Friday, September 15, 2006

Conservatives tout the virtues of losing (really!)

The most fascinating debate of the ’06 congressional election season is pitting the conservatives who want the GOP to win against the conservatives who want the GOP to lose.

Yes, it’s true. There is a sizeable contingent of prominent conservatives (and even a few party strategists) who actually hope that the Republicans cough up control of the House and/or the Senate on election day. This sentiment is a sign of deep pessimism within conservative ranks about the GOP’s November prospects; eyeing the latest polls and fearing electoral defeat, these people have convinced themselves, and seek to convince others, that maybe a Democratic takeover wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all.

It’s quite a spectacle, in a way: Republicans haven’t even lost anything yet (and they may not lose at all), yet already some of their staunchest partisans are giving us pre-spin about the upside of a disaster.

Here’s Ramesh Ponnuru, a respected conservative commentator, writing a guest piece Wednesday in The New York Times: “A straight loss (in November) would make the Republicans hungrier and sharpen their wits. Freed from the obligation of cobbling together thin majorities for watered-down legislation, Republicans would be able to stand for something attractive…If Democrats win the House now, the next Republican presidential candidate will be able to run against Nancy Pelosi and the liberal committee chairmen who would suddenly be in the headlines…If Republicans play their cards right, and the Democrats prove unequal to the task of running the House, the voters could put the Republicans back in power on Capitol Hill in 2008.”

Jonah Goldberg, agrees, writing yesterday in the Los Angeles Times: “Yes, the thought of Nancy Pelosi as Housze Speaker and John Conyers Jr, Henry Waxman and Alcee Hastings as potential committee chairmen does cause an involuntary gag reflex and a shudder for the future of the republic.” However, “letting voters see this crowd try to have its way for two years would only help the GOP in the far more important 2008 election.”

One Republican strategist has even gone on the record about this. Tony Fabrizio, who in my experience I have long considered one of the most forthright Republican operatives, told The Atlantic Monthly Online, “If we hold on to both houses narrowly, we maintain the illusion of power and control, but…get blamed for all the problems.” On the other hand, Fabrizio argues, if the Democrats capture a chamber, then the GOP ’08 presidential candidates can run as outsiders against Washington – a scenario that easily trumps “having to take on the entire GOP establishment.”

Meanwhile, seven prominent souls have just vented on the Washington Monthly website. Consider Christopher Buckley, the conservative humorist, ex-GOP speechwriter, and son of conservative scion William F. Buckley Jr. Here’s a bilious, three-graf excerpt:

“With heavy heart, as a once-proud—indeed, staunch— Republican, I here admit, behind enemy lines, to the guilty hope that my party loses…Bob Woodward asked Bush 43 if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq. The son replied that he had consulted ‘a higher father.’ That frisson you feel going up your spine is the realization that he meant it. And apparently the higher father said, ‘Go for it!’ There are those of us who wish he had consulted his terrestrial one…

"Anyone who has even a passing personal acquaintance of Bush 41 knows him to be, roughly speaking, the most decent, considerate, humble, and cautious man on the planet. Also, the most loving parent on earth. What a wrench it must be for him to pick up his paper every morning and read the now-daily debate about whether his son is officially the worst president in U.S. history.

“What have they done to my party? Where does one go to get it back? One place comes to mind: the back benches. It’s time for a time-out. Time to hand over this sorry enchilada…My fellow Republicans, it is time, as Madison said in Federalist 76, to “Hand over the tiller of governance, that others may f--- things up for a change. (Or was it Federalist 78?)”

It can’t be a good sign for the GOP that its ranks include eminent conservatives who are so fed up with (in their words) high budget deficits, corruption, incompetence, and a mess in Iraq that they find defeat to be attractive. What does this say, potentially, about the mood of conservative voters nationwide?

Naturally, there are staunch conservatives who think that the defeatists are off their rockers; as commentator Dean Barnett (who blogs frequently on talk show host Hugh Hewitt’s website), contended Wednesday, “At a time of war, we cannot afford to have the party controlling Congress have as its sole mission an unending quest to undermine the Commander-in-Chief….I happen to agree that the Republican party deserves to lose the House. The past 12 years (since Newt Gingrich’s takeover) have been an epic disappointment. But for the sake of the country, we’d be a helluva lot better off reforming ourselves (while still in power) rather than as a result of an electoral repudiation that will weaken the country in time of war.”

