Friday, September 08, 2006

Partisan double standards, and fictionalizing for profit

The current flap over the upcoming ABC docudrama The Path to 9/11 is a textbook case of partisan hypocrisy. And that label applies to liberal and conservatives alike.

Let’s start with the liberals -- not all liberals, of course; I am referring to activists and bloggers -- since they’re the ones who are ticked off at ABC. Their outrage is directed at various fictionalizations of the 9/11 saga that the Hollywood types have either dreamed up or improvised. These scenes apparently depict Bill Clinton’s national security team as being less than vigilant about the growing threat of Osama bin Laden during the late ‘90s. Infuriated liberal activists are currently demanding that ABC either shelve those scenes -- or cancel the five-hour miniseries in its entirety. (And a new report in Variety says that outright cancellation is still possible.)

Looking at this case on the merits, it’s clear that the liberal camp does have a legitimate beef; even ABC has admitted taking some dramatic liberties with the known facts. But I don’t recall the liberal camp acting with similar concern back in 2003, when a CBS docudrama about Ronald Reagan was planning to take some dramatic liberties in its depiction of the former president.

Quite the contrary, in fact. Liberals thought that the Reagan show should air just as the miniseries producers intended it to air -- in the name of freedom of speech. And when conservative activists, led by the Republican National Committee, went after CBS and demanded (in the end, successfully) that the network dump the show, liberals were outraged that there could be such an assault on free expression.

People for the American Way railed in a press release about “right-wing thought police,” and Barbra Streisand (whose husband was playing Reagan) wrote on Nov. 4, 2003, “I don’t believe Democrats often, if ever, try to muscle the First Amendment like this....This (conservative effort) is censorship, pure and simple.” But now that liberals are going after ABC for taking similar liberties with Clinton, I don’t hear her, or other famed Friends of Bill, sounding any concerns about “censorship.”

Most conservatives, however, are also selective in their outrage. They don’t seem very concerned that the Hollywood types (whom they generally dislike) have filmed fictionalized scenes that depict a former president in a negative light. In fact, they’ve barely said anything at all, content instead to chuckle at the liberals’ discomfiture.

Yet the scene was very different in October 2003, when they were so outraged that Hollywood had filmed fictionalizeed scenes depicting their favorite former president in a negative light. Back then, when a major network acted in this fashion, it was viewed as fresh evidence of liberal-media perfidy.

As Ed Morrow of the National Review said, “Attempts to distort our history must be resisted. Historical truth is simply too valuable to be made a plaything for biased filmmakers rewriting it to fit their politics.” And Ed Gillespie, the Republican party chairman, said on MSNBC that “there’s infotainment and docudrama and reality TV and the lines between fact and fiction blur. That’s fine when it’s entertainment, but when you’re talking about...the Reagan legacy formation, I think that it’s important that we get things right.”

Where’s the plea from Gillespie today, demanding that ABC “gets things right” about the Clinton legacy?

Actually, some conservatives have spotted the double standard, and they have copped to it. Commentator Jonah Goldberg: “A pox on everybody...(C)onservatives howled in outrage (in 2003), and got CBS to drop it. Why shouldn’t liberals have a go at the same thing?” James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal website wrote the other day, “The Clintonites may have a point here. A few years ago, when the shoe was on the other foot, we were happy to see CBS scotch The Reagans.”

I could just leave the issue here, having made the argument about partisan hypocrisy. But that’s not the root problem. Actually, it was Gillespie, in the service of his partisan argument, who identified the root problem when he mentioned the rise of infotainment and the blurring between fact and fiction.

The networks have opened themselves up to these kinds of partisan attacks by embracing the docudrama format, apparently in the belief that mass audiences aren’t interested in history unless actors read the lines and scripts contain the dramatic “beats” that work best between commercial breaks. There once was a time when vital issues, such as the road to 9/11, would have been explored at length in news-division documentaries that aired in prime time -- I can remember NBC White Paper and CBS Reports; Edward R. Murrow came earlier -- but that format was not deemed sufficiently profitable, so it was dropped.

