Monday, December 31, 2007

The 2007 Aberrant Behavior Awards

Before we welcome the new year, let us first bid a fond farewell to the follies of 2007 by celebrating this stellar list of award winners.

The Sam Cooke “Don’t Know Much About History, Don’t Know Much About Geography” Award goes to Mike Huckabee. Following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the GOP’s hottest presidential candidate flashed his foreign policy credentials by contending that more Pakistanis have illegally entered the United States than any other foreigners - an allegation promptly refuted by the Department of Homeland Security. He also stated that Afghanistan shares an eastern border with Pakistan, whereas, in reality, they share a western border. He also suggested that Pakistan remains under martial law, whereas, in reality, martial law was lifted on Dec. 15. And earlier this month, he confessed that he knew nothing about the national intelligence report on Iran’s dormant nuclear program, even though the report had been out for nearly 36 hours. Would the Republican party, which traditionally prides itself on its national security bona fides, really nominate this guy?

The Character Reference of the Year Award goes to Jeanette Maier, a Louisiana woman who extolled U.S. Senator David Vitter as “one of the nicest men and most honorable men I’ve ever met.” The problem for Vitter, a “family values” Republican, was that Maier’s praise came with a caveat. She’s a whorehouse madam who regularly hosted Vitter at her place of business during the 1990s, at $300 a pop.

The Hogan’s Heroes “I Know Nothing!” Award goes to Alberto Gonzales. Before this longtime Bush crony walked away from the smoking wreckage formerly known as the Justice Department, he insisted that he was clueless about the White House campaign to make various U.S. attorneys behave as if they were water carriers for the Republican party. During congressional testimony, he said “I can’t recall” more than 50 times. Back on March 13, he also said that “we never had a discussion about where things stood,” regarding the plan to fire recalcitrant federal prosecutors – and then, lo and behold, it turned out, according to his own appointment calendar, that he had indeed attended a meeting just five months earlier, to discuss where things stood. The firings came shortly thereafter, in a triumph of partisanship over the rule of law.

Regarding The Worst Bedside Manner Award: You might expect a hospital doctor to win this one, the kind of doctor who raves about his ski trip before striding out the door. But no, the winner again is Gonzales. Let’s not forget the congressional testimony last spring, about how Gonzo – acting in 2004 as Bush’s White House counsel – raced to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed in order to inveigle the seriously ill attorney general to sign off on a domestic eavesdropping program that had already been deemed illegal by Ashcroft’s chief deputy. Ashcroft, sick as he was, backed up his deputy and shot Gonzo down. The deputy, and seven other senior figures, including the FBI director, had threatened to resign if Gonzo had parlayed his hospital visit into a victory.

The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Bundler” Award goes to Hillary Clinton, for her campaign’s strenuous efforts to deny or downplay the role of Norman Hsu – a Democratic donor who had raised $850,000 for Hillary in bundled small contributions, but who turned out to be a fugitive felon. At first the Hillaryites insisted that Hsu was “completely legit,” that he was a man of “integrity,” and that they’d turned up nothing to suggest otherwise. When those spin efforts failed, they said that Hillary would reject the money that Hsu had personally donated (around $25,000), but keep all the rest. When that spin failed, Hillary agreed to reject all the money. Then she insisted that she’s a big supporter of campaign finance reform. The only problem is, her Senate record demonstrates that she has never cared a whit about campaign finance reform.

The Jim Carrey “Liar Liar” Award goes to Fred Thompson. Lawyers have a reputation for being factually slippery, and lobbyists have the same image problem. Ole Fred, who was a Washington lawyer-lobbyist before he started courting GOP conservatives in the ’08 campaign, tried out some slippery moves of his own a few months ago, when reports surfaced that he had done some early-‘90s lobbying for an abortion rights group. At first he said that he had done no such lobbying. Then he softened a bit, and said he had no “recollection” of such lobbying. Then, when all the billing records and lunch meeting records surfaced, he suddenly remembered a lot more, and said that it’s common for lawyer-lobbyists to take all kinds of cases, even when they personally disagree with clients….which made Thompson look like just another DC operator, the antithesis of what conservative GOP voters are looking for. No wonder he has flatlined.

The Louis XIV “L’etat c’moi” Political Science Award is shared by three Bush administration officials, all of whom sought to rewrite the U.S. Constitution during 2007. Tony Snow, speaking as the press secretary, informed us back in March that “the executive branch is under no compulsion to testify to Congress, because Congress in fact doesn’t have oversight ability,” which would be news to our Founding Fathers. Meanwhile, in June, Dick Cheney informed us that the vice presidency is not “an entity within the executive branch,” which was a fascinating stance, given the fact that it refutes Article II of the Constitution, and given the fact that he had long refused to disclose his energy lobbyist pals, by citing his position in the executive branch. Meanwhile, in July, ex-Bush political director Sara Taylor told Congress that she couldn’t talk about the prosecutor purge scandal because, "I took an oath to the president, and I take that oath very seriously." She was gently informed that, as a federal employee, she had taken an oath only to the Constitution.

The “I Hear That Eating Foie Gras Will Make You Gay” Award goes to Mitt Romney. The Mittster was notorious in 2007 for simply making stuff up – claiming an NRA endorsement that he never received, claiming he saw his father march with Martin Luther King when in fact he saw no such thing, claiming that we invaded Iraq because Saddam had barred the arms inspectors when in fact Hussein had actually let them in – but let’s not forget his fictitious complaint about France, the nation that doubles as a traditional GOP punching bag. Back in May, Romney said: “In France, for instance, I’m told that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up.” The problem is, France has no such law. There is such a law, however, in a science-fiction novel called “The Memory of Earth.” Author Orson Scott Card, who, like Romney, is a Mormon, uses this form of a marriage contract as a plot point - in a saga that takes place in outer space.

The Judy Garland “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore” Award goes to Barack Obama. A tornado-tossed house must have hit the candidate in the head when he came out with this line: “"In case you missed it, this week, there was a tragedy in Kansas. Ten thousand people died — an entire town destroyed." Really? More than triple the number of 9/11 casualties were not alive in Kansas anymore? It turned out that Obama was a tad off in his tally. He overstated the death toll by…9988.

The “Closeted Hypocrite” Award: The obvious landslide winner is Larry Craig, the GOP senator who regularly voted against gays but toe-tapped with a wide stance in an airport john, and who did the Senate proud by defending himself on TV with such high-road arguments as “I go to the bathroom to use the bathroom for bathroom's sake.” But let’s honor the runner-ups: Florida GOP legislator Bob Allen, who regularly voted against gays but propositioned a male cop in a rest stop john; and Washington state GOP legislator Richard Curtis, who regulary voted against gays but was caught wearing women’s clothing in a gay porn store.

The Bill Clinton “It All Depends on What the Meaning of the Word ‘Support’ Is” Award goes to Hillary, naturally. Proving that the connubial bond is alive and well, at least in the political realm, Hillary in October offered plenty of Clintonian nuance on the issue of whether New York’s illegal immigrants should receive drivers’ licenses: “The possibility of them having an accident that harms themselves or others is just a matter of the odds. It's probability. So what Governor Spitzer is trying to do is to fill the vacuum...I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it...It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do?...Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No."

The Mark Twain “A Lie Can Travel Half Way Around the World While the Truth is Putting on Its Shoes” Award goes to Freedom’s Watch, the White House front group that ran inflammatory TV ads early this autumn in support of the Iraq surge. Long after the myth of a 9/11-Hussein connection had been thoroughly refuted by multiple agencies and commissions, Freedom’s Watch went ahead and aired the myth all over again - showing the Twin Towers under attack while a vet talked about Iraq as the words “They Attacked Us” appeared on screen. Produced with classic sleight of hand, it was the dark art of propaganda at its finest.

The “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Home Boy” Award goes to Rudy Giuliani, loyal enabler of his good buddy, the indomitable Bernie Kerik. Rudy is trying to sell himself as a man whose judgment we can trust in a crisis, yet, despite many warnings over the years, he somehow failed to notice that the guy he steadily promoted (from mayoral chauffer all the way to police commissioner) was mobbed up. Today, Kerik is under federal indictment for taking bribes and cheating on his taxes. But maybe Kerik’s best gig was his failed three-month stint as Bush’s emissary to the Iraqi police in 2003. He was supposed to train the Iraqi cops, but, by all accounts, did nothing. No matter. When he returned, Bush praised him in the Rose Garden and said, “Bernie, you’re a good man.” Naturally.

The “Dog Ate My Homework” Award goes to Tommy Thompson. You may remember Tommy; the ex-Wisconsin governor and ex-Cabinet official was a GOP presidential candidate for what seemed to be only 17 minutes. Tommy had some creatively lame excuses for his bad performances in debates and on the stump, including (a) his hearing aid wasn’t working, (b) he was anxious to go to the bathroom, and (c) he had a heavy cold. The latter excuse was offered after he attempted to praise a Jewish audience by noting that “earning money” was “sort of part of the Jewish tradition…You've been outstanding business people, and I compliment you for that." Presumably, if Tommy’s nasal passages had been clear, he would have recognized that the Christians who ran Wall Street and dominated the economy during America’s first 100 years were pretty darn good at “earning money” before most of the Jewish immigrants ever showed up.

The “Yeah, Right, And Guys Only Buy Playboy for the Articles” Award goes to John Edwards, for insisting that he spent a year working for a hedge fund (earning more than $500,000) only because he wanted to get a better understanding of poverty in America. When a reporter pointed out that he could have “learned” more about the relations between the markets and poverty simply by taking a university course, he replied, “That’s true.” On the other hand, if he had merely taken a college course, would he have been able to collect $160,000 in campaign money from the employes of that hedge fund?