This argument will persuade many conservative base voters to show up in November and vote GOP; certainly, the recent speight of speeches by President Bush and his surrogates have stressed that theme, in their efforts to fire up the base – and the latest polls do indicate an uptick of base support.

But here’s the key caveat: When disillusioned partisans start talking about the virtues of a defeat, it generally means that their ranks are not sufficiently motivated and that defeat indeed may be in the offing.

That’s precisely what happened to the Democrats back in 1980, when liberal base voters were ticked off at President Jimmy Carter, and argued that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Ronald Reagan won the election, because then the Democrats could recoup by exploiting inevitable Reagan screwups. So the liberals stayed home, Carter lost…and the Republicans kept the White House for the next 12 years.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Can the GOP put Nancy Pelosi on every ballot?

I well remember the summer of 1984, when Ronald Reagan’s GOP coined the term San Francisco Democrats, crafting it as a synonym for gay-friendly, communist-coddling, tax-hiking liberal decadence. Caricature can be an effective political tool, and this one worked brilliantly.

Two decades later, we’re now seeing it again. With critical congressional elections just seven weeks away, George W. Bush’s GOP is trying to shift voters’ attention away from the unpopular George W. Bush by warning in essence, “If you think that Bush and his allies are bad, just imagine the horrific threat to the nation if Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco gets the keys to the House.”

It’s impossible to predict whether this demonization strategy will work, but she potentially provides the GOP with ample raw material: She represents a liberal and affluent San Francisco district, she votes for gun control and abortion rights, she was an early supporter of Iraq troop withdrawal, and some allies even fret that she comes off as too sophisticated for the average voter (remember the pictures of John Kerry wind-surfing?).

The other day, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman told Roll Call, a subscriber-only Capitol Hill paper, that it would be “a dereliction of our duty” if party headquarters fails to run TV ads that tie Democratic candidates to the House votes cast by Pelosi. This way, Republicans hope to thwart the Democrats’ ambitious efforts to run competitive candidates in non-liberal districts.

Hence the gist of Operation Pelosi: Any Republican incumbent locked in a tough race against a moderate or macho Democratic challenger, can simply try to tie that challenger to prospective House Speaker Pelosi, and hence transform that challenger into a San Francisco Democrat by association.

One can argue that targeting Pelosi is a fool’s errand, since her name won’t appear this fall on 434 of the 435 House ballots. And she’s not a household name, either; according to a June Gallup poll, 27 percent of Americans don’t even know who she is, 31 percent know her and like her, and 29 percent know her and dislike her. But this GOP tactic isn’t really aimed at most Americans; rather, it’s intended only for red states and competitive blue states, as a way to stoke anti-Democratic hostility among conservative base voters who, given their own frustrations with Bush and the GOP, might need an extra reason to rise from their sofas and trudge to the polls on Nov. 8.

This explains the email circulated yesterday by Pennsylvania GOP director Scott Migli. In his state, three Republican incumbents are facing competitive challenges from a trio of Democrats who served either in Iraq or in the military as careerists. But, having gotten word that those Democrats were heading to Washington for a party fundraiser, Migli pounced with the message that those vets “are the hand-picked political pawns of Nancy Pelosi,” or, as the email says elsewhere, “far-left liberal Nancy Pelosi,” and her “liberal tax-and-spend, soft-on-security” friends.

And this explains the radio ad that has been running in the mountains of North Carolina, where a Republican incumbent faces a tough challenge from a Democrat who defies the liberal stereotype; in fact, Democrat Heath Shuler is pro-gun, anti-abortion…and, just top it off, he’s an ex-NFL quarterback. Hence the radio ad: “Rookie Heath Shuler is following the playbook of San Francisco liberal Nancy Pelosi. The Pelosi game plan – Elect Heath Shuler and others like him, and take over Congress with the votes of illegal immigrants.” That same tactic is in play in South Carolina, where a Republican challenger has been trying to hang Pelosi around the neck of moderate Democratic congressman John Spratt.

