Friday, March 16, 2007

A fine day for another document dump

It’s Friday, and you know what that means:

It means that the Bush administration could stage another document dump, releasing new information that makes it look bad, and hoping all the while that relatively few people will take notice - because the news audience is generally smallest on a Saturday.

There have been several document dumps already this week in the prosecutor purge scandal – thanks to the actions of some Justice Department officials who are trying to stave off congressional inquisitors – and there’s no reason why somebody in the besieged administration wouldn’t save the best for week’s end. The Justice Department has already indicated that more dumps are imminent. Presumably, new material might help Congress decide whether attorney general Alberto Gonzales and other Justice officials lied under oath about the purge program.

Friday afternoons are the perfect time to leak the most embarrassing stuff, because reporters are generally busy with Sunday story deadlines, or they’re too time-squeezed to give the documents the fullest possible reading, or they’re less likely to be able to reach their best sources (many of whom have typically left for the weekend), or because they too are trying to leave for the weekend.

Just check out these cursory samplings from the Bush administration’s Friday track record: Last Friday, FBI director Robert Mueller III held a briefing and confessed that his agency had misused the Patriot Act to conduct unwarranted domestic surveillance. On the Friday before the Super Bowl, somebody leaked the latest National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that, for the foreseeable future, Iraq’s freedom-loving leaders will he “hard-pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation.” On four different Fridays in 2004, the Pentagon dribbled out the records of President Bush’s National Guard service. On a Friday in April of 2005, his Department of Education released the weighty report which detailed how the administration had secretly paid $240,000 to conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, in exchange for some friendly columns about Bush’s no-child-left-behind policy. And last year, the congressional GOP got into the act; late on an autumn Friday, Mark Foley resigned and split town.

(And yes, absolutely, Bill Clinton did Friday dumps as well. But he’s not in office now; Bush is. To those who invoke the Clinton-did-it defense at every turn, I shall merely paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld and point out that we go to press with the president we have, not the one that we might want to have.)

Hey, I might well be proved wrong about today. But we do already have our first Friday incident - the latest from Bush press secretary Tony Snow, who has now renounced a falsehood that he had floated earlier this week.

On Tuesday, he stated that the purging of insufficiently partisan prosecutors had been the brainstorm of White House counsel Harriet Miers. On Thursday, even after newly released emails showed that Karl Rove had mentioned the idea even before Miers was in the job, Snow still stuck with his spin ("the email does not directly contradict nor is it inconsistent with Karl's recollection").

Now, on Friday, it turns out he was for the spin before he was against it. Here's the new party line: "It has been described as her idea but...I don't want to try to vouch for origination....At this juncture, people have hazy memories."

It has been described...Looks like Snow is taking refuge in the passive voice defense (see Tuesday post).

Meanwhile, as we await other possible Friday developments, perhaps we should check in with the ’08 Republican presidential candidates and see what they have been saying about the unprecedented firing of eight federal prosecutors for apparently partisan political purposes. Here’s the rundown…it must be here somewhere...OK, here’s the deal:

They have said nothing.

Rudy Giuliani, a former prosecutor himself, someone who might be sensitive about the issue of insulating prosecutors from partisan politicking, has not issued a single statement. Nor has Mitt Romney, whose spokesman says that “what we’re focused on right now is the promotion of our candidate.” Nor has John McCain, who told reporters yesterday that he was open to “anything you want to talk about” – then muzzled himself when the purge was brought up.

Why so quiet? That’s an easy one:

Taking a stand would be a lose-lose proposition. If they tried to distance themselves from this latest Bush administration disaster, by publicly endorsing the traditional principle that federal prosecutors should be treated professionally rather than as political hacks, they would probably help themselves with the swing-voting independents who have already soured on the Bush regime – but they would tick off the diehard conservatives they will need in the primaries. On the other hand, if they publicly took the Bush line and declared the purge to be no big deal, they’d please the conservative primary voters – but they’d tick off the swing voters who are crucial in a general election.