But now that the networks, in the pursuit of ratings and ad dollars, have embraced a format that necessarily mixes fact and fiction, they have in a sense reaped the whirlwind -- opening themselves up to attack from whichever partisan camp feels aggrieved about the fiction element. One Hollywood producer laments to Variety, "Starting with The Reagans, everything is now political. It's become so divisive and nasty. It's very sad."

Actually, what’s really sad is the networks’ assumption that, in our polarized era, they can somehow take liberties with history in the pursuit of profits -- and not get any grief about it.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

When a Republican refers to his own leaders as "armchair politicians," you know he must be in trouble

The Democrats won’t capture the House in November unless they can knock off some heretofore unbeatable Republican congressmen -- Curt Weldon, for example. He has reigned supreme in his suburban Philadelphia district since the Reagan era, winning every time in his customary biennial landslide.

At the moment, however, Weldon epitomizes the GOP’s national political woes. This time he faces a credible challenger -- Joe Sestak, a retired Navy vice admiral, who has raised some real money -- and he has to stump for re-election as the local representative of a Republican White House that is broadly unpopular in his seventh congressional district. Worse yet for Weldon, his district has been trending Democratic over the past six years (thanks in part to migrants from Philadelphia); in 2000, voters there backed Al Gore over George W. Bush, and in 2004, they backed John Kerry over Bush.

All this undoubtedly explains why Weldon has now deemed it necessary to devise a creative way to demonstrate a bit of distance from Bush. Clearly he thinks he might be in trouble; why else would he have crafted a House resolution decreeing that the commander-in-chief of the armed forces should be stripped of the authority to decide when to withdraw the soldiers from Iraq?

The Hill, a respected newspaper that covers Congress, reports today: “The resolution (contends) that military commanders should put in place a system of criteria to assess the capability of Iraqi security forces. Once those criteria are met, the mission in Iraq would be considered complete and the president could begin withdrawing troops.”

In other words, the commanders in the field have more credibility to make the decision than the president or his top war planners.

Is my interpretation too strong? Not according to what Weldon told The Hill. He said that the commanding generals are “the ones we’re paying to do the job. They know what the criteria are, they’re the best to assess the readiness of the Iraqi brigades. They determine the timetable for bringing the troops back home.he commanders.” Under his plan, “There’s no armchair politician back here making those decisions, whether it’s an elected member of Congress or even the secretary of the defense.”

Armchair politician...That’s not a very nice thing to say about Donald Rumsfeld, but that’s politics when the heat is on back home. Not even the Senate Democrats went this far last summer, when they voted for an Iraq resolution calling on Bush to accelerate the transition to a limited troop presence in Iraq; they at least felt that the decision on troop levels should stay in Bush’s hands.

This is all symbolism, anyway; resolutions don’t have the force of law. But Weldon is aiming for some PR that would demonstrate he’s not in lockstep with Bush. He clearly realizes that his usual landslide margin of re-election victory (35 points or more) won’t be replicated this year; nor will his 2004 victory margin (19 points, his worst ever -- and a signal that his district was changing).

So here’s my advice: watch the Weldon race. If he goes down on Nov. 7, it probably means that the GOP House majority is doomed.

The Valerie Plame case again? Yes, I'm afraid so

Defenders of the Bush White House are declaring this week that the Valerie Plame scandal has been definitely exposed as a fraud perpetrated by a Bush-hating media, and that we who have covered that case should now be apologizing to those who were unjustly persecuted, namely Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

The defenders cite the fact that Richard Armitage, a State Department deputy with no love for the Bush team, has been revealed as the initial source who outed the CIA identity of Valerie Plame to columnist Robert Novak. As those of you who are not Plame scandal junkies may have already forgotten, she’s the wife of Joseph Wilson, the Bush critic and former ambassador who had publicly disputed one of Bush’s key WMD claims on Iraq.

In other words, the Bush defenders are now arguing that since Armitage was the first guy to blab on Plame, this means that, contrary to press reports, there was really no White House effort to retaliate against Wilson by exposing his wife’s spy status.

Fred Barnes, the longtime Rove defender at the Weekly Standard magazine, condemns “a journalistic jihad” against Rove, because, in reality,“there was no leak (against Plame) at all, just idle talk...It’s as if a giant hoax were perpetrated on the country...” Meanwhile, in my backyard, a letter to the Inquirer condemns the fact that the Armitage revelation was played on page two, and “I wait with bated breath for Dick Polman's front-page article decrying the perception of a Nixonian White House...”

