Friday, September 01, 2006

The new Bush plan for winning over the public: what would Dale Carnegie say?

We’ll keep it short here today, not for TGIF or holiday reasons, but because I’m on assignment for the paper. So let’s focus, almost exclusively, on the latest news concerning the Iraq war and public opinion.

Concerning President Bush’s speech yesterday to the American Legion, and similar addresses earlier this week by Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, it is difficult to see how their arguments will achieve the result that they seek -- namely, a resurgence of public support for the war, hopefully in time for the November congressional elections.

Here is their fundamental challenge:

The swing groups in the electorate are independents and moderates. Every poll reports that most of those folks have long soured on the war; for instance, the latest CBS-New York Times survey shows that 67 percent give Bush a thumbs-down verdict on the war. The Fox News pollsters report that independents in ‘06 now favor Democratic congressional candidates over GOP candidates by a margin of 40 percent to 16 percent. And USA Today, citing its own new polling, reports today that independent voters are swinging toward Democratic senatorial candidates in five states.

Given such sentiments, can the Bush team feasibly expect to win over independents by giving speeches which imply that anyone with serious doubts about this war is merely an appeaser of fascism? To borrow a phrase from Dale Carnegie, is this a politically effective way “to win friends and influence people?”

In the New York Times report this morning on Bush’s speech, the most important comment is attributed to a senior Republican Senate aide: “For (Bush) to move the numbers in a way that benefits congressional Republicans, he needs to reach out to moderates, and it’s difficult to do that when his surrogates are contradicting him and calling opponents of his policy appeasers.”

On one point, this aide is merely being diplomatic: Surrogates Cheney and Rumsfeld were hardly “contradicting” Bush by using the word appeasement. Given the track record of White House rhetorical coordination, it’s more likely that the decision was made to have the surrogates use the tougher language while the boss supposedly hewed to the higher plane.

But again, in terms of political effectiveness, it’s hard to see how Bush can sway public opinion his way by arguing, as he did yesterday, that “if we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities.” He is contending that winning in Iraq will make us safer at home -- but polls already show that most Americans now believe the war is already making us LESS safe at home.

The latest poll by Associated Press-Ipsos Public Affairs reports that, by a margin of 60 to 31 percent, most Americans now conclude that there will be more terrorism stateside because the U.S. invaded Iraq. Moreover, that same poll reports that, by a margin of 47 to 40 percent, Americans now favor the Democrats as the party that would do the better job of protecting this country. And what’s most noteworthy about that poll is the makeup of those who were surveyed: 70 percent described themselves as either moderate or conservative.

Yet perhaps these speeches aren’t even designed to win back the independents (although the endangered moderate GOP congressmen in Northeast districts would be grateful if that goal was achieved). Maybe these speeches are aimed at merely shoring up the conservative base. Because unless those voters are stoked to turn out in great numbers, the GOP is probably doomed in the midterm elections.


Speaking of polls, the survey team at Fox News, hewing no doubt to the network credo about being “fair and balanced,” managed to ask a question that reads as if it was crafted by GOP chairman Ken Mehlman at national party headquarters.

Question #7: “If Democrats win control of Congress in the midterm election, do you think it is more likely that they will spend the next two years investigating and trying to impeach President Bush, or coming up with new ideas to move the country forward?”

But the respondents didn’t take the bait. Forty-seven percent said the Democrats would stress new ideas, while only 30 percent said they’d hound the president. And that spread was more pronounced among swing-voting independents: 48 to 23 percent.


Missed opportunity of the week:

In his NBC interview with Brian Williams the other day, Bush said that he recently read “three Shakespeares.”

Williams whiffed by not asking a follow-up question. For instance,“Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter verse -- true or false?”

Just kidding. Seriously, here was the obvious follow-up: “Which ones, Mr. President? Tell us what they were about, and what themes or lessons you derived from reading them."


Here's a political junkie tip for a rainy holiday weekend: Rick Santorum and Bob Casey, debating this Sunday on Meet the Press. The latest USA Today poll has incumbent Santorum trailing by 18 points among likely voters. If that's even remotely accurate, how will Santorum try to shift the dynamic? Check back here for a critique on Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The war drums are beating on the president's right flank

As President Bush ponders what to do next about the recalcitrant Iranians, he will undoubtedly pay close attention to the rumblings on his right flank.

