhere. But, as E&P points out, the major media have said virtually nothing about Pellicano's long ties to the Clintons, in whose employ he cleaned up various "bimbo eruptions" during the '90s, including spreading false information about Gennifer Flowers. As E&P says, "Did the current front-running Democratic Presidential contender Hillary Clinton hire or direct any or all of Anthony Pellicano’s activities in her particular known area of interest? You have to totally lack journalistic curiosity or be brain dead to miss an opportunity like this."
Bimbo eruptions...the '90s...maybe this is what Frum meant by "drift and weakness."

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Unsullied by experience

This is no big surprise, coming from the leadership team that is averse to admitting error:
The Bush administration said today that the 2002 Bush Doctrine – which argued for the right to initiate wars against imminent foreign threats - is alive and well in 2006, and unsullied by the ongoing furor over whether Saddam Hussein was truly an imminent foreign threat.
As articulated in the new National Security Strategy (a government document required by law and updated every few years), the Bush Doctrine essentially "remains the same," despite the fact that the Iraq experience has arguably demonstrated the pitfalls of initiating war on the basis of flawed WMD intelligence. As chief weapons inspector David Kay admitted two years ago, "we were all wrong."
Some of the fine print in the new document appears less assertive than in the previous document, which was unveiled in September 2002. The old document said that America reserves the right to launch hostilities against "emerging threats before they are fully formed. " The new document says that if America is facing a potentially "devastating" WMD attack, "we cannot afford to stand idly by as grave dangers materialize."
It seems to me that the new wording establishes a stricter rationale for a preventive attack; in practice, however, these could be distinctions without a difference.
Moreover, the administration does not believe that its failed prewar WMD claims have undercut the Bush Doctrine. The new report does acknowledge that those prewar claims were a tad off base; nevertheless, it argues that we can never be 100 percent certain about the information that is used to justify a preventive war.
As the new report puts it, "there will always be some uncertainty about the status of hidden programs, since proliferators are often brutal regimes that go to great lengths to conceal their activities."
Here's the problem with that argument, as it applies to Iraq: it's highly misleading.
Paul Pillar, who until last year coordinated Middle East intelligence for the CIA, writes in a recent Foreign Affairs article that the Bush administration decided ahead of time that it wanted to invade Iraq, and that "intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made."
Secondly, even though the new Bush Doctrine report says that brutal regimes will always seek to hide their WMD activities, it doesn't mention what actually happened in the case of Hussein. As another new Foreign Affairs article points out - it's authored by three military analysts for the U.S. Joint Forces Command- Hussein actually went to great lengths to conceal the fact that he didn't have WMDs anymore, because admitting he was weapon-free would have looked like a sign of weakness. In the author's words, Hussein "found it impossible to abandon the illusion of having WMD, especially since it played so well in the Arab world."
It's conceivable that the Bush war planners didn't know that back in 2002, when they were assessing the Hussein threat. But it's striking that the updated Bush Doctrine does not acknowledge what Hussein actually did, nor acknowledge the possibility that brutal regimes might be bluffing rather than concealing.
By the way, here's a little light reading, an article contradicting the administration's view that the doctrine lives on. It argues that there's intramural GOP skirmishing over the doctrine's future. I saw no skirmishing last weekend when GOP bigwigs met in Memphis, but that means nothing. Substantive foreign policy issues are generally the province of the wonks who work behind the scenes; most Republicans at this point are standing with Bush on Iraq; and one doubts that "Amend the Bush doctrine!" would be a catchy political slogan on the stump.

Latest dispatch from inside the Bush bubble

At the White House yesterday, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan was asked whether the Bush administration might consider it wise, at this point, to shake up the team a bit and bring in some new blood -- in other words, to do the kind of thing that presidents generally do, especially when they are winning plaudits from only 33 percent of the American people (see the latest Pew poll, which I linked yesterday).
McClellan took great umbrage at that such an impertinent suggestion: " There's a perception out there on the part of the American people that Washington tends to get caught up in a lot of this parlor game, and they tend to get caught up in all this babble, process-oriented stuff. I think the American people want us to stay focused on their priorities."
Well, the source of that impertinent suggestion, the source of that "babble," was none other than Norm Coleman, the Republican senator from Minnesota, who had been personally recruited by President Bush to run for the Senate seat in 2002. Coleman had told the Associated Press yesterday that the White House had a political "tin ear," and that a shakeup might be wise.
But still no changes are contemplated, even though one-time Bush titans continue to get dissed by people who normally defend the administration. Witness David Brooks, the conservative commentator, who this morning described Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld thusly: "a formerly intimidating figure who now just seems pathetic."
Rumsfeld, by the way, told Congress the other day that his war-gamers are now busy scenarioizing about the theoretical paremeters of a possibly future civil war in Iraq -- a war that does not now exist, he quickly added, because nothing is happening that mirrors the severity of the American civil war.
Just wondering: since Rumsfeld isn't going anywhere, will the American experience be his sole frame of reference for Iraq?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The donkey kicks itself again