It’s also true that David Broder of the Washington Post, the de facto “dean” of the Beltway press, believes the Plame story was overblown, and writes today that many in the media “owe Karl Rove an apology.”But these folks are ignoring some salient and inconvenient facts:

1. We now know about Armitage’s role because it was revealed in a new book. And the entire premise of that new book, Hubris, is that the Bush administration behaved shamefully and deceptively during the prelude to war in Iraq.

2. The book specifically cites Karl Rove as Novak’s second source on Plame (as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s report signaled earlier), and confirms, once again, that Scooter Libby in the vice president’s offie spoke with two reporters about Plame.

3. The book further states that the only reason Armitage even knew about Plame was because he had seen a negative document about Joseph Wilson that had been put together for Scooter Libby.

4. Bush defenders have long sought to minimize the leak of Plame’s CIA status by claiming that she didn’t have an important job anyway, that (in the words of conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg) she was merely a “desk jockey.” But the book, citing interview with confidential CIA sources, that she was operations chief for the agency’s Joint Task Force on Iraq, which had tried during the prewar months to find confirmation of the White House’s WMD claims -- but had come up empty.

5. One of the Book’s authors, David Corn, writes this week on his blog that “Rove’s leak and Libby’s leak were part of a campaign to discredit...Wilson. That’s no conspiracy theory. The available evidence proves this point.”

Of course, it's possible that none of us would be debating this case any longer if Fitzgerald had made good on his original promise to say more about his long investigation. He made that vow 11 months ago...and counting.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Can the Democrats score a touchdown with the Rummy political football?

Life can be refreshingly unpredictable. From the “who woulda thunk it” file:

(a) The Phillies, of all people, are competing hard for a playoff berth...

(b) Bob Dylan, of all people, becomes a cutting-edge pitchman for I-Tunes...

(c) the Democrats, of all people, take the offensive on the national security issue...

(d) Vanity Fair magazine shills for the celebrity culture by putting Tom Cruise and “baby Suri” on the cover of its new issue.

Just kidding about (d); that was totally predictable. But (c) is a bit of a stunner, given the Democrats’ behavior in recent election seasons, when they appeared to be either cowering at Karl Rove’s orchestration of the security issue (2002), or simply fumbling along, thanks to John Kerry’s inability to articulate concisely and consistently (2004).

Democrats are now signaling, however, that they will borrow a fabled Rove tactic: targeting the opposition’s strength and trying to convert it into a weakness. In this case, it means trying to persuade voters that the GOP, traditionally seen as the strong security party, has actually been weakening America in the war on terrorism. (The Democrats might actually have the wind at their back this time. The Bush White House probably won’t be pleased by this new finding, in a Fox News poll released today: When people were asked whether America would have been better or worse off if Al Gore had been president on 9/11, 34 percent said better and 33 percent said worse; among swing-voting independents, 37 percent said better and 27 percent said worse.)

One key facet of the Democratic plan is to target Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose failures of execution in Iraq have been copiously documented in two widely respected books -- Fiasco and Cobra II -- and who has famously brushed off criticisms by saying things like “stuff happens.”

I wonder whether the Democrats’ targeting of Rumsfeld will prove to be politically effective (for reasons explained down below), but first let’s look at the reasons why Democrats are confident. Rumsfeld is potentially a good “wedge” issue during this congressional campaign season; in other words, condemning him is a tactic that unites the Democrats and divides the Republicans.

Democrats may not all agree on whether the Iraq war was originally worth fighting, or whether a withdrawal timeline is smart or stupid. But they generally agree that the Pentagon has erred repeatedly in its execution of the war (too few troops to stabilize the postwar country, among many examples); therefore, they can see no downside in seeking a congressional “no confidence” vote on Rumsfeld, because it gives them the opportunity to bang away at their ongoing “incompetence” theme.

And the Rumsfeld issue potentially puts Republicans on the spot, forcing them to choose between sticking up for the war steward who still has President Bush’s full support, or acting in opposition to Rumsfeld and thereby demonstrating a lack of loyalty to Bush. Indeed, a number of Republicans in tough re-election races, have already either called for Rumsfeld’s resignation or strongly assailed him.

