Saturday, December 02, 2006

The envelope, please...Heckuva job, Rummy!

Last night, the venerable Union League of Philadelphia awarded its prestigious Gold Medal to an American whose track record of public service has been deemed by the cream of the city’s tuxedoed establishment to be an inspiration to us all.

That would be Donald Rumsfeld.

I can understand the Union League’s reasoning. If President Bush can award the Medal of Freedom to CIA director George Tenet (the guy who declared that the evidence of Iraq WMDs was a “slam dunk”), and if Bush can award the Medal of Freedom to Paul Bremer (who quickly disbanded the Iraqi army, thereby sowing the seeds for the ensuing insurgent chaos that afflicts us still), then why should Philadelphia’s elite insist on stronger award criteria?

Indeed, why should merit be considered the prime qualification for a Gold Medal, much less any other kind of prize? As a concept, that is so old school. Hang out with any losing Little League team these days, and you quickly discover that every kid gets a trophy, even the one who batted .100 and let every ball squirt between his legs.

So let us join the Union League applause for Donald Rumsfeld, and celebrate some of the various whiffs and errors that apparently won the hearts of the city’s besotted swells. They could've rolled this video at the black-tie soiree:

Here’s the Gold Medal winner on Feb. 7, 2003, predicting that the impending Iraq war “could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months."

Here he is on Feb. 20, 2003, predicting that the American troops "would be welcomed," as happened in Afghanistan, where people in the streets were "playing music, cheering, flying kites."

Here he is a few months later, declaring that we had found Hussein’s WMDs: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

Here he is, even before the war began: “…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

Here he is, on June 27, 2005, seeking to defend Vice President Cheney’s claim that the anti-American insurgency was in its last throes: "Last throes could be a violent last throes, or a placid and calm last throes.”

Here he is on NBC News, that same day, talking about how, during the prewar phase, he had drawn up a list of "15 things that could go terribly wrong," including oil fields set afire and a mass exodus of refugees. When asked whether he had also listed the dangers of a robust insurgency, he replied: “I don’t remember if that was on there.”

And here's a rave review of Rumsfeld, from the editors at the conservative National Review magazine. Put these words in the video: "Rumsfeld has made serious - perhaps catastrophic - mistakes...(Insufficient) troops on the ground, this was a terrible mistake...(He) showed very little interest in planning for post-combat stability operations in Iraq. This was an error too, one for which we are still paying and from which we may never recover...All of this has brought us to a perilous position in which defeat seems more likely than victory."

In fact, let's put Philip Carter - former Army officer and adviser to the Iraqi police - into the video, too: "Iraq dominates the list of Rumsfeld errors because of the sheer enormity of his strategic mistakes. Indeed, his Iraq blunders should have cost him his job long before the 2006 midterm elections....Rumsfeld's failures transformed the Iraq war from a difficult enterprise into an unwinnable one.....These were not tactical failures, made by subordinate military officers. Rather, these were strategic errors of epic proportions that no amount of good soldiering could undo."

Hence his prizeworthy qualifications. So bravo to the Union League, which is merely embracing the elastic contemporary definition of merit. Or, as Rummy himself would put it:

You go to the podium with the winner you have, not the winner you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

An annual Washington ritual: spinning the unknowable

One venerable Washington ritual is the post-election confab, in which various strategists and spin doctors sit on a stage with their bottled water and ponder the lessons of the latest vote tallies, while opining about future events that are essentially unknowable. It’s fair to say that, within 48 hours, virtually everybody will have forgotten what was said, which is a blessing in a way, at least for the speakers, because it insulates them from embarrassment when subsequent events prove them wrong.

For instance, I spent much of yesterday at one such annual ritual, the American Democracy Conference, co-sponsored by the University of Virginia (specifically, political swami Larry Sabato) and The Hotline (an online newsletter that is catnip for those political junkies who can afford the steep subscription tab). And I kept reminding myself that, since most of the folks on stage were spinning for one prospective ’08 presidential candidate or another, it means that almost all of them would turn out to be wrong.

As Steve Murphy sees things, for example, the ’06 midterm results prove that Bill Richardson – the ex-Clinton UN ambassador, now the governor of New Mexico – would be the perfect Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.

