Saturday, January 20, 2007

Hillary and history: The chase has begun

This blog post was revised and expanded on Sunday night and Monday morning.

We interrupt the weekend to announce that Hillary Clinton has joined the '08 presidential race. Or, more specifically, she announced today that she has officially decided to explore the possibility of joining the presidential race: "As a senator, I will spend two years doing everything in my power to limit the damage George W. Bush can do. But only a new president will be able to undo Bush's mistakes and restore our hope and optimism."

By the end of next January, just one year away, we will probably know whether she is destined to become the first female nominee in American history. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina - the opening venues - will provide her with the requisite momentum...or slam on the brakes.

She's aiming her appeal at Americans "who work hard and play by the rules," as she said in her announcement. Shades of 1992...that line is verbatim from her husband's first campaign, and serves as a reminder that she is offering America a return to the House of Clinton (as opposed to the House of Bush). This might be comforting to many voters. On the other hand, a lot of Americans may well roll their eyes at the prospect, noting with some weariness that those two Houses have already reigned since January of 1989.

But perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of her announcement was the format: a video message on her website. By delivering the big news from a cozy sofa, in an intimate setting, she was clearly seeking a personal connection with the viewer, and thereby hoping to undercut her image as "a cold, calculating woman" (the negative perception articulated on Sunday morning by Brit Hume on Fox News). Indeed, her campaign is promising more online video chats.

But the online announcement afforded her another advantage: By foregoing the usual faux campaign rally, or announcement via press conference, she avoided exposing herself to inconvenient questions from political reporters, who would have asked about Barack Obama, Iraq, and the husband whose skills as a performance artists exceed her own. Via online video, she can manage (at least for awhile) to control her message and sidestep what Bush has called "the filter." Indeed, the video chat may be the wave of the future.

Her weekend timing is also noteworthy. Her declaration this morning comes just days after Barack Obama's candidacy announcement (translation: "Grab some bench, rookie, because the slugger is taking the spotlight. Just watch those flashbulbs go off when I swing"). Despite the Obama feeding frenzy, she is by far the favorite candidate of rank-and-file Democratic voters; in the latest ABC-Washington Post poll, 41 percent cite Clinton as their prime choice. Only 17 percent say Obama, and 11 percent name John Edwards.

It can be argued that such a national poll is misleading; after all, the crucial first stops on the primary circuit are Iowa and New Hampshire, and Clinton is currently trailing her rivals in state polls. But she has yet to campaign energetically in either locale. That's about to change. She also has $14 million in the bank to help her get up to speed, and sufficient fund-raising prowess to sustain herself - without the need for public matching funds - during the primary season and beyond. (On the other hand, with regards to Iowa and New Hampshire, it will be fascinating to watch her attempt to conduct person-to-person retail politics in restaurants and living rooms, while being trailed by the largest media phalanx in modern history).

But it's equally important to note that she has officially gone public about a candidacy on the eve of President Bush's State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill. She has purposely placed herself front and center in a news cycle normally dominated by the Decider. She's not set to deliver the official Democratic rebutal - that task will be performed by Virginia Senator Jim Webb - but whatever she does say in the aftermath of Bush's address will be scrutinized as never before.

Regarding the ongoing skepticism over whether Clinton is electable in '08, the latest Newsweek poll puts her in a statistical dead heat with each of the likely Republican rivals (although, as the figures show, Obama and Edwards also stack up fairly well). Perhaps the most striking stat - and one that the Clinton people had better pay attention to - is the sentiment among independent swing voters, when asked to choose between Clinton and John McCain. She gets only 43 percent of the swingers, and he gets 49 percent. That's not very impressive, considering the fact that McCain for many months has been panting after the religious right vote, and pushing for the troop escalation plan that is opposed by most Americans.

Indeed, Clinton has been working overtime to capture the middle on Iraq. Her basic take is that Bush's war has been poorly executed. The left and the center are basically in agreement on that, as far as it goes. She opposes the troop escalation, and she wants to "cap" the number of troops, but she won't vote to cut off money to the troops already on the ground. She's clearly to the right of Obama and Edwards on the war, when she is not simply being vague; in her weekend announcement, she said "Let's talk about how to bring the right end to the war in Iraq," without giving us even a clue about how she would define a "right end."

