Friday, August 04, 2006

Congress' message to workers making $5.15 an hour: rich people should keep more of their money

Well, the GOP's latest political brainstorm flopped on Capitol Hill yesterday. But maybe the Republicans can spin it successfully on the campaign trail anyway.

As I noted here the other day, congressional Republican leaders had a problem. They have never liked the idea of raising the $5.15 minimum wage; in fact, they hadn't raised it once during the past nine years. After all, raising the minimum wage has long been a Democratic issue. But some of their own Republican lawmakers -- moderates in the Northeast, for example, people with tough re-election races -- were clamoring for a wage hike, because they wanted to show working people in their districts that Congress is actually doing something to address their bread and butter concerns.

So GOP leaders came up with a clever strategy: they essentially told these moderates, as well as the Democratic lawmakers, that if they wanted the wage hike, they also had to accept (in the same legislative package) the conservative pet proposal that would hamper or bar Uncle Sam from taxing the billions of dollars that rich people intend to leave to their heirs. In other words, GOP leaders said in effect, "If you want to throw a few more dollars to average working stiffs, you've got to let the rich keep a lot more of their money." Or, as GOP congressman Zach Wamp of Tennessee told Democrats the other day, as he trumpeted the party's tactic, "You've seen us really outfox you."

Well, maybe not. It turns out that the Senate yesterday rejected the package yesterday; only a handful of Democrats went for the deal, and a couple of Republicans broke ranks and voted no. Somehow they didn't think that approving a wage hike should be tied to a cut in the estate tax, which, according to one study, would have slashed government revenue (for social programs and other needs) by $700 billion in the next 10 years.

So all that's left is the autumn spin war. Republicans will cite this incident as evidence that Democrats are obstructionists who don't want to help working people if it means handing the GOP a bipartisan victory. And the Democrats will cite the incident as evidence of a "do-nothing" Republican Congress that practices cynical politics at the expense of working people.

My prediction? A lot of folks will just tune it all out.

But in the meantime, you can test your political acumen this weekend with Paul Slansky's latest Bush trivia quiz. Fun for the whole family.

Can Joe survive a slaughter that hasn't happened yet (and may not even happen)?

There's no escaping the likely political impact of a decisive Joe Lieberman loss in the Connecticut Democratic primary next Tuesday. I'm heading up there on Sunday for the home stretch, and, as I mentioned yesterday, all signs seem bleak for President Bush's favorite Democratic senatorial hawk.

Antiwar challenger Ned Lamont was a blip on the radar screen just three months ago, a rich guy and a political novice whose most striking trait (to borrow a line from Connecticut radio host Colin McEnroe) seemed to be his facial resemblence to The Cat in the Hat. But today, with polls suggesting that he might actually thrash Lieberman by double digits, thanks to a galvanized antiwar Democratic turnout, talk has already turned to what the political world would look like next Wednesday morning.

For starters, a Lamont rout would roil the Democratic waters nationwide; elected Democrats in all but the reddest states might well conclude that it's politically smart to be outspokenly critical of the war in Iraq. Yes, Connecticut is a blue state, and its primary is open only to Democratic voters. But nationwide polls now show that independent swing voters are nearly as critical of the war, and nearly as hostile to the Bush administration's "stay the course"credo.

And what about the fate of Lieberman himself? He has already vowed not to accept a thumbs-down verdict from his Democratic voters, promising instead to run in November as an independent. But seasoned observers over the past 24 hours have been suggesting that, if he is seriously trounced next Tuesday, he would face serious pressure to fall on his sword, shelve his November plans (which would create a three-person race), and clear the field for Lamont to face the GOP candidate.

Here's a take on that situation, via Political Wire, from Connecticut columnist and ex-state senator Kevin Rennie: "State Democratic leaders are now trying to figure out how to dissuade Lieberman from carrying on as an independent. The first formal shot should come at a unity press conference (next) Wednesday. If he wins the night before, Lamont will find himself surrounded by dozens of Democratic leaders now pledged to Lieberman. No one can see how Lieberman will save himself from a stunning rout on Tuesday and they’ve stopped trying to figure it out."