Meanwhile, the national party has gone to work on Pelosi, contending that one of her most recent comments is a slur on our fighting men and women (San Francisco Democrat = security wimp). On Tuesday, Pelosi said, with reference to Osama bin Laden, “even to capture him now, I don’t think makes us any safer.” GOP headquarters circulated the remark, and top House Republicans sounded shocked that Pelosi would say such a thing. Duncan Hunter of California said that Pelosi’s remark “can only have a demoralizing effect on American troops and intelligence personnel who are currently risking their lives…” Phil Gingrey of Georgia said, “And the Democrats wonder why Americans think they’re soft on security.”

Maybe Pelosi’s remark will rouse conservative voters in the intended fashion; the problem is, she has plenty of company when she says bin Laden’s capture would not be a panacea. Republican company, in fact. Dick Cheney said four days ago on Meet the Press: “He’s not the only source of the problem, obviously…If you killed him tomorrow, you’d still have a problem with al Qaeda, with (bin Laden deputy Ayman) al-Zawahiri and the others.” The bipartisan 9/11 Commission essentially made the same argument; so did Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, when he said back in 2001 that if bin Laden was gone, “the same problem would exist.”

It is true that many Democrats privately cringe whenever Pelosi goes on TV; she recites rote talking points, and her bug-eyed stare provides the GOP with endless opportunities to depict her in photos as a fiend from Night of the Living Dead. Nor does it necessarily help that she has reportedly been weighing the idea, should the Democrats take the House, of installing Florida congressman Alcee Hastings as chair of the Intelligence Committee – the same guy who, as noted today in a GOP headquarters email, was once impeached and ousted from a federal judgeship on eight counts of bribery and conspiracy.

But will demonizing Pelosi let Bush and the GOP incumbents off the hook? There’s scant evidence that targeting a House personage can work nationwide. That’s what the Democrats tried to do with Newt Gingrich in 1996. He was actually running the House at the time, and Democrats figured they could pull their voters to the polls en masse by highlighting the various Newt-driven federal program cuts. Wrong.

On the other hand, as evidenced yesterday in Rhode Island, it would be also be wrong to underestimate the vaunted efficiency of Republican turnout operations.


But maybe Bush has way bigger political problems than Nancy Pelosi.

Consider: If Pelosi had crafted a bill that protected terrorist suspects from being tortured in ways that breached the Geneva Conventions, and if, by doing so, she had brazenly defied the Bush administration (which says it should have the right to use such interrogation methods), then it's fair to say that the GOP political team would be spinning her behavior as further evidence of San Francisco Democratic decadence and security wimpsmanship.

But the problem for the Bush team is, the current practitioners of security wimpsmanship are Republican senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and John Warner. They have crafted precisely that kind of bill. Graham is a former military lawyer, McCain knows a few things about being tortured, and Warner is one of the Senate "old bulls," a barometer of GOP establishment thinking. They seem to have a few major objections with the Bush team's contention that Congress should sign off on a flexible-torture plan that essentially would contradict the prohibition handed down this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Their defiance would appear to make them worthy of being labeled soft on terrorism, soft on the troops, in accordance with the Pelosi paradigm. That won't happen, of course, but their timing is not helpful to an administration that would much prefer not to have its internal rifts laid bare during election season.

And now, to foil matters further, retired Gen. Colin Powell has weighed in on the side of the defiant trio, with a letter that says in part: "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism. To redefine (the Geneva Conventions) would add to those doubts. Furthermore, it would put our own troops at risk."

With even the normally reticent Colin Powell out there in opposition, can the Bush team get voters to care about Nancy Pelosi?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The uphill Democratic challenge that cannot be spun

The winner of today’s Most Transparent Spin Award is Democratic senator Charles Schumer. Even though national Democrats took a big hit last night in Rhode Island – where moderate Republican incumbent Lincoln Chafee survived a GOP primary challenge and hence made it much more difficult for the Democrats to capture that critical seat in November – Schumer purports to believe that things turned out swell for his side.

