Friday, January 05, 2007

Insufficiently conservative candidates, and military musical chairs

This is usually the time of year when Democrats wallow in despair; witness the election aftermaths in January ’01, January ’03 and January ’05. But politics in America is cyclical, and today, with the Democrats running Capitol Hill and with the lame-duck liberator of Iraq posting 30 percent popularity, it’s the Republican conservatives who have to hunker down for a winter of discontent.

And what better way to gauge that discontent than to take a snapshot of the fast-evolving Republican ’08 presidential race? Social and religious conservatives basically control the nomination process, by voting in disproportionate numbers in the early primaries– yet, right now, there doesn’t seem to be a true conservative in the top tier of prospective candidates.

Hence, one of the top political stories of 2007: Can GOP conservatives make peace with candidates whom they don’t entirely trust? Or will they signal to other potential aspirants that the market is still wide open for a true-believer?

I thought about this yesterday, while noting that Mitt Romney had filed his “exploratory” campaign paperwork. Romney, now the ex-governor of Massachusetts, is clearly one of those first-tier guys. He has the money and the organization and the hair and the teeth and the jaw to make a serious run. And he has been making all the requisite moves, such as telling conservatives in early primary states that he too views gay marriage as a Trojan horse that would destroy American life from the inside.

The problem for Romney, however, is that a lot of conservatives suspect he is just saying these things in order to get the nomination. (They may be right). This week, for instance, new concerns were raised about whether he’s just another flip-flopping pandering pol. Deal Hudson, a conservative Catholic scholar who has also advised the Bush White House, detailed Romney’s long gay-friendly gubernatorial record, then wrote on his blog: “Romney’s recent conversion to pro-life, pro-family conservatism contrasts dramatically with his public record of speaking and governing as a social moderate or liberal, routinely backing down when the going gets tough, and accomplishing few conservative successes.”

One Romney quote, in particular, keeps circulating in the conservative camp. When he ran unsuccessfully for U.S. senator in 1994, Romney told a gay group that he, not Ted Kennedy, would be the best advocate for their interests: "If we are to achieve the goals we share, we must make equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern. My opponent cannot do this. I can and will."

Meanwhile, a top conservative activist in Michigan (an early ’08 primary state) is now openly attacking Romney. Gary Glenn, who runs the American Family Association of Michigan, predicted: “There are going to be more and more pro-family legislators who had bought the Romney campaign's line of being supportive of our values, and that's proven not to be the case in terms of his record. I think you're going to have more and more people in Michigan - and beyond - disassociate themselves from this campaign."

But would conservative Romney defectors gravitate to Rudy Giuliani (assuming he runs)? That’s theoretically possible, as long as they overlook the fact that he supports gay rights, supports abortion rights, and that, during his breakup with one of his previous wives (the one who accused him in legal papers of “notorious adultery”), he roomed in Manhattan with a gay guy. Oh yeah, and he also has marched in gay parades and hosted gay pride breakfasts at Gracie Mansion.

But if conservatives stiff Romney and ignore Giuliani, are they prepared to warm to John McCain? Certainly, he has been slavishly pursuing them for the better part of two years now. But they’re still ticked that he voted in the Senate against a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and that, during his 2000 bid for the White House, he referred to certain religious right leaders as “forces of evil.” They suspect that his current wooing strategy is insincere.

They may be right. I highly recommend a new profile of McCain, which appears in the current issue of Vanity Fair. One priceless McCain quote stands out. But first, a little context: One ’08 conservative litmus test is border security. The GOP base wants to get tough on illegal immigrants by fencing off the southwestern U.S. border, and it wants a candidate who really believes that this is the right thing to do.

Anyway, McCain was speaking to some businessmen in Wisconsin last fall when the fence issue came up. He quickly acknowledged that the GOP base wants the fence. Then he said, “I think the fence is least effective. But I'll build the goddamned fence if they want it."

Clearly, this is not a man who is lusting to move rightward in his heart. And if the conservatives conclude the same, they will have to look in the second tier for a candidate. Maybe to Newt Gingrich, who is reportedly weighing a late entry. What better candidate for conservatives than the architect of the ’94 conservative revolution?

But, on the morality front, isn’t Newt the same guy who, two wives ago, served divorce papers to wife number one while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery?

What a year this is shaping up to be.


And next week should be newsworthy as well. President Bush is expected to unveil his troop escalation plan for Iraq. As we gird ourselves for that, consider these two recent statements:

There’s no question (that) locally, more troops will have some effect on the levels of violence, but whether more U.S. troops for a sustained period will get us where we're going faster is an open question.

That’s a pretty tepid assessment of the “surge” option – courtesy of General George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, speaking last October at a Pentagon briefing.