But maybe Democrats are overestimating Rumsfeld’s effectiveness as a political tool. Charles Schumer, the New York lawmaker who heads the party’s Senate campaign committee, may have unwittingly highlighted the problem, with this remark in this morning’s New York Times: “Both hawks and doves can call for Rumsfeld to step down and still be consistent with their position. It applies to both parties.”

Well, if war hawks who see Iraq as a glorious mission can dump on Rumsfeld, if antiwar pols who see Iraq as a disastrous distraction can also dump on Rumsfeld, and if indeed this “applies to both parties,” then where’s the partisan traction for the Democrats?

The Democrats might score PR points if some vulnerable Republicans choose to distance themselves from Bush by dumping on Rumsfeld. But if those GOP incumbents, touting their independence from the Bush team, wind up ekeing out victories in their states and districts; and if GOP challengers (such as New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr.) assail Rumsfeld, show their independence, and thus successfully woo swing voters....well, I doubt the Democrats have gamed it out that far. But that scenario would certainly demonstrate the law of unintended consequences.

On the other hand, some Republican strategists remain seriously concerned about their prospects in November. They fear that the party's control of Congress is imperiled simply because swing voters equate the GOP with the status quo -- at a time when the status quo is not popular. Here's GOP pollster David Hill, writing today:

"(T)he vast majority of independents, even if they don’t hate Bush, are dissatisfied with the direction of the country....If nothing else changes, this portends a scenario in which Republicans lose control of Congress this November. If two of every three voters go into their polling places and cast their votes for change, the Democrats will win if the Republicans are stand-patters. There are Republican strategists who disagree, of course. They say that by moving security issues up the issue agenda we will scare swing voters away from voting for the squishy Democrats that might not protect us from terror. I’m less certain about that conclusion than I am about the desire for change. I say the mood for something different will trump even national security."


On a related terrorism front, it was noteworthy that, in a speech yesterday, President Bush mentioned Osama bin Laden by name 17 times in 44 minutes.

But here was Bush on March 13, 2002: “I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority....I truly am not that concerned about him....We shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore."

So: If bin Laden was “on the margins” four years ago, yet now suddenly he warrants 17 mentions in 44 minutes, doesn’t that suggest he has become a greater threat, and that our security has become more imperiled, on Bush’s watch?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Further thoughts on the Santorum-Casey debate

A sequel to my Sunday post: While trolling through my notes on the Rick Santorum-Bob Casey NBC debate, and checking the transcript, I find even more grist for discussion.

1. Incumbent Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Santorum is fortunate that his Democratic challenger is either (a) slow off the mark, (b) insufficiently acquainted with foreign policy basics, or (c) exceedingly cautious.

Santorum repeatedly voiced his eagerness to shift the focus away from the war on Iraq by invoking a new enemy: “At the heart of this war is Iran. Iran is the, is, is the problem here. Iran is the one that’s causing most of the problems in, in Iraq....We need to do something about stopping the Iranians from being the central destabilizer of the Middle East...I think the focus should not be Iraq, should be Iran.”

Casey might have scored some points if he had countered Santorum’s argument with this factual observation: If Iran is more of a threat today, it’s because the Bush administration made it so -- because the U.S. invasion eliminated Iran’s top enemy in the region, and replaced Saddam, an avowed foe of Shiite Islamist parties, with a tottering government that is Shiite Islamist parties friendly to Iran.

Aside from the fact that host Tim Russert was dominating many of the exchanges, it’s possible that Casey passed up this opportunity only because, as a cautious centrist, he didn’t want to sound like he was opposing the “mission” on principle, since he had just said that “I’m not ready to abandon the mission.”

2. Casey did make decent political use of Donald Rumsfeld. Most Americans now believe, at the very least, that Iraq has been fraught with multiple failures of execution. Even war supporters like Joe Lieberman and John McCain have long called for Pentagon chief Rumsfeld’s resignation. Casey goaded Santorum into defending the guy (“I think Secretary Rumsfeld has done a fine job”), but, given the current polls in Pennsylvania, Santorum’s view is out of step with sentiment in vote-rich moderate Republican suburbia.

