Saturday, April 22, 2006

Politics as usual in six easy steps

Whenever a politician find himself under fire, thanks to his own embarrassing behavior, this is usually what happens next:

1. The pol says he is as clean as a hound's tooth and insists that his enemies are merely out to get him.
2. People don't believe him, and pressure mounts for the pol to quit whatever prestigious post he occupies.
3. The pol vows not to leave the prestigious post he occupies. The leaders of the pol's party vow to help him fight the unfair attacks.
4. Pressure continues to mount, and finally the leaders tell the pol that he has to go. The pol still refuses, vows to fight to the bitter end.
5. The pol quickly gives up his fight vow, even though he still says the attacks on him are baseless. He announces his surrender late on a Friday or Saturday, hoping to minimize press coverage.
6. The party leaders put out a strong statement of support for the pol that they had just pressured to quit.

This is the usual Washington drill, and the Democrats completed all six steps last night, in the case of Allan Mollohan. (A Friday night, naturally, in order to minimize press coverage.) The capper, as you will soon see, was a statement by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi that falls several notches short of honesty.

For weeks, pressure had mounted on West Virginia congressman Mollohan, who apparently is quite ethics-challenged, to give up his seat on the House Ethics Committee. It was getting very embarrassing. The Democratic leaders want to paint the GOP as the party of corruption in 2006 -- yet, as I mentioned a few days ago, their top Ethics guy used special-interest loopholes to steer $250 million into five nonprofit organizations which then hired a number of ex-Mollohan aides for big salary jobs.

He has also worked some suspiciously lucrative real estate deals with an ex-aide who runs one of the nonprofits, and he initially failed to pay real estate taxes. All these acts have been reported in the press, and federal prosecutors in Washington are also scrutinizing his finances. This has all been known for weeks, yet House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (a leading critic of Republican "corruption"), kept insisting there was no reason for Mollohan to give up his Ethics seat.

Then, on Thursday night, she told him to give up his Ethics seat. He resisted, vowed to fight. Yesterday, he gave up the fight, still insisting the charges against him were "baseless." And sure enough, Pelosi said that the man she just booted off the Ethics panel is really just avictim of his enemies. An excerpt from Pelosi's statement:

"The allegations against Congressman Mollohan originate from the National Legal and Policy Center, which engages in highly partisan attacks on Democrats. The attacks are an attempt to deflect attention from the long list of Republican criminal investigations, indictments, plea agreements and resignations..."

If Pelosi's Republican counterpart had issued such a statement, defending an ethics-challenged GOP pol as a mere victim of "highly partisan attacks," she would have considered that to be further evidence of Republican turpitude.

Somehow Pelosi seems to have overlooked the fact that Mollohan's actions had been outed by the Wall Street Journal on April 7 (on the front page, where nonpartisan, professional reporters do their best work), that a U.S. attorney is scrutinizing the congressman, and that mainstream newspapers such as The Washington Post have been calling for Mollohan to step down since last weekend.

Meanwhile, it's true that the National Legal and Policy Center is conservative, but that doesn't mean its work should be automatically dismissed as dishonest -- any more than's campaigns should be dismissed as dishonest just because the group is liberal.

This whole episode, and Pelosi's defensive reaction, is further proof that the Democrats may not have an easy time parlaying their anti-GOP "culture of corruption" message into votes next November. To a lot of Americans (or, at least those paying attention), the Six Steps outlined above might seem like just more bipartisan politics as usual.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The perfect issue for gasbags

I awoke today to see this story, about how the Democrats are eager to exploit rising gasoline prices as a campaign '06 issue, and my reaction was:
Dream on.

This issue pops up in the spring and summer of every single election season -- gas prices inevitably spike as car-dependent Americans prepare to hit the road -- and politicians from the "out" party always convince themselves that they have been handed a gift. They love the gas issue because so many Americans love their cars. So they try to pin the blame for high prices on the incumbent party...and nothing happens.

Warm-weather anger never translates into autumn votes; the amnesiacs in the Democratic party don't seem to even recall the recent past.

Consider the spring of 2004, when John Kerry tried to hang the average $2.06 per gallon price around President Bush's neck, by lamenting Bush's refusal to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (a phony charge anyway, because such a move would have slashed prices by only a few pennies, as President Clinton discovered in 2000, when he released 30 million barrels). In 2004, other Democrats joined in by painting Bush as a do-nothing tool of the oil companies. Yet somehow I don't remember this issue playing much of a role in the November results.

