Friday, October 13, 2006

Vote first, get answers later

Since Iraq is deemed to be the most important issue in the ’06 congressional elections, one might reasonably argue that prospective voters deserve to know as much as possible about what’s really going on – not just in the bloody precincts of Baghdad, but in the minds of esteemed Washingtonians who are trying to assess that war with fresh eyes.

Well, that won’t happen. Americans who are still trying to sort out their feelings about President Bush’s Iraq adventure would probably be curious to know, for instance, whether longtime Bush family fixer James Baker believes that Bush has essentially screwed up the war big time. But Baker, who served the senior George Bush as secretary of state and who now co-chairs the congressionally mandated Iraq Study Group, has decreed (along with his Democratic co-chair Lee Hamilton) that this bipartisan panel of Washington players will not talk straight about what needs to be done in Iraq until after the voters have spoken.

As Baker insisted last night on PBS’ The News Hour, “we really have to take it out of politics. It cannot be seen to be politically inspired or politically motivated or politically directed, and we couldn’t do that if we reported before the election.” The counter-argument, of course, is that an election is supposed to be (in Bush’s phrase) “an accountability moment,” and that voters make their best accountability decisions when armed with maximum information. Especially when some notables vow that, in Baker's words,) they will be "telling it like it is."

That would seem to be particularly urgent at the moment, with a civil war seemingly on the horizon, and with the Iraqi government (“the young democracy,” in Bush’s phrase) seemingly unwilling to confront the murderous sectarian militias that operate on the inside. Indeed, Hamilton even told PBS that “I still have real questions in my mind as to the capacity, the will of the Iraqi government to move.”

The Baker-Hamilton panel was formed last March, as mandated by the Republican Congress, in one of its own rare attempts to give Bush an accountability moment. (Congress said at the time that it wanted “to help the president chart a new course.”) Baker and Hamilton have since visited Iraq, but the violence in the young democracy has been so intense that they have heeded their minders’ advice and stayed within the Green Zone, wearing their heavy helmets and their 35 pounds of armor. They talked about that experience on PBS – which, by itself, is a signal that their mood is grim and that their post-election findings might not necessarily please the White House.

Other signals have surfaced. A conservative newspaper, the New York Sun, reported yesterday that the panel is toying the idea of telling Bush a lot of things that he might not want to hear. An early draft was leaked to the paper. The draft suggests that it might be wise to pull out some U.S. troops (as part of a “redeployment,” the same word used these days by congressional Democrats); that the Iraqi government should be “representative” of its people, and “not necessarily democracy”; that Bush should stop promising a victory (“The United States should aim for stability…rather than victory”); and that any move to “stabilize” Iraq will require opening a dialogue with Syria and Iran – both of which Bush has refused to talk to.

Baker hit this latter point hard on PBS, rebuking Bush: “I personally believe in talking to your enemies. When I was secretary of state, I made 15 trips to Syria when they were on the state sponsors of terrorism list. And on the 16th trip, they changed their 25 years of policy and came to the table and sat across the table from Israel and negotiated peace with Israel.”

Would Bush accept this kind of advice? Here’s where the intricate Bush family dynamics come into play. Baker was one of the loyalists who saved Bush’s candidacy in December 2000, by helping to pull him across the finish line in Florida. But Baker’s advice about talking to the enemy, and about potentially dumping the democratization dream in favor of “stability,” sounds suspiciously like the kind of adverse advice that Bush would expect to get from his father’s retinue – and, as evidenced by the reporting in Bob Woodward’s new book, as well as many others – the Bush 41 team is not exactly popular within the Bush 43 coterie. And vice versa.

Anyway, on PBS, Baker was asked, “What gives you confidence that (members of the coterie) are ready to embrace recommendations to chart some kind of new course?” And Baker replied: “We have no assurance whatsoever.”

Stay tuned, but cast your ballots first. The answer to that key question won’t be available until after the election.


By the way, if Baker winds up endorsing some form of troop "redeployment," he will be merely reflecting American mainstream of public opinion. According to the latest survey by the pollsters at Fox News, 41 percent of Americans want to "get out" of Iraq, and 39 percent want to "stay in." The margin for getting out is notably wider among independent swing voters, 43 to 29 percent.