He stated: “When Lincoln Chafee - an incumbent Republican Senator - can barely win his own primary, you know he'll have trouble in the general election. Rhode Islanders, more than voters in any other state, know we need a new direction and real change in this country which is why (Democrat) Sheldon Whitehouse will be the next U.S. Senator from Rhode Island."

Actually, contrary to what Schumer says, Chafee did not “barely win” his primary. By definition, an 8.4-point victory margin with high turnout is quite solid; it is therefore a leap of logic to conclude that such a margin portends “trouble” in November. Quite the contrary, potentially. Chafee handily defeated an outspoken conservative challenger, Stephen Laffey, with strong support from independent voters (who, under Rhode Island law, are allowed to vote in party primaries).

It’s those independent-minded Yankees who might well save one of their own in November – or, at the very least, keep Chafee so competitive that Schumer, who is helming the Democrats’ national bid to recapture the Senate, will have to spend serious money in Rhode Island in order to win a seat that is pivotal to his national ambitions.

Schumer and his lieutenants were rooting hard for conservative Laffey, knowing that he would have been far easier (and cheaper) to defeat. (If Laffey had won, they also would have argued that right-wing extremists had captured the Republican party.) But with Chafee’s primary win, their bid for Senate power just became much harder. Here’s why, in the context of the national map:

The Democrats need to post a net gain of six seats. They can do this by defeating six GOP incumbents, and successfully save all their own incumbents. Theoretically, this can be done by ousting the Republicans in Pennsylvania (Rick Santorum), Montana (Conrad Burns), Ohio (Mike DeWine), Missouri (Jim Talent), Virginia (George Allen), and Rhode Island (Chafee)…or ousting five of them, and picking up the Tennessee seat being vacated by Republican leader Bill Frist. Then they need to defend their five most vulnerable Democratic seats, especially New Jersey’s Robert Menendez. (More on Menendez in a moment.)

For Democrats, this is a tall order, even assuming that something close to an anti-Republican tsunami develops this autumn. Chafee’s win last night doesn’t help. Now they have to pump big money and resources into Rhode Island, where Chafee’s moderate-to-liberal record is actually in sync with the voters; every dollar and staffer that goes to Rhode Island is a dollar and staffer that can’t go to Ohio, Virginia, Missouri, or Tennessee.

Especially Tennessee. In the contest for that open GOP seat, the Democrats have nominated congressman Harold Ford. He is African American. Name the last time that a southern state elected a black Democrat in a statewide Senate race. You can’t.(Harvey Gantt came closest in North Carolina, in 1990, against winner Jesse Helms.) In other words, Ford will need all the national party help he can get, especially since his opponent, Bob Corker, is a millionaire. Chafee’s GOP win in Rhode Island was not good for Ford in Tennessee.

Nor is the Senate race in New Jersey boosting the Democrats’ national prospects. Once again, New Jersey Democrats potentially face a sleaze issue, as they did in 2002, when the ethically-challenged incumbent Senator Bob Torricelli was forced to step down just weeks before election day. This time, Bob Menendez (who’s only a semi-incumbent, having been appointed last winter to fill the seat vacated by Jon Corzine) is under a cloud, in the midst of a tight election against Thomas Kean Jr.

Menendez has been targeted in a federal criminal investigation of his financial dealings. He has already denounced the U.S. attorney as partisan (a politician’s standard defense), but that investigator has a long track record of targeting people in both parties. The bottom line, for Democrats, is that now they will also need to spend precious money and resources defending a blue-state seat - especially given the fact that Kean is a popular New Jersey brand name, which evokes warm memories of the senior Kean’s scandal-free gubernatorial reign.

And I haven’t even mentioned the imminent release of Jim McGreevey’s tell-all memoirs. Jim McGreevey, the Democratic governor who resigned a few years ago after he disclosed that “I am a gay American,” is releasing his book in the midst of this autumn campaign.

Forget Tony and Silvio and Paulie Walnuts. Who needs The Sopranos, when you’ve got Jersey reality?