But her caution on Iraq will hardly innoculate her from GOP attack. In fact, war hawk/conservative analyst Bill Kristol is already calling her troop-cap proposal "dangerous foolish." On Fox News this weekend, he also assailed her as "totally irresponsible."

How an unapologetic cheerleader for the Iraq disaster can presume to attack somebody else as "irresponsible" is surely a mystery, and that prompts a thought: Why should we assume that a fresh round of GOP attacks on Clinton will work this time, given the fact that her attackers have lost so much of their credibility since the day when Bush wore his flight suit? In the end, it will all come down to what those aforementioned independent voters think.

In Clinton's defense, here's a new memo from her pollster, Mark Penn, who argues that - surprise - she is indeed on track to win a general election. Penn takes a veiled swipe at the untested Obama:

"Some of the commentators look at the ratings of people who have not yet been in the crossfire, and say they might have a better chance. Recent history shows the opposite. The last two Democratic presidential candidates started out with high favorable ratings and ended up on Election Day (and today) far more polarizing and disliked nationally....Hillary is the one potential nominee who has been fully tested....Hillary is the only one able to match or beat the Republicans after years of their partisan attacks on her."

Is Penn right? Talk amongst yourselves.


Meanwhile, in a print column this weekend about Obama, I tried to tackle the predictable question, "Is America ready for a black president?" by hopefully writing in a non-predictable manner.

Be forewarned: I mentioned in passing that some GOP activists have been trying to draft Condoleezza Rice, but that Rice had "averred." Turns out, I used the wrong word. As an eagle-eyed reader pointed out in an email, "averred" signifies a positive reaction; he suggested that I should have used "demurred" to signify that she was not interested in a draft. He's right.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Remember how we claimed that our critics were unpatriotic coddlers of the terrorists? Forget what we said

Yet another reason to question everything the Bush administration says:

Until Wednesday of this week, the president and his surrogates were absolutely adamant about the need to conduct a warrantless domestic surveillance program and to choose their surveillance targets with no oversight from anybody. After the secret operation was exposed by The New York Times, they repeatedly insisted that, in a post-9/11 world, national security would be imperiled if they were forced to submit their surveillance requests to a special court, as mandated by a 1978 federal law.

But, exercising their usual partisan spirit, they went further. They repeatedly contended that anybody who opposed their point of view – in other words, anybody who thought that the Bush administration should obey the law – was essentially aiding the terrorists and weakening America.

The examples are too numerous to mention. But here’s President Bush last October, politicizing the issue during the ’06 midterm election campaign: “The stakes in this election couldn’t be more clear. If you don’t think we should be listening in on the terrorist, then you ought to vote for the Democrats. If you want your government to continue listening in when al Qaeda planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican.”

Yet now, lo and behold, the Bush team has suddenly announced that, henceforth, they will voluntarily submit their surveillance requests to the special court, as mandated by federal law.

Which basically means that all their previous rhetoric impugning the patriotism of their critics has been rendered inoperative.

It’s probably not a complete belly-up capitulation, of course, because Bush officials won't say whether they would still do what they wanted if the court turned them down. But it’s nevertheless a striking development, which prompts a number of questions: Why the change of heart? Is the country safer today than it was yesterday, thereby making it safe for the Bush administration to obey the law? And does this mean that all the critics, who were deemed to be soft on terrorists prior to Wednesday, have now been retroactively restored to partiotic citizenship?

It doesn’t take a political science degree to chart the change of heart. Those Democrats who were once painted as threats to national security are now running Capitol Hill, courtesy of the ’06 election. And a lawsuit against the warrantless program has reached a federal appeals court in Cincinnati, with arguments scheduled for early February.

If the Bush administration truly believes that critics of its program are imperiling national security, it would still be making those arguments, as a matter of principle. Instead, it has dumped that rhetoric down the memory hole. Which probably means that it never really believed the rhetoric in the first place.

In fact, when attorney general Alberto Gonzales testified on Capitol Hill yesterday, he sought to erase the past by insisting that the administration had never intended to imply that the Democrats were against all surveillance of terrorists. Democratic senator Russ Feingold asked, “Do you know of anyone in this country, Democrat or Republican, in government or on the outside, who has argued that the United States government should not wiretap suspected terrorists?…Do you know of anybody in government who has said that?” And Gonzales replied, “No.”

I refer you back to the Bush remark quoted earlier. This administration still hasn’t grasped the fact that, in the cyberspace era, whatever it asserts today can be measured against what it said yesterday.