On the other hand, Casey was vague on what he would do to improve the situation on the ground in Iraq; he kept talking about the need for “clear benchmarks” as a measurement of progress, but didn’t offer any criteria, much less anything that would suggest creative new thinking.

3. The public’s anti-incumbent mood is driven in part by a desire to hold the incumbents accountable. Santorum probably didn’t help himself by taking a stand against accountability: “I don’t play Monday morning quarterback. That’s not, that’s not what you do here in Washington, D.C.”

4. On the other hand, Santorum willingly played “Monday morning quarterback” on whether the Bush administration has been sufficiently militant. Santorum, eager to show that he has at rare moments differed with the White House, did so by running to Bush’s right: “A big problem I have with this administration is it hasn’t been tough enough on Iran...It should not have negotiated with the Iranians on their nuclear program.” But can Santorum win the hearts of moderate swing voters by claiming that he is more hawkish than Bush?

5. Casey didn’t exactly shine when Santorum brought up the administration’s intelligence surveillance programs. This is a good issue for Republicans, because at least half of all Americans seem willing to entertain civil liberties curbs, in the interests of national security.

Casey said last February that he was worried about civil liberties, remarking in an interview that even if the Bush programs are not illegal, “I think people get very concerned about tipping the balance in favor of a policy that impacts how Americans can communicate.” But in the NBC debate, Casey said that “we should keep the programs and keep the wiretaps...” He seemed to be poised to argue that a compromise could strike the proper balance, but didn’t bother to pursue the point.

6. But Casey got in a good jab on the issue of slapping sanctions on Iran (which both he and Santorum support). Here’s what Casey said (in his meandering way): “The number one, or the most prominent, at least, opponent of sanctions, critic of, Iran’s sanctions when he was in the private sector at least, his name is Dick Cheney. It’s not some, some European. Dick Cheney opposed sanctions when he was at the Halliburton company...Rick, do you, are you going to sit here today and not denounce him for continually opposing sanctions, and are you going to give the money back that he raised for you?”

This question was a three-fer: It put Santorum on the spot, reminding voters of his close ties to the administration and to the unpopular veep; it potentially reminded voters of the veep’s ties to a company that has played a key role in our cost overruns abroad; and it potentially positioned Casey as being tougher on Iran than the uber-tough number two (whose company has been doing a lot of business with Iran, most recently concerning natural gas).

Santorum’s answer, “I’m not going to denounce the vice president of the United States,” didn’t trump the question.

7. In terms of pure theatre, Santorum swamped Casey on the issue of legislative pay raises in Harrisburg. I doubt that most viewers knew anything about this dispute -- during the summer of ‘05, in the dead of night, state lawmakers used a loophole to dramatically raise their pay -- which probably helped Santorum to paint Casey, albeit briefly, as a complicit incumbent. Casey is the state treasurer who had subsequently signed those higher checks.

Santorum: “You didn’t do anything when you could’ve stopped it....Why didn’t you stop it, Bob?...Why didn’t you try to stop it? Why didn’t you try to stop it? You could’ve stopped it!”

And what Casey said was, “It’s called following the law, following the law...Following the law...Following the law...Following the law, Rick...”

Casey, again a tad slow on the uptake, missed the chance to say, for example, that the pay raise scheme was basically quarterbacked by the governing Republicans in Harrisburg (the GOP controls the legislature), and that 11 state Republican incumbents were thrown out of office during the May primaries.

Casey did play a role, since he was in the governing chain of command, but, politically, it appears that the voters most incensed about the pay raise are the fiscal conservative Republicans who already vented in May. In those vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs, will swing-voting moderates care more about that than about Iraq?

8. Many national Democrats have long lamented the fact that Ed Rendell tends to say things that hurt the party. Witness this gubernatorial comment (which Russert brought up during the debate), as it appeared this summer in the conservative Weekly Standard magazine: “Rick Santorum has proven that he gets the job done. Time and time again he has come through...I will eventually campaign with Casey. But, no, you won’t see me attack Santorum. I work well with him...When it comes to Pennsylvania, Santorum delivers.”