The time is ideal, however, for one of these guys to finally go on record, and have minimal impact. It’s a Friday.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

"Message: I Care" and Bush's other scandal defenses

For two days, I’ve tried in this space to track all of the Bush team’s defense rationales in the prosecutor purge scandal. It has not been easy. Amidst the mounting evidence that the White House, and its Justice Department surrogates, engineered the unprecedented firing of eight federal prosecutors because they weren’t doing enough to help Republicans win elections, new variations of spin keep surfacing. Yesterday, President Bush contributed some new ones, and we will deconstruct them in a moment.

But first, some breaking news: Newly-released emails revealed this evening that Karl Rove was perhaps the first player who had the bright idea of screening the federal prosecutors for partisan loyalty, and purging those who failed that test. In a message to White House aide David Leitch, dated Jan. 9, 2005, Justice Department aide Kyle Sampson (the same guy who just resigned as Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff)pondered a query from Rove and concluded that perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the proescutors could not be considered "loyal Bushies." He predicted that such a daring plan would probably tick people off in Washington, but wrote that "if Karl thinks there would be a political will to do it, then so do I."

Just remember that the original White House falsehood was that Rove had played no role in this affair, and that the whole thing should be pinned on now-departed White House counsel Harriet Miers. Bush flak Tony Snow said two days ago that the firings had been "her idea only," and he has since said it again. That line may soon be disposable as well.

All this new action doesn't bode well for Bush's attempts to explain himself yesterday in Mexico. For instance, he offered...

The "Message: I Care" defense. This one is named after his dad; during the senior Bush’s ill-fated 1992 re-election bid, a handler had written out those three words, to remind Bush to demonstrate his empathy on the stump. Senior Bush did so by literally reading the words.

Anyway, the younger Bush is trying to show he cares, by suggesting that he cares just like everybody else about the purge scandal. The president said yesterday, “I’m frankly not happy about it.” The problem with this defense, however, is that it loses its potency if used too often – and Bush uses it all the time. He has repeatedly said that he’s just as frustrated as everybody else with the events in Iraq; two weeks ago, he said he was just as unhappy as everybody else with the poor treatment of the troops at Walter Reed.

Currently, he is not even unhappy about the purge scandal per se; as evidenced by his remarks in Mexico yesterday, he essentially sees it as merely a communications problem. He thinks the Justice Department has failed to effectively explain why the firing of these prosecutors was no big deal in the first place. Which brings us to…

The Falsehood defense. This is generally employed by someone who either truly believes in the falsehood, or thinks out of calculation that the falsehood might help muddy the waters. Yesterday, Bush said that he not happy “because there is a lot of confusion over what has really been a customary practice by the president.”

Actually, as noted here yesterday (see Karl Rove’s Clinton Did It defense), it is not accurate to state that previous presidents have found it “customary” to fire federal prosecutors in the middle of their terms. The Congressional Research Service has found such firings to be exceedingly rare. Also, as noted here yesterday, even top Gonzales staffer Kyle Sampson conceded in a January 2006 email to the White House that neither Ronald Reagan, nor Bill Clinton, had mapped any plans to oust prosecutors in mid-term. (The CRS did note that one Clinton appointee was forced to quit under pressure - after he'd lost a big drug case and had subsequently gone to a topless bar, where he bit a dancer on the arm.)

But since it has now happened eight times under Bush, he felt compelled yesterday to offer the Deniability defense. This is usually employed by a top player who feels compelled to distance himself from a scandal, by contending that there is no smoking gun linking him to it. Accordingly, Bush said this yesterday about Gonzales (my emphasis added): “I never brought up a specific case, nor gave him specific instructions.”

Of course not; he wouldn’t need to. Given his self-description as the Decider, and given the importance of loyalty in the Bush White House, it’s fair to conclude that, his key underlings were totally in sync with the general rules of governance laid down by the boss. The Bush rules dictate that federal prosecutors should viewed as be partisan servants; that's basically how the game is played in Texas, where the whole judiciary is politicized, starting with the fact that judges are elected on party slates. (That's how Rove first made his consultant money.)