No doubt, in the weeks ahead, the Republicans will retaliate by contending that the Democrats are to blame for high gas prices because the "obstructionists" barred oil drilling in the Arctic refuge. But that will be a phony charge as well, because Bush's own Energy Department concluded several years ago that any price drop triggered by new domestic oil would be "negligible." Meanwhile, today, the GOP decided that the best way to handle the gas price hike issue was to resurrect the fact that many Democrats voted to raise the federal gas tax. So they put out a press release. Those Democratic votes 1993 and 1996.

The point is, presidents and political parties can't control the pump price of gas. Voters sense that there is no way to strictly assign partisan blame. Anyone who picks up a newspaper can see that the biggest global factor driving up gas prices is the burgeoning demand for oil in the fast-developing economies of China and India.

And as Democrats seek to exploit this issue at GOP expense, let's see whether they will point any of the blame at the gas-guzzling American consumer. Not likely, since gas-guzzling consumers vote. Checking a news website the other day, I saw two headlines: gas prices are going up...and Detroit is expecting a big sales year for SUVs.

Which reminds me of a story. This comes from John Zogby, the pollster. He told me a few years back, "My son and I just went to a book party for Arianna Huffington. She waxed eloquent about the pitfalls of SUVs, everybody listened -- and when we left, maybe 11 SUVs were parked outside, waiting to pick up guests. Point is, you can't call on Americans to sacrifice during a...campaign. That's a loser."

So is the gas issue itself.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

And this is a Republican talking

So how should we best assess all these staff changes at the White House? Will they make a big difference, and help President Bush find his mojo again?
Peggy Noonan says that won't happen - not unless the guy at the top engages in some cosmic soul-searching of his own.

Noonan, the famous Republican speechwriter who crafted key phrases for Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush, makes that argument in a column today. Her reservations about the younger Bush are, shall we say, politely rendered. You don't have to be a genius to read between the lines. Key excerpts:

"Mr. Bush's feelings, assumptions and convictions set theme, direction and mood....When he won't budge, the White House won't budge. When it clings to an idea beyond evidence and history, it is Mr. Bush who is doing the clinging. When he stands firm, it stands firm...
"(H)e puts severe limits on the number and kind of people who can (advise) him. He picks them, receives their passionate and by definition limited recommendations, makes his decision, and sticks. All very Trumanesque, except Truman could tolerate argument and dissent. They didn't pass the buck to little Harry, they threw it at his head. Clark Clifford was in in the morning telling him he had to recognize Israel, and George Marshall was there in the afternoon telling him he'd step down as secretary of state if he did. It was a mess. Messes aren't all bad...

"George W. Bush, on the other hand, does not tolerate dissent, argument, bitter internal battles....Bruce Bartlett has written of how, as a conservative economist, he was treated with courtesy by the Clinton White House, which occasionally sought out his views. But once he'd offered mild criticisms of the Bush White House he was shut out, and rudely, by Bush staffers. Why would they be like that? Because they believe that as a conservative, Mr. Bartlett owes his loyalty to the president. He thought his loyalty was to principles.
"There are many stories like this, from many others. It leaves friends on the outside having to self-censor or accept designation as The Enemy. It leaves a distinguished former government official and prominent Republican saying, in conversation, 'Those people aren't drinking the Kool-Aid, they're sucking it from a spigot!'

"(S)ometimes the bravest thing is to question yourself, question the wisdom around you, reach out, tolerate a hellacious argument, or series of arguments. Yes there is a feeling of safety in decisiveness, but if it's the wrong decision, the safety doesn't last. And safety isn't the point in any case. Governing well is. That involves arguments. It means considering you may be wrong about some things. This isn't weak--it's humble. It's not breaking, it's bending, tacking, steadying yourself in a wind."

Noonan says a lot more in this vein. Her point, of course, is that major staff changes are "irrelevent" if The Decider proves incapable of changing himself.

By the way, on a related front:
The pollsters at Fox News announced today that President Bush is now supported by only 33 percent of the American public. That's a record low in the Fox poll, which has measured Bush's appeal since 2001. The Fox low, in fact, is lower than the lows recorded lately by Gallup, ABC News-Washington Post, and the Pew Media Center.
I expect that this finding by Fox News will thoroughly confuse and disorient those Americans who assume that such a dire statistic could only be an "MSM" "lie."

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Beam up the next Scotty

On the occasion today of Scott McClellan's resignation as White House press secretary, let us briefly travel back in time to this classic exercise in stonewalling, as performed by the president's top flak:

"I'm not going to parse that (presidential) statement....I'm just not going to parse the statement for you, it speaks for itself...I'm not characterizing it beyond what the statement that I've already issued says...You can stand here and ask a lot of questions over and over again and will elicit the exact same answer...I'm not leaving any impression, David, and don't twist my words...I'm here to represent the thinking, the actions, the decisions of the president. That's what I get paid to do....I didn't write the statement..."

