Thursday, October 04, 2007

He knows which way the wind blows

Since I finished yesterday with Bruce Springsteen, why not begin today with Bob Dylan? As the bard once wrote, "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows."

And that explains Pete Domenici, who has now become the latest Capitol Hill Republican to hoist a wet finger and declare himself gone.

By my count, the New Mexico senior senator (who is expected to bow out officially later today) will be the fourteenth member of his party to opt out of the 2008 election season - five in the Senate, nine in the House. These imminent retirees clearly see no reason to stand and fight, only to risk becoming fresh casualties of the Bush era. Indeed, there are reports that as many as 18 other House Republicans might head for the lifeboats. (The current Democratic retirement tally: None in the Senate, two in the House. The two House guys are leaving in order to run for the Senate.)

Domenici's decision to bail is a fresh blow to Republicans, whose main aim in 2008 is to hold their potential congressional losses to a minimum. They already have to defend the seats of retirees in Virginia, Nebraska, Colorado, and Idaho. And with Domenici off the ballot, the Democrats have a heightened opportunity to stage a competitive race in New Mexico, which has slowly been trending blue - thanks in part to a burgeoning Democratic-friendly Hispanic electorate, and a popular Democratic governor (current presidential candidate Bill Richardson).

With Domenici off the ballot, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (the GOP's strategy headquarters) will have to fight a lot harder just to keep that seat - at a time when the NRSC is raising a lot less money than its Democratic counterpart. And, conceivably, Richardson himself could seek the Democratic nod. According to the filing calendar, he wouldn't have to make a decision until after the early presidential primaries.

The antiwar lobby is trying to take credit for Domenici's departure; as a spokesman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq crowed late yesterday, "Sen. Domenici is yet another political casualty of the war in Iraq." But that's all wrong. Domenici is actually a political casualty of a separate Bush disaster: the politicization of the Justice Department, as evidenced by the prosecutor purge scandal. At a time when voters are concerned about lax ethics in Washington, Domenici certainly isn't well-served by his key role in the firing of a U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, who had refused to give the GOP a partisan boost at election time.

As we now know, at least eight Republican-appointed U.S. attorneys were bounced from their jobs during the past year, apparently because Bush loyalists in Washington deemed them to be insufficiently enthusiastic about tailoring their work to the needs of the GOP (despite the fact that U.S. attorneys, by definition, are supposed to be nonpartisan in their duties). Domenici, currently the target of a Senate ethics committee probe, was one of the most flagrant offenders.

Shortly before the highly-contested '06 congressional election, in which Domenici protege Heather Wilson was fighting to hang onto her GOP House seat in New Mexico, Domenici called Iglesias at his home. Domenici had sponsored Iglesias, a fellow Republican, for the U.S. attorney post back in 2001. Now he was apparently calling in his chits. He wanted to know whether Iglesias - who was in the midst of a local corruption case - would be ready to indict some local Democrats in time for the election. As Iglesias later recalled under oath to the Senate Judiciary Committee, the conversation went like this:

Domenici asked, "Are these going to be filed before November?" Iglesias replied that he "didn't think so." To which Domenici said, "I'm very sorry to hear that," and then the line went dead. (Such calls are highly improper. When Iglesias went public about this exchange, Domenici at first said, "I have no idea what he's talking about." Shortly thereafter, his amnesia disappeared. He acknowledged making the call, and said that he regretted it.)

But back to the chronology: Right after the '06 election, Domenici complained to Karl Rove at the White House, demanding Iglesias' ouster. Lo and behold, Iglesias' name turned up on a Dec. 7 list of U.S. attorneys targeted for firing. And out he went.

Domenici has some health problems, which undoubtedly contributed to his decision. But politicians weigh all kinds of calculations. If Domenici was reasonably confident that he could cruise to victory in his usual manner, he would not have to test his stamina. But the prospect of becoming a poster boy for the purge scandal...well, that's probably enough to make anybody feel old. And so would the prospect of returning to Washington as a member of the minority party - a factor that other Republicans are weighing, as they channel Dylan and chart the prevailing winds.


Following up on Monday's post:

Religious right leader James Dobson surfaced today on, of all places, the op-ed page of the New York Times (the epitome of what Dobson likes to call "the secular news media"). He sought to renew his threat, first voiced last weekend, to bolt the GOP (presumably, in the company of his brethren) and back a minority-party or third-party candidate if the party chooses an '08 nominee who supports abortion rights (presumably, Rudy Giuliani).

He said he cares most about whether the Republican candidate can pass his litmus test; he is far less interested in whether the candidate is electable. In his words, "Polls don't measure right and wrong; voting according to the possibility of winning or losing can lead directly to compromise of one's principles...Winning the presidential election is vitally important, but not at the expense of what we hold most dear."

The Christian conservatives, over the years, have issued many such threats, only to stay in the fold at crunch time. Nevertheless, I well recall 1992, when they assailed President George H. W. Bush as a compromiser who had slighted their agenda, and vowed to vote for him in underwhelming numbers. They followed through on that threat, Bush lost his re-election bid, and a Clinton was elected. Dobson's threat this morning - and similar sentiment from many in the GOP base - could be good news in the end for another Clinton.


And speaking of Republican retirements, here's an update on the Larry Craig chronology. The toe-tapping sex sting defendant - who first vowed not to resign, then declared his intention to resign, then decided not to resign pending his bid to overturn his summer guilty plea, then said he would resign by Sept. 30 if his guilty plea was still in effect, then said he would not resign by Sept. 30 because the plea had not yet been ruled upon - has now received his ruling.

A Minnesota judge has upheld the guilty plea (no surprise there), trashing Craig in the process: "The defendant, a career politician with a college education, is of at least above-average intelligence. He knew what he was saying, reading and signing."

So now Craig will obviously please his embarrassed Republican colleagues and make good on his various promises to resign...


Craig just posted this on his website: "I will continue to serve Idaho in the United States Senate...I have seen that it is possible for me to work here effectively...When my term has expired (in January 2009), I will retire and not seek reelection."

His GOP colleagues might want to get that statement notarized.