The administration’s rhetorical U-turn brings to mind Emily Litella, the Gilda Radner character on the original Saturday Night Live: “What’s all this about Democratic appeasers?…Never mind.”

Most noteworthy, however, is the scream of pain emenating from Bush’s defenders on the right. They really did believe that rhetoric about how the critics were coddling terrorists. They repeated it on cable TV and on the blogs, arguing as well that The Times should be prosecuted for treason. And they believe it now, arguing as a matter of principle that a terrorist-fighting executive branch should be unfettered in its actions. So they basically feel today that the Bush administration has hung them out to dry.

Here’s conservative lawyer and legal analyst Mark Levin: “For the Bush administration to argue for years that this program, as operated, was critical to our national security and fell within the president's Constitutional authority, to then turn around and surrender presidential authority this way is disgraceful. The administration is repudiating all the arguments it has made in testimony, legal briefs, and public statements. This goes to the heart of the White House's credibility. How can it cast away such a fundamental position of principle and law like this?”

This goes to the heart of the White House’s credibility….Finally, an issue that the right and the left can agree on.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The GOP's choices: sullen acquiesence or outright rebellion?

President Bush has become such a drag on his party’s fortunes that those who are lugging his baggage can’t resist venting their frustrations.

Case in point: Conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has good GOP sources, writes today about “the sense of impending political doom that clutches Republican hearts,” and quotes a party strategist who says, “Iraq is a black hole for the Republican party.” Then Novak writes this: “One nationally prominent Republican pollster reported confidentially on Capitol Hill after the president's speech that if U.S. boots are still on the ground in Iraq and U.S. blood is still being spilled there at the end of (this) year, the GOP disaster in 2008 will eclipse 2006.”

Hence the focus today, and in the weeks ahead, on the best political story in Washington: The distinct possibility that a sizeable number of Republican lawmakers – worried about their own future prospects, cognizant of growing antiwar sentiment back home, and convinced that the Bush White House is in its last throes – will dump the Decider and vote for a bipartisan congressional resolution opposing his plan to feed 21,500 more soldiers into the Iraq fire.

That kind of thing doesn’t happen very often; congressional Republicans, far more often than their Democratic counterparts, tend not to be rebellious. The GOP political culture stresses discipline and respect for hierarchy, and these values are most strongly exhibited when the GOP has one of its own in the White House.

Extraordinary circumstances are required for Republican foot soldiers to stand up and defect. In fact, this has not happened en masse since 1974, when they felt compelled to bail out on Richard Nixon as the storm clouds of impeachment were drawing closer. In the end, a delegation of Republicans, led by senators Barry Goldwater of Arizona and Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, trekked to Nixon’s office and told him that he had lost his party’s support, that the rank and file – forced to choose between loyalty to him, and loyalty to the ticked off folks back home – had chosen the latter.

The current situation isn’t exactly analogous, of course, because (notwithstanding the desires of some anti-Bush activists), the president is not facing impeachment. He is, however, facing a potential vote on a bipartisan resolution that would (a) symbolically humiliate him, (b) denounce his handling of the mission on which he has staked his legacy, and (c) basically reduce him to
relevence via veto pen for the rest of his tenure.

The resolution (text included here) was introduced yesterday, with co-sponsorship from Republican senator and Army veteran Chuck Hagel; on ABC this morning, Hagel said, “To feed more American troops into this bloodbath is wrong.” The measure – which currently states that “it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq” – has no teeth. It can’t force Bush to do anything. But, if passed with sizeable Republican support (and there have been reports that as many as a dozen of the 49 senators could back it), it would amount to a vote of no-confidence. When votes like that are conducted in parliamentary democracies such as Britain’s, the people in power lose their jobs.

Here’s the mood that Republican lawmakers are facing right now: According to the latest Fox News poll, released this afternoon, six in 10 Americans currently oppose the Bush escalation plan (the same share reported by other polls this week). More strikingly, in the Fox survey, 57 percent said they would vote not to finance the increase in troops. Even 32 percent of Republican respondents feel that way. (Maybe this helps explain the glaring omission in GOP chairman Ken Mehlman's farewell speech this afternoon. I checked the text. Not once did he utter the word Iraq.)

So it’s not surprising that Bush keeps inviting Republican lawmakers to the White House for chats about the political way forward; and that Republican leaders on Capitol Hill keep pulling the lawmakers into closed-door meetings. This is the equivalent of trying to frantically bail water from a leaky vessel.