Sounds just like McClellan, right? It has to be McClellan, right?
That was Michael McCurry, press secretary for President Bill Clinton, on the afternoon of January 21, 1998. The news about Monica Lewinsky had just broken, and the president's lawyers had handed McCurry a statement contending that Clinton had never engaged in any "improper relationship" with the intern. Basically, McCurry was sent out there to lie (he didn't yet know it was a lie), to stand at the podium and let the press pound him as if he was a pinata.

In other words, that's often the nature of the job. Even McCurry, a longtime Democratic strategist who socializes with political reporters, knew that. All administrations, Democratic and Republican, lie or conceal, on rare occasions or with frequency, for good reasons or bad -- and the chief flak-catcher, whether he is in the know or out of the loop, has the thankless task of dancing at arm's length with the truth. On worldwide TV. In streaming video.

Ron Ziegler did this for Republican Richard Nixon during Watergate (he's the one who initially called it "a third-rate burglary attempt"). Bill Moyers did this for Democrat Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam, until he got bleeding ulcers and quit in 1966, telling his wife that "no man can serve two masters," referring to the president and the press corps.

So, in the institutional sense, it is not surprising that Scott McClellan's rocky ride has come to an end, and that his credibility is in tatters (notwithstanding President Bush's heckuva-job-Brownie statement today, praising McClellan for a "job well done"). The adversarial climate in the White House briefing room has been notoriously inhospitable, ever since the '60s. Even Bill Clinton, a Democrat trailed by a supposedly Democrat-friendly press corps, had three press secretaries during his eight years.

But this is not to suggest that all press secretaries are equally burdened by the job, or that their failings are equally distributed. They all operate (and most depart) under circumstances that are unique to their respective tenures. And, in McClellan's case, it was hard to imagine that he would ever go the distance, not with his particular marching orders.

Yes, McClellan did max out on his credibility in the traditional sense. He had insisted in 2003 that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby were "not involved"in the outing of CIA employe Valerie Plame, then he was forced to stonewall in 2005 when it turned out they were indeed involved. Most recently, he was compelled to argue that if Bush leaks classified material (in this case, to defend his war in Iraq), then it's in the "public interest," but if anyone else leaks, it's a threat to national security. And earlier this month, when the Washington Post found fresh documentary evidence that some of Bush's WMD claims in Iraq were groundless, McClellan's response was to dismiss the evidence as "old news" and demand that the press apologize.

But McClellan's mission was not to merely evade or spin information in the traditional sense. His core purpose was to be the point man for an assertive, even revolutionary, White House effort to delegitimize the mainstream conveyers of the news. And whoever replaces McClellan will play the same role.

As indicated in numerous reports, particularly here and here, the Bush administration has sought to treat the mainstream press as just another troublesome special interest group, to reduce its role as a semi-official participant in the nation's governance.
Jay Rosen, a press watchdog and journalism professor at New York University, wrote last summer: "I believe the ultimate goal is to enhance executive power and maximize the president's freedom of maneuver - not only in policy-making and warfare, but on the terrain of fact itself." And writer Ron Suskind, after interviewing top Bush officials, said in an interview that they clearly want to create "a culture and public dialogue based on assertion rather than authenticity, on claim rather than fact."

That's the key to assessing McClellan. His job was to contest or deny the "terrain of fact," the empirical evidence, as traditionally defined. Examples:

1. In the face of evidence last September that the Bush administration had responded sluggishly to the Katrina crisis (behavior that was later assailed in a House Republican report), McClellan simply offered an assertion: "Flood control has been a priority of this administration from Day One."

2. In the face of evidence last June that the Iraqi insurgency was not in its "last throes" (as Vice President Cheney had insisted), McClellan simply asserted that it was: "We're making great progress to defeat the terrorist and regime this is a period when they (insurgents) are in a desperate mode."

3. Sometimes, when cornered, he used to catch a breather by calling on Jeff Gannon. Remember Jeff Gannon? He seems so 15 months ago. Jeff Gannon was the fake name used by the real James Guckert, who wrote for a fake news service that was, in reality, an offshoot of a conservative activist website called GOPUSA. McClellan would call on "Gannon," a friendly softball would be lobbed his way, and McClellan would say, "I'm glad you brought that up, Jeff." Gannon became Exhibit A of the administration's rather expansive view of how the press should be defined. (I wrote about the Gannon case in some detail last year.)