And even though Bush presumably didn't wield a smoking gun, he was present at the scene. A White House spokeswoman said earlier this week that Bush, on the eve of the 2006 elections, had voiced general complaints about unnamed federal prosecutors who were, in his mind, not moving fast enough to prosecute Democrats in alleged voter fraud cases. Dana Perino said that Bush “believes informally he may have mentioned it to the AG” during a meeting on “other matters.” Shortly after Perino spoke, a Justice Department flak came forward to say that Gonzales doesn’t remember Bush saying this (see yesterday's Amnesia defense).

So here is Bush’s bottom line, as he put it yesterday: “I’ve heard those allegations about political decision-making. It’s just not true.” Given the plot arc of this melodrama thus far, it seems likely that the credibility of this Bush claim will rank with his utterance of May 29, 2003: “We found the weapons of mass destruction.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Fresh spin samplings from an administration under seige

Now that the truth is coming out, now that we know how the Bush administration has sought to treat the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a political arm of the Republican National Committee, the various defenses offered by the key players seem ever more fascinating.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales tried virtually every classic stratagem during his Tuesday press conference; in my post late yesterday, I noted his use of the O.J. Simpson defense, along with his other attempts to employ what Richard Nixon used to call “the modified limited hangout route.”

But once we bring Karl Rove into the mix – which seems appropriate, given the new evidence of his involvement in this affair – we discover a few other categories of spin.

It first should be noted, however, that Rove is truly the Zelig of our era. Just like the fabled Woody Allen character that appears at every historical juncture during the 1920s, Rove seems to pop wherever the action is.

When the White House was working to discredit Iraq war critic Joseph Wilson, for instance, Rove turned out to be one of the players who leaked to the press about Wilson’s wife (despite the White House’s initial insistence that he had played no such role). And now, despite the White House’s initial insistence that Rove had no role in the firing of the eight prosecutors deemed to be insufficiently partisan, it turns out that he most certainly did. Last year, the federal prosecutor in Arkansas was fired to make room for ex-Rove aide Tim Griffin; as attorney general Gonzales’ chief of staff noted in an email, “getting him appointed was important to…Karl, etc.”

But Rove’s portfolio ranges far beyond Arkansas. Regarding New Mexico, we know already that federal prosecutor David Iglesias was fired last December, despite a strong performance rating, because he had rebuffed GOP pressure to speed an indictment against a local Democratic official and thus boost the party’s prospects in the 2006 congressional elections. This past weekend, the White House acknowledged that Rove had fielded complaints from New Mexico Republicans, and passed them along to the Justice Department and to the White House counsel’s office. (The Justice Department mission statement does not remotely suggest that U.S. attorneys are supposed to help the ruling party win elections; rather, the apolitical statement states: “Each United States Attorney exercises wide discretion in the use of his/her resources to further the priorities of the local jurisdictions and needs of their communities.”)

Which brings us to the Amnesia defense. Several days ago, a White House spokeswoman, after checking with Rove, said that Rove “doesn’t exactly recall, but he may have had a casual conversation with (Gonzales), to say he had passed those complaints to (White House counsel) Harriet Miers.” Which I suppose is meant to imply that, even though Rove is still routinely described by White House officials as a power behind the scenes, in this particular case he was just making “casual” chitchat that was too unimportant to remember.

Meanwhile, Rove himself has employed the Clinton Did It defense. (This should come as no surprise, because it’s a standard defense for Bush administration officials.) During a public appearance last week, Rove contended that the firing of the eight federal prosecutors was “normal and ordinary” because President Clinton had done much the same thing. Rove said: “Clinton, when he came in, replaced all 93 U.S. attorneys. When we came in, we ultimately replace most all 93 U.S. attorneys….Because every president comes in, appoints United States attorneys and then makes changes over the course of their time.”