Murphy, a Richardson consultant, argued that since the Democrats made some serious gains in the interior western states (Colorado, Arizona, Montana), it behooves them to nominate a westerner – someone, like westerner Richardson, who doesn’t “look down” on blue-collar voters, the way that eastern Democrats typically do. Plus, Richardson has cut taxes in New Mexico, he’s “pro-growth,” and he’s “pro-gun.” Plus, because of his Clinton era foreign policy creds, Richardson “has dealt with the bad guys” and wouldn’t hesitate to go face down Kim Jung Il and threaten “to cut off his toes.”

Murphy omitted some interesting material, but, since good cheer abounds at these kinds of events, his rival flaks didn’t bring it up. Such as the fact that Richardson, while serving as Clinton’s last chief of the Department of Energy, was slammed by Democratic senators for security breaches in the nuclear program at Los Alamos (a scandal that may have persuaded Al Gore not to tap him as the 2000 running-mate). And the fact that, in 1995, Richardson, during a stop in Iraq, had his picture taken with Saddam Hussein (and reportedly said, “This picture is going to cost me votes”).

But Murphy wasn’t alone as a spinner. Anita Dunn, a consultant for Senator Evan Bayh of red-state Indiana, said that the ’06 results – which showed some big gains for Democrats in the Midwest - vividly demonstrate why a midwesterner (specifically, Bayh) would be the perfect Democratic nominee. She noted that 10 of the 29 new Democratic seats are located in the Midwest, three of them in Indiana. What she wouldn’t say, of course, and what others on the panel were to polite to point out, is that there are many Democrats who privately say that if Evan Bayh was a Baskin Robbins flavor, it would be vanilla.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, I heard consultant David Kensinger hint strongly that one of his clients, Kansas senator and religious-right favorite Sam Brownback, is exactly what Republican voters are looking for – “a consistent, principled, Reaganite conservative.” He also said that, ’06 results notwithstanding, most Americans still view the GOP as “a natural governing party at the presidential level.” But he didn’t bother to explain how an outspoken social conservative who opposes legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research would play well in the Northeast and Midwestern suburbs, where the party suffered heavy losses in the ’06 election and badly needs to recoup.

Then there was Jan van Lohuizen, a pollster for Mitt Romney, who scoffs at the notion that any voters have a problem with the fact that his client is a Mormon: “(People) will hear questions about the Mormon thing until it’s ridiculous…The question will wear itself out. There’s no answer to it, because the question is a weapon.” While he clearly sees America as a tolerant land, he omitted the fact that, last June, a Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll found that 37 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon; and that, in a Rasmussen poll two weeks ago, 53 percent of Christian evangelicals - a key group in the GOP primaries - said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon.

And, lastly, there was longtime strategist Rich Galen, making the case for why the post-’06 landscape is fertile turf for Newt Gingrich – maybe as a presidential candidate, maybe as backstage policy maestro. In Galen’s words, “Newt will go just go out and do what he does….He wants to be in a position not so much to be President of the United States per se, but to frame the debate for the nomination process.”

The Gingrich pitch these days is that congressional Republicans tanked in the ’06 elections because they have fatally strayed from their core values, notably clean government and conservative reform. Yet I have been waiting for somebody somewhere to note the fact that Newt is probably ill-suited to lead the charge for this message – because, after all, he was one of the first to violate those core values.

In 1997, just two years after leading the conservatives to power, he became the first sitting House speaker in history to be reprimanded by the chamber for an ethics breach. Nailed by the House Ethics Committee for financial improprieties and for twice providing the panel with false information, he finally admitted, “my actions did not reflect creditably on the House.” And not long after, a band of House conservatives tried to stage a coup to remove Gingrich from his post – on the grounds that he was betraying the conservative faith. One of the ringleaders: Tom DeLay.

Given the restive national mood, the wide-open nature of the ’08 race, and the flaws that nag virtually all the major party candidates, perhaps the day’s most intriguing remark was uttered in passing by Doug Sosnik, a former Clinton White House aide who has signed up with ’08 Democratic hopeful Christopher Dodd. He said that “there’s a reasonably high chance of a third-party candidate.” Later, he elaborated: “Take a look at any of the polls. Neither party is held in particularly high esteem. Most voters at this point aren’t emotionally attached to either of them.”