The “Oh Swell, NOW They Tell Us” Award is shared by three prominent Republicans who waited until they were long gone before dishing essential dirt about the Bush team. First came Dick Armey, former House GOP leader, who confessed last February that he regretted voting for Bush’s war in 2002, because it meant “invading a country that had in no way declared any war on us…Had I been ore true to myself and the principles I believed in at the time, I would have openly opposed the whole adventure vocally and aggressively.” Next came ex-Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, who said in April that he was fed up with what he called Bush’s “my way or the highway” approach, and added, “I’m so disappointed in things. I think (Bush) has become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in…(He's) not the person I thought.” And then came ex-Bush flak Scott McClellan, who previewed his upcoming book in November by informing us that the Bush team – either recklessly or deliberately, it wasn’t clear which - sent him out to spread “false information” to the public during the Valerie Plame affair.

Updating FDR, The “We Have Nothing to Spin But Fear Itself” Award goes to President Bush, for invoking the specter of “World War III” while discussing Iran’s nukes in October - even though he had been privately tipped off months earlier that an impending intelligence community report would reassess whether Iran had any nukes in the first place. Turns out, the intelligence community concluded that the nuke program was halted in 2003. But after this report surfaced earlier this month, Bush (true to form) insisted that his bellicose talk remains entirely appropriate, because, even though he acknowledges that the Iranians did halt the program, they might some day opt to restart the program…which apparently means that “World War III” rhetoric is justified regardless of the circumstances. Sort of like tax cuts for the wealthy.

And The "Ouch, that Hurts! Thank You, Sir, May I Have Another?" Award naturally goes to the Democrats of Capitol Hill, for their year-long inability to thwart an unpopular president’s unpopular war. Granted, they did show courage on a few major matters of statecraft – such as voting to condemn moveon.org for its nasty newspaper ad about General David Petraeus, and voting to condemn some mass atrocities committed by the Ottoman Turks 92 years ago. But it seems like a lifetime ago – it was actually only last January - when the Democrats warned that if Bush didn’t change course in Iraq, the new majority would be “showing him the way.” Dream on. I’ll stick with what Washington analyst Charlie Cook said to me back in 2002, when the Democrats were first fumbling for a response to Bush on Iraq: “They couldn’t find a unified message if it was tattooed on their butts.”

Feel free to add your own awards. Otherwise, Happy New Year and drive safely.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Home for the holidays

During this holiday week, postings will be light or nonexistent. The regular schedule will resume next Monday. I'll return this week only if a candidate says something truly remarkable or revealing. For instance...

Mitt Romney: "Now that I remember it, I think I may have accompanied my father when he may have gone varmint-hunting with Martin Luther King, although that may depend on the dictionary definition of may."

Hillary Clinton: "If that stinker husband of mine doesn't shut up, my first act as president will be to send him on an open-ended goodwill tour of the NASA International Space Station."

Fred Thompson: "Didn't I quit this race already, or am I confusing myself with Tommy Thompson?"

Chris Dodd: "This race isn't nearly as much fun as getting publicly soused back in the day with Teddy Kennedy."

Rudy Giuliani: "Why do I need this grief? I'm outta here. Cashing in on 9/11 is a heckuva lot easier than trying to exploit 9/11 for political purposes."

Joe Biden: "I gotta stop boasting to people that I've been in the Senate for 35 years. Because their first reaction probably is, 'This country's gone to hell in a handbasket since the early '70s, and what has this guy ever done about it?'"

Mike Huckabee: "What do I need foreign policy advisors for? Jesus is my briefer. And if, as president, He advises me to invade Iran, who am I to say no?"

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And my last print column of '07 offers an advance transcript of the next Democratic presidential debate, featuring The Thing That Wouldn't Leave. Holiday cheers to you all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Pap for the stump

One durable Republican staple is the alleged commitment to "small government." I've heard this repeatedly during the GOP presidential debates. The candidates declare that the feds should butt out, that "one size fits all" policies enacted by Washington would burden the states. On everything from guns to abortion, the GOP politicians say that states should be allowed to come up with solutions that reflect the will of their own people. This is supposed to be a cornerstone of the conservative ethos.

But it's really just pap for the stump. In reality, and for a fresh insight into contemporary Republican hypocrisy, let us behold (yet again) the Bush administration in action.

A couple days ago, the Bush team - acting through the Environmental Protection Agency, in violation of the law that created the EPA, and in defiance of federal court rulings - decreed that the state of California, and 16 other states, would not be permitted to act on their own to reduce global warming emissions from automobiles. The EPA explained that it favors a "national solution" (i.e. one size fits all), over what it calls "a confusing patchwork of state rules."

The catch, of course, is that the EPA - once considered a protector of the environment, before the Bush team go ahold of it - has no interest in a "national solution" to cut the carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. The Bush EPA fought the idea for years, claiming that the 1970 Clean Air Act failed to specify carbon dioxide as a pollutant. They haven't budged in that belief, even though, back on April 2 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the '70 law gave the Bush EPA plenty of authority to regulate those emissions.

There's another key feature of that '70 law (which created the EPA, and which was signed by Republican President Richard Nixon): It allows states to set their own clean air standards in the absence of federal action, as long as the feds give their permission in the form of waivers. Over the past four decades, California has sought 50 waivers from the feds, and it has received 50 waivers. Until now. The EPA administrator’s Wednesday ruling overrode the advice of his own legal staff.

President Bush said yesterday that EPA chief Stephen Johnson made his decision entirely on his own. There are two ways we can react to that assertion. We can either believe that this president is telling the whole truth...or we can simply note the fact that auto industry executives, who were adamantly opposed to California’s initiative (and all California initiatives over the years), aired their complaints during October and November in a series of meetings with Vice President Cheney and high-ranking White House officials.

The White House and Johnson insist that the states' actions are unnecessary anyway, given the congressional passage this week of a new law that would set tougher fuel-mileage standards (while not tackling the global warming problem nearly as vigorously as the states have intended). Somehow the "one size fits all" federal argument has not been deemed persuasive by the states, because they are now determined to sue the Bush EPA.

The bottom line: The traditional conservative rhetoric about "small government" and "state's rights" bears no relation to how power is actually exercised by conservatives in Washington. Bush's 2000 stump rhetoric about "compassionate conservatism" is closer to the mark, as long as we recognize that it's the special interests - in this case, the auto industry - who are the beneficiaries of his compassion.

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This week's Bill Clinton Award is hereby given to Mitt Romney.

For many months, Romney has been repeating a lie that he apparently has come to accept as the truth. Actually, it's a two-part lie. The first part is that his father, the late Michigan Gov. George Romney, marched in a civil rights demonstration with Martin Luther King. The '08 hopeful has said this a number of times, most recently last Sunday, on Meet the Press. The second part, which dates back to a 1978 interview, is that he, Mitt, marched along with his dad and King (in his own words, "My father and I marched with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Detroit").

These fantasies are probably attempts to compensate for the Mormon church's history of racism, which persisted until 1978, when it finally lifted its ban on black members. What's most telling, however, is Romney's current attempts to defend his claim - now thoroughly refuted by documented reporting - that he "saw" his father march with King.

Remember, his father never did actually march with King, so he couldn't have seen it anyway. But here's how Romney explained it yesterday: "If you look at the literature, if you look at the dictionary, the term 'saw' includes being aware of in the sense I've described. It's a figure of speech and very familiar, and it's very common. And I saw my dad march with Martin Luther King. I did not see it with my own eyes, but I saw him in the sense of being aware of his participation in that great effort."

It's a figure of speech...or maybe it all depends on what the meaning of the word saw is.

No wonder this guy is having problems getting traction in the Republican race. GOP voters are looking for authenticity, not somebody who speaks in Clintonese.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Meanwhile, in a war far far away...

I'm stressing brevity today, due to other deadlines. But it's worth expending a few words on the latest Pentagon assessment of the war in Iraq.

You may remember the war in Iraq. That's the place where, as recently as last May, roughly four American soldiers were being killed every day. But now that the death rate has dropped to one soldier a day, and that the volume of Iraqi civilian deaths has declined, fewer Americans at home seem to be worked up about the war.

National polls indicate that Iraq is no longer viewed as the overriding issue in the '08 campaign; the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, released late yesterday, reports that only 18 percent of Americans list Iraq as the top priority - tied with health care. In the same poll last month, 26 percent cited Iraq, with health care at 16.

Clearly, the troop "surge" has acted as a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, and that has apparently calmed the millions of Americans who care about Iraq only when people (especially Americans) are being killed in unacceptably large numbers. Apparently the current death rate - 600 Iraqi civilians a month, or 20 a day - is considered acceptable.

The new Pentagon report, a quarterly document required by Congress, reminds us of the grim realities that persist in President Bush's elective war. Amid the cascade of presidential campaign news, it was easy to miss this story, which surfaced in the press yesterday, before vanishing again. The bottom line conclusion:

The U.S. troop surge has tamped down the violence quite nicely. But the purpose of the surge was to create enough space for the central Iraqi government to successfully pursue political reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis, and thus lock in the gains achieved by the surge. And it turns out - I know this will come as a shock - that the central Irqai government has done virtually nothing. Which means that the gains achieved by the surge could be reversed at some future point - probably the point at which U.S. troop levels are reduced. If they are reduced, given the dangers of the fractious failed state that Bush and his war team have created.

The report found that the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has done nothing to reconcile the warring sects, passing no legislation; that it has made only "minimal advances" in delivering basic services to the people (a move long urged by the Bush administration, as a way to improve morale and ease tensions); that the central Parliament can barely muster enough lawmakers for its sessions; and that its security forces still can't operate on their own.

Regarding the latter, the report cites "deficiencies in logistics, combat support functions and...shortages of officers at all operational and tactical levels." Also: "The aggressive growth of police forces to meet present challenges . . . requires a mature, integrated recruiting, screening, training, equipping and basing system that does not fully exist." (Here was Bush, 11 months ago: "We will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces.")