The neoconservative thinkers who laid the groundwork for the war in Iraq have hardly been chastened by the setbacks that America has faced in that conflict, nor by the fact that the promised weapons of mass destruction never showed up. On the contrary, they are conspicuously vocal these days on the topic of Iran -- and the need, as they see it, for Bush to show some moxie and plan for a new military confrontation.

And they are likely to ratchet up their rhetoric, and prod the White House further, now that Iran has decided to ignore a United Nations deadline to suspend uranium enrichment and hence slow its suspected nuclear weapons program. For instance, the neoconservatives aren’t happy today about the news that the Bush team, in retaliation, is considering only mild sanctions, such as a travel ban. And Michael Ledeen at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday voiced what he calls his “worst fears about the administration. Talk, talk, talk, but when it is time to act, they are still talking.”

And what do they define as action? Enter neoconservative William Kristol, ex-GOP aide and editor of the movement’s bible, The Weekly Standard. His agenda for action includes “serious preparation for possible military action -- including real and urgent operational planning for bombing strikes and for the consequences of such strikes.”

What’s noteworthy is that he wrote those words last April, in the wake of the news that Iran had successfully enriched its uranium. The pressure on Bush’s right flank was intense that month, with cries de guerre in other neoconservative outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal opinion page, and the National Review (the latter called for an “air campaign” coupled with regime change).

Indeed, even though Bush this week is trying to reframe the war on terror as a war against “fascism,” that’s old hat in the neo camp. Last April, Kristol was already doing that very thing, contending that Iran’s nuclear program was akin to Adolph Hitler’s 1936 prewar march into the Rhineland.

There are plenty of foreign policy experts within the Republican camp who view the neoconservatives as too precipitous on the Iran issue; for instance, former Colin Powell deputy Richard Haass believes that anyone who thinks a conflict with Iran would be small or quick is harboring “the most dangerous delusion,” and key Republicans on Capitol Hill have said that the quality of U.S. intelligence on Iran is questionable. James Carafano, an expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said last year that “there are no good military options,” and retired Air Force Lt. Col. Sam Gardiner, a simulations expert at the U.S. Army’s National War College, after scenarioizing a war on Iran, told the Atlantic Monthly magazine nearly two years ago that “after all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.”

There are also plenty of people who think the neoconservatives have forfeited their credibility due to the mess in Iraq. Now that the Sunnis and Shiites are waging what some experts consider a civil war, it’s worth revisiting, for example, a prediction that Kristol made on National Public Radio three years ago: “I think there’s been a certain amount of...pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni.”

Nor does it appear that the neo position is widely popular nationwide. The pollsters at Fox News, querying Americans on Tuesday and Wednesday, asked whether the Bush team should do “whatever it takes to stop Iran -- including military action.” Only 37 percent said yes. Among swing-voting independents, only 32 percent said yes. Even 45 percent of Republicans said no. Those numbers suggest that most people prefer strong sanctions and aggressive diplomatic efforts.

But the neos have multiple media megaphones, and it would be wrong to assume that their influence has diminished, particularly since a key ally and patron remains one heartbeat away from the presidency. And this administration has long demonstrated that it closely monitors the sentiments of its conservative base. With Democrats and independents no longer in the Bush camp, that base is more important than ever.

A few suggestions for the "gloom and doom" party

The national Democrats are fond of saying these days that they’re more united than ever. In terms of their shared antipathy toward President Bush, that’s certainly true. But harmony does not reign otherwise. There are still substantive intramural tensions, not just on issues, but on the best way to communicate those issues. And I’m not even talking about the ongoing party debate over whether it’s politically smart to push for a troop withdrawal timetable in Iraq.

Take, for instance, the party’s checkered efforts to court the average middle-class voter.

It’s a basic truism in national politics that whoever wins the white middle-class electorate wins the election. Care to guess which party has been losing lately?