Indeed, there is persistent backstage buzz about New York mayor Michael Bloomberg perhaps spending half a billion from his personal fortune on an independent bid, selling himself as a bipartisan technocrat who can repair the broken political process. Much ink has already been expended on this scenario. But is America ready for a divorced billionaire urban Jew? Frankly, I’d give a Mormon better odds.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pelosi nixes Alcee, Bush leaks on Maliki, Webb disses W, Frist pulls plug

A quartet:

No doubt the Republicans were disappointed to learn last night that ‘07 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t be tapping the scandal-marred congressman Alcee Hastings to head the Intelligence Committee. No doubt the GOP message machine was revving its engines for the joyful task of tagging Pelosi as a sleazebag and national security wimp.

And if Pelosi had indeed bypassed hawkish congresswoman Jane Harman and instead chosen a guy who had once been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate for sleazy doings as a federal judge (including seven counts of making false statements), the GOP would have had a lot of potent ammo to work with.

Clearly, Pelosi became convinced the political downside of naming Hastings trumped the upside of naming the designated favorite of the Congressional Black Caucus. After losing her first big battle – she wanted John Murtha as her chief deputy, but the House Democratic rank and file said no – she could ill afford another political embarrassment, particularly since she hasn’t even picked up the gavel yet.

But even though Pelosi foes were denied the gift of Hastings yesterday, some are still trying to salvage some useful spin. On one popular conservative website early this morning, for instance, a blogger basically says that, OK, Pelosi did right by denying the post to Hastings…but she didn’t act fast enough: “it should have been an easy call from the outset to say that Hastings would not be allowed to chair the Intelligence Committee.

And yet, we were actually kept in suspense regarding the issue. Astonishing…In a better world, the Hastings candidacy would have been dead in the water from the moment that it was announced as a possibility.”

Pelosi can live with that kind of fallout. On the umbrage meter, that’s 2 on a scale of 10.

Probably more noteworthy is Hastings’ reaction to this whole affair. Here’s a guy who, as a federal judge in 1988, was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House on a vote of 413-3, because he took a $150,000 bribe; who was convicted by the Senate on eight articles, and thus tossed off the federal bench; whose removal was supported by the likes of Ted Kennedy., John Kerry, and Harry Reid; and who, as a result, would not pass the simplest background check that is required of low-level CIA job applicants…and yet his reaction in recent days has been to paint himself as a victim of an unfair political conspiracy.

Last week, he circulated a letter blaming his woes on “Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Michael Barone, Drudge, anonymous bloggers, and other assorted misinformed fools,” as well as “faceless and nameless people at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, the L.A. Times, the Dallas Morning News.” He somehow omitted all the Democrats who ran the impeachment process, most notably fellow black congressman John Conyers. His parting shot yesterday: “Sorry haters, God has not finished with me yet.”

Bottom line: Curt Weldon, meet Alcee Hastings. When pols find themselves in a fix, their gut instinct is to blame others. Human nature transcends political affiliation.


Remember how the Bush administration always takes great umbrage whenever somebody leaks a classified document to the New York Times, to the point where both the leakers and leakees are threatened with prosecution and tagged as enemies of the state?

Well, this morning I glanced at the front page, found yet another story based on the leak of a classified document – and then I saw this: “An administration official made a copy of the document available to a New York Times reporter seeking information of the administration’s (Iraq) policy review. The Times read and transcribed the memo.”

So there it is: If somebody outside the inner circle leaks a document, it’s treasonous. When somebody inside the inner circle leaks a document, it’s statecraft.

In this particular case, the White House clearly seems intent on blaming the Iraqi prime minister for the mess in Iraq, in advance of President Bush’s meeting today with the prime minister; as the document puts it, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki “is either ignorant of what’s going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or…his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.”

Ignorant of what’s going on, misrepresenting his intentions…One is tempted to invoke the old saw about the pot calling the kettle black, but let’s move on:

The main problem with this administration-sanctioned leak is that it exposes a core contradiction in the current White House stance toward Iraq. On the one hand, Bush yesterday referred to Iraq as “a sovereign country,” yet the leaked memo makes it clear that the White House at this point views Iraq as barely a country at all, and that propping it up might require thousands more U.S. troops in Baghdad, as well as greater U.S. involvement in the Iraqi political process, starting with “monetary support to moderate groups.”