The Pentagon report says that corruption and "sectarian bias" persists at all levels; in translation, services are still skewed to Shiites, at the expense of Sunnis. All told, the report concludes, "Although security gains, local accomodation and progress against the flow of freedom fighters and lethal aid into Iraq have had a substantial effect, more needs to be done to foster national, top-down reconcilation to sustain gains."

So the question is, what happens next spring, when the Bush war team has to decide whether to loosen its tourniquet? Presumably, the major presidential contenders - or, by then, the presumptive nominees - will need to weigh in on that. With an election looming, there's no way this war can stay under the radar.

So much for my vow of brevity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The canny politics of "Merry Christmas"

As a political tactician, Mike Huckabee is one clever guy. His new TV ad – a video Christmas card extolling the birth of Jesus, complete with Christmas tree and Silent Night soundtrack and the candidate encased in a warm and fuzzy sweater – sets a precedent with its the deft fusing of Christianity and electioneering. Most importantly, the ad potentially helps Huckabee in a number of ways.

The text: “Are you about worn out of all the television commercials you’ve been seeing? Mostly about politics. I don’t blame you. At this time of year sometimes it’s nice to pull aside from all of that and just remember that what really matters is the celebration of the birth of Christ and being with our family and our friends. I hope that you and your family have a magnificent Christmas season. And on behalf of all of us, God bless and Merry Christmas. I’m Mike Huckabee and I approve this message.”

First, it reminds the Christian conservative voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina that Huckabee is one of them, a rare candidate willing to put his faith front and center and say it loud and clear. And he’s timing it for the holiday season, when traditional campaign ads might strike many viewers as intrusive and inappropriate.

Second, it sounds like a purely apolitical appeal – how can anybody object to a guy who says “Merry Christmas?” – whereas in reality we should not forget that this is a politician who is taking money from his campaign kitty in order to say “Merry Christmas.” What he’s really saying is, “Vote for me, I’m with Jesus.”

Third, it’s a sly dig at rival Mitt Romney, who has been wearing out Iowans with all his television commercials. Huckabee can’t hope to match Romney’s expenditures, so he’s inviting “worn out” voters to summarily reject whatever Romney puts on the air – especially any and all attack ads that go after Huckabee’s record. He wants voters to ask themselves, “Why are these other candidates saying such mean things about the nice Christian man in the warm and fuzzy sweater?”

Fourth, it’s naturally the kind of ad that draws a lot of media attention. And, for Huckabee, media attention serves two purposes. He gets more bang for the buck, thanks to all the news coverage he doesn’t have to pay for. And every time the secular talking heads on TV assail his invocations of Christ, he looks like a hero to Christian conservatives who dislike the secular talking heads on TV.

All told, it’s an ad that well serves Huckabee’s short-term interests. More problematic is its broader implicit message, and what it potentially says about a Huckabee-led Republican party. It is not a message of inclusion.

George W. Bush’s faults notwithstanding, he and his handlers had repeatedly sought to reach out to non-Christians, particularly Muslims and Jews. Bush won the Muslim-American vote by a landslide in 2000. And the Bush team has spent most of this decade trying to woo more Jews to the GOP - with measurable success. In 2000, 19 percent of Jewish voters cast ballots for Bush; in 2004, 25 percent did so. The Bush people felt strongly about Israel, as a philosophical matter, but they also saw the pragmatic upside of their strategy. Jews comprise only four percent of the electorate, but they’re heavily concentrated in big states, including potential swing states such as Florida and Ohio.

But now we have Huckabee, a candidate who, in one ad, bills himself solely as a “Christian leader,” and, in the new ad, defines “this time of year” as being solely about “the celebration of the birth of Christ.” It’s my general understanding that a president is supposed to lead all Americans, regardless of faith (or lack thereof). And if my calendar is correct, “this time of year” also includes the celebration of Hannukkah, which ended only last Tuesday.

If Huckabee’s candidacy truly takes off (he's now virtually tied with Rudy Giuliani in a new national poll of GOP voters), it will be interesting to see how his megachurch message is received outside the Christian conservative community. Elections are won in the middle; the middle includes a lot of people who dislike overt religiosity on the stump, and a lot of people who don’t worship at all (regarding the latter, Huckabee was citing the Bible when he wrote in a 1998 book that such people “are more often than not immoral, impure, and improvident”). Put another way, inclusiveness wins elections.

But I suppose that Huckabee skeptics can console themselves with the thought that the new TV ad could have been worse. It could have ended with a portentous voiceover: “I’m Jesus Christ, and I approved this message.”

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Any other thoughts that I had today (coherent or otherwise) were shared on the radio. I talked national politics on Philadelphia NPR this morning. It's archived here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why most endorsements don't mean squat

It's endorsement season, and you need a scorecard to sort out the enthusiasts. Curt Schilling is pitching for John McCain, Bonnie Raitt is singing for John Edwards, Magic Johnson is playing for Hillary Clinton, Oprah and Chris Rock and Ken Burns are vetting Barack Obama, Chuck Norris hearts Mike Huckabee, odd couple Robert Duvall and Pat Robertson dig Rudy Giuliani, the First Lady of Iowa is touring with Hillary, the Des Moines Register has blessed both Hillary and McCain, who in turn got the nod of the Boston Globe, which also came out for Obama...and this random sampling doesn't include all the lawmakers and religious leaders in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina who are far less famous than journeyman actor Judge Reinhold, who has endorsed Bill Richardson.

The thing is, most endorsements don't mean squat.

Since voters have easy access to so much information about presidential candidates, they hardly need to be advised by a celebrity or a politician on how they should cast their ballots. Does it really matter, for instance, that ex-Democratic House leader Dick Gephardt has come out for Hillary? Not even Gephardt thinks so; as he remarked not long ago, "I'm a has-been politician, so I don't know that I can do anything more than bring my own vote, but maybe I can get my family to vote the right way."

Here are my other rules for this quadrennial ritual:

Even a prominent endorser can't save a flawed endorsee. Witness what happened four years ago. With the Iowa caucuses on the horizon, Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean. Shortly thereafter, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin endorsed Dean as well. The latter, in particular, was ballyhooed in the press as a major coup; as a Wall Street Journal reporter told NPR on Jan. 10, 2004, "(Harkin) has got a political organization that can help pull some of the voters out...This is a big boost for Dean as he moves toward the finish line." But in the end Harkin's imprimatur meant nothing. Iowa's Democrats judged Dean to be unelectable, and he never recovered.

Endorsers with baggage aren't necessarily much help to their endorsees. We'll have to wait and see whether renegade Democrat Joe Lieberman boosts John McCain in New Hampshire, but I'm skeptical. Lieberman, who endorsed McCain yesterday, is supposed to help McCain attract New Hampshire's independent voters; the problem is, Lieberman (like McCain) is a staunch war hawk on Iraq, and independents, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, have largely bailed on the war. Moreover, Lieberman is hardly an iconic figure in New Hampshire; lest we forget, as a 2004 presidential candidate he finished fifth in the Democratic primary, with nine percent of the vote. (He tried to spin the results by saying he was tied for third, but New Hampshire effectively finished him off.)

Endorsers who step on their own tongues wind up embarrassing their endorsees. Andrew Young, the former civil rights activist, congressman, and mayor of Atlanta, has chosen Hillary over Obama. But here's how he explained his reasoning: "Bill (Clinton) is every bit as black as Barack - he's probably gone with more black women than Barack." I bet the Clintons were thrilled with that one.

Endorsers who are presumed to be big shots can't necessarily deliver their own states. During the 2000 Republican primaries, Michigan GOP governor John Engler was supposed to deliver his state for his guy, George W. Bush. Engler reputedly had a lot of political clout on his home turf, and Michigan was therefore deemed to be a "firewall" for Bush. But after nine years in office, Engler's popularity had begun to wane, and Michigan voters were not inclined to follow his lead. Bush wound up losing the state to McCain, by eight percentage points. And Engler later wound up getting bounced from Bush's list of running mates. (As for Tom Harkin, in the aforementioned '04 Iowa caucuses, he was not universally popular among Democrats. I remember asking Don Hewitt, an Iowa farmer, whether Harkin's endorsement of Howard Dean had swayed him toward Dean. Hewitt's response: "I'd like to get Tom Harkin down here and kick his ass.")

Endorsers who can't even speak for their own organizations are probably of little value. Last week, Mike Huckabee, who wants conservative voters to believe that he too is sufficiently tough on illegal immigrants, announced that he had secured the endorsement of Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minutemen (the activist group that believes in sealing and policing the border). Gilchrist went to Iowa to deliver the requisite praise, and Huckabee said he was honored to have him. But now it turns out that Gilchrist was virtually acting alone, and that the internecine Minutemen movement (which has all kinds of independent offshoots and non-profit components) considers Huckabee to be "pro-amnesty," and therefore unworthy of consideration. Which means that Gilchrist's usefulness to Huckabee has already expired.

Endorsers without a ground game can't deliver any votes. For instance, McCain's top man in South Carolina is Senator Lindsay Graham, but he doesn't have the kind of grassroots organization that can pull voters to the ballot box in a GOP primary. Strom Thurmond used to have that kind of local pull, but he finally bowed to the dictates of mortality at age 100.

Yes, there are rare instances when endorsements can indeed matter - particularly if the timing and cirumstances are right. John Edwards may well have finished a strong second in the '04 Iowa caucuses because he won the late endorsement of the Des Moines Register. And in this campaign, despite my initial doubts, Barack Obama might benefit from Oprah's endorsement, because she has arrived at a time when he is already being viewed more favorably by black voters, and when he's preparing for the January contest in South Carolina -the first Democratic primary with a large black electorate, roughly 47 percent of the vote. More importantly, Oprah has crossover appeal to whites, and her presence underscores the current story line about Obama's surge in the Democratic race.