Good cop/ bad cop, Washington style...

President Bush, in his Monday night speech: "We must put aside our differences and work together" in the war on terror.

House Republican leader John Boehner, speaking yesterday about the Democrats: "I wonder if they're more interested in protecting the terrorists than protecting the American people."

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Five years later, without the bullhorn

Five years ago, President Bush brandished a bullhorn, stood on a mound of Ground Zero rubble, and made a successful pitch for American unity. How distant that day now seems.

Last night, reading off his Oval Office teleprompter, Bush again appealed for unity – declaring that winning the global war on terror “will require the determined efforts of a unified country, and we must put aside our differences” – but this time his prospects for success appear minimal. That autumn ’01 spirit of nonpartisan comradeship proved ephemeral, thanks largely to a divisive war in Iraq that a majority of Americans now deem to be a massive drain on the resources needed to fight the global war on terror.

Five years ago, few Americans could reasonably question the president’s arguments. Last night was a different story. Anybody with even a rudimentary talent for fact-checking could have a field day. One big reason why the spirit of ’01 has waned is because Bush’s credibility has waned. He did little to repair it last night, by making statements that failed to square with the factual record and political reality:

1. Bush said last night, “I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks. The answer is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a clear threat…After 9/11, Saddam’s regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take.”

Yet, during the prewar phase, Bush’s “clear threat” was the specter of Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction that were already being aimed at the American homeland. That’s how Bush defined it at the time – even though there was plenty evidence, even during the runup to war, that this WMD threat was being hyped. More importantly, however, the postwar failure to find any WMDs has severely complicated Bush’s prospects of persuasively insisting, yet again, that Hussein posed a “clear threat.”

2. He said last night that “the world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.” The administration has been saying this since 2003, word for word, but the problem is that fewer and fewer Americans believe it. In fact, the basic verdict today is that the Iraq war has made us less safe. The latest CBS-New York Times poll, for instance, shows that, by a margin of four to one, Americans now believe that the war has worsened the terrorist threat against the U.S. (Forty eight percent say worse, 12 percent say otherwiser.) And, in response to a separate question, 54 percent say that the Iraq war has created more terrorists.

3. It’s worth returning to the line I noted earlier: “I’m often asked why we’re in Iraq when Saddam Hussein was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks.” Note his backhanded acknowledgment that Saddam had no role in 9/11; he attributes it solely to those who have “often asked.” Rhetorical trickery aside, he really had no choice but to confess that what he has so often implied was factually wrong.

That’s because Saddam was cleared again last Friday – in a report that was released by the Republicans who run the Senate Intelligence Committee. These are White House allies, and even they don’t believe the Saddam connection. Here’s page 105, to cite just one passage: “Debriefings also indicate that Saddam issued a general order that Iraq should not deal with al Qaeda. No postwar information suggests that the Iraqi regime attempted to facilitate a relationship with bin Laden.”

4. Nevertheless, in his Oval Office address, Bush stressed that al Qaeda is in Iraq today: “Al Qaeda and other extremists from across the world have come to Iraq to stop the rise of a free society in the heart of the Middle East. They have joined the remnants of Saddam’s regime and other armed groups to foment sectarian violence and drive us out.”

Yet, according to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a nonpartisan think tank staffed with national security analysts), the vast majority of the insurgents in Iraq are home grown. Only about 4 to 10 percent of the insurgents are foreign-born fighters. Many of those foreigners are from Saudi Arabia, but the CSIS report says that “the vast majority of Saudi militants who have entered Iraq were not terrorist sympathizers before the war; and were radicalized almost exclusively by the coalition invasion.” Bush has acknowledged on occasion that the “extremists from across the world” are actually a fraction of the insurgent population, but last night he neglected to make that point.

5. As I noted earlier, Bush urged that we Americans must come together, and “must put aside our differences” in order to fight terrorism. But it’s questionable whether those citizens with doubts about the war (the majority, in fact) will be motivated to put aside their differences with the administration – at a time when Bush’s vice president and his Pentagon chief have been giving speeches that equate war opponents with the appeasers of Adolph Hitler.