In all likelihood, the new Scott won't differ much from the old Scott, not as long as the basic mission remains unchanged. Perhaps the successor's personal style will be different. One prominent conservative blogger said today that he hopes the new flak will be a tougher customer ("it's probably wishful thinking to imagine that the President would appoint someone who would take a more combative attitude toward the White House press corps"), but somebody like Dan Senor, an ex-Bush spokesman in Iraq, would be seen as a great leap forward in articulation skills.

But no matter who gets the job, the adversarial dynamic will remain the same. It was Mike McCurry, back in his crisis days of 1998, who opened a press briefing with these words:
"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the theatre of the absurd."

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Why he stays

It's almost a waste of time to ask the question, "Will Rummy survive?"
Because it seems like a slam dunk that he will.

President Bush, in all likelihood, will stick with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for several fundamental political reasons:

1. If he dumped Rumsfeld, that would be tantamount to giving himself a devastating thumbs-down review. The war in Iraq is Bush's signature issue, the issue on which he will be judged by historians. If he removes the Pentagon chief who prosecuted that war, he would be telling the American people that the war itself was ill-conceived, or, at the very least, poorly executed. And, in terms of political damage, the buck would stop in the Oval Office.
All told, the firing would be a gift to the Democrats. (Conservative commentator John Podhoretz agrees, here.) Just imagine what the Senate confirmation hearings for Rumsfeld's successor would be like. Those hearings would become a stormy, high-profile examination of the Iraq war. In an election year, no less.

2. If he dumped Rumsfeld, those who are sympathetic to the dumpee would come forward to contend that the Defense secretary was being scapegoated. They would argue that, yes, Rumsfeld's longstanding crusade at the Pentagon (to develop a lighter, more mobile, more high-tech military) may have helped fuel his resistence to a larger ground game in Iraq and his relative lack of interest in postwar security issues....but they would point out -- rightly -- that Rumsfeld had only been trying to enforce the priorites established by the Bush team.
The fact is, candidate Bush gave a speech in 1999 calling for a lighter, more mobile, more high-tech military that would be focused on winning wars, not nation-building. That speech was drafted by a coterie of conservational national security think-tankers who had spent the Clinton era developing their ideas; by 1999, they had already attached themselves to Bush. Rumsfeld was not yet a member of the team. But he was ultimately tapped to carry out the team's vision.
So, again, Rumsfeld's removal would be widely perceived as a negative reflection on Bush.

3. If Bush dumped Rumsfeld, it would send a message that the Defense secretary's most credible critics were right. It's one thing to dismiss antiwar protestors like Cindy Sheehan, and to paint them as members of the so-called "loony left." It's a bit tougher to dismiss critics from within the ranks of the military, some of whom fought in Iraq.
The administration's most effective retort, thus far, is that these decorated dissenters are publicly imperiling the tradition of civilian control of the military. If Bush dumped Rumsfeld, he'd be giving up that argument. And there are plenty of conservatives -- defenders of tradition -- who would not be happy with Bush for doing that. The GOP needs their votes in November.

By the way, on a related topic:
It's not hard to see why top administration officials gravitate toward the conservative press when it's time to give interviews. Rumsfeld did a stint yesterday on Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Never mind Rumsfeld's answers, they were predictable. Just sample some of Rush's questions, none of which seem to honor the old adage that the press should afflict the comfortable:

RUSH: "You were being hailed as a sex symbol in Washington (six years ago)...Today it's a far different circumstance, and it's a great illustration of just how things work inside the Beltway. What does it feel like to you to go through these ups and downs and to have practically the entire media jump on the case of these six generals demanding your ouster?"

RUSH: "...with the (Iraq war) news that you just gave us, it's much better there than it's being reported, and I assume that you're optimistic about the final outcome."

RUSH: "How would you describe the process and the progress there?"

RUSH: "I try to share with my audience as often as possible that people like you and the president know far more than the public knows about any number of events, simply because it's not possible for the information that you learn to be shared nor should most of it, and yet that would have to force you at some point to say, 'You know, we do have an anti-war crowd and they're loud and they're being affected by our enemy. But the American people, some of them, just don't know what we know,' and you have to stick with what you think is right, and that's where the whole democratic process I would think becomes challenging for you because you have to make a judgment: 'Do what's right or we listen to the people?'"

RUSH: "I met you a couple weeks ago in New York and I forgot to tell you something. I had so many people -- as I mentioned I was going to be at the Marine dinner, and I had so many people -- in my audience tell me to be sure to tell you how much they love and respect what you're doing. So let me do it now."