But now he’s leaving. His retirement, originally slated for next spring or summer, has been moved up to now.

And there’s this: I met with every divisional commander, General Casey, the core commander, General Dempsey, we all talked together. And I said, “in your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?” And they all said no. And the reason is because we want the Iraqis to do more. It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.

That was Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, testifying on Capitol Hill two months ago…But now he’s leaving too.

Translation: Bush remains willing to listen to the wisdom of his commanders in the field, as long as their wisdom is in sync with his own. If their wisdom displeases him, they can always be replaced. That should at least reassure the 20 percent of Americans who currently believe that Bush has a clear plan for Iraq.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Trouble on the left flank

Just hearing all those antiwar protestors chanting repetitive slogans and shouting down the speakers so that nobody could get a word in edgewise…well, it was like something out of 1968. I was waiting for somebody to sing something by the Jefferson Airplane.

So it went yesterday on Capitol Hill, as a coterie of left-leaning insurgents led by Cindy Sheehan sought to inform the Democrats that the new congressional majority had not moved quickly enough to end the Iraq war, even though the Democrats had already been in power for...nope, they weren't even in power yet. This is precisely the sort of political headache that governing Democrats will be facing over the next two years: a chronic restiveness on their left flank, with the ongoing potential for great embarrassment.

When new House Democratic leaders, fronted by congressman Rahm Emanuel, attempted at a press briefing yesterday to outline their initial legislative priorities, none of which included Iraq, they were serenaded into silence by a few dozen citizens who intoned, “De-escalate/investigate/troops home now.” Emanuel and his colleagues decided to leave the room and try again later, essentially ceding the fact that that their free-speech rights had been preempted.

Some Democrats, including the ubiquitous cable TV talking head Lawrence O’Donnell, insist that incidents such as can only help the Democrats. O’Donnell said last night that the Democrats in Congress come off as “sensible” centrists whenever folks on the left behave in an unruly manner. In other words, middle-of-the-road Americans will surely conclude that, if the left is ticked off at the Democrats, then the Democrats must be doing something right.

I’m not sure I buy that, probably because I’m old enough to remember how “middle Americans” (as they were called circa 1970) turned against the national Democrats, precisely because they saw the party and the left-leaning antiwar crowd as one and the same.

As conservative blogger and lawyer John Hinderaker put it last night: “I think you had to be there in the 60s and early 70s to fully appreciate the damage the antiwar movement did to the Democratic Party. The party, in fact, has never entirely recovered. The Democrats had an ambiguous relationship with the anti-American activists of that era. The activists focused their ire mainly on the Democrats - think Chicago 1968 - but at the same time, they largely made their home in that party. The idea that history might be repeating itself must appall the Democrats' leadership.” (Obviously, Hinderaker hopes that this history will indeed repeat itself. But his historical recap is not wrong.)

The Democrats on Capitol Hill clearly face a difficult challenge. The liberal activists within their ranks are anxious to advance what they see as the moral rightness of their positions, notably a de-funding of the Iraq war. As Sheehan said yesterday, “These are not requests. These are demands.” And as Deborah Sweet, who runs a pro-impeachment group, said the other day, “We've been told for many years, 12 years now, 'Wait until we get in power. Then you'll see things change.’ We'll give them a couple of months or a few weeks to see what they come up with, but if they don't do something very decisive around the war and these other issues, I think there will be trouble."

But the Democrats basically define politics as the art of the possible, the willingness to accept half a loaf. Hence, the opening 100-hour blitz doesn’t mention Iraq, because the Democrats would rather kick off their tenure with issues that are popular not only with most Democrats but even some moderate Republicans: new ethics rules, a higher minimum wage, lower student loan interest rates, and lower prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients. Democratic leaders have calculated that, if they suddenly adopt an out-now stance on Iraq, or if they try to impeach Bush, such moves would merely imperil the newly-elected Democrats who won seats in swing suburban districts in red states like Indiana and Kansas.

The Democrats broadened their tent in the ’06 elections; they captured 59 percent of all independent swing voters. Whether they can hold those voters over the next two years, while satisfying the shouters on their left flank, is another issue entirely. They probably can’t snag the White House in ’08 unless they find a way.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Some civics tips from the lame duck

President Bush has a byline today. In a Wall Street Journal guest column, he offers some tips to the new Democratic Congress on how to best govern effectively. One might argue that this gesture is a tad cheeky, given the fact that Bush was humiliated in the ’06 elections, precisely because he and his fellow governing Republicans were judged to be failures at governing effectively. But even a lame duck president retains the power to cajole, even if the prospects for success are diminished.