Two Democratic camps in recent years have often squabbled, at times acrimoniously, about the best way to woo the white middle class: the liberal wing has argued that the party needs to craft a populist message that stands up for the little guy who is getting screwed by the rich and the special interests (big oil, big pharmaceuticals, big corporations that send our jobs overseas); however, moderate and pro-business Democrats have been arguing since the mid-‘80s that such a message is too gloomy and too combative, that most middle-class voters actually aspire to be rich, and that a more sunny, upbeat message will work best with that key electoral cohort.

The last two Democratic presidential candidates tried to straddle these two camps, without much success. Al Gore tried a populist message in 2000 (“the people versus the powerful”), and while it worked with wavering labor voters, it was basically phony, because (as I wrote at the time) Gore himself was hardly a working-class hero. By mid-summer that year, he had raised $30 million from the special-interest sector that he was publicly railing against.

As for John Kerry, he also tried a populist message, claiming that dark economic forces were threatening the middle class, and assailing “Benedict Arnold CEOs” who shipped jobs overseas. But this was somewhat phony too, because (as I also wrote at the time), Kerry had voted in the Senate for free trade agreements such as NAFTA, and he had also taken campaign money from “Benedict Arnold” firms and executives.

So, to review: The last two Democratic nominees adopted populist language that didn’t really suit them...and didn’t attract the white middle-class anyway. The stats say it all: In 2000, George W. Bush beat Gore among white middle-class voters by 15 points; that same year, with those same voters, Republican congressional candidates beat their Democratic opponents by 14 points. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry among those voters by 22 points, and congressional Republicans won them by 19 points.

Hence, the internal Democratic debate about how to woo the middle class is still very much alive. The latest salvo was launched this week by a trio of Democratic activists who believe that something is fundamentally wrong when the party that styles itself as the champion of the middle class can’t even win over white voters who make between $30,000 and $75,000 a year. (And that's quite a non-achievement, considering the fact that, as the polls indicate, the Republicans are still widely viewed as the party of the rich.)

Writing in a new publication, The Democratic Strategist, the authors, all of whom have ties to a new group called Third Way (which bills itself as “a strategy center for progressives”), lowered the boom on the party’s penchant for populist rhetoric:

“Democrats must first realize that they have a problem -- no, actually a crisis -- with the middle class....(In 2000 and 2004) we got slaughtered among the white middle class....Folks, if bashing rich people, the oil industry, and the drug companies were an effective political strategy, jets would be landing at Michael Dukakis National Airport in Washington.”

Anne Kim, Adam Solomon, and Jim Kessler are basically contending that the Democrats should quit their rhetoric about powerful forces threatening the little guy, because, they say, the little guy is actually an optimist by nature, and tend to respond more favorably to a sunny, aspirational message. The kind of message that the GOP has virtually trademarked since Ronald Reagan.

They write: “Whether it's the ‘people versus the powerful’...or John Kerry's ‘Benedict Arnold companies’ where American workers see their factories ‘unbolted, crated up, and shipped thousands of miles away,’ the Democratic economic message is pervasively pessimistic. Democrats see the American Dream fading, the middle class being squeezed, jobs disappearing, schools crumbling, and wages stagnating. That is not the way middle-class Americans view their own lives.” Basically, they say that modest wage earners aren’t motivated by resentment against the rich; rather, these earners want to BE rich.

The Kim-Solomon-Kessler argument is bound to enrage many Democratic liberals who would prefer to draw sharp contrasts between the parties and avoid any rhetoric that might sound like me-too Republicanese (such as a sunny Reaganesque message)....although I was somewhat surprised this morning to see a semi-friendly critique on the Daily Kos website.

During the runup to the ‘08 Democratic primaries, we will see this debate play out among the candidates. John Edwards’ “two Americas” message, for instance, appears more populist than Evan Bayh’s middle-class aspirational talk. But the bottom line, for now, is that the Third Way activists have at least defined one of the Democratic party’s core challenges, going forward.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Paraphrasing Rummy, we go to press with the president we have...

We interrupt our normally scheduled broadcast for this brief digression:A spirited and lengthy debate broke out on this blog last Friday, in the comments section, over whether I can or should be ideologically labeled in some fashion. As normally happens in such exchanges, various fuzzy definitions of ”bias” and “opinion” quickly surfaced, and nothing much was decided one way or the other. But thanks to all who sustained that impromptu symposium, especially those who don’t much like this online column, yet continue to read it.