And another, from non-partisan Washington analyst Stuart Rothenberg: "A resounding Lamont victory would make it very difficult for Democratic elected officials (and for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee) to stick with Lieberman in a three-way...The primary result would create an entirely new dynamic in the race, undercutting Lieberman’s support for an independent bid and putting pressure on him to exit the race gracefully. That doesn’t mean the Senator couldn’t win a three-way race, only that early polls showing him with a commanding advantage in a three-way contest are meaningless. Lamont’s general election numbers would immediately spike and Lieberman’s would drop, and the Senator’s prospects for victory in November would be uncertain."

Lamont may be a big-league rookie, but I bet he isn't entirely pleased with the fact that everybody who wrote him off this spring is now writing him up as a big winner before anyone has even voted. The bar is being set so high all of a sudden, that now even a narrow Lamont victory (say, three points or less) might be spun by the Lieberman forces as sufficient grounds for staying the course and fighting on this autumn.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What, me rosy?

My dictionary defines delusion as "a false belief strongly held, in spite of invalidating evidence." In other words, a government official is delusional when he insists on believing and stating a falsehood that is demonstrably disproved by factual reality.

Exhibit A: Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, who was recently lauded by President Bush for "doing a fine job."

Rumsfeld has been symptomatic in the past. For instance, in September 2003, when he was reminded by a questioner that he had predicted prior to the Iraq war that the U.S. troops would be warmly welcomed by the Iraqi people, he insisted that he had said no such thing: "Never said that. Never did...You're thinking of somebody else." He stuck to his story, even though there was videotape of him declaring, seven months earlier, that "there is no question that they would be welcomed" by the Iraqis, and that the Iraqis would behave like the people in Afghanistan, "playing music, cheering, flying kites."

Fast forward to Rumsfeld's testimony today before a U.S. Senate committee. (Yesterday morning, he said he wouldn't appear because his "calendar" was full. Later, that full calendar magically opened up.) Anyway, while testifying, he told the senators that he had “never painted a rosy picture” about how the war in Iraq would go; in fact, he even insisted that "you would have a dickens of a time trying to find instances where I have been overly optimistic.”

There he goes again, with those symptoms.

From the reality-based community files:

1. His aforementioned kite-flying prediction, uttered on Feb. 20, 2003.

2. His war's duration prediction, on Feb. 7, 2003: "It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.”

3. His WMDs prediction, on March 30, 2003: "We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.”

It's entirely possible, of course, that Rumsfeld simply doesn't remember his past statements. In other words, maybe this is about amnesia, not delusion. I offer the moment on June 26, 2005, when Rumsfeld told Tim Russert on NBC that, prewar, he had given Bush a list of "15 things that could go terribly wrong," such as oil fields aflame and and mass refugees on the road. Yet when Russert asked whether the Defense secretary had cited the danger of a "robust insurgency," Rumsfeld replied thusly:

"I don't remember if that was on there."


So Rummy's rhetorical wanderings aren't exactly new. But there was something new today -- a clear hint of rebellion from the hawkish Republican establishment.

One of the Senate's old bulls, Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner of Virginia, heretofore a staunch defender of the Bush mission in Iraq, today implied at the hearing that the patience of the GOP Congress may not extend to presiding with U.S. troops over an open-ended sectarian civil war.

After a couple military generals said that, yes, a civil war seems to be a growing possibility, Warner said this: "I think we have to examine very carefully what Congress (in 2002) authorized the president to do in the context of a situation if we’re faced with an all-out civil war, and whether we have to come back to the Congress to get further indication of support."

Translation: We Bush allies didn't sign on for a civil war, so maybe the blank check stops here.

Joe's new woes and the politics of flailing

More horrific news for Joe Lieberman today. The new Quinnipiac University Poll reports that the three-term Democratic senator, who nearly became vice president of the United States just six years ago, now seems destined to be humiliated in next Tuesday's Connecticut primary -- in essence, booted out of the party by a decisive share of the state's Democratic voters.