First of all, of course Clinton replaced all 93 attorneys at the outset of his tenure, as all presidents do, so that’s beside the point. But he was also suggesting that Clinton sought to make changes over the course of his time. That is not accurate – as Gonzales’ chief of staff noted in a newly-released email, dated Jan. 9, 2006 (this is back when the firing scheme was first being developed). Kyle Sampson cautioned Harriet Miers with a bit of history: “In recent memory, during the Reagan and Clinton Administrations, Presidents Reagan and Clinton did not seek to remove and replace U.S. Attorneys…but instead permitted such U.S. attorneys to serve indefinitely under the holdover provision.” The underline in the email was Sampson’s.

But just to show how dire the situation has become for the Bush White House, this morning we also discover the Gonzales Did It defense.

Even though it’s clear by this point that this White House sets the tone of governance, certain anonymous remarks floated today in The New York Times strongly suggest that the folks at the top are fitting their loyal subordinate for the noose. (Folks at the top routinely assail newspapers for running anonymous quotes, when those quotes prove embarrassing. But they have no problem with such quotes if they are the ones using anonymity to serve their own needs.)

Here’s the key passage: “(Gonzales’ press conference) underscored what two Republicans close to the Bush administration described as a growing rift between the White House and the attorney general…The two Republicans, who spoke anonymously so they could share private conversations with senior White House officials, said top aides to Mr. Bush, including Fred F. Fielding, the new White House counsel, were concerned that the controversy had so damaged Mr. Gonzales’s credibility that he would be unable to advance the White House agenda on national security matters, including terrorism prosecutions. ‘I really think there’s a serious estrangement between the White House and Alberto now,’ one of the Republicans said.”

So the White House seems to be telling Gonzales that his usefulness is over and that it’s time to fall on his sword for the throne. The problem, however, is that Congress – which is well aware that the prosecutor scandal is rooted in the Bush administration’s governing philosophy – will not be content with a partial shuffling of personnel. A modified, limited hangout route might have worked when the supine Republicans ran the Hill, but those days are over.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Heckuva job, Alberto: the attorney general plays defense

On occasion, I receive emails from Bush fans who complain that I have not been giving “equal time” to “Democrat scandals,” now that the Democrats have been in power on Capitol Hill for…oh… two whole months. I understand their concern. But here’s the problem: Every time I start to look across the aisle at the blue team, that wacky Bush team (which, after all, has dominated Washington for the past six years) comes up with yet another new way to embarrass itself.

Consider, for instance, the press conference hosted this afternoon by Alberto Gonzales, the veteran Bush crony who doubles as the chief law enforcement officer of the United States. He’s in a bit of a pickle right now, because it turns out that his Justice Department has been outed as having lied repeatedly about the circumstances that led to the unprecedented firing of eight federal prosecutors. The shorthand is that Justice officials – and Gonzales personally – recently told Congress that these prosecutors were not replaced for partisan political reasons; indeed, Gonzales testified that his regime would “never, ever” do such a thing. But now it turns out, thanks to a Monday document dump, that these prosecutors were fired for partisan political reasons – and that the pressure for these firings originated in the White House, and were worked out in close consultation with Gonzales’ chief of staff.

One quick digression, for those of you who may not have been tracking this slow-burning scandal, or who may not be clear on its significance: Federal prosecutors are supposed to be insulated from partisan political pressures. They are virtually never forced out of their jobs; once appointed, they traditionally stay until a new president arrives to clean house. Indeed, the Congressional Research Service has found that, of 486 prosecutors appointed since 1981, only 3 have been forced out in midterm, apparently for egregious performance reasons. Yet now we have eight new firings all at once, in the middle of Bush’s second term, virtually none of them for performance reasons (even though Gonzales’ department did claim at first that the eight victims had earned poor job evaluations, but that argument has turned out to be a lie as well).