And if you still don't think that's the mainstream opinion, consider the latest remarks on Iraq offered by Hillary Clinton, who, during her early manuevers for 2008, has spent much of her time positioning herself in the middle of the electorate. Here's what she told the New York Daily News editorial board the other day:

"The administration has this mantra: 'We'll stand down when they stand up.' Well, 350,000 of them have stood up — but standing up does not mean they will fight and defend anything.
The appropriate formula is, 'We will stand down anyway, and you will fight to defend Iraq.' Because (right now) they are basically able to just allow us to take the brunt of the impact. There are certain groups of the Iraqis that will fight, but the vast majority of the 350,000 are not prepared to stand up and fight for Iraq. They might stand up and fight for their tribe or for their family or for their religious affiliation. And that's not going to change unless they have to face the reality that, guess what, we are going to start, what we call, in the Democratic alternative, a phased redeployment.

"Now, that doesn't mean initially, out of Iraq. It could be just moving to the North, because I do think we have an extra obligation to the Kurds not to desert them once again. It could certainly mean just over the horizon in Kuwait. But what we've been doing is not working."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Dissing the "nuts," dumping a race, turning a profit

Christian conservatives are quite sensitive about being disrespected. Over the years, whenever they have hosted me, in their kitchens and their churches, in states like Iowa and Texas and South Carolina, they have always made it quite clear (in their earnestly friendly way) that they don’t like being summarily dismissed by less devout Americans as wild-eyed loons.

So I would not imagine that they will take kindly to the news today that certain prominent people view them as “nuts” and “ridiculous” and “goofy” and “out of control.”

Especially when those prominent people work for…the Bush administration. The same administration that for years has been assiduously courting their votes.

Just as the White House and the GOP has embarked on its latest strategy to retain control of the House and Senate in the ’06 elections – by trying to pin the blame for the North Korean nuke test on Bill Clinton – here comes another development that might further sour the GOP’s religious conservative base. A new book, slated for release next Monday, says that the Bush team has been basically playing Christian conservatives for suckers, caring only about pumping them up at election time with slogans and flattery – then shelving the religious right’s issues once the elections were won.

As the author of Tempting Faith contends, the Bush White House has been “mocking the millions of faithful Christians who put their trust and hope in the president and his administration.” He writes: “National Christian leaders received hugs and smiles in person, and then were dismissed behind their backs as ‘ridiculous,’ ‘out of control,’ and ‘just plain goofy.” He says that, in Karl Rove’s office, evangelical leaders were known as “the nuts.” All told, the author writes that, aside from its interest in mining the religious right’s votes, the Bush team “simply didn’t care.”

And who is this author - a “liberal” from the “reality-based community?” Quite the contrary. David Kuo served as deputy director of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. He used to work for “values” maven Bill Bennett, and for ex-attorney general John Ashcroft. And he’s a Christian conservative.

He’s also pretty ticked off (“Making politically active Christians personally happy meant having to worry far less about the Christian political agenda”). He says that, for example, the Bush team was never really interested in giving the faith-based office enough money to fulfill its mission; instead, he charges that, in 2004, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman used the office - a government entity financed by the taxpayers - for political purposes, by staging ostensibly “nonpartisan” events that were actually designed to mobilize religious conservative voters in 20 key races. Kuo says: “Ken loved the idea and gave us our marching orders.” (Mehlman’s office has not yet responded to this charge.)

Thanks to the Mark Foley scandal, and longstanding grievances about a lack of GOP attention to their issues, Christian conservatives already seemed insufficiently enthused about the ’06 elections. Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported that only 57 percent of white evangelicals were inclined to vote GOP on Nov. 8 – a drop of 21 points from the final election tally in 2004.

And this morning, Gallup is reporting even more startling numbers, in its survey of “white frequent churchgoers” (a group that is probably broader than evangelicals, but nevertheless has been strongly pro-GOP in recent elections). Gallup says that, over the past month, Democrats have registered a 22-point gain among these voters. The result: 47 percent of white frequent churchgoers now favor a Democratic candidate, and 47 percent favor a Republican. Until now, a tie would have been unthinkable.