But these are exceptions. Who really cares that twice-failed GOP candidate Steve Forbes has endorsed Rudy? Or that New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez has endorsed Hillary? Or that Kevin Bacon is in Iowa for Edwards? Or that ex-Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey is boosting Hillary?

In fact, when Kerrey talks the way he did on Sunday, seemingly trying to flatter Hillary's rival, while nevertheless spreading the negative subliminal message of the far right - "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim" - he's probably no help to Hillary. See rule number three, above.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"Can't anybody here play this game?"

Given the latest pratfalls committed by some of the Republican presidential candidates, is it any wonder that Republican voters are generally turned off to the entire field? That more than half of the GOP electorate has an unfavorable opinion of each and every GOP hopeful?

For starters, consider Mitt Romney – who is viewed favorably by only 36 percent of his fellow Republicans. On Meet the Press yesterday, he provided us with a tour de force of his serial flip-flops on guns, abortion, immigration, gays, and Ronald Reagan. (If you’re wondering about the Reagan flip-flop, here’s what Romney said in 1994, while running for the Senate in Massachusetts: “I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I’m not trying to return to Reagan.” And here’s what he said last Friday: “The right way for America to proceed when we face the kind of challenges we face is to pursue the strategy which Ronald Reagan pursued when we faced the challenges of the last century.”)

Romney’s abortion flip-flops are well documented, of course. What fascinated me yesterday were his fumbling attempts to explain his convenient journey from pro-choice to pro-life. During the ’94 campaign, he explained his pro-choice stance this way (italics are mine): “Many, many years ago I had a dear close family relative that was very close to me who passed away from an illegal abortion. It is since that time my mother and my family have been committed to the belief that we can believe as we want, but we will not force our beliefs on others on that matter. And you will not see me wavering on that.”

Yet here was Romney yesterday, insisting to Tim Russert that he has always been a closet pro-lifer: “Well, you know, Tim, I was always personally opposed to abortion" -- which helps explain his current support for the Republican party platform, which calls for a constitutional amendment banning abortions nationwide.
Such an amendment, of course, would impose anti-abortion beliefs on those who disagree - precisely the opposite of what Romney pledged in 1994.

And when Russert asked yesterday whether he believed that life begins at conception, he revealed his true self. From the transcript:

“I do. I believe, I believe, from a, from a political perspective that life begins at conception. I, I don’t, I don’t pretend to know, if you will, from a theological standpoint when life begins.”

Wait...Did he just say that he believes life begins at conception “from a political perspective?” No wonder so many grassroots Republicans don’t trust this guy. They want somebody who hews to that belief for theological reasons – not somebody who goes on TV and admits to the entire nation that his stance on life is “political,” and therefore just an exigency of the campaign.

I sense that Romney is basically a moderate Republican (as his father was), and it’s embarrassing to watch his incessant attempts to retrofit his convictions, all the while claiming that he is doing no such thing. There’s a reason why his lead in Iowa has evaporated, despite his expenditure of $7 million; conservatives smell an opportunist.

(Worse yet, an opportunist who makes stuff up. At one point yesterday, he stated that, while running for governor in 2002, "I received the endorsement of the NRA." The factual reality is that he did not receive the endorsement of the NRA. The gun lobby didn't back anybody in that race.)

And here's a lesser-known tidbit from the Romney oeuvre, something that came up yesterday: He had declared in 1994 that, if elected senator, he would vote to enact the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a long-gestating bill aimed at banning job and housing bias against gay people nationwide. But that was then. Here’s what he told Russert yesterday: “I would not support (ENDA) at the federal level, and I changed in that regard because I think that policy makes more sense to be evaluated or to be implemented at the state level.” Suddenly, on the issue of banning anti-gay discrimination, he’s a state’s rights guy. Guess why.

Yet, with respect to one issue, Romney did manage yesterday to exude a sense of conviction: He thinks it’s wrong to strongly criticize “our president,” George W. Bush.

Unfortunately for Romney, that particular conviction will not click with about 70 percent of the American people. But he’s only thinking right now about the GOP electorate, most of whom still support the failed president, and he thinks this stance might help him recoup some of the ground he has lost in Iowa to Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee, the upstart, underfunded rival who has supplanted Romney as the Iowa frontrunner (and who, nonetheless, is viewed favorably by only 30 percent of the GOP electorate), wrote a piece for the January issue of the august Foreign Affairs magazine (or maybe a policy wonk wrote it for him, given Huckabee’s death of foreign policy knowledge), laying out the Huckabee vision for America’s role in the world. It contained this passage, which had Romney in high dudgeon all weekend:

“American foreign policy needs to change its tone and attitude, open up, and reach out. The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad.”

Romney first assailed Huckabee on Saturday, contending that this passage sounded like something a Democrat would say. (It’s actually something that anyone with a grasp of empirical reality would say, but never mind.) Then yesterday, he said: “That’s an insult to the president, and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the president…he went over the line.”

In response yesterday, Huckabee slam-dunked Romney: “There's no apology necessary to the president. I'm the one who actually supported the president's surge. I supported the Bush tax cuts when Mr. Romney didn't. I was with President Bush on gun control when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the president on the president's pro-life position when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the president on his position on same-sex relationships and marriage when Mitt Romney wasn't. I was with the president on the legacy of the president's dad and Ronald Reagan when Mitt Romney wasn't. So, you know, I don't have anything to apologize for. I'm running for president of the United States. I've got to show that I do have my own mind when it comes to how this country ought to lead, not only within its own borders but across the world.”

Huckabee is calculating that he can afford to take a shot at Bush’s foreign policy record, given the general mood of Republican discontent, and given his own support for Bush on so many other fronts. He’s calculating that GOP voters will applaud his promise to break with the past – in his words, “I do have my own mind” – and that’s why he has Mitt Romney on the run in Iowa. Because the perception persists that Romney’s mind is shaped by the pragmatics of the moment, and therefore is not his own.

And yet…just when it appears Huckabee might be the man of conviction that grassroots Republicans are yearning for, we get the news that he was once a wholly owned subsidiary of the tobacco industry.

It turns out that, while Huckabee was serving as lieutenant governor of Arkansas back in 1994, R. J. Reynolds helped finance a non-profit organization that paid Huckabee to crisscross the country and attack Hillary Clinton’s health care plan. The tobacco giant’s role was kept secret for years – Huckabee neglected to report this income on his ’94 state financial disclosure form – but now it’s all coming out. A former Huckabee political advisor – who doubled as a consultant to R. J. Reynolds – is talking openly about how the tobacco giant put money in Huckabee’s pocket, and the company has now confirmed it.

But here’s the good part: Huckabee claimed last Friday that he didn’t know he was taking big tobacco money while he was on the public payroll. His former advisor, J.J. Vigneault, reportedly has a big problem with that denial, particularly because Vigneault recalls that Huckabee met with R. J. Reynolds officials in his Little Rock apartment.

Vigneault is quoted as saying: “There’s no way he could not have known about the money from R. J. Reynolds. If he’s saying he didn’t know about the Reynolds money, he’s been less than truthful.”

And speaking of untruths, the whopper of the week (last week, anyway) was uttered by Rudy Giuliani, during the final Republican debate of 2007. Giuliani (who is viewed favorably by 41 percent of Republicans) promised that, if elected, he would run an open administration, just as he had as mayor: "I would make sure that government was transparent. My government in New York City was so transparent that they knew every single thing I did almost every time I did it. So I would be extremely open...I think I've had an open, transparent government."

Those statements contradict factual reality. In truth, Rudy was the opposite of transparent. When independent budget watchdogs - seeking to their job, as outlined in the city charter - tried to audit the fiscal practices of his administration, Rudy's stonewalling on data was so endemic that the City Council had to set aside money for the specific purpose of suing him. Later, when the state comptroller tried to do routine audits of city performance, Rudy stonewalled him, too - which prompted the comptroller to issue multiple subpoenas for information, all of which Rudy simply ignored. The comptroller finally sued Rudy for the data; the case dragged on for two years, with Rudy stonewalling all the way. In the end, Rudy lost when the state's highest court ruled against him.

Flip-flopping panderers, faith-based trimmers of truth, outright fabulists...no wonder the Republican electorate is so restive. As Casey Stengel once said, while describing his 1962 New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Friday, December 14, 2007

Attack and apologize, Hillary style

In an alleged debate yesterday, the Democratic presidential candidates largely confined themselves to familiar themes and talking points; thanks to the tight Iowa format, nobody was substantively challenged - neither by a rival, nor by moderator Carolyn Washburn, who, for the second straight day, made it clear that her idea of a follow-up question is "Thank you."

A decent roundup of the high and low points is here. I'm more interested in what transpired off stage, in the latest case of Hillary hardball.

As you probably know, Billy Shaheen, the co-chair of Hillary's national campaign and a Clinton family favorite whose wife Jeanne is running for the Senate in New Hampshire, apparently acted alone on Wednesday, in a show of excessive zeal, when he brought up rival Barack Obama's youthful experiences with marijuana and cocaine. (Obama has previously volunteered information about those experiences in a memoir.) In an interview, Shaheen cited the drug use as purported evidence of Obama's unelectability:

"The Republicans are not going to give up without a fight...and one of the things they're certainly going to jump on is his drug use....It'll be, 'When was the last time? Did you ever give drugs to anyone? Did you sell them to anyone?' There are so many openings for Republican dirty tricks. It's hard to overcome."