The latest behavior from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki isn’t going to make these Republicans feel any better. The one assurance sought by the GOP lawmakers is that the additional troops will be sent for a good reason, that Bush’s willingness to escalate will be matched by Maliki’s willingness to clean up his own act and go after the Shiite militias (his own allies) that are part of the problem. Yet Maliki yesterday indicated that he would prefer a reduction of U.S. troops within the next three to six months; and that he, as leader of a sovereign nation, doesn’t like it whenever Bush and his surrogates suggest that the Iraqi government had better shape up or else.

Here’s the money quote from Maliki: "Such attacks by the Bush war team “give morale boosts for the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort and making them believe they have defeated the American administration.” Note the irony. At the White House this week, Bush spokesman Tony Snow has been busy updating the old Karl Rove argument, suggesting that the impending Senate resolution might be tantamount to aiding terrorist morale….and here is Bush’s client, the guy we are banking on to make the escalation plan work, accusing Bush of aiding terrorist morale.

No wonder Bush’s water-carriers in the congressional leadership have failed to assuage the rank and file. Nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook said the other day that he wouldn’t be surprised if as many as 60 to 65 senators (there are only 51 Democrats) wind up backing the resolution, which may require some rewording in order to get more Republicans on board. Then the House would push its own equivalent measure.

It would appear, at the moment, that the best Bush can hope for is that the vast majority of Republicans simply take a vow of silence, or that they grumble skeptically with muted voices, or that they bob and weave and stall in the hope that maybe the Democrats will overreach. None of those options constitutes the kind of full-throated roar of approval that Bush used to expect back in the day. But right now sullen acquiescence is the best he can get. That’s what happens to a president when his political capital is spent.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hillary Clinton and the "lonely middle"

Much the way Vietnam played a major role in the 1968 Democratic presidential campaign – driving wartime leader Lyndon Johnson into early retirement, bringing antiwar senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy into the race, and ultimately dooming LBJ loyalist Hubert Humphrey – Iraq figures to be front and center in the 2008 Democratic race. Indeed, it’s already clear that the political fortunes of the candidates will hinge on how well they navigate the preeminent issue of our era.

And the waters may be quite treacherous, because the Democratic contestants will feel great pressure to move leftward, at least during the primary season. Democratic voters are more outspokenly antiwar than the rest of the electorate; as a CBS News poll reported after President Bush’s escalation speech last week, only 14 percent of Democrats favor sending more troops to Iraq, whereas 31 percent of all Americans back the Bush troop hike. And on the general question of either reducing or eliminating the U.S. troop presence, 67 percent of Democrats support those options; among all Americans, the share is only 46 percent.

I was reminded of all this today while monitoring Hillary Clinton’s comments on the NBC and CBS morning shows. She will be squeezed more than her chief rivals; as she tells the New Yorker magazine, "I find myself, as I often do, in the somewhat lonely middle."

Unlike Barack Obama, who can trace his opposition to the war back to 2002, when he was still a state senator, Clinton voted for war authorization. And unlike John Edwards, who as a senator did vote for war authorization in 2002, she has not renounced that vote by calling it a mistake. She seems most concerned with establishing centrist credentials for the general electorate (and, frankly, a female candidate may feel it is doubly important not to seem “soft” on national security), whereas her more antiwar rivals appear to be more in tune with the primary electorate.

On the morning shows, fresh from her latest tour of Iraq, she spoke directly to the public’s general frustration with Bush’s disastrous war of choice. Aside from the dwindling share of Bush loyalists in the general electorate, it’s clear at this point that most Americans – liberals, centrist independents, Republican moderates – would have no truck with Clinton’s reference to “this very bad mission that the president is engaged in.” And Clinton also acknowledged the sentiment on her left flank by talking a lot about “capping the number of American troops as of January 1,” and about the long-term folly of continuing to sustain a troop presence “in the midst of a civil war.”

But that’s where she drew the line. Despite strong support among Democratic voters for a fixed withdrawal timetable, she spoke only of withdrawing our soldiers from Iraq “eventually.” (By contrast, Edwards is calling for the “immediate” withdrawal of as many as 50,000 troops. He is also reportedly topping the polls in Iowa, the first pit stop in the ’08 derby, where antiwar sentiment among Democratic caucus goers is traditionally strong.)