Maybe I can help clarify matters, by framing my own declaration of principles (to borrow a phrase from Citizen Kane): I am a columnist. A good columnist doesn’t just spout opinions off the top of his or her head; rather, he or she does the requisite empirical reporting, then makes professional judgments based on the facts. (I addressed some of these issues in a June post, and that post was discussed on Monday, here.)

And it is natural that a good political columnist, empowered by the rigors of inductive reasoning, will focus most intensely on the people in power. Right now, the people in power happen to be Republicans, and they have amassed a track record. It behooves anyone in my position to examine that track record, assess any gap between promise and performance, and fact-check rhetorical claims.

There are many Republicans, and defenders of President Bush, who can’t seem to accept the fact that, if you control all the levers of government, you have to expect to be held accountable by independent voices. They keep talking about the need for more press “balance,” when, in fact, they have spent years working (successfully) to achieve a power imbalance in their favor. Hence, the disproportionate press scrutiny that such an imbalance warrants.

The same yardsticks should apply to whoever has the power, from whatever party. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we go to press with the president we have. Consider, for instance, this passage, from an article that ran on Dec. 20, 1998, at the height of Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal:

“At so many critical junctures, Clinton, whether by instinct or calculation, chose deception and recklessness over candor and restraint - in his deposition and grand jury testimony; in his semantic legalese; in his frontal attacks on independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr; in his early refusal to settle the (Paula) Jones case; and in his willingness to conduct secret trysts with Lewinsky while a sexual-harassment lawsuit was hanging over his head and while Starr and other hostile players were watching his every move.” The piece also rebuked Clinton for “his reluctance to take responsibility, his willingness to deceive, his tendency to see himself as a victim, and his eagerness to please the audience at hand...”

I wrote all that in the Inquirer. The subsequent abuse from Democratic readers and Clinton defenders was considerable. So be it. The facts and track record shaped my professional judgement -- then as now. It’s a disputatious world out there, especially in the increasingly polarized world of politics, and adoration is not part of this job description. I like the credo from J. J. Gittes, the private detective played by Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. As he told his client, “I may not be in business to be loved, but I am in business.”


Now it’s back to business:

President Bush, in the midst of his Katrina redemption tour, made some questionable remarks yesterday in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams. They came during an exchange about 9/11 and its aftermath. The topic was whether Bush had adequately summoned Americans to give of themselves in a spirit of shared national purpose.

Williams asked, “The folks who say you should have asked for some sort of sacrifice from all of us after 9/11 -- do they have a case looking back on it?”

Bush replied, “Americans are sacrificing. (pause) I mean, we are, we are, you know, we pay a lot of taxes. The Americans sacrificed when they, you know, when the economy went in the tank. Americans sacrificed when, you know, air travel was disrupted. American taxpayers have paid a lot to help this nation recover. I think Americans have sacrificed.”

When Williams asked the question, I assumed that Bush would slam-dunk it by simply noting that Americans have already been sacrificing in Iraq (at last check, 2637 dead soldiers and 19,323 wounded) as part of the global terror war. But he went in a different direction, with a response that will no doubt please his restive tax-averse conservative base, but this is where his claims become questionable.

Back in World War II (the war that the Bush administration is now equating with the war on terror), Americans sacrificed by weathering gas, coffee and food rationing. They also flocked to national service programs. Most tellingly, they also paid higher taxes -- as have Americans during every major war.

So here’s what’s wrong with Bush’s comment that Americans are sacrificing simply because they “pay a lot of taxes”:

1. In point of fact, the tax burden on most Americans is actually smaller than it used to be. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities headlined a 2002 report this way: “Overall Federal Tax Burden On Most Families -- Including Middle-Income Families -- At Lowest Levels In More Than Two Decades.” In fact, the study stated, median income taxes for a family of four were at the lowest level in 44 years.

2. Bush, through his tax cuts, has further lightened this alleged American sacrifice. In fact, in the years since 9/11 and the war on Iraq, this spirit of national sacrifice has been eased most for the rich. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the effective tax rate on the top one percent of taxpayers fell by 20 percent between the spring of 2001 and the spring of 2004; by contrast, the effective tax rate for middle-income taxpayers fell during that same period by only 9.3 percent.