The story sat out there for 24 hours, gathering national attention (shorthand: Obama = drugs), until Shaheen announced yesterday that he was quitting the campaign, that he had mistakenly lashed out on his own, that Hillary had not authorized him to say any such thing. Then Mark Penn, Hillary's chief strategist, went on Hardball late yesterday to engage in the ritual distancing: "He was never a part of this campaign. It was unacceptable."

It's not hard to figure out what really happened here. Hillary's campaign is spooked by Obama's surge in the polls, notably his erasure of Hillary's once-daunting lead in New Hampshire. And when her people feel threatened, they are fully capable of playing the game rough. The drug story is a classic example: you impugn your rival for a day or so, then you switch to apology-and-resignation mode - which makes it appear that you're back on the high road, but, in reality, only serves to keep the damagibng story in the news a little longer.(Witness Mark Penn yesterday on MSNBC, perpetuating the drug stuff while seeming to knock it down: "The issue related to cocaine use is not something that the campaign was in any way raising.")

Moreover, Billy Shaheen isn't exactly some overzealous junior aide. He and Jeanne, a former New Hampshire governor, have long been close pals with Bill and Hillary; they reportedly had dinner together a few months ago. Shaheen, lawyer and power broker, at this point has an instinctive understanding of the parameters of Clintonian politicking. He didn't need Hillary to "authorize" any attack on Obama's past drug use. He spoke out because he knows full well how the Hillary camp plays the game when the pressure is on.

And his argument was specious anyway. He basically said, We don't think it's a big deal that Obama used drugs in the past, it's those evil Republicans who will successfully make it a big deal. I doubt that Shaheen, or anyone in the Hillary camp, truly believes that. I haven't seen a shred of polling evidence that suggests Obama is electorally vulnerable because of what he did as a young man; perhaps religious conservatives would view his drug use as a moral deal-breaker, but they wouldn't vote Democratic anyway.

It's also worth remembering that Bill Clinton admitted to marijuana use in 1992 (doing it in his classic fashion, claiming that he "didn't inhale," and that he only did it outside America's territorial waters), and I don't seem to recall that his youthful experiences doomed him at election time. If the Republicans couldn't invoke drugs as a "dirty trick" nearly 16 years ago, I doubt they'd succeed in 2008, particularly when the prevailing political winds appear to be against them. And the Hillary people are savvy enough to know this.

But, apparently, the Hillary people are not savvy enough to realize that when they impugn a rival in this fashion, they risk further alienating those Democratic voters who are fed up with polarized politicking. Or perhaps the Hillary people, hard-wired for combat, simply can't help themselves.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A snoozefest more potent than Ambien

I'm addressing this question to all the heterosexual guys out there:

Have you ever been dragged to a chick flick - the kind where Helena Bonham Carter makes a pot of tea and swoons endlessly about the Victorian gents whom she fancies - and within 30 minutes you're surreptitiously tracking the second hand of your wristwatch as it ticks ever so slowly onward?

Well, that's how it was yesterday, at the Republican presidential debate in Iowa, the last showdown before the Jan. 3 caucuses.

It's not so easy to transform a galvanizing political race into a soporific yawner, but moderator Carolyn Washburn was clearly up to the job. Doing her best imitation of your fourth-grade substitute teacher, Washburn, the editor of the Des Moines Register, made it clear from the outset that the rules would not permit any outbursts from the unruly boys in class.

There would be no talk of immigration (which is merely the hottest issue in the GOP race). There would be no talk of Iraq (which has cost the lives of nearly 4000 Americans and drained the treasury of roughly half a trillion dollars). There would be no opportunities for the candidates to directly address each other (this, at a time when the candidates have started to do so, in their TV ads). Rather, there would be a series of ponderous policy questions (with scant time to respond in any detail), coupled with an opportunity for each candidate to make a "free statement" about himself (which resulted in the usual talking points, which added nothing and illuminated nothing). Worse yet, the GOP field was larger than ever, thanks to the inexplicable inclusion of Alan Keyes, who was somehow let onto the stage despite his zero percent popularity - as measured in a November Iowa poll.

(I felt bad last night for the Des Moines Register reporter who had to cover this event. In his story, he called it as "a free-wheeling forum," which is akin to equating a chick flick with a Die Hard sequel. Maybe he felt compelled to take one for the team.)

This exchange basically summed up the whole affair:

WASHBURN: "I want to take on a new issue. I would like to see a show of hands. How many of you believe global climate change is a serious threat and caused by human activity?"

FRED THOMPSON: "Well, do you want to give me a minute to answer that?"

WASHBURN: "No, I don't."

THOMPSON: "Well, then I'm not going to answer it."

WASHBURN: "Okay."

MIKE HUCKABEE: "How about 30 seconds?"

WASHBURN: "No, I -- you know, I want --"

You get the idea. She wrestled with her unruly boys all afternoon, trying to keep the lid on spontanaeity. And the upshot was that, in the end, Mike Huckabee benefited the most.

I hesitate to name a "winner" in any debate, particularly in a heavy-lidded affair such as this, but clearly Huckabee had the best day. He entered the event at the top of the polls in Iowa, and he left the event largely unscathed - again, because the tight format did not encourage any of his rivals to take him on directly. The result was that he got off easy, especially when some of his remarks cried out for rejoinders.

At one point, Huckabee made a pitch for his so-called "fair tax" - his proposal to scrap the progressive income tax, and replace it with a flat national sales tax. He claimed that this levy would benefit most Americans. In his words, the Huckabee tax system "means that the rich people aren't going to be made poor, but maybe the poor people could be made rich. That ought to be the goal of any tax system - not to punish somebody, but to enable somebody so that they can have a part of the American dream. The fair tax does just that."

It just so happens that many tax experts, and many Republicans, view the Huckabee plan as downright nutty - because it would do precisely the opposite of what the candidate claims. Some studies have already concluded that a flat national sales tax would actually worsen the tax burden for most people; the richest Americans, in the top fifth, would see their tax rate fall by 20 percent, while the other 80 percent would pay more.

But none of Huckabee's rivals were willing to defy the lofty vibes and refute him. It would've been like rolling a stink bomb down the church aisle. Which is also why Mitt Romney, when asked whether the next president should be an economic conservative, passed up the opportunity to discuss all the taxes that Huckabee raised while he was governor of Arkansas. Which is also why nobody dared bring up the latest developments in the case of Wayne Dumond, the convicted rapist who was pardoned with the encouragement of then-Gov. Huckabee, only to murder a woman in Missouri. (The conservative press is far less reluctant to view Huckabee with the appropriate skepticism.)

Yesterday, the only candidate willing to take on Huckabee, however fleetingly, was Tom Tancredo - who probably figured he had nothing to lose, given the fact that his prospects for becoming president are roughly akin to Kevin Federline's. Noting that Huckabee has in the past voiced compassion for illegal immigrants but now talks tough about border security, Tancredo asked, "how are you going to convince America that you, in fact, changed your mind on the issue of immigration from when you were a governor? That's all I want to know."

Whereupon Washburn, invoking her rule about no immigration talk, stepped in to ask Ron Paul for his favorite New Year's resolution.

If I were Huckabee, I know what my New Year's resolution would be. I'd send that woman a thank-you note for helping him lock down his Iowa lead. Unless he has already concluded that she was an instrument of God's will, and that such a note is therefore not required.

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This is noteworthy: The Hillary Clinton campaign has released a new Iowa TV ad, featuring the candidate's mother.

Dorothy Rodham says, "What I would like people to know about Hillary is what a good person she is. She never was envious of anybody — she was helpful. And she’s continued that with her adult life with helping other women. She has empathy for other people’s unfortunate circumstances. I’ve always admired that because it isn’t always true of people. I think she ought to be elected even if she weren’t my daughter."

Translation: Hillary is bleeding. Support from women has dropped in early primary states, and skepticism about her character persists. Hence, mom to the rescue.

Will the ad work? Don't expect any discussion during today's Democratic debate in Iowa.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The Republican presidential candidates debate again today, in Iowa. Meanwhile, this is perhaps the oddest aspect of the fluid Republican presidential race: The most electable candidate remains broadly unpopular within his own party.

That would be John McCain, who's still breathing after having been given up for dead not too many months ago. I'm tempted to wonder whether Republicans are so fixated on punishing illegal immigrants that they would prefer to lose the '08 election rather than nominate an electable guy whose talk of compassion flunks their litmus test.

The latest national survey, released yesterday, reports that McCain is currently the only GOP candidate who stacks up well against Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. He leads Hillary by a couple points, and he's tied with Obama - unlike his rivals, many of whom would lose to either Democrat by a landslide.

I wasn't totally surprised by those numbers; McCain is often cited by many Democrats as the only palatable candidate in GOP camp (despite his staunch support for the Iraq war). His enduring appeal (attributable to his strength of character) was evident last week, when he was singled out by a number of participants in a Democratic focus group in Philadelphia.

Hence this question: Given the glaring flaws of the other GOP candidates, why haven't grassroots Republicans gravitated to McCain - who may be ideologically imperfect, from their perspective, yet nevertheless might be most qualified to keep Hillary out of the White House?

One could make an easy case for his assets: He has sustained a more consistent conservative record on the social issues (abortion, gay marriage) than either Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani. On fiscal issues, he has been inveighing against wasteful pork-barrel spending far longer than any of his rivals. He has staunchly supported the Iraq war, and has been willing to say so out loud, unlike most of his rivals - and one would think that this would appeal to grassroots Republicans. And, unlike Mike Huckabee, he won't potentially scare off independent swing voters by acting as if he was running for the job of pastor-in-chief.

Yet McCain still lags behind the field - even in New Hampshire, the state that boosted his upstart 2000 campaign. The latest CNN poll shows him far behind Romney, despite the latter's ongoing imitation of a weathervane.