Watching the Democrats fight amongst themselves during the past few days, I am reminded of a line uttered by Michael Corleone in the third Godfather movie: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
Just when the Democrats thought they were out in the clear, hammering away at an increasingly unpopular president and his increasingly anxious Republican party, now comes an incident that has pulled them back to their more familiar turf, where disunity reigns.
Their senator from Wisconsin, antiwar liberal Russ Feingold, is pitching a bill to censure President Bush for his domestic spying plan - and his Senate Democratic colleagues have responded by running so far from Feingold that you'd swear had bird flu.
They're all saying the same thing - "I haven't read the bill" - which is Washingtonese for "Get this guy and his wacko ideas away from me, before the Republicans beat us up."
Then there are the grassroots liberals, who love what Feingold is doing and who basically think that the party's Washington leaders are risk-averse wimps with no instinct for the jugular. The liberal wing believes that the timing of a censure is perfect, because Americans, as evidenced in the polls, are generally more critical than ever before about Bush's stewardship of Iraq and the war on terror.
As one Daily Kos blogger wrote today, "The atmosphere is ripe for accountability" -- while lamenting the Democratic establishment's response to the censure idea: "It's like we're watching the Boston Tea Party, with Feingold struggling to toss case after case into the water, while Democrats calmly watch from afar as they sip on their Lipton." Another liberal analyst, Matt Yglesias at the American Prospect, said: "I don't really see why Democrats would feel the need to be walking on eggshells here. An opposition party, faced with an incumbent who's sunk so low, could use a little swagger in their step."
Indeed, the new non-partisan Pew poll released today, reports that only 33 percent of Americans are pleased with Bush's performance (the lowest Pew rating of his entire presidency) -- and he's supported by only 26 percent of independents, a stat that puts him in Dick Nixon territory. It's true that Bush has roughly half the country with him on the domestic spying program, but there are still strong concerns about whether it's legal. So, says the Feingold camp, why not take a stand on principle? (It's not purely a matter of principle, actually. Feingold is interested in running for president, and the censure move is one way to warm the hearts of the antiwar liberals who dominate the early Democratic primaries. On the other hand, every move made by anybody in Washington is a mix of belief and self-interest.)
The problem, however (at least as Feingold's critics see it), is that politics is also about timing and momentum. The Democrats had the momentum last week and over the weekend, thanks to Bush's myriad woes and the worries of his followers. Feingold broke the flow and allowed the Republicans to get off the mat and crank up the old arguments about Democrats playing fast and loose with national security. Moderate Democratic blogger Joe Gandelman says we should "look at the chronology of where the White House was, what polls were showing, how Republicans were scrambling to distance themselves from the White House, amid signs that the GOP base was starting to sour on Bush, and the not-good-news-for-Bush topics of news cycles. Feingold's proposal shifted all of that..."
True, some of the Republicans' retaliatory arguments are not accurate; Bush spokesman Scott McClellan, referring to the censure proposal on Monday, said "if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, it's their right" -- yet not a single Democrat is on record arguing any such thing.
But clearly the Democratic leaders don't want to give the GOP any opportunity to shift the focus away from Bush and onto them. The Feingold bill has scrambled the focus. Now the Democrats can either stand with Feingold, and be forced spend valuable time defending themselves (however effectively) - or they can stay away from him, and wind up incurring fresh wrath from the liberal netroots.
There is a ray of hope here for Democrats, though. The ongoing GOP strategy is to paint the Democrats as lefty extremists, and they're trying to do it again, by linking everyone to Feingold. By doing that, the GOP then seeks to size the center and paint itself as the party of the American mainstream. But it's the independent voters who define the mainstream, and since, as Pew reports, only 26 percent are happy with Bush, that ship may have already sailed.