Which is why David Kuo’s book is probably the last thing that Republicans need right now.


On another front, there was a major development today in the ’08 Democratic presidential race. Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor, who appeared to be carving out a niche as a centrist red-state candidate with business-oriented managerial credentials, announced he won’t take the plunge. He said he wants to spend more time with his family. No doubt there were other reasons - such as probable doubts about his political viability, doubts about whether he could win key primaries in states dominated by liberal voters, and doubts whether he could raise the kind of money required to face down Hillary Clinton – but let’s take him at his word for now, and move to the big question:

Who gains the most from his departure?

I nominate two prime beneficiaries. First, John Edwards – the other potentially first-tier candidate who hails from the red-state South. He and Warner were seen as major contestants for the “somebody besides Hillary” slot that will be up for grabs in Iowa New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina (the first four battlegrounds).

And the other is Evan Bayh, the centrist senator from red-state Indiana. He would have been vying with Warner for the “let’s lower our voices, roll up our sleeves, and work with the opposition” message. Bayh issued the first press release about Warner today: “Governor Warner is an exceptional public servant, a great leader, and an influential voice in the Democratic Party. I know how tough a decision that this must have been. Mark Warner has much to contribute to the national debate and I look forward to working with him to make our future everything it can be.”

Here’s my translation: “I am thrilled and relieved that Governor Warner is quitting. He was in my way, as I was in his. We have too much in common, including our serious charisma deficits. I look forward to getting on the phone today and raiding all his donors and workers, in order to make my future everything it can be.”


Speaking of the Democrats, it's lucky for them that the Foley scandal has pumped some life into their "culture of corruption" campaign message...especially since Harry Reid seems so determined to deflate it.

An exhaustive report today fingers the Senate Democratic leader for turning a juicy profit on some land he doesn't own - while apparently flouting Senate ethics rules in the bargain. Reid racked up a $1.1-million windfall on a Las Vegas parcel that he had personally sold off three years earlier to a pal with a shady past. None of the complex machinations were reported to the Senate, which requires its lawmakers to list all such transactions.

The initial statement from Reid's office suggested that this was some kind of partisan attack on the eve of an election (the same kind of defense that Democrats typically ridicule when invoked by the White House), but the facts say otherwise: The report was authored by the Associated Press, and the key arbiter in the story is Kent Cooper, a former Federal Election Commission official who spent two decades monitoring candidate disclosure reports - and he says that Reid broke Senate rules:

"This is very, very clear. Whether you make a profit or a loss you've got to put that transaction down so the public, voters, can see exactly what kind of money is moving to or from a member of Congress. It is especially disconcerting when you have a member of the leadership, of either party, not putting in the effort to make sure this is a complete and accurate report. That says something to other members. It says something to the Ethics Committee." "

It also suggests that Democrats aren't immune from the charge of Washington arrogance. Especially since Reid's response, while under questioning, was to hang up on the AP reporter.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The national security steward treads carefully

During his Rose Garden press briefing today, President Bush sought to define the issues that would work best to the Republicans’ advantage in the ’06 congressional elections: “Security and the economy.”

No wonder the Republicans are in trouble this autumn.

On the economy, as I noted the other day, the GOP is being hammered in the polls. Despite the upbeat macroeconomic indicators, touted today by the president, most Americans seem to be unwilling to credit the GOP. In all likelihood, this grudging response (most significantly, among independent swing voters) can be traced to the sour national mood, and the current credibility problems that plague the party’s leader in the White House.

And on the security front…this where Bush had to tread very carefully, as he labored to deliver his key campaign message. We have heard the basic message many times before, of course: The Democrats allegedly want to raise the white flag in Iraq, because they don’t understand the stakes in Iraq, whereas Republicans do. And he wants to make sure that Americans recognize the stakes, which is why, today, at random moments over a span of 65 minutes, he kept saying it: “The stakes are high, as a matter of fact, they couldn’t be higher….I’m going to spend a lot of time explaining the stakes….I understand the stakes….The stakes are high….The stakes are really high.”