The problem for Bush is that his Journal piece contains a number of howlers that are guaranteed merely to bemuse the newly empowered Democrats. For instance:

Together, we have a chance to serve the American people by solving the complex problems that many don't expect us to tackle, let alone solve, in the partisan environment of today's Washington. To do that, however, we can't play politics as usual.

One big reason why the GOP coughed up both congressional chambers is because independent swing voters viewed the Bush and the Republican Congress as responsible for “the partisan environment of today’s Washington,” and for the ineffective governance that results from “politics as usual.” As recently as late summer, Bush and his top surrogates were still suggesting that Democratic skepticism about the setbacks in Iraq was tantamount to surrender. And I don’t recall any protests from Bush when the Republicans were busy painting their Democratic opponents as coddlers of Osama bin Laden (as happened to Georgia Senator Max Cleland, after he objected to the proposed employe work rules in the new Homeland Security Department).

I believe that when America is willing to use her influence abroad, the American people are safer and the world is more secure.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But the election ’06 verdict against Bush was that he mismanaged this important general principle, to disastrous effect. Nobody in Congress, in either party, objects to the notion that America should exercise clout to protect its own people and those of other nations. The problem is how that clout is to be exercised, and as this new exhaustive report illustrates, the incompetence of the Bush administration in Iraq, on multiple fronts, is now beyond empirical dispute. The challenge for congressional Democrats, as they get ready to hold hearings on Iraq, is to demonstrate (if possible) that they would be more effective stewards of that crucial national security principle.

I believe government closest to the people is more responsive and accountable.

This, from the Republican president who has presided over one of the most massive federal government expansions in history – and whose own administration has worked assiduously at eluding accountability, mostly by stiffing Congress. Big example: the true costs in Iraq have kept out of the regular budget process (with the complicity of the governing GOP), thereby minimizing scrutiny. Smaller example: Last winter, after Bush defended his warrantless domestic surveillance program by contending that "appropriate members of Congress have been kept informed," the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service promptly faulted Bush for failing to inform the full membership of the House and Senate intelligence committees – and thereby acting in a manner "inconsistent with the law."

And it’s hard to imagine that the Democrats will take seriously Bush’s newfound devotion to “responsive” and “accountable” government, in light of the fact that he didn’t insist on it before. Best example: Back in the ‘90s, the GOP Congress of that era reportedly took 140 hours of testimony on whether President Clinton had used his Christmas card list to find potential campaign donors. By contrast, in 2004 and 2005, House Republicans took only 12 hours of testimony about the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

One important message I took away from the election is that people want to end the secretive process by which Washington insiders are able to slip into legislation billions of dollars of pork-barrel projects that have never been reviewed or voted on by Congress. I'm glad Senator Robert Byrd and Congressman Dave Obey--the Democrats who will lead the appropriations process in the new Congress--heard that message, too, and have indicated they will refrain from including additional earmarks in the continuing resolution for this fiscal year. But we can and should do more. It's time Congress give the president a line-item veto. And today I will announce my own proposal to end this dead-of-the-night process and substantially cut the earmarks passed each year.

Bush underscored this theme this morning, declaring in a statement at the White House that he would like to see the number of earmarks cut in half during 2007. A laudable goal – and very convenient, politically speaking. After saying nothing for years about the burgeoning earmark practices of his Republican brethren (there were 3000 earmarks during the 1996 GOP Congress – and 13,000 in 2006), and after never vetoing a single spending bill that would have at least shelved some of the sweetheart deals, Bush declares that he wants those lawmakers to knock it off – now that the Democrats are running the show.

The Democrats would probably be well advised to curb the practice anyway - in order to mollify independent swing voters, not the president who has suddenly gotten religion on this issue.

The majority party in Congress gets to pass the bills it wants. The minority party, especially where the margins are close, has a strong say in the form bills take.

Just some advice right out of a political science textbook. No doubt those lines are intended as a warning to the ruling Democrats that the GOP should be given “a strong say” in the legislative process – which is a bit rich, considering the track record of recent years. The minority Democrats were systematically excluded from the sausage-making process; often, they never saw substantive legislation until the last moments prior to passage.

As congressional expert Thomas Mann said recently about the GOP Congress, “Regular order - the set of rules, norms and traditions designed to ensure a fair and transparent process - was the first casualty. The results: No serious deliberation. No meaningful oversight of the executive. A culture of corruption. And grievously flawed policy formulation and implementation.”