3. And even if you want to define paying taxes as the key measure of sacrifice, Americans aren’t sacrificing nearly as much as the rest of the western world. According to the latest data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international group founded in 1948 to help administer the Marshall Plan, married Americans with two kids have one of the lightest tax burdens, when compared to equivalent families elsewhere. Out of 30 democracies, the U.S. tax bite ranks 28th. Only Iceland and Ireland families have it easier.

So maybe it’s the removal of shoes at the airport that should be counted as a true sacrifice.


A hat tip to Jim Geraghty at National Review Online for this one...

Here's Democratic strategist/pollster/firebreather James Carville two years ago, looking ahead to the 2004 presidential election: "If we can't win this damn election, with a Democratic Party more unified than ever before, with us having raised as much money as the Republicans, with 55 percent of the country believing we're heading in the wrong direction, with our candidate having won all three debates, and with our side being more passionate about the outcome than theirs — if we can't win this one, then we can't win s---! And we need to completely rethink the Democratic Party."

Here's James Carville this summer, looking ahead to the 2006 congressional election: "We have to go back to 1974 (during Watergate) to find such a favorable environment (for Democrats). If we can't win in this environment, we have to question the whole premise of the party.''

No wonder the Democrats can't seem to come up with a creative and compelling message. Even their portents of doom are recycled.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Terrorism as the central front in election '06

With each passing day, it becomes increasingly easy to discern the fundamental divide in the '06 congressional elections.

The White House, GOP headquarters, and most Republican candidates will argue this autumn that we are engaged in a global struggle more treacherous than World War II, that the war in Iraq is a front in that global struggle, and that any deviation from this GOP agenda is a sign of weakness. Witness Vice President Cheney's speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada, as well as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's speech yesterday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada.

In the other camp, the Democrats will argue that we are indeed engaged in a global struggle, but that the war in Iraq is a wasteful diversion that weakens our ability to effectively wage that global struggle. And it would appear -- for the moment anyway -- that the Democratic argument is winning.

For the first time, a majority of Americans are telling the pollsters that they do not view the global war on terror as a seamless, one-size-fits-all crusade; rather, they now view Iraq as a distinctly separate issue. That's a renunciation of what the Bush administration has been arguing since 2002. It's hard to see how Cheney and Rumsfeld can advance the administration's argument by preaching to the choir in Reno, as opposed to making the case in crucial swing congressional districts.

Nor is it clear how they can regain lost ground by recycling old lines. (For instance: Cheney said yesterday, “We were not in Iraq on September 11, 2001, and the terrorists hit us anyway.” Can’t that line be interpreted in the opposite way that Cheney intends? In other words, that since we weren’t in Iraq when 9/11 happened, we need not have responded to 9/11 by going into Iraq?)

Nevertheless, despite new forecasts that the Democrats are well positioned to retake the House in November, and despite a new Pew poll which reports that most likely voters don't consider terrorism to be a top priority matter, I am skeptical. I can’t help noticing that Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum is now making the Bush argument about a global war against “Islamic fascism,” and that he’s tightening the race against Bob Casey. Perhaps there is no direct connection, and that the fascism line is not a turn-on for Santorum's conservative base. But I have also been reading a New Republic piece by law professor Cass Sunstein (no friend of conservatives), who cites some interesting research in a new behaviorial field known as “mortality science.”

The upshot of the study was that when Americans, even self-identified liberals, are reminded of their own mortality in connection with terrorism fears, they tend to view the current commander-in-chief more favorably. Granted, this research took place in 2004, during the Bush-Kerry election, but, Sunstein argues, “Unless circumstances have relevantly changed since 2004, Bush--and almost certainly Republican candidates more generally--are likely to benefit from any reference to terrorism or the September 11 attacks. So Karl Rove knows exactly what he is doing.”

Sunstein says the Democrats basically have two choices: "show the same firmness and resolve -- and capacity for aggression -- that people have associated with Bush," or "try to keep terrorism out of the news." The latter is a loser, and impossible anyway. And the former will be a real challenge for Democrats, especially when the Republicans orchestrate autumn congressional hearings on domestic surveillance (a GOP strength, since most Americans say they favor security over civil liberties), and especially if Bush springs an October surprise by jaw-boning Iran over nuclear weapons.