But the complications of factual reality don’t seem to lend themselves to repetitive talking points. For instance, how is Bush to deal with the fact that Republican senator like John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee and somebody who surely agrees that the stakes are really high, just returned from Iraq and said publicly that the war is “drifting sideways?” - and warned that the White House may need to rethink its mission within the next 60 or 90 days?

Asked about this today, Bush said he had no problem with Warner, because “we’re constantly changing tactics to achieve a strategic goal…to help this young democracy succeed. If the plan isn’t working, we have to adjust, I completely agree.” But he didn’t address the full import of Warner's remarks. Last Friday, the senator warned that, unless the raging violence is curbed, “I wouldn’t take off the table any option"- which means that even an establishment hawk with close Pentagon ties is willing to consider the supposedly “Defeatocrat” option of pulling back some troops. That doesn’t sound like a sterling vote of confidence in Bush’s security stewardship.

Bush had to navigate some other tricky moments. There’s a report today that a new study by Iraqi and American health researchers has pegged the Iraqi civilian death toll in the war at roughly 600,000. Even considering the broad margin of error, that finding stands in stark contrast to the civilian estimate that Bush offered last winter: 30,000. Asked about this discrepancy, Bush replied, “I don’t consider it a credible report.” But when asked whether he still stood by his 30,000 figure, he moved the goalposts: “I stand by the figure that a lot of innocent people have lost their lives.”

He also had this to say: "I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate." But polls show that most Iraqis, far from "tolerating" the violence in their midst, actually want to be free...of the American military. A majority believes that if U.S. forces departed, the level of violence would drop. Two weeks ago, the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, which conducts surveys in Iraq, found that 71 percent of Iraqis questioned want the Iraqi government to ask foreign forces to leave within a year.

The North Korean situation has further complicated his campaign message. On May 23, 2003, he stated that "we will not tolerate” a nuclear North Korea, and now apparently we have a nuclear North Korea. Asked about this, he said “that statement still stands.” And he suggested that Bill Clinton (without mentioning Clinton’s name) messed up by trying to negotiate directly with North Korea starting in 1994; the Republican party followed that up today by circulating a photo of Clinton’s press secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, clinking glasses with Kim Jung Il. Indeed, some top conservative bloggers contend that the North Koreans have nuked the Democrats' prospects for taking over the House and Senate; as radio host Hugh Hewitt argues today, "It took 48 hours of loose nukes in the control of bad hair kooks to get the electorate refocused on the stakes in November's elections."

Clearly, the GOP has the potential to reassign part of the blame to the Clinton camp, because there’s no doubt that North Korea was not in full compliance with the pact (the Agreed Framework) that it negotiated with the Clinton regime, a pact that largely froze plutonium production. But it’s also true that the Bush White House tore up the Agreed Framework in 2002, and has done little ever since to confront this charter member of the “axis of evil,” except for sending a representative to six-party talks organized by the Chinese. One independent study, sponsored by the Institute for Science and International Security, has concluded that North Korea has produced enough plutonium to make between four and 13 nuclear bombs – all of it since the Clinton pact was scuttled in 2002.

Regarding those six-party talks, Bush said today that he still trusts in diplomacy: “I believe the commander in chief must (use) diplomatic measures before using the military” – which is a switch from what happened prior to the Iraq war, when the White House used the military to invade Iraq and root out weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist, rather than trying to rally full support within the United Nations. (But he did say today that the decision to invade and oust Saddam Hussein was “the right decision,” an argument that is no longer accepted by a majority of Americans, as evidenced by the polls.)

At one point, referring to all the tomes about the Bush team that now crowd the bookstores, the president said, “Someone should add up all the pages.” No doubt there will be many more, if chaos in Iraq persists while Bush continues to insist (as he did today) that "we're on the move, we're taking action."

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Can the North Korean evil-doer save the GOP?

During the past two weeks, Republicans have been feeling a tad panicked, as if they were being propelled down a white-water river, careening straight for the waterfall without a raft or a paddle. Which is why they’re now clinging to the North Korea nuclear blast story as if it was the overhanging tree branch that could save them from the final plummet on election day.