The new figures conclude that 54 percent of likely primary voters are flocking to political neophyte Ned Lamont, the antiwar challenger who has made Lieberman's hawkish Iraq stance -- and, more specifically, Lieberman's staunch support for President Bush on Iraq -- the central issue of his surprising upstart campaign. Lieberman pulls 41 percent. That 13-point gap is a significant setback for Lieberman, who trailed by only four points in the last Quinnipiac poll on July 20.

And a good case can be made that Lieberman's situation is even more dire than these numbers suggest. As Connecticut analyst (and former state senator) Kevin Rennie points out, a primary election held in the heat of August is likely to attract only the most motivated voters -- and, in this instance, a disproportionate share arguably will be the antiwar liberals most angered by Lieberman's Bush-enabling behavior. Rennie and his sources believe that the pollsters are undercounting this cohort. All told, he concludes today, "It's a mug's game for a moderate Connecticut Democrat to try to beat a jazzed liberal in a primary."

I suspect that Lieberman's people are sampling the same numbers, which may well explain why Lieberman has been flailing wildly in recent days, making specious charges against Lamont. He has tried to impugn Lamont for working across the aisle with Republicans during Lamont's brief stint as a Greenwich selectman -- even though Lieberman touts himself as a sensible guy who works across the aisle with Republicans in Washington. Meanwhile, this week, Lieberman is assailing Lamont for being a "millionaire" with vast family wealth, even though Lieberman touts himself as a proud devotee of John F. Kennedy -- a millionaire with vast family wealth, whose father greased his path to power.

But perhaps the best indication of Lieberman's dire predicament is the charge -- circulated by some of his supporters -- that the senator's political critics are motivated in part by anti-Semitism.

I have received emails that attempt to document that charge. Lieberman supporters have managed to cull a few comments posted by bloggers on the Internet. (One example, referring to Lieberman: "...everybody knows , Jews ONLY care about the welfare of other Jews." A second example: "Ned needs to beat Lieberman to a pulp...and define what it means to be an American who is NOT beholden to the Israeli Lobby." Another: "Geez, if Lieberman loses his Senate seat, it may out his multi-million graft as lobbyist for Israel at risk.")

Well, if you troll the Internet long enough, you'll find anything. There's no doubt that a relatively small slice of the antiwar left is hostile to Israel, and little doubt that some of those hostiles extend their enmity to Lieberman. But most Democrats who oppose Lieberman -- because of his stance on the Iraq war -- would hardly be pleased with the insinuation that perhaps they are motivated by anti-Semitism. Indeed, liberal (and Jewish) activist David Sirota argues on his own blog that the anti-Semitism insinuation is "gutter politics."

Unless Ned Lamont decides to bring Mel Gibson into his campaign, I simply see the anti-Semitism charge as further evidence of Joe's woes. Playing the "victim" card is rarely a sign of strength.


Speaking of Mel Gibson (and how can I resist?), I have been waiting with interest to see how conservative commentators would treat the news of his anti-Semitic remarks. Their general take on Hollywood is that it's a left-wing, anti-values cesspool, and they view every left-leaning word and deed from the likes of Barbra Streisand and Michael Moore as grist for the mill. So how would they react when a conservative values megastar -- somebody with a track record of assailing gay people, campaigning against stem cell research, and opposing Catholic Church reforms -- is unmasked as a Jew-baiter? How does that square with the conservatives' stereotype of Hollywood (a place where, in reality, the only ideology is money)?

Well, now we have the answer: Mel is really just another Michael Moore Hollywood liberal.

Columnist Don Feder says that Mel is "chummy" with Michael Moore, who has criticized Israel in the past, so there you have it. Besides, as this conservative blog points out, Mel has even questioned the war in Iraq, just like Moore has (and there's even a picture here of Mel and Michael together).