And while the Bush team is leaking a memo warning that it’s Maliki who better shape up, the Republican establishment back home continues to broadcast warnings that it’s Bush who better shape up. The latest salvo comes from Senator John Warner, chair of the Armed Services Committee (underscoring his earlier warnings). Yesterday, he said: “We’re going to try and devise some new strategies, hopefully with the president’s concurrence…Our soldiers, sailors and airmen should not be in there, risking their lives, losing their lives to stop a civil war.”

Hopefully with the president’s concurrence....Translation: Either Bush goes along with us, or he should just get out of the way. And take note of Warner’s closing words; his endorsement of the term civil war is another shot across the bow.


Dialogue of the day, a harbinger of the ill feeling that will permeate Washington as the next election season draws closer:

At a recent White House reception, incoming Virginia Democratic senator Jim Webb, the feisty soul and potential loose cannon whose son is a Marine serving in Iraq, had a close encounter with the president.

BUSH: “How’s your boy?”
WEBB: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.”
BUSH: “That’s not what I asked you. How’s your boy?”
WEBB: “That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President.”


Bill Frist, the lame duck Senate Republican leader, won’t be running for president in 2008. His statement today: “In the Bible, God tells us for everything there is a season, and for me, for now, this season of being an elected official has come to a close. I do not intend to run for president in 2008.”

It’s easy to understand why Frist made this decision. Considering the results of the 2006 elections, one can conclude that a Beltway insider from the discredited GOP Senate leadership would be toast in Iowa and New Hampshire. The conservative faithful would have slapped him silly, for failing to sufficiently advance their agenda; and, even if he had successfully run that gauntlet, independent swing voters would have spurned him for, among other things, his role in the Terri Schiavo affair, in which he politicized his medical bona fides by insisting, on the basis of a video, that the comatose woman was not in a vegetative state.

All told, he appears to be facing reality. There are many Democrats who undoubtedly wish he would now reach across the aisle and convince John Kerry to do the same.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The politics of a semantic debate

As the civil war in Iraq continues to wreak havoc, the big news today is that President Bush has again decreed that there is no such thing as a civil war in Iraq.

Of course, the case can be made that Bush at this point has little credibility on the issue of Iraq; that the polls show that most Americans have simply stopped believing whatever he says about Iraq; that his own emergency tutor on Iraq, Henry Kissinger, has been casually referring to Iraq as “the civil war”; that former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi (a one-time Bush favorite) is calling it a civil war; that Larry Diamond, a former advisor to Bush's Coalition Provisional Authority, calls it a civil war; that a growing legion of scholars are calling it a civil war; that mainstream press operations such as NBC, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and McClatchy Newspapers, having examined the facts on the ground, are now calling it a civil war; and that 65 percent of Americans told CNN pollsters two months ago that they believe it’s a civil war….

But none of this holds sway with The Decider.

Stopping earlier today in Estonia, Bush contended that "the sectarian violence rocking Iraq is not civil war, but part of an al Qaeda plot to use violence to goad Iraqi factions into repeatedly attacking each other."

He really needs to get his talking points straight. There have been times in the past when he has sought to educate his fellow Americans by sharing accurate information – for instance, the fact that foreign al Qaeda terrorists are actually only a small percentage (maybe 10) of all the insurgent and sectarian fighters in Iraq; the vast majority are natives. But then there are times, such as today, when Bush either forgets those facts, or simply prefers to conflate the al Qaeda role into a centrally organized plot; either way, his intent today was to find an argument that would help him deny what so many others are seeing with their own eyes, and processing with their own intellects.

Nor is he even in sync with his own White House spin. Yesterday, national security advisor Stephen Hadley surfaced with the argument that the spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq, far from meeting the criteria of a civil war, is actually just a “new phase” of the American mission. But now comes Bush with the argument that, actually, the sectarian violence is just part of an old phase. In his words, “We’ve been in this phase for awhile.” (Apparently, the term “new phase” sounded too much like “worse phase.”)

Actually, given the fact that the spiraling violence is now killing an average of 120 Iraqi citizens a day (that’s the October figure, according to the United Nations), a debate over the civil-war label seems somewhat irrelevant. What difference does it make, to the average Iraqi, whether the 40 or 50 mutilated bodies that turn up each morning on the Baghdad streets were victims of a “civil war” or “sectarian violence?”

In truth, this labeling debate is an American indulgence, intended for an American audience. This is really about domestic politics.