RUSH: "Mr. Secretary? Can I please follow you outside, and personally wash your limo?"
(OK, he didn't say that one. But he might as well have.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Rewriting history for Rummy

Once again, it's fact-checking time.
A Bush administration defender tried yesterday to support the embattled Donald Rumsfeld by again denigrating Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff who had stated in prewar testimony that the occupation of Iraq would require several hundred thousand soldiers.

Shinseki is obviously a sore subject for Rumsfeld's defenders, given the fact that he was hustled into early retirement after stating his view (which contradicted Rumsfeld's smaller troop estimates) to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. So when former Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Richard Myers appeared on ABC yesterday, and the Shinseki testimony was brought up, he basically insisted that Shinseki had dreamed up his troop estimate on the spot.

Myers said: "I’m just saying that General Shinseki was forced to make that comment under pressure, pulled a number out.…He was forced to make — say a number. He said a number."

Myers was factually inaccurate. Shinseki had chosen that number because it was widely substantiated elsewhere.

For starters, here's Ret. Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq. He said on television the other day:
"You know, there’s a process within the Department of Defense, a very deliberate planning process which goes into each contingency and deliberately analytically develops war plans. It continues year to year. Our senior (Pentagon) leadership chose to radically modify 12 years of very deliberate planning with respect to Iraq. Previous planning identified the requirement for three times the level of forces that we committed into Iraq to take down a regime and then build the peace."

Another source: The bestselling book Cobra II, a detailed military history of the prewar planning. Pages 101-2, in particular.
Steve Hawkins, a brigadier general assigned to the Joint Staff and charged with postwar planning, briefed Shinseki during the same week that Shinseki visited the Senate committee. From the book: "Shinseki asked him how many troops he thought were needed to secure Iraq after Saddam was toppled. Hawkins said that no fewer than 350,000 coalition forces would do, and (possibly) half a million."

Most important, the authors concluded: "For all of the controversy, Shinseki's numbers were similar to those generated by CENTCOM," a reference to U.S. central command.

Fresh denigrations of Shinseki aren't likely to inspire the military dissenters to clam up.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The good reverend's seal of approval

A postscript or two about John McCain, whose rightward repositioning was analyzed today in a newspaper column by yours truly:

McCain's "electability" as a presidential candidate hinges on the assumption that he can still attract a large crossover vote from independents and Democrats. Certainly that was the case during the 2000 GOP primaries; non-Republicans flocked to McCain in both New Hampshire and Michigan, where the rules permit crossover voters. But it's not a cinch bet that he can attract a significant share of those voters as the GOP nominee in 2008 - especially if those voters view the erstwhile straight shooter as a spin doctor for the religious right.

One of his new best friends, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, appeared on CNN today, and it would not be surprising if Falwell's lavish praise for McCain winds up in a Democratic video somewhere down the road. In Falwell's words:

"You know, John McCain is a strong conservative. He's pro- life....His view on family is just where most conservative Christians' views are...And he and I are friends now. And he is speaking May 13."

The latter is a reference to McCain's upcoming appearance as a commencement speaker at Falwell's university in Virginia. The previous two speakers were Karl Rove and Sean Hannity.

It's too early to say whether McCain's popularity among independents and Democrats will be jeopardized by the fact that he is now "friends" with a guy who has declared that the 9/11 attacks were God's retribution for America's tolerance of gays, lesbians, and abortion doctors. Maybe McCain's many repositionings won't matter at all in the end; after all, he's taking all these steps two years away from the election, when the vast majority of Americans probably aren't paying atttention.

But I wonder what accounts for the slide in his popularity, vis a vis Hillary Clinton, over the past two months, as measured by a respected polling operation. Here's what nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook, who runs the Cook Political Report, wrote yesterday:

"In two Cook Political Report/RT Strategies polls - one taken in late February and the other in early April - McCain received 18 percent of the self-identified 'liberal' vote when matched up against Clinton. But will one in five liberals still support McCain if he continues to assiduously court conservatives? In the latest Cook/RT Strategies poll, which was conducted April 6-9 and has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percent, McCain's lead over Clinton among all adults dropped from 10 points (47 percent to 37 percent) to 5 points. Among registered voters, it dropped from 12 points (48 percent to 36 percent) to 9 points (46 percent to 37 percent). While these shifts aren't huge, the McCain-versus-Clinton spread should be watched closely in coming months..."

Cook seems to be suggesting that McCain's drop might be attributed to his rightward repositioning. I think it's way too early to state it with certainty. Perhaps Cook will find something more definitive later this spring, after McCain appears at Liberty University, sharing the stage May 13 with the man he once assailed as an "agent of intolerance."