So there's the solution for conservative discomfit: Lump Mel with the liberals, and the old stereotype remains intact.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Democrats decide that it's safe to say "troops out"

The Capitol Hill Democrats have decided that it is politically safe to oppose the war in Iraq and insist that our fighting men and women be allowed to come home.

In a significant political move, the party's top congressional leaders yesterday put aside their longstanding disagreements over whether America should start pulling out troops or simply stay the course. In a letter to President Bush, they argued, in a rare display of unanimity, that troop withdrawals should begin by the end of this year: "In the interests of American national security, our troops and our taxpayers, the open-ended commitment in Iraq that you embraced cannot and should not be sustained."

More from the letter: "Despite the latest evidence that your administration lacks a coherent strategy to stabilize Iraq and achieve victory, there has been virtually no diplomatic effort to resolve sectarian differences, no regional effort to establish a broader security framework and no attempt to revive a struggling reconstruction effort. Instead, we learned of your plans to redeploy an additional 5,000 U.S. troops into an urban war zone in Baghdad. Far from implementing a comprehensive 'Strategy for Victory,' as you promised months ago, your administration's strategy appears to be one of trying to avoid defeat."

This stance is designed to offer voters a sharper contrast between the two camps during the runup to the '06 congressional elections, with the Democrats as the "start bringing 'em home" party, and the Republicans as the "stay the course" party. Antiwar liberals in the Democratic base have long been urging that the '06 race be framed in those terms.

What's most striking is the fact that the Democrats no longer seem spooked by the notion that they will be judged by the voters as surrender wimps and punished accordingly.

Even top Democrats who, as recently as last autumn, opposed any talk of troop withdrawals -- notably, Senate leader Harry Reid and House deputy leader Steny Hoyer -- signed on to the pullout letter (which doesn't posit a specific deadline for a total exit). This means that the Democratic leaders have scrutinized all the latest polls, and concluded that, because the public is so fed up with Bush's conduct of the war, there is no political price to be paid for urging a withdrawal. Indeed, the latest CBS-New York Times poll suggests that the public is ahead of the Democrats on this issue; last week, 56 percent said they want the U.S. to establish a pullout timetable. And Gallup, posing a slightly different question, reports that 55 percent favor a pullout either immediately or within the next 12 months. (Some liberals, citing this public mood, contend that the new Democratic stance still doesn't go far enough.)

Anyway, the Republicans quickly blasted the Democratic letter yesterday, although they had to adjust their tactics. All year, Bush's lieutenants have assailed the Democrats as indecisive and divided over the war. But now that the Democrats are more decisive and united, the GOP is focusing on its other longstanding argument, that the opposition is "waving a white flag." So the statement yesterday from GOP chairman Ken Mehlman invoked the "cut and run" theme.

The Bush camp is still banking that "stay the course" has broad public support. But the notoriously skittish Democrats would never adopt a "troops out" stance unless they were convinced that a sea change in public opinion has already occurred.

And, by the way, if that has indeed happened, then Bush-enabling Senator Joe Lieberman is cooked next Tuesday in the Connecticut Democratic primary.

"Menendez, Martinez/ Martinez, Menendez/ Let's call the whole thing off" (with apologies to the Gershwins)

I guess the briefers weren't around that day, to instruct President Bush on the fine art of being able to distinguish one Latino male from another, even when one of those males used to work for him.

From an article this weekend in The Washington Post:

"Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), at the White House this spring for a meeting with other senators to discuss immigration with President Bush, was surprised when Bush approached him as the meeting broke up and observed: 'Senator Martinez, you've been very quiet.'

" 'That's Martinez,' Menendez said, pointing to Mel Martinez -- Florida's junior senator and Bush's former secretary of housing and urban development. " 'I'm Menendez.'

"Bush turned bright red..."

Monday, July 31, 2006

Karl, Rudy, wage-hike trickery, and an '08 strategy

Catching up after a long summer weekend:

I note that Karl Rove apparently has a few complaints about journalists. On Saturday, the architect of President Bush's political career delivered a commencement address at the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management, and told aspiring campaign operatives that members of the Fourth Estate (as opposed to people like him) are really to blame for ruining American politics.