The Democrats are promising not to exact revenge by humbling the GOP in a similar fashion. As I mentioned this morning on a WHYY radio show, their prime goal is to demonstrate that they can connect with the average voter by governing effectively. They are well aware of this political challenge, in the absence of any civics tips from a lame-duck president.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Farewells to Saddam and Jerry

Before we ring in the new, let’s review a pair of ’06 holiday season deaths:

Saddam Hussein...When the old tyrant took his final swing, the Bush White House barely mustered a response. What a contrast from three Decembers ago, when Hussein was yanked out of his spider hole. Back then, President Bush devoted an Oval Office TV address to the occasion, declaring that Hussein’s capture was “crucial to the rise of a free Iraq,” and a signal that “the United States of America will not relent until this war is won.”

This time, by contrast, the White House merely released a terse written statement, although it did repeat the old mantra that Hussein’s death was another “milestone” on the road to freedom. (Actually, there have been many Bush-described “milestones” on the road to sectarian civil war.)

The muted Bush response signifies, however, that the administration is well aware that any fresh display of triumphalism would not sell well with those Americans (a majority, in fact) who now view the Iraq war as a mistake. Indeed, triumphalism probably would not have sold well with the troops either, since (according to an underrreported Military Times poll) it now appears that only 35 percent of active-duty soldiers support Bush's prosecution of the war.

And it certainly would have been bad salesmanship for Bush to hail Hussein’s death as a great victory – while continuing to plan for a troop escalation that will, in reality, demonstrate that the death of the Bush family's longtime foe has changed absolutely nothing on the ground. Which is apparently what most soldiers believe as well, because only 38 percent told the Military Times poll that they would support escalation.

Gerald Ford...Forget all the satirical shorthand about this accidental president – the physical stumblebum, the Nixon loyalist who handed Nixon a get-out-of-jail-free card, the clumsy debater who insisted that the Soviets did not dominate communist Poland, the leader who tried to combat inflation by wearing a Whip Inflation Now button, the humble guy who really did toast his own English muffins.

What’s most important about Ford – and this could not be truly discerned at the time, back in 1976 – is his historic status as the last GOP leader to serve in the White House prior to the rise of the Republican right. Indeed, as a sitting president, he was nearly derailed in the 1976 GOP primaries by an upstart named Ronald Reagan, who, at the time, was in the process of harnessing the grassroots conservative movement that rose from the ashes of the 1964 Barry Goldwater debacle.

Ford was a man of the Democratic House; as a longstanding congressman in the GOP minority, he had long been a deal-maker and compromiser with the liberals who ruled the roost in those days. As president he even named, as his veep, Nelson Rockefeller, that pillar of the old GOP eastern establishment who had been booed at the Goldwater convention. Ford’s general profile didn’t cut it with the Reagan loyalists, who advocated a more combative conservatism - promoting a more hawkish anti-communist stance abroad, rejecting deals with Democrats at home, and inveighing against ‘60s social "permissivism."

Pressure from the New Right (as it was known then) eventually forced Ford to dump Rocky from the ’76 ticket and replace him with the scrappier Bob Dole, but none of this slowed the inexorable momentum of the Reagan movement; even though it came up short by barely 100 delegates in ’76, it triumphed four years later. As Jonathan Martin of the National Review writes, “(Ford’s) spirited and successful campaign to bat back Reagan’s insurgency marked the last stand of the moderates’ hold of the GOP. No Republican has since won the party’s nod without the backing of the conservative wing of the party.”

It’s noteworthy that Ford in his last years became increasingly outspoken about the conservative wing; in interviews, he described himself as a supporter of abortion rights, he criticized religious conservatives, and in 2004 he told Bob Woodward that the war in Iraq was wrong. Ex-presidents always tend to their legacies, and it’s clear that Ford – who, during the ‘60s, had tried to impeach liberal Supreme Court justice William Douglas over an article that Douglas had written for a semi-racy journal - was increasingly anxious to distance himself from the right-wingers who had won control of his party.

But Ford, at the end, never did address the big question: Would the Republicans have dominated national politics for a generation, starting in 1980, if they hadn’t rejected moderation and moved sharply to the right?

No doubt there are many conservatives today who will stipulate that Ford was a good and decent man. But winning comes first; the Reagan forces tapped into an angry conservative populism, and turned it into votes. And even though the conservative movement that rattled Ford in 1976 might well fail in the presidential election of 2008, consider its recent track record: The GOP is 5-2 since 1980, and it can be argued that Ford’s socially moderate, fiscally-prudent Republicanism would never have pulled that off.

So, 2007:

The Democrats take over Congress on Thursday. I’ll talk about it tomorrow morning on WHYY radio (90.9 FM, the NPR outlet in Philadelphia).

From 10 to 11 a.m. Wednesday, I’m slated to be a guest on “Radio Times,” along with Susan Milligan, who covers Congress for The Boston Globe. You can listen live here.