On the other hand (we mainstream media types are always adept at saying on the other hand), I should acknowledge that even one of Bush's most slavish conservative pundits, Fred Barnes, seems somewhat downbeat about GOP prospects this fall:

"As favorable as recent trends have been (for Bush), they are not nearly enough to spare Republicans a nasty defeat, including the loss of the House and perhaps the Senate. The country is in a disagreeable mood and ready for a change. The Republican base is grumpy and apathetic. Bush may be America's choice to fight terrorism, but he falters on other issues. His boost in the polls doesn't mean he's now popular. He's merely less unpopular. And the August bounce may prove to be ephemeral, as earlier upticks have. There's much to do. Standing pat and expecting terrorism to dominate the campaign would be foolhardy. Grim reminders of the threat on the fifth anniversary of September 11 won't make terror the paramount issue. Nor will presidential speeches or lacerating Republican TV ads. Neither Democrats nor the media will play along. It's Bush's actions, not his words, that will matter."


On another matter: A few weeks ago, I got knocked around in the usual fashion by the usual partisan readers when, in a print column about Bush's political difficulties in the Middle East, I invoked a famous line coined by a famous writer. (My lead paragraph: "In the midst of a 19th-century crisis, American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that 'events are in the saddle, and ride mankind.' It's hard to imagine he would think any differently about today's bloodshed in the Middle East, or about the seeming inability of the world's most powerful leader to seize the reins.") The basic charge among Bush fans was that I used the great Emerson to dress up my obvious "Bush-hating."

Well, on this very day, here comes a noted conservative pundit, riding to my rescue. Thank you, Rich Lowry:

"The Gulf Coast disaster exists against the backdrop of the Iraq War, where America has been seemingly powerless to impose order on the country's warring factions or rebuild a country devastated by 30 years of tyranny and now a budding civil war. If there were a theme to the past two years it would be Ralph Waldo Emerson's 'events are in the saddle, and ride mankind.' Nothing is so damaging to a political leader. Bush's presidency will remain diminished until he finds a way to vindicate human ingenuity's power over events, and show that he again is in the saddle."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Fox News specials: Faith over science, Biden inserts foot, Rockey on message

The great thing about Fox News is its ability to keep hope alive for the deniers of factual reality. Witness the soliloquy yesterday morning by resident conservative analyst William Kristol, as he inveiged against science while discussing the FDA's Aug. 24 approval of the non-prescription sale of the emergency contraceptive "morning after" pill.

Notwithstanding the fact that, back in 2003, the Food and Drug Administration's own science expert advisory panel voted 23-4 in favor of non-prescription sales, concluding that the pill's availability would not encourage promiscuity, and notwithstanding the fact that a 2002 field study published in the British Medical Journal concluded the same thing (as referenced here), and notwithstanding the fact that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Society for Adolescent Medicine all have concluded the same thing, Kristol nevertheless said yesterday that he still has faith:

"I don’t know, I came into Fox this morning and one of our younger colleagues who works here, a guy just out of college a couple of years, said all his friends who are still college are very happy about this — all his guy friends, his male friends who are still in college are happy about this. They have a wild night. Precautions aren’t taken. The burden is now totally off them. They tell their girlfriend to go out and get this drug and no problems at all. And I don’t think that’s a very good thing for the the country."

Stop the presses: Heresay from one young Fox News employe trumps science!

Kristol, of course, was merely reflecting the views of the FDA official who essentially blocked the pill's non-prescription approval back in 2004. That would be Dr. W. David Hager, a Christian conservative gynecologist whom President Bush appointed two years earlier to chair an FDA health advisory panel. Put it this way: For the past two years, and until the FDA reversed itself last week, scientific evidence was deemed less persuasive than the views of a guy who once wrote that he used Jesus as a model for how he treated women in his medical practice. (Hager left the FDA panel last year.)