While assailing the "cynicism" of political journalists, he lamented "the corrosive role their coverage has played, focusing attention on process and not substance."

OK, I will stipulate that we veteran scribes can be cynical, and that we sometimes focus on the "process" of polls and primary calendars and tactics, etcetera. But being accused of cynicism and corrosiveness by Karl Rove is akin to being accused of anti-Semitism by Mel Gibson.

Cynicism? Corrosiveness? Let's review just a small sampling of past Rove behavior:

1. Rove target John McCain, in 2000, was hit with a whispering campaign which suggested that he was mentally unstable, that he fathered a black child, and that he was too close to gays.

2. Rove target Ann Richards, the Democratic governor of Texas, was beset by rumors, during her '94 campaign against Bush, that she was a lesbian.

3. Rove target Mark Kennedy, a Democratic incumbent judge in Alabama, was hit with rumors, during a '94 state judicial campaign, that he was a gay pedophile.

4. Rove, as a young operative in 1973, ran a GOP seminar that taught other young operatives how to perform dirty tricks.

5. Speaking of dirty tricks...Rove target Kenneth Ingram, an incumbent Democratic judge on the Alabama Supreme Court, was hit with rumors in 1996 that he was a personally vicious individual. It appeared that Ingram was circulating flyers that personally attacked the family of opponent Harold See. In reality, Rove (on behalf of his client, Harold See) concocted the flyers, figuring that the voters would pin the blame on Ingram.

The See incident was thoroughly vetted by Atlantic magazine a couple years ago. Here's an excerpt: "According to someone who worked for him, Rove, dissatisfied with the campaign's progress, had flyers printed up—absent any trace of who was behind them—viciously attacking See and his family.
"'We were trying to craft a message to reach some of the blue-collar, lower-middle-class people,'" the staffer says. "'You'd roll it up, put a rubber band around it, and paperboy it at houses late at night. I was told, Do not hand it to anybody, do not tell anybody who you're with, and if you can, borrow a car that doesn't have your tags. So I borrowed a buddy's car [and drove] down the middle of the street … I had Hefty bags stuffed full of these rolled-up pamphlets, and I'd cruise the designated neighborhoods, throwing these things out with both hands and literally driving with my knees.'
"The ploy left Rove's opponent at a loss. Ingram's staff realized that it would be fruitless to try to persuade the public that the See campaign was attacking its own candidate in order 'to create a backlash against the Democrat,' as Joe Perkins, who worked for Ingram, put it...Presumably the public would believe that Democrats were spreading terrible rumors about See and his family....See won the race."


I note that the conservative backlash against Rudy Giuliani has begun in earnest. The ex-New York mayor, 9/11 icon, and darling of the speaker circuit, had been scoring very well in the GOP '08 primary matchups against all potential rivals, including John McCain. Too well, as it turns out. Now the GOP's conservative wing has moved to take him down a few pegs, before he gains any more traction.

Just check out the Aug. 7 lead of National Review magazine. There, on the cover, is a color photo of Rudy Giuliani in drag -- blonde bewigged and feathered.

He had dressed up for a satirical dinner back in 1997, a spoof of Victor/Victoria; the magazine is virtually inviting conservatives to use it against him. The article, clearly fed by conservative party strategists, lays out all the reasons for laying waste to "America's mayor": He "has regularly marched in the city's vulgar gay-pride parades"; he moved in with a gay couple when he was on the outs with his second wife; he is "thrice married," with a history of paramours; he endorsed Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo in 1994; he once called Ed Meese, Reagan's attorney general, a "sleaze"; he has supported gun control; he and his first wife were second cousins.

This shot across Rudy's bow carries a clear message: Stay out of Iowa, or we'll fit you for that blonde wig all over again.