Also, Clinton this morning neglected to explain exactly how she would “cap” the number of troops, leaving the impression that she would prefer not to confront Bush directly. [UPDATE at 5:25 p.m. Clinton did announce this afternoon that she intends to introduce a Senate bill that would cap the troops, as well as require Bush to seek congressional OK for any additional troops.]

On NBC this morning, she was also purposely evasive when asked whether she would favor cutting off Bush's war money. She replied this way: “The president has enormous authority under our constitutional system to do exactly what he is doing. He does have the money already appropriated in the budget (for the escalation)” – whereupon she deftly changed the subject to Afghanistan.

That answer won’t satisfy the antiwar left; in a new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 62 percent of the Democrats opposed to the Bush escalation would like to see Congress cut off his war money. But there is no such majority support across the board. Among all Americans who oppose the Bush escalation, only 43 percent want Congress to cut off Bush’s war money. Clearly, Clinton is hesitant about getting too far in front of the general public sentiment; the White House may be running low on good arguments about Iraq, but there is still some political potency in the charge that a money cutoff would be tantamount to undercutting the troops.

It also should be pointed out that Obama, the media darling of the week, is just as hesitant about a money cutoff. He was asked three days ago on CBS whether he supports such an option. He replied, “We need to look at what options do we have available to constrain the president, to hopefully right the course that we're on right now, but to do so in a way that makes sure that the troops that are on the ground have all the equipment and the resources they need."

Translation: No.

Edwards has the upper hand, at least for now. Since he’s not in the Senate anymore, he can attack his rivals from the left flank, and goad them into taking decisive action, without the need to cast a vote on anything. (For instance, he's pushing for a cutoff of troop escalation funding.) The danger for Democrats, in the longer run, is that all the candidates, in the hunt for primary season voters, may feel compelled to move leftward, to the point where it becomes difficult to seize the center for the general election.

Actually, there may be no such danger if the Bush’s Iraq adventure continues to worsen and centrist opinion becomes virulently antiwar. But, for now anyway, the Democrats may need to heed this warning from the smartest strategist in the party, who happens to be married to Hillary Clinton. As he told the New Yorker last year, “it would be really crazy if the antiwar element in our party thought that the most important thing to do was to beat up Democrats…”

Meanwhile, President Bush gets our quote of the day. Here is our chef-in-chief, talking about his war last night on PBS:

“I don't quite view it as the broken egg. I view it as the cracked egg – that – where we still have a chance to move beyond the broken egg.”

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

At last! An entire blog entry that barely mentions Iraq

You may have never heard of Wayne Allard, but he is a significant political figure this morning, if only because his imminent departure from the U.S. Senate brightens Democratic prospects for retaining control of the chamber two years hence.

The Republican senator from Colorado announced yesterday that he would not seek a third term in 2008, thereby keeping his promise to serve only two. Maybe he planned all along to honor his pledge. On the other hand, prevailing political realities in Colorado probably made it easier for him to pull the ripcord on his parachute. The fact is, he would have been forced to endure a difficult and costly re-election race – at a time when Democrats are ascendant not only in Colorado, but elsewhere in the interior western states.

Indeed, the Democrats announced just last week that they would be holding their 2008 national convention in Denver, in part to advertise the party to westerners who, until fairly recently, were deemed to be loyal Republicans. For various reasons (both ideological and demographic), voters in the region are taking a fresh look at the Democrats.

The facts speak for themselves; in Colorado, for example, the Democrats now control the governorship and both state legislative chambers for the first time in four decades, and they hold four of the seven U.S. House seats. They also hold one of the Senate seats (Ken Salazar, elected in 2004), and they were expected to seriously threaten Allard if he ran again in 2008. But now, with no incumbency trappings to worry about, the Democrats have enhanced their chances for an open-seat pickup – and strengthened their national prospects for holding the Senate, particularly since the GOP has to defend 21 of the 33 seats on the ballot in ’08.

The GOP in Washington yesterday put out a statement about Colorado, quickly drawing a line in the sand: “Republicans will retain the seat currently held by Sen. Allard and (we) will do everything in (our) power to ensure the principles of fiscal responsibility and limited effective government returns to the people of Colorado in November 2008. The voters of Colorado supported Pres. Bush over Al Gore in 2000 and again over Senator John Kerry in 2004, and Republican statewide registration is 36 percent compared to 30 percent for Democrats - ensuring Republicans a strong advantage in 2008. Retention of this seat is now a top priority..."