6. Near the close of his address, he paused to praise the U.S. Army, which he called “the finest Army the world has ever known.” That’s a good unity line; who could object to lauding our Army? But the complicating truth, which he did not mention, is that many military experts think the war is severely straining the Army, to the point where “the finest Army the world has ever known,” might not be nearly so fine. As John Lehrman, a 9/11 Commission member and former Navy Secretary under Ronald Reagan, contended several weeks ago, “The military occupation in Iraq is consuming practically the entire defense budget and stretching the Army to its operational limits,…our ability to deter enemies around the world is disintegrating.”

With the congressional elections just eight weeks away, it’s clear Bush believes that the only way to fight the war on terror is his way. He again sought to frame that theme last night; and Vice President Cheney was blunter last weekend, saying, “if we had to do it over again (in Iraq), we’d do exactly the same thing.” But much has happened since Bush’s stint with the bullhorn. Perhaps too much for the GOP to withstand.


Rhode Island is rarely on anybody's political radar, but tonight it will be critically important. Incumbent senator Lincoln Chafee (a card-carrying member of that increasingly endangered species, the moderate Republican) may well be defeated in a GOP primary. He is being challenged by a conservative, Cranston mayor Stephen Laffey, who views Chafee as a sellout to conservative principles. It's possible tonight that Rhode Island's relatively small population of GOP conservatives will dominate the turnout, and hand the party nomination to Laffey.

But if Laffey wins the right to run on the GOP ticket in November, Republicans have a big problem. Rhode Island is one of the most Democratic states, and Laffey's odds of winning in November (theoretically, by combining conservatives and moderates) are roughly on a par with Mel Gibson's odds of becoming the police chief of Malibu. As noted here, the national GOP recognizes this fact; it's prepared to concede the state to Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse, in the wake of a Laffey primary victory.

So why should you care about this? Because if the national Democrats are to have any realistic chance of capturing the Senate in November, it needs to pick up that Rhode Island seat -- and put five other GOP seats in the blue column, as well. If Chafee survives tonight, the national Republicans will breathe easier.

Which is ironic, to say the least: The GOP is pinning its hopes on a moderate Yankee who has openly admitted that he refused to vote in 2004 for President Bush. He wrote in the name of Bush's father instead.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Clinton legacy and the '06 elections

On this tragic day, let’s stick with the ABC docudrama story a little longer. Part One aired last night, bracketed with stentorian warnings about its lack of historical accuracy. I’m not going to try to fact-check a work of infotainment; I’m more interested in the political subtext of this dispute.

Leaving aside the hypocrisy issue (which I covered in Friday’s post), it’s easy to see why the Democrats have been so hot to trash the miniseries: Elections are on the horizon, they’re trying to win back the House and Senate, and they probably can’t do it unless they convince swing voters that they’re at least as vigilant as the governing GOP about our national security.

In other words, the last thing they need is for people to watch (and believe) a fact-and-fiction smorgasbord that insinuates in certain episodes that Bill Clinton and his national security team screwed up during the long prelude to 9/11. If viewers are busy debating the Clinton legacy, that potentially shifts the focus away from President Bush’s record.

So the question does arise, what about that Clinton legacy? Was he as vigilant as he should have been? With the wisdom of 20-20 hindsight, probably not. Would another leader (say, a Republican) have done any better? That’s impossible to answer, especially given the ‘90s focus on domestic issues. What can be hard for partisans on either side to accept is the simply reality that these are complicated questions, and that all presidents leave complicated legacies that are grist for centuries of historical debate.

Clinton’s track record on terrorism is a perfect example. It appears to be a mixed bag, which may explain why Democrats are so sensitive about the issue; on the other hand, the GOP isn’t blameless, either. At the risk of riling everybody up, here’s my take on the dispute (based on my own files and notes).