Yet another example of the GOP's tactical brilliance:

For weeks, the Republicans on Capitol Hill were getting squeezed on the minimum wage issue. The Republicans didn't want to raise it, and the Democrats did. The public seemed to sympathize strongly with the Democrats, given the fact that working people hadn't seen a raise in nine years. Democrats readied themselves to use the wage issue in the '06 elections.

But last Friday, House Republicans pulled a clever switcheroo. They passed a $2.10 hourly wage hike, effective in 2007 -- but, in the same bill, they also voted to repeal the estate tax on the wealthiest Americans. The latter is a GOP favorite, mostly affecting the richest sliver of the electorate. This week, House lawmakers are essentially telling their Senate counterparts: The deal is, you either pass both, or you pass neither.

So now the Senate Democrats are in a somewhat tricky position. They can either vote for the long-sought minimum wage hike and thus deliver financial aid to working people -- or they can vote against the wage hike they have sought, on the grounds that it's unfair to also reward rich people with another anti-tax windfall. And even if they choose the latter, the Senate Republican majority might enact the whole package anyway...thereby leaving the Democrats to look powerless once again, exposing their inability to stop a tax giveaway that will further imperil Medicaid and Social Security funding. It's hard to see how that would please their liberal base, even in the wake of a wage-hike.

On the other hand, if the Senate fails to pass anything, expect the Democrats to tell their voters that the wage-hike trickery is merely the latest manifestation of the GOP's "do-nothing Congress."


Last Tuesday, I mentioned the potential '08 Democratic presidential rivalry between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, and the latter's potential to become the unHillary alternative. Now we have a New Republic magazine article that takes up the same topic, and concludes this about Edwards: "A southern, moderate, antiwar, pro-labor candidate with low negatives and high positives who has already run for president is not a bad combination." The material about Edwards' wooing of labor unions in Nevada (which is set to become an early primary state) is particulary interesting. And since you would need to subscribe to the New Republic Online in order to read the whole piece, I'll excerpt a relevent chunk that deals with his quiet backstage maneuverings:

"Edwards seems to be the candidate making the greatest strides with the labor movement. It all started in 2004 when, trying to differentiate himself from John Kerry after the Iowa caucuses, Edwards attacked Kerry's stance on free trade and tried to scrape together some union backing. Only one union supported Edwards in that short, quixotic bid to overthrow Kerry: the textile union UNITE, which had supported him in his 1998 Senate bid in North Carolina. It has continued to be an important alliance.

"In the summer of 2004, UNITE merged with HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union (it was an ideal marriage: UNITE had money, and HERE had members). After the election, Edwards continued a close relationship with the new UNITE HERE union and especially its general president, Bruce Raynor, who engineered UNITE's 2004 endorsement of Edwards. Union sources credit this relationship with Edwards's current emphasis on poverty and the minimum wage.

"'Raynor and others at UNITE HERE start talking to Edwards about poverty and low-wage issues,' explains one union strategist, 'and someone starts telling him that unions are the best poverty prevention program in America. And Edwards, out of conviction or opportunism or whatever combination drives politicians, buys it.' The upshot is that Edwards has become a darling of the labor left, especially the more modern and progressive unions that represent service employees. And it just happens that one of the most powerful players in Democratic politics in the newly influential caucus state of Nevada is the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which represents 60,000 employees, mostly in the gambling industry, and is an affiliate of the Edwards-friendly UNITE HERE.

"Edwards's success with unions, one of the institutional pillars of Clinton's campaign, has started to rattle Hillaryland. In March, when Change to Win, the new labor umbrella group that includes UNITE HERE and several other large unions, held a convention in Las Vegas, only one prospective 2008 candidate spoke to the group: Edwards. But Hillary Clinton happened to have a friend in town as well: Bill. According to a labor source in Nevada, Clinton's husband flew in and met secretly with seven union presidents at the Change to Win convention. His message: Don't commit to anyone, and give Hillary a fighting chance. A spokesman for Bill Clinton confirmed the meeting took place but says 2008 wasn't discussed."

Hat tip to the magazine's author, Ryan Lizza.