But even before Allard opted to bail on schedule, the Democrats had been talking up the interior West, as potentially fertile turf for their ceaseless quest to become more than just an East Coast/ West Coast party. Just six years ago, Republican governors ran all eight states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming); today, Democratic governors run five. The landscape still seems daunting in national elections – President Bush swept all eight states in 2004 – but some Democratic analysts today argue that an attractive ’08 Democratic candidate could be seriously competitive in five of those states (aside from Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming), thereby easing the pressure on Democrats to crack the solid Republican South.

Their reasons for optimism can be attributed to a number of factors: a large influx of California emigrants, many of whom, while fiscally conservative, are also more tolerant on social issues than the southern-flavored national GOP; a large influx of new Hispanic voters, many of whom dislike the GOP’s hard line stance on immigration; the ongoing presence of traditional western conservatives, whose leave-me-alone libertarianism clashes with the national GOP credo that big government should be utilized to police private behavior; and a growing pragmatic feeling, particularly around major urban centers such as Las Vegas, Denver, and Albuquerque, that government should indeed have a role in solving urban problems and ameliorating the worst aspects of suburban sprawl.

The average voter, of course, wouldn’t articulate the factors that way. I think that Rick Allaire, a Coors brewery worker, probably said it best last month, as he recalled his ’06 vote during a chat with a political reporter: “I figured, hell, why not give Democrats a shot. How much worse can they do?”

That’s the kind of voter that Democrats need to enlist in ’08, both in the presidential race and in the Colorado Senate race. But if Democrats tap candidates who can be easily stereotyped by the GOP as traditional eastern liberals, they may well wind up undercutting their own quest for the interior West.


Speaking of candidates, Barack Obama filed the initial paperwork today for his ’08 White House bid. Notwithstanding the fact that he is a senator, it’s clear that he plans to position himself as an “outsider” who is fed up with the usual partisan bickering in Washington. (That has been the preferred candidate stance, dating back to Jimmy Carter’s initial wanderings in 1975.) Therefore, he will paint himself as being above the fray, as a transformative figure and a breath of fresh air. From his statement today:

“I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics….The decisions that have been made in Washington these past six years, and the problems that have been ignored, have put our country in a precarious place….But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most. It's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before. But today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions.”

Translation: I am “new politics,” while Hillary Clinton is a symptom of the “bitter and partisan” old politics. I am part of the solution, she is part of the problem.

The early contours of the Democratic race are already apparent. Obama and ex-senator John Edwards are positioning themselves as outsiders (on Sunday, Edwards, another announced candidate, lectured Capitol Hill Democrats about being too timid on Iraq, declaring that "silence is betrayal"). They seek to contrast themselves favorably with Hillary (the six-year senator, and eight-year First Lady during the bitter and partisan ‘90s) during this crucial early phase, when the donors and activists are busy kicking the tires.

I predict that, with Obama now on board, the odds of an accelerated Hillary Clinton candidacy announcement are approximately 99 percent.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dick Cheney goes for the gut

It was instructive yesterday to hear Dick Cheney expound at length on the Iraq war, during his visit to Fox News. He actually performed a valuable public service, by reminding all Americans that he is still the power behind the throne, and that he and the members of his neoconservative network are still determined to use that power as they see fit, even though the ’06 voters signaled otherwise.

The neoconservatives who originally sold George W. Bush on the alleged virtues of a regime change in Iraq have been somewhat diminished by the misadventures of the past four years, but many are still ensconced in Cheney’s office, and they hold a number of key positions on the National Security Council. They are also influential at the American Enterprise Institute think tank, which helped develop the troop escalation plan.

Their determination to proceed has not been shaken by the adverse public mood, nor by the inconvenient truths of empirical reality – as evidenced by Cheney’s defiant comments on Fox, notably this one: "I think if you look at what's transpired in Iraq, we have, in fact, made enormous progress."

If Democrats and restive Republicans on Capitol Hill truly want to gauge the seriousness of the impending battle over Iraq policy, they might be well advised to study the Cheney transcript. It was patently obvious that he is the engine that powers the Bush vehicle. He is the steel in Bush’s spine. Even after a decisive repudiation on election day, he is still willing to say the things that not even Karl Rove is saying these days – notably, that anyone who assails the Bush administration’s troop escalation plan is merely validating “the al Qaeda view of the world.”