And there's another factor that could complicate McCain's quest to become the GOP's comeback kid: the mood of the independents. Under New Hampshire rules, registered voters unaffiliated with either party can choose, on the day of balloting, to participate in either party primary. This year, the majority of those voters might opt to join the Democratic contest in order to vote for Barack Obama.

So McCain is left with the task of wooing the party base, but the immigration issue apparently remains a deal-breaker. He gets no points for being consistent in his belief that illegals can't simply be shipped home ("these are God's children as well, and they need some protections under the law and they some of our love and compassion"), nor for his willingness to state his belief in front of hostile Republican audiences. For many grassroots Republicans, hostility towards illegal immigrants has replaced hostility towards abortion providers as the ultimate litmus test.

But maybe McCain is providing Republicans with the ultimate test - between pragmatism and purity. What's more important next year: Is it better to punish McCain on this issue, and risk not fielding the most electable candidate?

As Voltaire warned a few centuries ago, "The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We interrupt this program

I'm off duty today, traveling. Back tomorrow.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Huck and the Holy

In the latest church news – excuse me, Republican presidential campaign news – we have some fresh developments concerning GOP prospect Mike Huckabee and his running mate, God. (Or perhaps it's the other way around.)

Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported that Huckabee, during his unsuccessful 1992 bid for a U.S. Senate seat, had willingly shared his concerns about gay people. He told an AP questionnaire, “I feel homosexuality is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle, and we now know it can pose a dangerous public health risk.” Since presidential hopeful Huckabee stressed just the other day that his convictions are “deeply held, consistent, authentic,” we can only assume that today he still sees gay people as he saw them in 1992 – although his ’92 biblical admonition seems at odds with the sunny image he’s currently seeking to project.

His ’92 judgment on gay people – and the fact that he said nothing this weekend to distance himself from that judgment - certainly won’t hurt him in Iowa and South Carolina. He needs religious conservative voters to sustain his insurgent campaign, and they generally share that judgment anyway. But it’s hard to imagine that, if he somehow snagged the ’08 GOP nomination, his views on gays would endear him to the centrist swing voters who are crucial to winning in November. Swing voters tend to be fairly tolerant of gay people, and generally averse to biblical admonitions. And polls indicate that young voters under the age of 30 are even more tolerant; their demographic supports the concept of gay marriage more than any other.

But what voters in general tend to dislike is a double-talking politician. Consider Huckabee's response yesterday on Fox News, when asked about his other ’92 statement that gays should be quarantined from the general population in order to contain the AIDS epidemic. (Never mind the fact that, seven years earlier, the federal government had publicly concluded that AIDS was not spread through casual contact.) Huckabee, in his response yesterday, engaged in some evasive wordplay that would have put Bill Clinton to shame.

Here’s what he had said in 1992: “If the federal government is truly serious about doing something with the AIDS virus, we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague....It is difficult to understand the public policy towards AIDS. It is the first time in the history of civilization in which the carriers of a genuine plague have not been isolated from the general population…”

When asked about that statement on Fox News, here’s what he said: “I didn’t say that we should quarantine.”

Well, actually, that’s exactly what he said. His ’92 phrase (“we need to take steps that would isolate the carriers of this plague”) is synonymous with “should.”

But Huckabee, clearly sensing yesterday that he’d taken the wrong tack, didn’t try to parse his words any further. Rather than continuing to try to weasle out of what he said in '92, he quickly reverted to consistent-conviction mode, and declared that he would stand by his old comments rather than try to “recant” them. So, with respect to pleasing his growing fan base on the religious right, he probably emerged unscathed from that episode.

And on the topic of nurturing that fan base, perhaps he did his best work the other day at Liberty University, the school founded by the late Jerry Falwell. When a student asked him to explain the reasons for his rapid ascendance in the Republican presidential polls, here was Huckabee’s diagnosis:

“There's only one explanation for it, and it's not a human one. It's the same power that helped a little boy with two fish and five loaves feed a crowd of five thousand people. (Applause) That's the only way that our campaign can be doing what it's doing. And I'm not being facetious nor am I trying to be trite. There literally are thousands of people across this country who are praying that a little will become much, and it has. And it defies all explanation, it has confounded the pundits. And I'm enjoying every minute of them trying to figure it out, and until they look at it, from a, just experience beyond human, they'll never figure it out. And it's probably just as well. That's honestly why it's happening.”

Translation: He thinks he’s rising in the polls because it is God’s will.

How na├»ve of me to believe that presidential candidates rise or fall on things like, you know, issues and positions and other earthly factors such as character and image. The Huck seeks to instruct us that the real explanation is “not a human one.” His basic message is that secular empiricism is so last century.

Again, if he gets the nomination, let’s see how centrist swing voters respond to a guy who apparently sees himself as God’s instrument. Given the current White House occupant's insistence that he too was guided by the Lord (regarding his decision to invade Iraq, President Bush told Bob Woodward, "I was praying for the strength to do God's will"), that kind of claim might not be viewed as an asset this time around.

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In print yesterday, I assessed the GOP debates via the satirical/absurdist route, although that kind of format is not designed for the humor-impaired.

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Last Friday, I wrote here about a Democratic focus group, and its misgivings about the '08 Democratic field. Other journalists watched the proceedings as well. Here's another account, by the Washington columnist Al Hunt.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Some Democrats sitting around talking

The conventional wisdom these days is that grassroots Democrats are happy with their presidential candidates, and confident about recapturing the White House in 2008. But, after attending a Democratic focus group the other night, I am tempted to conclude that the prevailing mood is far less festive than generally described.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart, working with the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, gathered 11 Democratic voters in a Philadelphia conference room, and elicited their opinions about the '08 race. Along with a few noteworthy Washington journalists, I watched the proceedings from behind a one-way mirror. They knew we were there, and they agreed in advance to be quoted by name. That's the basic focus-group format.

Obviously, this was not a scientific national sampling, and these particular Democrats won't have a say in the '08 nomination race, because Pennsylvania schedules its party primary in April, when it makes no difference. But their nuanced remarks helped to explain why the Democratic polls have been tightening lately, and why so many Democratic voters have yet to be conclusively sold on either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama (not to mention the rest of the field).

Basically, there's considerable concern about whether those frontrunners are electable - or, if elected, capable of governing effectively.

Of the 11 voters (six live in Philadelphia, five in the suburbs), only four count themselves as Hillary supporters. Another is undecided, but leaning toward her. Without trying to extrapolate too much, this underwhelming tally appears to suggest that her claim on the Democratic electorate is a tad soft.

Christopher Haig, a Philadelphian who works in the health care field, isn't backing anybody at the moment. His beef about Hillary is that she's too "embroiled in government," that "she's so connected" - meaning, in his view, that she's a status-quo insider. He said, "I'm looking for something completely different."

Andrew Alebergo, a Philadelphian who owns a tanning salon, who is leaning toward John Edwards, fretted that Hillary would just perpetuate the polarization that has afflicted America for so long, thanks to her membership in one of our apparent family dynasties ("Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton"). He put it this way:

"Hillary is divisive. You remember how ugly (the mood) was when Bill was in charge? Just imagine what the Republicans would pull out if Hillary is elected...It'll be red state/blue state all over again...poisonous for the country."

She was sometimes dismissed by these Democrats as too calculating. When they were asked how they thought Hillary might choose to spend a few hours of free time, Philadelphia lawyer Ray Kempenski scoffed, "Depends on what the polls would say."

Even one of her supports, Red Cross manager Lynda Connelly, said she was worried about Hillary's lack of support among women - specifically, upscale professional women. Polls show that that these voters continue to hold back. Connelly talked it out: "Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies. There are women who are jealous that (Hillary) is intelligent, that she has gone to the heights she has gone to. They say to themselves, 'Maybe I could have done that, if only I had made this or that choice'...and so they take it out on a woman who has been successful. I don't understand it, myself." (Fresh evidence, here.)

It also turned out that one of the Hillary supporters, retiree Venetta Allen of suburban Yeadon, is doing so strictly on the rebound. Her first choice is actually Barack Obama - but she doesn't think he can win a general election. Allen, who is African-American, doesn't believe that most Americans would elect a black man, no matter what they tell pollsters. So she's for Hillary, because she thinks that the gender barrier is lower than the racial barrier.

On the racial issue, she was seconded by Philadelphian Cheryl Ewing, who is also black. Ewing is backing Obama over Hillary, but she has no faith that he'll make it all the way: "No matter how intelligent the gentleman might be - he could be a rocket scientist, but people still don't want a black in office...The country's racist."

Craig Gilmer, a job recruiter from nearby Norristown, agreed with Ewing. He too is black, and an Obama supporter. But he fears that Obama, because of his skin color, might not get the requisite "respect" that a candidate needs in order to win.

Only five of the 11 participants think that Obama can win a general election - and not just because of his race. Despite his rock star appeal, some in the room questioned whether he's qualified for the job. Kempinski said, "In eight years he might be an ideal candidate. He's not there yet...There's a level (of competence) that you can only get with experience."

Alebergo nodded in agreement. He said that if Obama made some rookie mistakes in the wake of a terrorist attack, many Americans might not be so willing to cut him slack, and "he'd have a tough time digging his way out....If we weren't involved in a war, I'd say that he is just what we need." But, because of the war, "I'd hesitate to put him in charge."

In the end, there was rough agreement that, despite many nagging reservations, Hillary would probably be the most effective nominee next fall. There was little love for Hillary in that room, but she kept getting points for "toughness," and even Alebergo said he sensed that,as president, she would handle herself well in a crisis.

This may well be an accurate mirror of the national Democratic mood. Above all, these voters want to win. As they got ready to leave, pollster Hart asked if they had any parting advice for the Democratic candidates. Most said things like "be fearless" and "be tough." But Edward Suchy of Hatboro had the last word:

"Don't be a loser."

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Did Mitt sway the wary?