Heckuva job, Claudie

The case of Claude Allen, the former Bush domestic policy advisor who has been arrested and charged with committing fraud at least 25 times at a Target store, is basically a personal tragedy with no political resonance. Just because a guy who helped craft the State of the Union speech allegedly spent his spare time conning money out of a retail chain, that shouldn't be held against President Bush, or cited as fresh evidence of administration incompetence.
But hang on a second. The Claude Allen affair has thrown a fresh spotlight on the personnel decisions of the administration, particularly the documented ways that it frequently tries to insert its people into critical jobs for which they are not qualified.
Katrina, of course, exposed the fact that Michael Brown's qualifications to helm FEMA consisted of his previous tenure at the International Arabian Horse Association. Last month, we also had the case of George Deutsch, the NASA official who was preventing the agency's top scientists from publicly discussing global warming; it turned out that 24-year-old Deutsch's qualifications consisted of working hard on Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, and graduating from Texas A & M (wait, no, it turns out that he never graduated, despite what his resume said).
This brings us to Claude Allen.
Tracing the arc of success that brought him to the West Wing, we find this little nugget: Bush in 2003 tried to make Allen a federal judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Guess how many times Allen, as an attorney, had acted as lead counsel in a case? The answer: One time. And guess how many years he had practiced as an attorney? Seven and a half -- not even close to what the American Bar Association considers to be the minimum number of years (12) for a qualified judicial nominee. On the other hand, Allen was a born-again Christian who favored a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and who had worked as a press secretary to Senator Jesse Helms and, in that capacity, had once charged a Helms opponent as being aligned with "the queers."
The Democrats ultimately scuttled the appeals court nomination, on the grounds that he wasn't qualified.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Quote of the day

Thank you, Jerry Falwell, for clearing that up:
"Earlier today, reports began circulating across the globe that I have recently stated that Jews can go to heaven without being converted to Jesus Christ. This is categorically untrue."

The delusions of Deanworld

While immersed in Republican politics this past weekend, I missed another fascinating Howard Dean interview, which aired Sunday on CNN. At one point, the Democratic party chairman said this: "We are much more united than we appear in the newspapers. And I think -- as often happens -- small differences of opinion get blown up as newspaper articles."
This is the Dean equivalent of President Bush's claim that freedom is on the march in Iraq; in other words, it bears little resemblance to reality.
For instance:
1. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is on record supporting troop withdrawals from Iraq, yet her own top deputy, Stenny Hoyer, is on record opposing troop withdrawals from Iraq. I guess, under the Dean definition, that this qualifies as a "small" difference of opinion.
2. One of the top Democratic operatives, Harold Ickes, has launched his own national grassroots project - a computerized data base of rank and file Democrats nationwide - because he doesn't think that Dean's Democratic National Committee can pull it off. And he's in the process of raising $11 million or more to defy the DNC. As the Washington Post noted, in its report last week on this ambitious project, "Ickes and others involved in the effort acknowledge that their activities are in part a vote of no confidence" in the Dean operation. Asked about this by CNN, Dean replied, "I would disagree with Harold." But under the Dean definition, this too is a "small" difference of opinion.
3. The news today is that a rich antiwar liberal Democrat, cable television entrepeneur Ned Lamont, will challenge Democratic senator Joe Lieberman in a Connecticut primary this summer. Lamont will get fundraising help from the liberal netroots, which wants to purge the party of politicians it deems to be "Republican lite." The verdict on one prominent liberal blog yesterday: Lieberman is "a cruel, callow, weak little man. He needs to go." Lamont's main beef: Lieberman's support for the war in Iraq. Yesterday he called Lieberman "George Bush's favorite Democrat." He also said that, with the war issue front and center, "We're going to fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party."
I am old enough to remember the Vietnam war, and how it divided Democrats into hawk and dove camps. But under the Dean definition, this too is a "small" difference of opinion.
4. Check out the various Democratic reactions to antiwar Senator Russ Feingold's attempt yesterday to officially censure President Bush over the domestic spying program (Feingold: "The president has violated the law, and Congress must respond"). The liberal netroots community thinks the censure is a great idea, but the entire Washington Democratic establishment (which is loathed by the netroots) thinks that censure is a bad idea, because it might prompt moderate swing voters to think that the Democrats are acting like Bush-bashing extremists.
As Marshall Wittmann, an analyst who works at a centrist Democratic think tank, said on his blog today about the Feingold censure move, "At a time when the Democrats had seized a national security issue (the ports deal), a donkey came to the elephant's rescue with a dramatic over-reach....When will the lefties learn?"
Feingold fired back this afternoon with a swipe at all the fellow Democrats who left him high and dry: "I’m amazed at Democrats, cowering with this president’s numbers so low. The administration just has to raise the specter of the war and the Democrats run and hide."
Under the Dean definition, this too is just another of those "small" differences of opinion.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Fact versus nostalgia

On the way out of Memphis, I wrote a print column about John McCain and his embrace of old for George W. Bush, a necessary step in McCain's plan to woo the grassroots conservatives who have been hostile to him since the 2000 campaign. It's a bit of a mystery to me why those folks don't like McCain, given his overwhelmingly conservative voting record. Check out Paul Krugman's NYTimes column on that topic today. I'd link it, but he is behind the subscription wall.