That was one of his sound bites yesterday. There were many others, including his argument that the current debate over Iraq is more about anatomy than ideology. To wit: “If the United States doesn’t have the stomach to finish the job in Iraq, we put at risk what we’ve done in all of those other locations out there…We have to prevail, and we have to have the stomach for the fight…(Al Qaeda is convinced that) the election campaign last fall, all of that, is evidence that they’re right when they say the United States doesn’t have the stomach for the fight…”

Perhaps most Americans would forego the Pepto Bismol if they had substantive reasons to be confident about the workability of the troop escalation plan that Cheney helped to hatch. (New reasons to feel queasy, here.) But, beyond assuring host Chris Wallace yesterday that the Bush administration has been “very direct” with the oft-recalictrant Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, Cheney refused to say what the U.S. would do if the escalation plan flops and the bloodshed continues unabated.

“Time will tell,” said Cheney. “We’ll have to wait and see.” (Translation: There goes another year.)

Wallace then asked, “What do we do if (Maliki) doesn’t live to his promises” – namely, to go after the murderous Shiite militias that are controlled by his Shiite allies? Wallace basically asked whether Bush and Cheney have a Plan B.

Cheney replied: “I’m not going to get into that, Chris. We’ve got a good plan.”

Wallace, to his credit, then asked a variation of the same question. And Cheney replied, “I’m not going to go beyond what I’ve said. We’re focused on making this plan work.”

Wallace tried again: “But it’s not an open-ended commitment?”

Cheney: “We’re focused on making this plan work.”

And perhaps stomachs would not be so queasy if most Americans had confidence that an error-prone administration was suddenly exhibiting more competence. On the contrary, Cheney made it clear yesterday that he would prefer to rewrite history rather than acknowledge past error.

A number of experts, for instance, have faulted the Bush war team for failing to anticipate or combat the burgeoning sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites. But Cheney’s view, expressed yesterday, is that none of this violence occurred “until the spring of ’06,” after al Qaeda operatives bombed a famous Shiite religious landmark.

Cheney’s claim, however, is factually inaccurate. There was plenty of evidence in 2005 that Shiite death squads were precipitating sectarian violence – thanks in part to the Shiite government that came to power in the wake of the January ’05 “purple finger” elections. Here’s one passage from a Knight Ridder article, on Feb. 27 of that year: "Shiite Muslim assassins are killing former members of Saddam Hussein's mostly Sunni Muslim regime with impunity in a wave of violence that, combined with the ongoing Sunni insurgency, threatens to escalate into civil war. The war between Shiite vigilantes and (Sunnis) is seldom investigated…”

But perhaps the most revealing moment occurred midway through the interview when Wallace asked Cheney about the recent election day verdict: “By taking the policy you have, haven’t you, Mr. Vice President, ignored the express will of the American people in the November elections?”

Cheney: “I don’t think any president worth his salt can afford to make decisions of this magnitude according to the polls. The polls change every day – "

Wallace: “Well, this was an election, sir.”

Cheney: “Polls change every day, week by week…You cannot simply stick your finger up in the wind and say, ‘Gee, public opinion’s against; we’d better quit.’”

Consider that exchange for a moment. One can certainly have a legitimate debate over whether policies should be subjected to a popularity contest; indeed, John F. Kennedy (with great assistance from his ghostwriter Ted Sorenson) won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Profiles in Courage” which lauded some political leaders who had followed their consciences rather than popular opinion. But Cheney’s offhand dismissal of elections in general – equating them with fluctuating public opinion polls – is another matter entirely. His comments should serve as fair warning to administration critics that he and his ostensible superior in the White House will never feel compelled to change course in Iraq just because the will of the people wishes it so.

Cheney made it perfectly clear yesterday that Democrats and dissenting Republicans on Capitol Hill will get nowhere if they merely pass non-binding resolutions condemning the troop escalation (“it would not affect the president’s ability to carry out his policy”). He essentially signaled administration critics that only a fight over the purse strings, or an outright constitutional clash, would really get his attention.

The White House seems fully prepared for a confrontation, lawyering up for a court showdown over the national security prerogatives of the commander-in-chief. The Democrats, by contrast, are not. The big question, as Democrats chart their own new way forward, is whether they will have the “stomach” to take on the likes of Dick Cheney.