The Christian right is exploring legal options, in the hopes of blocking the FDA's action. In the meantime, one prominent group is firing up the rhetoric, blaming the Democrats ("the party of death") for pressuring the FDA to give its OK, and even accusing Bush of "caving in." The bottom line is that, as usual, there is never any finality in America's culture wars. Not as long as a single Fox employe can be cited as compelling evidence.


Last Thursday, I examined the latest John McCain recalibrations, as the purported man of candor learns to pander. For more on the topic, check out this lengthy Washington Post Sunday magazine submission.


I wrote a print column yesterday about the political legacy of Katrina, and the potential '06 damage for Bush and the GOP. Ever wonder what kind of email I receive? Here is a typical entry, received this morning. I have removed the language that is more suitable for Deadwood on HBO:

"(Bleep) New Orleans. I will never go there, and I urge all Americans to boycott this (bleep) of corrupt murdering racists. After the savagely libelous way the mainstream media and Louisiana hack commie-crat incompetents have attacked european americans, I hope the whole place rots in the sun for a couple more years before it is washed into the gulf. Nagin, Landrieu, the governor and all the (bleepy) democrat (bleeps) who live in New Orleans can go (bleep) themselves. Hooray for George Bush. He was responsible for the fastest, most comprehensive aid in world history , but it was no match for the corruption, incompetence, and racism of the tawdry ingrates who bit his hand like rabid dogs. Drop dead, democrat (bleeps)!"

I guess this emailer missed the memo from his president, urging citizens to discuss politics with greater "civility and respect."


Joe Biden, the Democratic senator who on occasion has exhibited the symptoms of foot-in-mouth disease, made a bizarre remark yesterday on the aforementioned Fox News Sunday show. It has already been "YouTubed" (which I suppose should be listed in the dictionary as a new transitive verb).

Host Chris Wallace, noting that Biden was touring South Carolina to test his long-stymied presidential prospects, asked how the man from Delaware might fare in a southern primary against home boys like John Edwards and Mark Warner. Biden replied that he would do well, because, "My state was a slave state. My state is a border state..."

What was he talking about, anyway? Surely he wasn't suggesting that he can successfully woo southern whites because they would feel an affinity for somebody who hails from a former slave state? What's he saying, 'Hey white guys, vote for me, my state used to tolerate slavery'?" Is he doing a reprise of the infamous '03 Howard Dean remark which implied that southern whites are still closet Confederates?

Fox reports, you decide.


And lastly, today we have Fox News filling its most familiar role, as designated media echo chamber for the governing party. Where else, after all, could President Bush's favorite Katrina victim --that would be failed Republican office seeker Rockey Vaccarella -- enjoy national airtime, as a series of softballs are gently lobbed his way?

Here was a tragedy where the disproportionate share of victims were African-American...and the one victim who gets national exposure at the White House is a white guy from the local GOP who wishes that Bush could get a third term. Enter Fox News. Here's the exchange today, complete with incisive journalistic queries.

NEIL CAVUTO: "You know what happens with an anniversary like this. You blame the authorities, the conventional wisdom, blame the big guy, blame the President. You met with the big guy, you met with the President. You’re saying, 'Too much of that'.”

VACCARELLA: "Whatcha mean, I’ve been saying 'too much of that'?"

CAVUTO: "— that the criticism’s been unfair? The criticism’s been unfair?"

VACCARELLA: "Well, you know what, like I told many people, I’m an optimistic-type person, I kinda look at the glass half-full instead of half-empty. And one of the things I wanted to thank the President for, part of what we went there for, is for all the FEMA trailers. I mean, here, you can always point the fingers and say shoulda, coulda, woulda, and been a Monday-morning quarterback. But I’m not a Monday-morning quarterback. I have a roof over my head, my family’s living there, we have air conditioning, we have running water, I can take a shower, shave. I can move on as I rebuild. I mean, the President didn’t order the Hurricane Katrina, she just came through with her whipping winds. And instead of, you know, sitting around complaining and saying, 'This is what they shoulda did, what they coulda did,' well, you know what? You ought to be thankful for what we got."

I guess Rockey didn't get the 600-page House Republican memo last March about what the Bush administration shoulda coulda woulda: "a failure of initiative...a failure of leadership...a blinding lack of situational awareness and disjointed decision-making needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horror."