The upside: Clinton signed four executive orders aimed at assassinating Osama bin Laden, raised counterterrorism spending over several years from $5.7 billion to $11.1 billion, gave major speeches on the terrorist threat, sought (unsuccessfully) to create a Domestic Terrorist Team and to ratchet up the FBI’s domestic surveillance tools. Also, according to the best available evidence, at least a dozen terrorist plots were apparently foiled on his watch. Paul Pillar, a career CIA man, has said that “many American lives” were saved during that period. And Richard Clarke, the Clinton national security man who was demoted by the Bush administration, has repeatedly said that the Clintonites were more focused on al Qaeda than their successors were during the first nine months of 2001.

But here’s the downside: Clinton never even bothered to meet with his first CIA chief, James Woolsey; the Lewinsky scandal was a major distraction at the time when bin Laden was gaining strength; he didn't oppose the Taliban's efforts to seize power in Afghanistan; he may have muffed a major opportunity in 1996, when Sudan offered to hand over bin Laden to U.S. authorities. (Five years ago, a Clinton friend who tried to broker that deal wrote: “Clinton’s failure to grasp the opportunity . . . represents one of the most serious policy failures in American history.")

I remember speaking a few years ago with Fred Greenstein, a Princeton historian and author of eight books on the presidency. He told me, “Clinton’s White House was disorganized and chaotic. It was like a kids' soccer game without rules. It was a presidency of loose ends. So there was very little chance he'd systematically address any problem - including terrorism."

But then we get into the rebuttals. Democrats and Clinton legacy defenders say that he spurned Sudan's offer because the U.S. lacked sufficient evidence to indict bin Laden in earlier attacks in Somalia, Yemen and at the World Trade Center in 1993. They say that Ronald Reagan and the senior George Bush sowed the seeds for the Taliban by doing nothing in Afghanistan after the Soviets were chased out in 1989.

And even though Clinton looked weak in 1998 after firing a missile at bin Laden and missing, there wasn’t exactly a major clamor from the Republicans for a more hawkish military response. In fact, the evidence shows, the congressional GOP was no more focused on al Qaeda than Clinton was – and maybe less, given their suspicion of all Clintonian actions.

In 1996, when Clinton wanted to give the FBI those enhanced domestic surveillance tools, the Republican Congress rejected the idea. Three years later, when Clinton wanted to create that domestic intelligence team, the Republican Congress slapped him down, claiming that he was just playing politics; as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly contended at the time, Americans "should not underestimate the deceit and deviousness of Clinton’s plans to use aggressive presidential actions to wipe out public memory of his impeachment trial."

So what’s the best assessment, and is it fair to judge him with the luxury of hindsight? A few years ago, I asked some experts that very question. They couldn’t agree, either.

Stephen Hess, a political analyst who once worked for Republican presidents, said: Looking back, it's clear Clinton was remiss. But would Bush or anyone else have done better? At the time, Clinton…didn't have a crystal ball." Yet presidential historian Allan Lichtman (who’s currently vying for the Democratic Senate nomination in Maryland) said: "Sept. 11 will shape our questions about the past. It's unfair that historians of Clinton will know about an event that he couldn't have foreseen, but that's always the way history works. We judge the past based on contemporary views. Today we fault Thomas Jefferson for having slaves."

Nevertheless, as the two parties vie this fall over who’s tougher on terrorism, the ABC docudrama will probably be forgotten within a week. And the Democrats might have one big advantage: It is Bush, not Clinton, whose national security record is most on the line in the ’06 election.

And, according to author Ron Suskind, citing an incident that has not been refuted, it was Bush, not Clinton, who received an urgent briefing from a CIA official, during the summer of 2001, about a potentially imminent terrorist attack…and responded by saying, “All right. You’ve covered your ass now.”

Sunday, September 10, 2006

A career recalibration

As the Inquirer reported this morning (in a note appended to this column), I am in the midst of diversifying. I am presently moving over to the University of Pennsylvania, joining the English Department's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, and the Kelly Writers House, as "writer in residence." This is a full-time teaching job. I also bring in notable personages to speak at the KWH, and those forums are open to the public.
And thanks to some fruitful talks with the Inquirer, I will continue to write this blog. I'm pleased about that. It will continue to be excerpted in the daily newspaper. Meanwhile, on Sept. 24, I will be starting a new American Debate opinion column that will run twice a month in the Sunday Currents section.