Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bon Appetit!

I’m going to cut and run for the Thanksgiving holidays. I’ll return briefly on Sunday – to post a link to my new print column (about Hillary Clinton’s ‘08 prospects) – and resume the normal schedule on Monday.

But, in the meantime, here’s what I am most thankful for in 2006:

1. Freedom of speech and the right to dissent, staples of the First Amendment that have made quite a comeback since the prelude to war in Iraq, when it was unwise to second-guess The Decider.

2. The Internet, which has given us more tools for holding politicians accountable, fact-checking their veracity, and exposing their character flaws via YouTube (as Senator George Allen in Virginia recently discovered, on the way to unemployment).

3. The mainstream media (yeah, bloggers, you heard me) for demonstrating its continued relevance by breaking virtually every political story that mattered most in the '06 election – from the Jack Abramoff scandal (The Washington Post) to the Duke Cunningham scandal (San Diego Union-Tribune and Copley News Service) to the warrantless wiretaps (The New York Times), to the Mark Foley scandal (the website of ABC News), to the state of denial (Bob Woodward), to the string of deceptions about Iraq WMDs (the Washington bureau of now-defunct Knight Ridder). As Dylan Thomas might put it, we shall not go gentle into that good night.

4. America’s military men and women, who continue to do their laudably professional best under increasingly treacherous circumstances in a no-win war, tragically far from their families on feast day.

5. And a whole lot of other important things, such as family & friends, Neil Young’s archival music, Monet’s impressionist paintings, Elmore Leonard’s pitch-perfect dialogue, Ryan Howard’s most valuable ballplaying, and Robert Altman’s path-breaking cinema (may he rest in peace).

Make up your own lists, and have a great holiday.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Kissinger to Bush: forget the victory rhetoric

Did you happen to catch Henry Kissinger’s comments this weekend? Quite extraordinary, really.

Here is the purported Republican wise man of foreign policy, the backstage tutor of President Bush during the latter’s hour of need…and yet even he is now saying, in public, that the Bush mission in Iraq is a hopeless quagmire.

First, a bit of context: Bush has long argued that we are “winning” the war in Iraq, that “victory” is either at hand or in sight or conceivably around the corner. The rhetoric has been dispensed to Americans seemingly on a continuous loop. During the 2004 campaign, for instance, he said he had “a strategy that will lead to victory,” and on Nov. 30, 2005 he said he had “a clear strategy for victory,” and that “we would never accept anything less than complete victory,” and on July 4 of this year he said that “when the job in Iraq is done, it will be a major victory,” and on Aug. 31 he said that “victory in Iraq will be a crushing defeat for our enemies,” and on Sept. 11 he said that “we can be confident in victory, because of the skill and resolve of America’s armed forces,” and just a few weeks ago he said that “absolutely, we are winning.”

Yet now we have Henry Kissinger himself telling the BBC that (a) we are not winning, and (b) we will never achieve victory.

Bush and his surrogates have long said that we would achieve victory in Iraq when a democratic central government, backed by its own effective military, is able to stand up for itself and stabilize the country. But Kissinger basically told the BBC this weekend that, by that definition, victory is no longer achievable.

His words: “If you mean by clear military victory an Iraqi government that can be established and whose writ runs across the whole country, that gets the civil war under control and sectarian violence under control in a time period that the political processes of the democracies will support, I don't believe that is possible."

Note, also, that Kissinger is matter of factly observing that Iraq is now embroiled in a civil war – something that Bush has never acknowledged. I am awaiting the Republican National Committee press release claiming that Kissinger is merely a “Defeat-o-crat,” but, given the fact that frustration with the war now extends deep into the GOP and military establishments, it’s clear that such a political attack strategy is no longer operative. Not even our top fighting men seem to have faith in the Bush rhetoric; as Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno said the other day, “You have to define ‘win,’'' and he doesn’t believe that building a “democracy,” as Americans typically understand the word, has anything to do with it.

Kissinger’s willingness to speak out is further proof that Bush not only has lost control of events, he has also lost control of the administration message. Kissinger told the BBC that America should be talking to Iraq’s neighbors (Syria and Iran) in order to quell “the civil war” – a stance that is openly at odds with Bush’s longstanding refusal to talk to Iraq’s neighbors.

At the same time, Kissinger told the BBC that it would be wrong for America to withdraw its troops prematurely, because such a move, he said, would further destabilize the country. Bush defenders no doubt will point to that remark as proof that the administration is right to resist calls for a troop phase-down in 2007.

But take a step back and look at Kissinger’s overall message: He is essentially saying that we cannot win this war, and yet, for the foreseeable future, we should keep our troops in harm’s way nevertheless. That’s quite a message for the soldiers, as well as for their families back home. Forgive me, but this sounds like the early 70’s Kissinger prescription for Vietnam – a prescription for a quagmire that prompted the young John Kerry to wonder, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

From the Republican perspective, it’s a good thing that Bush’s tutor didn’t utter his remarks prior to the congressional elections, or else the GOP might well have coughed up even more seats. Which is arguably why we are hearing this kind of frank admission only now, after the election.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The '08 GOP presidential race: "base" ball and hardball

The 2008 Republican presidential race is in full swing already, as evidenced in recent days by the behavior of all the top contenders. Clearly, their first priority is to look rightward, in the hopes of nailing down early conservative support in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina:

1. Consider John McCain. He badly wants to establish his bona fides with the suspicious conservative base, even if it means taking the wheel of his purported “Straight Talk” Express and weaving all over the road.