Bush is basically stuck with his denial, because if he was to admit that Iraq was embroiled in a civil war, he would then be virtually declaring that the signature mission of his White House tenure had irrevocably failed; and if he did that, he would come under even more pressure to scale back the number of U.S. troops, since few Americans would see the wisdom of allowing our fighting men and women to remain trapped in a civil war. Indeed, the White House has known this for many months; back in August, a White House aide told Newsweek, "If there's a full-blown civil war, the president isn't going to allow our forces to be caught in the crossfire.”

So, in the next phase, we can probably look forward to a semantic debate over the proper definition of “full-blown.” But for now, as Bush prepares this week to meet with the Iraqi prime minister, and as Democrats and Republicans alike nervously await the findings of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (in the hopes of finding some political cover), the bottom line is that, regardless of whether the facts on the ground constitute a civil war, there is now a broad consensus that the downward spiral is accelerating. And that the lame duck in the White House lacks the clout to halt it.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Groping toward an exit, Vietnam style

You know that President Bush’s “freedom agenda” for Iraq must be in deep trouble when someone like Trent Lott is toying with the notion of withdrawing our troops. Trent Lott, the conservative Republican from Mississippi. Trent Lott, the number two guy in the ’07 Senate minority.

In other words, even mainstream Republicans are now getting fed up with Bush’s war, to the point where they are willing to fantasize openly about some kind of face-saving exit strategy. (No doubt their patience has been further taxed by the news yesterday that Iraq's "last throes" insurgency is actually well financed and self sustaining.) Indeed, Lott's impatience was almost palpable yesterday on Fox News. He was lamenting that we are “stuck” with an Iraqi leader, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, who can’t seem to get the sectarian killers under control. Then he said:

“I think we're going to have to be very aggressive and specific with him. And if he doesn't show real leadership, doesn't try to bring the situation under control; if, in fact, he becomes a part of the problem, we're going to have to make some tough decisions. Do we go in there, try to do it for them? Or do we make it clear to them, ‘Look, we've done what we needed to do, we got rid of Saddam Hussein, we've tried to help you with the infrastructure, we've tried to train your police, your military, we tried to set guideposts of what must be done. And if you don't want to, you know, deal with that, then we're going to be done with it.’ At some point, they're going to have to decide if they want to live in democracy and peace or freedom or not. And right now it's in doubt.”

Then we’re going to be done with it....When I heard that, I realized that the center of gravity in the GOP had shifted. If Lott is willing to talk that way in public, it’s proof that the rank and file is no longer willing to stay the course with open-ended patience; rather, it’s a signal to Bush that their patience is fast running out, and that they are increasingly open to a pullout scenario, albeit something that can salvage the nation’s honor.

It’s starting to feel like the early ‘70s all over again, back when the Nixon administration – mindful that political support for the Vietnam war was waning within GOP ranks - was working hard to train the South Vietnamese army (“Vietnamization”), even while seeking to craft some kind of honorable extrication strategy for the American troops.

Over the past several years, a few Republican senators have been openly critical of the Bush war team’s well-documented ineptitude; indeed, one of those rarities, Vietnam vet Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, wrote yesterday that "we have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam.” But Lott, as the ’07 Senate minority whip, arguably echoes the increasingly restive mood within the GOP caucus.

And there’s little doubt that the war’s dwindling band of defenders are well aware of that mood; witness these remarks, uttered on Fox News eight days ago, by neoconservative commentator William Kristol: “I think Bush has two or three months (to recoup)…. If by (early 2007), things aren't getting better on the ground, or there's not a really plausible change of tactics here at home, I am very worried that political support will crumble; not among Democrats, but among Republicans.”

If GOP support does crumble, a strange-bedfellows consensus might even develop. In 2007, most Democrats and most Republicans might generally come to agree that the best solution is to effectuate some kind of honorable, incremental exit, coupled with accelerated training of the Iraqi forces. (Such a development might not please the Bush people, but they are not in control of events anymore, not in Iraq nor here at home.)

There are plenty of military experts who concur. Retired Gen. Wayne Downing, a Vietnam vet, Desert Storm commander, and a terrorism expert who worked for several presidents, yesterday offered a scenario on NBC that broadly echoed Trent Lott:

“I think we’re reaching a point right now where the Iraqis are going to have to produce, or America is going to start a wholesale withdrawal from Iraq. I hope we’re patient because I think the (training) program we have in place now…basically has it right….Maliki must, however, make the right kind of political decisions. If that happens, we’re going to be able to withdraw in a very systematic and probably a very, very smart manner. If (Maliki errs), then we’ve got to figure a way to cut our losses and do this thing smart.”