Iraq is a mess, the Mark “Maf54” Foley scandal is an embarrassment (the latest CBS-New York Times poll says that the Democrats have become the preferred party of moral values), and the economy isn’t paying the GOP any political dividends…so here, courtesy of dictator Kim Jong Il, is perhaps the October development that will finally cause voting Americans to spurn those purportedly weak Democrats and instead take refuge beneath the Republicans’ dependable national security umbrella.

That’s the talk today in conservative circles. A poster on the website asks hopefully, “Has North Korea just blown up the Democrats' best chance to capture the House?” Republicans, sensing that the nuclear story might boost their imperiled image as the tough national security party, are now combing through the voting records of Democratic candidates, to see who might be painted as soft on the Korean threat; sure enough, they’re already assailing Maryland senatorial candidate Ben Cardin for having voted, as a member of the House, to cut spending for a missile defense system. And they might find it useful that Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker in waiting, voted against the establishment of such a system; so did congressman Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senatorial candidate in winnable Ohio.

Meanwhile, the commentator Rich Lowry thinks the North Korean test is vivid proof that voters shouldn’t trust the Democrats with their lives: “Ned Lamont, the liberal hero who vanquished Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman in a Democratic primary in August, declared a few months ago that our nation is stronger when we ‘negotiate with our enemies.’ He thus neatly summarized post-9/11 Democratic foreign-policy thought in four words. The criminal regime of North Korea…has now issued a rejoinder to this foreign-policy axiom that measured 4.2 on the Richter scale.”

And conservative blogger and political analyst Tom Bevan puts it bluntly: “By almost any standard, the testing of a nuclear bomb by a rogue regime is a pretty significant event. It is also, one would hope, worthy of a great deal of attention and a far more serious debate than the one we've been having for the last ten days over a few pervy IMs from a gay Congressman. Obviously, with only 30 days or so left to the election, this represents a pretty big, and perhaps final opportunity for Republicans to put the focus back on national security….Republicans will be more than happy to sling mud back and forth and refight the issue of whose to blame over North Korea because it keeps the focus off Mark Foley and off Iraq. It may not be exactly the fight the GOP wanted to have for the final four weeks of the midterm election, but it will certainly do. Beggars, after all, can't be choosers.”

So the question is whether the North Korea story really has the potential to send the Republicans soaring northward in the polls. Will voters, perhaps sensing a threat to their safety, quickly forget their frustrations with the governing party and seek shelter within the Republicans’ protective embrace? Or will the boom above a faraway mountain turn out to be a bust for the GOP?

One political development is already evident: the Democrats have not gone into their traditional defense crouch. Quite the contrary, this time. They are confident that they can paint this event as a byproduct of the Bush misadventure in Iraq.

Rather than cede the dialogue to the GOP, they clearly feel that they can fight back on solid ground. It was noteworthy, in today’s New York Times, that the key Democratic talking point was most prominently articulated by Sam Nunn, the former Georgia senator who in his day was respected by both parties as a credibly hawkish policymaker. In just a few sentences, he argued that the North Korean test is proof of President Bush’s failure to make America safer: “What it tells you is that we started at the wrong end of the ‘axis of evil.’ We started with the least dangerous of the countries, Iraq, and we knew it at the time. And now we have to deal with that.”

Other Democrats are speaking in similar terms; Democratic senatorial candidate Bob Menendez, who is trying to shrug off scandal allegations and hang on to his New Jersey seat, put out a statement late yesterday, contending that the North Korean test “illustrates just how much the Bush administration’s incompetence has endangered our nation. We invaded Iraq, the country that didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, and ignored Iran and North Korea, the two that did.”

The GOP is already working to place much of the blame on Bill Clinton, by contending that his administration allowed the North Korean despot to run wild. They do have some raw material to work with: Clinton talked directly with the renegades, and those talks yielded a pact that the North Koreas soon began to cheat on, by setting up a secret uranium-enrichment program. The political argument here is that, if voters elect Democrats, they would choose to negotiate directly with enemies who will merely take advantage.