Asked about this Sunday, Casey said that “as a governor, you’ve got to work with both parties, and I’m glad that he does.” That response didn’t begin to address the reality that Rendell -- who heads the party ticket in November -- clearly wouldn’t mourn if Casey was beaten. Indeed, Santorum’s best asset might be his track record in bringing home the bacon, and the enhanced clout he would have if re-elected.

Given the current political mood, that issue might be all he has.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

The political perils of sound-bite candor

It’s doubtful that more than a fraction of Pennsylvanians interrupted their holiday this morning to watch Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr. joust for the U.S. Senate job on Meet the Press. So the “winner” is probably going to be the guy who can best master the post-debate spin, probably by highlighting a sound bite (suitable for endless TV replay) that depicts his opponent screwing up in some memorable fashion. In other words, the debate itself is not nearly as pivotal as the subsequent debate over its interpretation.

Santorum, the GOP incumbent and Bush loyalist who trails in the polls, has to be a tad frustrated, because his soporific opponent refuses to talk in sound bites. As a result, Santorum probably didn’t get anything that showed Casey damaging himself with his own words. That’s because Casey just tends to meander along, repeating verbose talking points culled from his speeches, and deflecting the thrust of questions in a lulling tone of voice that would best suit a meditation instructor.

When host Tim Russert asked Casey whether he would have voted to authorize Bush to invade Iraq, knowing what he knows today, Casey replied by saying that most Americans would not have voted yes; and when Russert asked (multiple times) whether that meant that he would not have voted yes, Casey said only that he doubted there would have been a vote at all.

The same pattern was repeated midway through the debate when Russert asked Casey how he would tame Social Security and Medical expenses and balance the federal budget. Russert asked, what programs would you cut? Casey responded by saying he’d eliminate the tax breaks for people earning more than $200,000 a year, maybe close some off-shore tax loopholes, maybe make some changes in the estate tax, and maybe find other ways to cut costs, like the way Pennsylvania has trimmed the number of outside consultants, and grow the economy…Russert repeated his question, and Casey repeated some variation of his initial response.

Since Casey didn’t hang himself in a sound bite, Santorum was reduced to attacking Casey in his own sound bites. Samples: “He (Casey) is against anything that cuts government. He’s for raising taxes.” And, “No specifics, no answers.” And, “Your party has been trying to undermine our surveillance programs…What do you think has kept our people safe?” And because the anti-abortion Casey nevertheless supports the morning-after contraception pill, “His father (an avowed abortion foe) would be very upset if he was alive today.” But without Casey hanging himself in a phrase of his own, those one-liners probably have limited utility.

But from Casey’s perspective, however, this debate was probably a success, because on two key occasions, Santorum – who is, by nature, more glib and outspoken -- uttered two potentially damaging sound bites at his own expense.

The lesser of the two: “I probably spend maybe a month a year” at his home in Pennsylvania.

Santorum has been politically hurt by reports, over the past several years, that he was home-schooling five of his six kids at his Virginia residence with most of the tab being picked up by the Penn Hills School District in southwestern Pennsylvania; and now it turns out that state taxpayers, through the state Education Department, will compensate the school district to the tune of 55 grand. Under questioning today, Santorum said he’s really a Pine Hills guy (“I vote there, my dentist is there”), but when asked how much time he spends at his house there, he uttered his month-a-year line. This sounds like a parochial issue, but polls have indicated that the residency flap has already been hurting him in his home region.

But the more important one-liner, the potential gift to the Casey campaign, was his overall assessment of President Bush.

Santorum said that of course he and the boss don’t always agree on things – Santorum pointed out today that he still thinks that we have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whereas Bush now says we have not – but the senator was still upbeat about his beleaguered leader. Hence, the debate’s number-one sound bite:

“I think he’s been a terrific president, absolutely.”

Santorum’s base probably liked that line; at least he doesn't bob and weave like his challenger. The problem is, statewide polls indicate that seven in 10 Pennsylvanians certainly don't view Bush as terrific, at least not in the positive sense. This could be a case when a politician's sound-bite candor puts him out of step with the voting majority. All year long, Santorum has been battling a headwind. That particular line could expose him to stormier weather.