Mitt Romney finally delivered The Speech today - his long-awaited disquisition on the role of his Mormon faith in the public square - and he basically hewed to the JFK model, as evidenced by this promise: "Let me assure you that no authorities of my church, or of any other church for that matter, will ever exert influence on presidential decisions."

He said it all kinds of ways: "I will put no doctrine of any church above the plain duties of the office and the sovereign authority of the law. As a young man, Lincoln described what he called America's 'political religion' - the commitment to defend the rule of law and the Constitution. When I place my hand on the Bible and take the oath of office, that oath becomes my highest promise to God." And, a bit later, "we separate church and state affairs in this country...No religion should dictate to the state..."

But we won't know whether his promise is enough to mollify his key target audience -Christian conservatives - until the primary season voting actually begins. Fairly or not, a lot of those folks don't trust Mormons; a recent Pew survey found that 36 percent of white Protestant evangelicals - and 41 percent of those who attend church weekly - say they're less likely to vote for a Mormon.

It's strictly a theological beef. Among those weekly churchgoers, 52 percent do not believe that Mormons are Christians. And since people are sometimes reluctant to come clean with pollsters, lest they appear to be prejudiced, the chances are that the actual percentages are higher. Hence the rise of Mike Huckabee, ex-pastor of the more familiar Baptists, who touts himself in a TV ad as a "Christian leader."

The potential problem for Romney, going forward, is that he said virtually nothing in his speech about the tenets of his religion, much less make the case that Mormons are Christian. He barely mentioned his religion at all, uttering the word Mormon only once. He had a reasonable explanation for why he was refusing to do so - the Founding Fathers decreed that Americans should not be forced to take a "religious test" in order to hold office - but his reticence may not be a short-run asset, politically speaking.

Christian conservatives are crucially important in the early Iowa caucuses and South Carolina primary, and the less they learn about the upside of Mormon religion - the less that Romney himself seeks to dispel their suspicions - the more they might be susceptible to subterranean whispering campaigns that are designed to paint the faith as threatening or simply wierd. (Indeed, Huckabee is reportedly surging in South Carolina anyway.)

Romney tried a few other strategies, in his bid to mollify the wary. He talked about the "American values" shared by all faiths, and he commiserated with Christian conservatives about how "some" are trying to drive religion out of the public square. He also painted himself as a man of conviction who would stay true to his religion no matter what, and therefore worthy of respect - although his words ("Americans tire of those who would jettison their beliefs") made me wince, given his lengthy track record of flipflops on issues.

So the verdict awaits. The thing is, I suspect that most Americans - as opposed to the gatekeepers of the GOP nomination - won't have a problem with the Romney speech. Perhaps with an eye toward the big-state primaries, he probably reassured the centrist electorate that he would keep his church at a distance while making presidential decisions.

And a lot of Americans don't have a problem with Mormons anyway. As Lynda Connelly, a Red Cross manager and moderate Democrat, remarked the other night during a focus group session in Philadelphia (much more on that tomorrow):

"I don't understand it (the antipathy toward Romney's faith). I've been out to Utah a lot, and I'll tell you something. It's a business, it's not a religion."

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What a shock! It turns out - I know this is hard to believe - that President Bush didn't tell the whole truth on Tuesday, when he claimed in a press conference that he had been kept in the dark last summer about the impending intelligence report on Iran's nukes. (You may remember his Tuesday remark. Referring to intelligence czar Mike McConnell, "He didn’t tell me what the information was.")

Well, consider that claim to be inoperative. Now the White House is saying Bush did know something after all - that, in fact, the spy agencies were looking at the possibility that the Iran nuclear weapons program may have already been "suspended." Here's the latest Bush spin in full:

"Director McConnell said that the new information might cause the intelligence community to change its assessment of Iran's covert nuclear program, but the intelligence community was not prepared to draw any conclusions at that point in time, and it wouldn't be right to speculate until they had time to examine and analyze the new data."

Naturally, the White House is saying that there's absolutely no contradiction between what it's saying now and what Bush said on Tuesday. But the big question remains: Given this admission that he was in the loop as early as August about the possibility of a no-nukes report, why was he clanging the alarm about Iranian nukes in October?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Iran report? What Iran report?

It speaks volumes about the fluidity (and quality) of the Republican race that the hottest candidate in the pack is a guy who (a) doesn't believe in evolution, and (b) doesn't have a shred of foreign policy expertise - nor, apparently, the antennae to monitor key foreign policy developments.

The (a) factor clearly isn't hurting Mike Huckabee as he trolls successfully for religious conservative voters in Iowa. But if his candidacy truly takes off, that pesky (b) factor could be a big problem for him down the road. I'll say why in a moment, but first, let's look at the (b) factor in action.

Last night, Huckabee had dinner with some reporters in Des Moines. Here's what transpired.

Q: "I don’t know to what extent you have been briefed or been able to take a look at the NIE report that came out yesterday..."

A: "I’m sorry?"

Q: "The NIE report, the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. Have you been briefed or been able to take a look at it — "

A: "No."

Q: "Have you heard of the finding?"

A: "No."


OK, I understand that Huckabee has been very busy this week - for instance, lining up an endorsement from biblical values maven Tim LaHaye, author of novels about the coming end of the world - and I understand that he is still operating his campaign on a shoestring and therefore probably doesn't have foreign policy briefers at his elbow.

But still. Imagine the laughter on the right if a Democratic candidate had confessed to being clueless about this development.

The NIE report is, shall we say, kind of a big story. Sixteen intelligence agencies conclude that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, and signaled the Bush administration over the summer that this conclusion was likely....that story was on every front page and it dominated the TV news. Yesterday, President Bush had held a morning press conference about it. The Democratic candidates had talked about it during an afternoon PBS debate. It's the kind of story that a presidential candidate tends to notice.

Huckabee hadn't noticed. But it didn't stop him from trying to react to the story:

"I don’t know where the intelligence is coming from that says they have suspended the program or how credible that is versus the view that they actually are expanding it...And I’ve heard, the last two weeks, supposed reports that they are accelerating it and it could be having a reactor in a much shorter period of time than originally been thought."

Again, if Huckabee had tracked the news reports at all, he would have learned "where the intelligence is coming from." For starters, spy agencies reportedly intercepted a conversation in which a senior Iranian military official complained about the shuttering of the program; and news reports indicate that the classified version of the report was footnoted with more than 1,000 pieces of fresh information. If Huckabee had known any of this, as opposed to saying "I don't know," then perhaps he would've been able to more thoughtfully assess the validity of the "supposed reports" that he says he has "heard."

Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas with no experience on international issues, is focused almost exclusively on domestic front. He recently complained to National Review magazine that he gets exasperated by all the debate questions about Iraq; in his words, "we still go back through it over and over and over again. I just never quite understood why we continued to plow the same ground." That's how the Democrats used to sound, circa the 2002 election season, when they wanted the national security stuff to just go away so that they could talk about domestic issues.

Perhaps Huckabee's insurgent campaign will gain traction in Iowa and complicate life for his rivals. But, bottom line, it's hard to imagine that Republican voters - who still view the GOP as the strong national security party, and who consider that priority to be paramount in the post-9/11 world - would ultimately entrust the '08 nomination to a guy who has no national security creds...and who had to be clued into the contents of the season's biggest national security story. I see the veep slot as Mike Huckabee's ceiling.

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LATE UPDATE: Huckabee was on CNN today, trying to spin his obliviousness:

"I had been up about 20 hours at that time, and I had not even so much as had the opportunity to look at a newspaper. We were literally going from early in the morning until late that night and talking to guys like you. And so I had not had an opportunity to be briefed on it. There are going to be times out there on the campaign trail, Wolf - you've been on the trail, you know - that candidates are literally driven from one event to the next. And it would have been nice had someone been able to first say here's some things that are going on, that are taking place. That didn't happen. It's going to happen again."

I'm sure Wolf Blitzer really appreciated it when Huckabee essentially said: C'mon, Wolf, you're out there, you know how easy it is to whiff on a major international development.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

So much for the "World War III" rhetoric

President Bush just can't catch a break. It seems like every time he tries to be bellicose, the facts come along and trip him up.

Five years ago, he railed against the "grave and gathering danger" of Saddam Hussein's WMDs, only to suffer irreperable domestic political damage when it turned out that he had committed American blood and treasure to the overthrow of a dictator who had no WMDs. And now he has been embarrassed again: Just six weeks after he raised the specter of the Iranians wielding a nuclear weapon, and invoked "World War III," America's 16 intelligence agencies have concluded in a new National Intelligence Estimate, with "high confidence," that the Iranians actually halted their nuclear weapons program...

In 2003.

Worse yet, news reports indicate that, at the time Bush voiced his dire warnings on Oct. 17, he had already been informed that the spy agencies were in the midst of reassessing the purported grave and gathering Iranian threat. Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, indicated yesterday that the Decider had been briefed some time "in the last few months," perhaps as early as August or September. And other Bush officials were first told in July about the likely NIE conclusion, that the nuke program had been halted in 2003.

Not for the first time in his tenure, however, Bush went ahead anyway and talked darkly about a WMD threat that his own intelligence people were increasingly skeptical about. (Bush, Oct. 17: "I think so long - until they suspend and/or make it clear that they - that their statements aren't real, yeah, I believe they want to have the capacity, the knowledge, in order to make a nuclear weapon...if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon. I take the threat of Iran with a nuclear weapon very seriously.")

The NIE report, released yesterday, depicts the Iranians as far more rational than the Bush administration - and certain '08 presidential hopefuls - have painted them to be. The spy agencies have concluded that the Iranians are not maniacs hell bent on crashing the nuclear club; according to the report, their decisions "are guided by a cost-benefit approach, rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."