The potential downside to that argument, however, is that voters – already in a foul mood about the incumbent party – might not be so willing to re-debate the 1990s, not when they have six Bush years in the foreground. The Bush/GOP foreign policy record is on the ballot this year, not Clinton’s. And even if the issue is about whether it’s a sign of softness to talk directly with enemies, there are plenty of Republicans and intelligence experts who believe that Bush has been wrong not to talk to the North Koreans.

This past Sunday on ABC, Republican James Baker – who served the senior George Bush as secretary of state and is currently reviewing Iraq policy at the current president’s request – articulated his own philosophy: “I believe in talking to your enemies. It’s got to be hard-nosed, it’s got to be determined. You don’t give away anything, but in my view, it’s not appeasement to talk to your enemies.”

And career CIA official Donald Gregg, who served the senior Bush as a national security advisor and as ambassador to South Korea, made these scathing comments yesterday: “Why won't the Bush administration talk bilaterally and substantively with NK, as the Brits (and eventually the U.S.) did with Libya? Because the Bush administration sees diplomacy as something to be engaged in with another country as a reward for that country's good behavior. They seem not to see diplomacy as a tool to be used with antagonistic countries or parties, that might bring about an improvement in the behavior of such entities, and a resolution to the issues that trouble us. Thus we do not talk to Iran, Syria, Hezbollah or North Korea. We only talk to our friends - a huge mistake.”

With people like Baker and Gregg openly rebuking the administration, it's no surprise that the press is asking the White House whether it thinks it could have done more to halt or reverse the North Korean nuclear program, especially since Bush had declared three years ago that such weaponry would not be tolerated. That very question came up today. But Bush spokesman Tony Snow replied, "It's a silly question." When a reporter objected and said that, in fact, it was "a fair question," Snow explained that "you need to give presidents the benefit of the doubt when national security is involved."

You need to give presidents the benefit of the doubt...That was certainly an interesting remark, given the fact that, at 2:21 this afternoon, the Republican National Committee sent out an email with this subhead: "Clinton administration made a deal with North Korea and failed."

Defenders of the current President Bush will, of course, dismiss Baker and Gregg as anachronisms; at the very least, however, these remarks hint at disunity within the GOP camp, and undercut the notion that the North Korean test can be an election-eve boon to ailing Republicans. Iraq is a glaring and easily graspable vulnerability; and the nuances of Far East diplomacy, past and present, are too complex for the casual voter – unlike the nuances of the Foley scandal.

As one disconsolate conservative blogger remarks on, “Even after this (North Korean) event, regardless of the coverage it generates, there will still be more people in the United States who can identify Maf54 and locate him on a map than can do the same for Kim Jong-Il.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

The GOP's "Hey, how about that awesome Dow?" defense

As part of their ongoing attempts to defuse the Mark Foley scandal, the Republicans have now come up with another talking point, another strategy designed to change the subject from their own potential culpability. In essence, it can be called the “Hey, how about that awesome Dow?” defense.

As I mentioned here last Thursday, the Republicans, mindful that their dominance of Congress is imperiled with just four weeks remaining in the ’06 congressional elections, have been trying out all kinds of defenses. On the Sunday shows yesterday, for example, Florida congressman Adam Putnam, the number-five guy in the House GOP hierarchy, brought up the “Yeah, well, what about Bill Clinton?” defense; while under fire on ABC’s This Week, he charged that the other two people seated at the interview table – Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel and host George Stephanopolous, had once worked for Clinton and had “covered up” for him. (Stephanopolous quickly pointed out that he had left Clinton’s employ two years before the Lewinsky scandal.)

And Putnam tried another tack, which can be called the “When trapped, simply make stuff up” defense. While seeking to defend the embattled House GOP leadership, he said this about the events of Friday, Sept. 29: “Within hours of the explicit email coming to light, (the Speaker’s office) demanded Foley’s resignation.” But this attempt to paint Dennis Hastert as a man in charge, a talking point that was also floated late last week by GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, does not square with factual reality. When ABC News was preparing to break the story that day, it called Foley’s office in the morning with the details. An hour later, Foley called back and said he was quitting Congress. House Speaker Dennis Hastert played no role in the decision – and said so himself last Monday: “When (the instant messages) were released, Congressman Foley resigned. And I’m glad he did. If he had not, I would have demanded his expulsion from the House of Representatives.”