Fareed Zakaria, the foreign policy analyst at Newsweek, is writing in a similar vein – and he invokes Vietnam to buttress his point: “America's predicament in Iraq is becoming increasingly similar to the one it faced in Southeast Asia more than 30 years ago. Henry Kissinger's negotiations to end the Vietnam War have been criticized from both the left and right. One side thought he moved too slowly to get us out, the other that he gave up too much. But looking at our circumstances in Iraq should give us some appreciation for the difficulty of his task. With a losing hand and deteriorating conditions on the ground (in Vietnam), Kissinger maneuvered to extricate the United States from a situation in which it could not achieve its objectives, while at the same time limiting the damage, shoring up regional allies and maintaining some measure of American credibility. A version of such a strategy is the only one that has any chance of success in Iraq today.”

And speaking of Vietnam parallels…This weekend, I was reading an old book by David Halberstam, the former Vietnam correspondent, and I stumbled across a noteworthy passage on page 659. Writing in 1979, Halberstam described what happened to the older journalists, many of them military veterans, who came to Vietnam feeling upbeat and gung-ho about the American mission.

“The first stage: very upbeat, Americans can save these people and they really want to be saved and will be grateful for it. Second stage (usually about three months later): we can do it but it’s harder than I thought and right now it’s being screwed up. Third stage (perhaps six to nine months later): you Vietnamese (always the Vietnamese, never the Americans) are really screwing it up. Fourth stage (12 to 15 months later): we are losing and it’s much worse than I thought. Fifth stage: it isn’t working at all, we shouldn’t be here, and we’re doing more harm than good.”

As metaphor, does any of this sound familiar?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hillary's authenticity challenge

In the spirit of contrarianism, I argued today in a print column that the current conventional wisdom about Hillary Clinton might be all wrong; that the Democrats who dread the prospect of her running for president might well be needlessly gnashing their teeth; that, in fact, she might actually be quite electable, when one considers both her political skills and the broader political landscape.

Obviously, naysayers can cite plenty of reasons why Clinton would join Al Gore and John Kerry in the Democratic pantheon of losers; indeed, in the hopes of provoking discussion, I expected that my Sunday email correspondents would provide substantive rebuttal. But since most of the keyboarders, from all corners of the nation, turned out to be people who would probably be most comfortable writing with crayons, or etching graffiti on the bathroom walls of the Bada Bing, I’m going to take the initiative and rebut myself.

Notwithstanding my four electability arguments, it would appear that Clinton’s biggest problem is in the realm of the personal. Undoubtedly, millions of people – many of them swing voters – still aren’t sure whether they can trust her. The fact that she has been a diligent, effective, bipartisan senator will not necessarily matter to these skeptics. More important is the lingering perception (which she would need to address on the stump every day) that she is cold, calculating, power hungry – and, therefore, inauthentic. And incapable of bonding with the averge citizen.

Scores of male presidential candidates, past and present, qualify for that description. But Clinton’s history is a complicating factor. There are women in this country, a not inconsiderable number, who still can’t fathom why Clinton stayed with her husband after the Lewinsky affair went public; and they have concluded (distastefully) that she did so only because she calculated that her future career would best be served by standing by her man.

As a candidate, she would need to find ways to neutralize these nagging character questions. More broadly, she also would need to address concerns, even among Democrats, that a Hillary Clinton presidency would doom America to eight more years of strongly polarized politics. (If we start the clock with her husband’s ascendance, that means we’re currently in our 14th straight year).

But, for Clinton, these are not insurmountable challenges. Our politics are fluid - especially now, in the wake of President Bush’s Iraq wreckage. And I have observed the limitations of conventional wisdom too many times. Two years before the 1992 election, everybody “knew” that the main contestants for the Democratic nod were Al Gore and Mario Cuomo. And four years earlier, everybody “knew” that the senior George Bush could not get elected because he was a sitting vice president, and no veep had succeeded directly to the presidency since 1836. But after Bush won, nobody was talking about Martin Van Buren anymore.