This report probably foils some of the Bush administration's grand plans for its final year, such as the possible option of a new preemptive war, although I assume that the president and his surrogates will simply find a way to spin the NIE report for their own purposes. Indeed, Bush took that route this morning, telling reporters that even a nuclear program stoppage justifies hawkish vigilance in the future:

"I view this report as a warning signal that they had the program, they halted the program. The reason why it's a warning signal is they could restart it...I still feel strongly that Iran is a danger.I think the NIE makes it clear that Iran needs to be taken seriously as a threat to peace. My opinion hasn't changed."

Bush also said today that he didn't learn of the new intelligence assessment until last week - which appears to undercut the remarks yesterday, by his own national security advisor, that he knew months ago about the gist of the impending report. But wait, Bush also said today that he does recall being told in August, by intelligence overseer Mike McConnell, that a fresh assessment of Iran was in the works; however, "He didn’t tell me what the information was." (But are we supposed to believe that the Decider didn't demand to know what the information was?)

Also today, a reporter asked Bush: "Are you saying at no point while the rhetoric was escalating, as 'World War III' was making it into conversation — at no point, nobody from your intelligence team or your administration was saying, 'Maybe you want to back it down a little bit?'" To which Bush responded: "No — I’ve never — nobody ever told me that." (But wasn't he capable of Deciding, all on his own, that it would be wise, at minimum, to dial down his rhetoric, given the signals he was getting about the impending NIE report?)

Whatever. It's old news that this administration is woefully short on credibility, and this is just the umpteenth example.

More interesting, perhaps, is the report's potential impact on the '08 presidential race, because the findings undercut the rhetoric of those candidates who appeared to be sharpening their sabers with respect to Iran.

For instance, Mitt Romney: "I believe that Iran's leaders and ambitions represent the greatest threat to the world since the fall of the Soviet Union, and before that, Nazi Germany."

Rudy Giuliani: "As we all know, Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and they're threatening to use them. If I'm president of the United States, I guarantee you we will never find out what they will do if they get nuclear weapons, because they're not going to get nuclear weapons." (italics are mine)

John McCain: "There's no doubt that (Iran is) moving forward with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon."

Hillary Clinton: "The (Iranian) Revolutionary Guards are deeply involved in Iran's nuclear program," and "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons."

None of these candidates appear to be backing off their statements, although yesterday Giuliani dialed down his previous rhetoric by observing that "sanctions and other pressures must be continued and stepped up until Iran complies by halting enrichment activities in a verifiable way." Romney said simply that, even in the wake of the NIE report, "I have not said anything in that regard that I regret." And I doubt that any Republican candidate will pay a political price for making needlessly bellicose remarks; the GOP base is already accustomed to supporting a president who lashes out even in the face of flawed intelligence.

But the story may be different on the Democratic side. The liberal base is less tolerant of bellicosity. And her chief rivals, mindful of the base, has been giving Hillary a lot of grief for her Yes vote on the Senate resolution designating the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. Barack Obama and John Edwards have assailed her vote as a gesture that aids and abets the Bush administration hawks. Now, in the wake of the NIE report, they can jump on her again.

We already have Edwards saying this: "The new National Intelligence Estimate shows that George Bush and Dick Cheney's rush to war with Iran is, in fact, a rush to war. This is exactly the reason that we must avoid radical steps like the (Iran resolution) declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which needlessly took us closer to war."

And we already have Obama tying Hillary's '02 war vote to the '07 Iran resolution: "The juxtaposition of this NIE with the president's suggestion of World War III serves as an important reminder of what we learned with the 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq: members of Congress must carefully read the intelligence before giving the President any justification to use military force." (Hillary reportedly didn't read the '02 NIE report.)

Hillary's people have released a statement saying that the new NIE report "vindicates" what the Hillary camp has been right along in its insistence that Iran requires tough diplomacy, but they've said nothing about how the report squares with her statement, at the recent Philadelphia debate, that "Iran is seeking nuclear weapons." We'll see how all this plays out in Iowa, where the liberal base is famously skeptical about rhetorical bellicosity - and, by most accounts, increasingly skeptical about Hillary.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The rush to war, Rovespeak edition

Karl Rove refutes the old F. Scott Fitzgerald adage that there are no second acts in American lives. After crashing and burning in 2006 – insisting all the way to election day that the Republicans would hold the House and Senate – and after bailing out of his job as George W. Bush’s indispensable sidekick, he is now remarketing himself as a political seer and future memoirist, working the talk shows and writing a column for Newsweek.

The wisest course would be to simply ignore him, to consign him to history; the problem is that, befitting his status as the Ministry of Truth’s spinner emeritus, he persists in trying to flush history down the memory hole. In true Orwellian fashion, he has sought in recent days to rewrite the factual reality of autumn 2002, when (as those of us with cognitive empirical skills will certainly recall) the Bush team was on the march to war in Iraq and goading the Democratic Senate to get with the program as congressional elections loomed.

Five years later, however, that’s not how Rove chooses to remember events. Speaking with Charlie Rose on PBS during Thanksgiving week, and with a Washington Post reporter late last week, Rove now insists that the autumn rush to war was really propagated by...

The Democratic Senate.

What a revelation. Did you know that the Democrats – not the Bush planners and spinners – were really to blame for hustling America into one of the worst foreign policy miscalculations in U.S. history? The way I seem to remember it, the autumn ’02 rush to war had been a Bush production, preceded by a long buildup (Dick Cheney, Aug. 26: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction”), and that the Democrats were in reaction mode, torn between defiance (which was politically risky, in the aftermath of 9/11) and acquiescence (do the war vote quickly, then pivot to domestic issues as the election drew near).

Perhaps we should simply assess this new take on history, in the actual Rovespeak.

On PBS, referring to the war authorization, he said: “The administration was opposed to voting on it in the fall of 2002…Because we didn’t think it belonged within the confines of the election. There was an election coming up in a matter of weeks. We thought it made (the war debate) too political. We wanted it outside the confines of it. It seemed to make things move too fast. There were things that needed to be done to bring along allies and potential allies abroad.”

In the Washington Post, he said: “For Democrats to suggest they didn’t want to vote on it before the election is disingenuous.” The vote schedule was set by the Democratic majority, and “we don’t control that.”

And on Fox News yesterday, Rove tried to buttress his spin by reciting a few autumn ’02 statements from Democratic leaders, all of which seemed to suggest that they were just as eager to wage war as the Bush team. (He conveniently omitted Democratic leader Tom Daschle’s remark of Sept. 10, 2002: “I don’t think we have much choice but to respect the decision – the request of any president, including this one.”)

I could suggest that Rove is still in denial mode (a common Bush team affliction over the years), and that therefore he’s prone to simply making stuff up, but on the latter point I’ll yield the floor to Ari Fleischer, the first-term Bush press secretary. Here’s what Fleischer told the Post, as reported on Saturday; referring to the push for a war authorization vote, “It was definitely the Bush administration that set it in motion and determined the timing, not the Congress. I think Karl in this instance just has his facts wrong.” (Naturally, when his quote was read to Rove yesterday on Fox News, he responded by digging deeper into denial mode: “I disagree with my colleague.”)

It should be easy enough to refute Rove simply by quoting the journalists who covered the war debate at the time; as John Bresnahan of Politico writes, “The White House pushed to hold that vote in October, just a month before the mid-term elections, and Democrats were forced to support it or risk losing their re-election campaigns. It was a bare-knuckled political power play by President Bush and GOP leaders in Congress.” But, for those of you who are skeptical of such refutations from the reality-based community, perhaps this one will hit home:

“My answer to the Congress is, they need to debate this issue and consult with us and get the issue done as quickly as possible. If I were running for office (in November 2002), I’m not sure how I’d explain to the American people – say, ‘vote for me, and oh, by the way, on a matter of national security, I think I’m going to wait for somebody else to act.”

That was Bush himself, in an exchange with reporters on a Sept. 13, 2002, holding the Democrats’ feet to the flame with the election just seven weeks away, essentially giving them the choice of voting for war or being tagged as wimps.

Five days later, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld told Congress that the Bush team had all the WMD evidence it needed: “'The dots are there for all to connect. If they aren't good enough, rest assured they will only be good enough after another (terrorist) disaster….Delaying a vote in Congress would send the wrong message.'' And on the following day, Bush sent his war resolution language to the Senate, and said: “We’ve got to move before the elections.”

Since it is indeed settled fact that the Bush team framed the autumn ’02 war agenda – as Bush chief of staff Andrew Card said at the time, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August” – we can only wonder why Rove is bothering to cut and run from the historical record.

Actually, it’s worse than that. Whereas on PBS he claimed that the Bush team hadn’t tried to politicize national security in the ’02 elections, he seems to have forgotten his own declaration – in a winter ’02 speech - that the Bush team would surely politicize national security in the ’02 elections. Referring to the war on terror, he said on Jan. 18, 2002: “We can also go to the country on this issue because (voters) trust the Republican party to do a better job of protecting and strengthening America’s military might and thereby protecting America.”

In other words, Karl Rove is cutting and running from himself.

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So Mitt Romney is intending to deliver The Speech after all. His defense/explanation of his Mormon faith is slated for Thursday - a clear signal that his camp is increasingly nervous about his standing among religious conservative GOP primary voters.

Can Mitt do for Mormonism what JFK did for Catholicism in 1960? Not necessarily, as I suggested in a recent print column: "Whereas Kennedy mollified skeptics by declaring that 'I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,' Romney can ill afford to say that. Conservative Christian voters, who wield great influence in Republican primaries, do not believe in 'absolute' separation. Romney would commit political suicide if he echoed JFK; nor would he want to, for personal reasons. He has repeatedly signaled that religion belongs in the public square, and that the tenets of his faith have infused his conservative politics. Those arguments might be enough to propel him through the primaries; the general election might be another story."