So that brings us to the Dow defense.

On paper, this would appear to be a potent way to change the subject, by arguing in essence that voters should be more focused on the money in their pocket than on the particulars of one sleazy episode. The macroeconomic indicators are healthy these days, and any incumbent party in a tight spot would try to take credit. Putnam reeled off some of the stats yesterday: plummeting gasoline prices, a low jobless rate, and “three record-breaking days for the Dow last week.” Illinois congressman Ray LaHood did the same thing over on CBS yesterday, and a trip of Republicans echoed this theme on the Sunday New York Times’ op-ed page; as former California congressman Tom Campbell contended, “The robust economy stems from actions the Republican president and Congress have taken…”

Yet, if all this is true, then why are the Republicans getting no credit from the voters for the sunny economic stats? In a Newsweek poll released yesterday, Democrats were favored over the Republicans as the party best trusted to handle the economy – by a margin of 53 to 31 percent. Other polls lately have reported similar margins. Privately, a number of Republican strategists are deeply frustrated by these findings, and their party’s apparent inability to reap political benefits. One of them asked me recently, “Can you explain it?”

It’s not so tough to explain. One could always make the argument that most voters are dismissing the sunny numbers as irrelevant to their everyday lives; after all, counter-stats show that the real wages of working Americans have stagnated during the Bush years, and that the gap between the richest and poorest Americans continues to widen. It was Henry Paulson, the Bush administration’s new Treasury secretary, who effectively undercut the Sunday show Republicans, when he said in a speech two months ago that “amid this country’s strong economic expansion, many Americans simply aren’t feeling the benefits. Their increases in wages are being eaten up by high energy prices and rising health care costs, among others.”

But the GOP’s current inability to get credit for the economy can probably be attributed to a more fundamental factor: the Bush administration’s credibility gap.

Iraq is the animating issue in the ’06 elections, and, as yesterday’s Newsweek poll pointed out, a majority of Americans now believe that the president (backed by the GOP Congress) deceived the nation into war. This climate of distrust permeates the national mood at the moment. Disenchanted voters, who feel they have been deceived, are hardly in the mood to accept as truth the GOP’s claims of effective economic stewardship – especially at a time of deep budget deficits, caused in part by a war that is costing the taxpayer $2 billion a week.

Meanwhile, the Foley scandal has managed to underscore the GOP’s credibility woes. Republican congressman Tom Davis - who has headed the House GOP’s campaign efforts in the past, and who is respected for his willingness to dump the talking points and talk straight – put his finger on the problem yesterday, during his appearance on CBS’ Face the Nation. He said simply that the Republicans can’t get any “oxygen” to talk about their preferred issues, because of “the very difficult atmospherics” of the moment.

And to truly gauge how difficult the “atmospherics” have become, consider the plight of Tom Reynolds, the Republican congressman who is helming the current House GOP campaign efforts.

An upstate New York incumbent who was widely assumed to be a cinch re-election winner, he suddenly trails his Democratic challenger by 15 points – because of his role in the Foley chronology. He says he informed Hastert about Foley last spring, but Hastert says he doesn’t remember that. And Reynolds reportedly asked Foley to run for re-election at a time when evidence about Foley’s behavior was already circulating (although he now says he can’t recall when it was that he asked Foley to run again).

Reynolds was supposed to appear on ABC yesterday, but he canceled. No surprise there. More surprising was the release of his new TV ad in his home district. Appearing on camera, he recounts his version of events, starting with last spring: “I reported what I had been told to the Speaker of the House….I trusted that others had investigated.”

Now there’s a political commercial that you normally don’t see: In a bid to save his own skin, an incumbent from the governing party is attacking the leader of his own party as untrustworthy.

With that kind of material out on the airwaves, is it any wonder why the Republicans are having problems changing the subject to the economy?


Will social and religious conservative voters stay home on election day and tip the balance to the Democrats? Some polls say yes; The New York Times today isn't so sure. Either way, and no matter who wins this autumn, tensions will persist within the fragile Republican conservative coalition, at least according to one print column that ran Sunday. That would be mine.