Yesterday, on ABC News, he basically stated that it would be fine with him if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and thereby erased the 33-year-old federal right to an abortion. McCain said: “I do believe that it’s very likely or possible that the Supreme Court should — could overturn Roe v. Wade, which would then return these decisions to the states, which I support….I do believe that we would be better off by having Roe v. Wade return to the states. And I don’t believe the Supreme Court should be legislating in the way that they did on Roe v. Wade.”

Oh really? Here’s what McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999: “Certainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to (undergo) illegal and dangerous operations.” He then reiterated this argument on CNN: "We all know, and it's obvious, that if we repeal Roe v. Wade tomorrow, thousands of young American women would be performing illegal and dangerous operations."

In other words, McCain was for it before he was against it. In politics (or at least when someone like John Kerry acts this way), this is known as a flip flop.

But it’s easy to understand the McCain flip flop. Six years ago, when he was wiped out by George W. Bush in the pivotal South Carolina primary, McCain strategist John Weaver diagnosed the defeat this way: “We lost the religious right by 57 points, proudly.” But the McCain camp has concluded that if he really wants to win the ’08 primaries, he has to consider pride to be a luxury. And that means throwing Roe v. Wade under the Straight Talk bus.

2. Consider Mitt Romney. He too is fixated on the base. He has some centrist credentials, as the blue-state Massachusetts governor who has crafted a universal health care program, but two moves in the past few days are aimed at the right. Yesterday, for instance, he demanded that state officials put the same-sex marriage issue on the ballot so that Bay State citizens can vote for themselves on whether gays should be allowed to wed.

Three years ago, the state supreme court (with its Republican majority) ruled that gay marriages were consistent with language in the state constitution, but grassroots opponents in Massachusetts have long been demanding a ballot referendum that could allow the voters to overturn the judges. Romney said yesterday that, unless the secretary of state puts the issue on the ballot, judicial “tyranny” will have prevailed. In political terms, if Romney expects to garner sufficient support among conservative primary voters, he needs to demonstrate that he has done all he can to push traditional values in his blue backyard.

Meanwhile, he sent another signal to these voters last week, by hiring Alex Castellanos as a media consultant. Castellanos is hardly a household name, but within activist and donor circles, his hiring is a sign that Romney means business, and that Romney is prepared to play hardball in order to win. Because Castellanos is a famous (some would say infamous) hardball practitioner of conservative TV messaging.

He’s so aggressive that even some of his most prominent clients have refused to put his ads on the air; for instance, during the ’96 campaign, when he produced some spots that directly called President Clinton a liar, GOP candidate Bob Dole nixed them. In 1999, when Hillary Clinton was doing her early spadework for her first Senate race, Castellanos called her “a cross between the Kennedy agenda and Nixon’s ethical judgment.” In 2000, he produced an ad that equated the Democrats with “rats,” by allowing the final four letters of the party name to linger on the TV screen. To quell the ensuing controversy, the Bush campaign yanked the spot. And in 2004, he produced a spot claiming that John Kerry would raise taxes by $900 billion, whereas Kerry had said no such thing and the budgetary issues were far more complicated than what was portrayed in Castellanos' ad.

The bottom line for Romney, however, is that Castellanos knows to talk to the base.

3. Rudy Giuliani, who, like McCain, filed papers this past week for an “exploratory” campaign committee, is also fixated on the base. He can’t talk about his stance on social issues (because he is pro-gay rights and pro-abortion rights) and he can’t really talk up his personal story either (because he has dumped two wives, and, after the second dumping, moved in with a gay couple). But he has been relentlessly plucking the base’s heartstrings by invoking 9/11 – the visuals of Giuliani, coated with dust and striding through the rubble, are potential grist for TV ads – and tying his behavior on that tragic day to a broader narrative about being tough on terrorists.

As he put it on the eve of the ’06 elections, “Five years ago, our nation learned a painful lesson about the dangers of an inconsistent approach to dealing with the evil of terrorism. In his speech to Congress on September 20th, 2001, President Bush declared that we would go on offense against terrorists, and he has made good on that promise. Terrorists have been destabilized and put on defense around the world - including Afghanistan and Iraq.”

For the conservative base, the Giuliani message has potential visceral appeal. And if he does run, his 9/11 visuals will presumably trump the actual factual details of his spotty anti-terrorist record, pre-9/11. Because as a well-researched new book makes abundantly clear, Giuliani made a number of regrettable decisions prior to the attacks:

He put the city’s emergency command center inside the World Trade Center, defying the pleas of his security advisors who (citing the 1993 attacks on that building) wanted the command center placed elsewhere; he dragged his feet on establishing any plan for interagency cooperation in the wake of a high-rise terror attack, even though his own emergency management director was insisting on such a plan; and he failed to act on evidence, going back to 1990, that the fire department’s emergency radios were so outmoded that lives would be lost in the event of a major disaster operation.

But only a fraction of conservative primary voters will know about any of that…and even if a rival brings it up, it may well be dismissed as ancient history. To quote a line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a classic western: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”