Now, onto my other topic of the day:
Move, over Elvis. In Memphis this past weekend, there was another dead person who got the full hero worship treatment. Let's go right to the quotes.
Tennessee Republican party chairman Bob Davis: "Ronald Reagan once said..."
Tennessee congresswoman Marcia Blackburn: "Ronald Reagan was absolutely right..."
Ex-congressman J.C. Watts: "Ronald Reagan, in the decade of the '80s, he said..."
Virginia senator George Allen: "When Ronald Reagan was president..."
Kansas senator Sam Brownback: "I met Ronald Reagan once..."
House speaker Dennis Hastert: "What can you say about Ronald Reagan?"
You get the idea. Reagan seems more alive to these people than the guy who currently sits in the White House. It's not a good sign for the GOP, however, that they are wallowing in so much nostalgia; it means they are uncertain about the future, uncertain about how to close the gap between their convictions and their governing performance.
The problem, however, is that they spent three days worshipping the Reagan myth, not the Reagan record. They lauded Reagan as a small-government tax cutter, but there was nary a word about factual reality: Federal spending rose by 25 percent during Reagan's tenure, the size of the federal workforce actually grew, the only major agency that he managed to eliminate was the Civil Aeronautics Board, and he raised taxes in 1982.
Did I forget anything? Oh yeah, the size of the federal deficit (which Reagan denounced in his first unaugural as a threat to "our future and our children's future") actually doubled between 1980 and 1988.
The fact-challenged nostalgia encompassed a whole range of subjects. Brownback lauded Reagan as a pro-life icon (each person "is a sacred child of the living God...Reagan believed that as well"), yet nobody seemed to remember (or chose to remember) the actual truth, which is that Reagan as president never gave more than lip service to the anti-abortion movement. He never showed up at their annual rallies, preferring to phone in his greetings.
As conservatives at the time used to say, "It's not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it's just that he does not understand the ones he has."
Maybe the best evidence of GOP cognitive dissonance is the fact that Ronald Reagan's name adorns the Washington building that houses more federal bureaucrats (more than 5000) than any other place in town.
It's human nature to airbrush the flaws of a hero; the Democrats do this all the time with John F. Kennedy. But perhaps the Republicans could chart a more realistic future course if they adopt a more hardheaded view of their own past.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

One of those worthless rituals

My Sunday column on the weekend's big Republican confab is here, featuring the '08 presidential hopefuls and their delicate dance with the current White House occupant.
But I didn't bother to discuss one sideshow aspect of this Memphis event (although I plan to mention it in print, and in passing, tomorrow). The Republicans held a "straw poll," supposedly designed to measure the level of sentiment for the early '08 prospects.
Oh please.
It's a nice way for grassroots activists to give a little feedback to the process; it's also inevitable fodder for the political journalists who breathe this stuff 24/7 and who are perpetually ravenous for any numbers that might measure anything. But history demonstrates that these exercises are basically a waste of time.
The term "straw poll" is apparently attributable to a 17th-century thinker named John Seldon, who wrote, "Take a straw and throw it up into the Air — you may see by that which way the Wind is." The problem is, the American straw polls seem to suggest that the wind always blows every which way.
For instance, if straw polls meant anything, we would have seen President Pat Robertson. The religious right leader won the Iowa straw poll of 1987, basically because he organized the most people to show up. (For easy identification purposes, they wore revolving lights on their heads.) Robertson wound up fading fast in the 1988 primaries.
And if straw polls meant anything, we would have seen President Alan Cranston. The charismatically-challenged Democratic senator won the Wisconsin straw poll of 1983, largely because he was a peace candidate at the height of the nuclear freeze movement. Cranston wound up as an early dropout in the 1984 primaries.
One could go on. George H. W. Bush won a Maine straw poll in 1979, and was beaten by Ronald Reagan a year later. Texas senator Phil Graham also won a Main straw poll, and never got anywhere close to the nomination.
It all comes down to who can pack the house or hand out the most goodies. Steve Forbes finished second in the 1999 Iowa straw poll (it was perhaps the high point of his '00 campaign), in part because he had the best food and the best hospitality tent. The tent, as I recall from being there, featured French doors.
So that brings us to the Tennessee straw poll last night. Maybe it's sheer unmitigated coincidence, but the first-place finisher in Tennessee was the senator from Tennessee, Bill Frist. His victory had little to do with his speech, which was easily the most tepid of all the '08 hopefuls. No, his victory can be attributed to the three busloads of loyalists who were brought in from nearby towns. So if you see the MSNBC website headline today that reads "Sen. Frist passes first test for 2008," you might want to ask, "What test? That he can pull 526 straw poll votes - 36.9 percent of the total - on his own home turf?"
But if I was compelled to annoint somebody who did well, it would be Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. He finished second (14.4 percent), in a region where he is arguably little known. That should give him bragging rights for a day or so.