Anyway, Gonzales met the press today, took questions for roughly two minutes, then left the scene faster than a hit and run driver. Before departing, however, he exhibited all the symptoms of a cornered Washington pol. Which is to say, he employed all the classic defenses:

The Passive Voice defense. He confessed that “mistakes were made here,” the usual form of words that is meant to suggest that maybe the mistakes sort of happened by themselves, that no actual human being had specifically made them. Republicans might be well advised to remember that this was the same form of words used by Ted Kennedy right after Chappaquiddick.

The O.J. Simpson defense. This is generally employed by someone who insists he will boldly investigate wrongdoing, when in fact all he need do is look in the mirror. Accordingly, Gonzales said today that he will get out there and “ascertain what happened here,” and “assess the accountability.” He can actually start this task by simply reading what’s already in the public record and connecting the dots: Bush counsel Harriet Miers (the former Supreme Court nominee), who has been supremely loyal to her boss since the Texas days, wanted to fire all 93 prosecutors in midterm and replace them with people deemed more loyal to the Bush administration, so she sought out the chief aide to Gonzales, who in turn has been supremely loyal to his boss since the Texas days. That might help him ascertain.

The Richard Nixon defense. During Watergate, Nixon frequently said that he was “taking responsibility,” which was his way of saying that he wasn’t taking the blame. The person at the top of the flow chart manfully takes “responsibility,” but that’s very different from saying that he or she specifically did anything wrong. Hence, Gonzales: “I am responsible for what happens at the Department of Justice.”

The Busy Executive defense. This is also known as the “I’m so important, how was I supposed to know everything that was going on?” defense. Accordingly, Gonzales said today: “As we can all imagine, in an organization of 110,000 people, I am not aware of every bit of information that passes through the halls.” The phrasing “as we can all imagine” is a nice plea for understanding. The problem with this defense is that it paints Gonzales into a corner: either he is lying, since one doubts that an attorney general would consider the unprecedented firing of eight prosecutors to be on a par with the routine bits of information passing through the halls…or he really didn’t know what’s going on, didn’t have any idea what his chief of staff was cooking up with the White House – none of which speaks very well for his executive skills.

The Euphemism defense. This is employed by someone who wants to cushion the fact that he has uttered a blatant falsehood. Gonzales told Congress that he would “never, ever make a change (of prosecutors) for political reasons,” but now we know that it happened. (Especially in Arkansas, where a former Karl Rove aide was installed as a prosecutor. Gonzalez’ top guy even wrote an email, saying that “getting him appointed was important to Harriet, Karl, etc.” But Gonzales tried to spin his falsehood in the best light, so today he referred to his earlier claims as “incomplete information.” Actually, his exact words were that “incomplete information…may have been communicated to the Congress.” (See the Passive Voice defense.)

Finally, The Decider defense: Gonzales vowed not to resign, and signaled that only his longtime patron could make that decision: “I serve at the pleasure of the president.” Perhaps that’s his trump card. Judging by what we have previously seen in this administration, Gonzales may well be in line for the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Hagel plays Hamlet, Thompson plays Reagan

Chuck Hagel’s non-event yesterday was perhaps the worst case of bad hype since Geraldo Rivera found zip inside Al Capone’s vault.

You have to feel bad for Dana Bash. The CNN correspondent, obviously believing that the Republican senator from Nebraska was primed to announce the GOP’s first antiwar presidential candidacy, shlepped herself out to the Cornhusker State, got her crew to the University of Nebraska meeting room, set up the equipment to get Hagel on CNN streaming video, sat there while Hagel flattered her by saying how he hoped she had found a good steak the night before…whereupon he proceeded to announce that he wasn’t making any news.

He basically spent the past week ratcheting up interest for an important announcement, and that announcement turned out to be that he had nothing to announce, except maybe the news that he might decide to make news with a candidacy announcement at some future date. (If his behavior seems puzzling, just remember that this is the same senator who recently co-sponsored an anti-Surge resolution – and then proceeded to vote against allowing the full Senate to debate it.)

Anyway, Hagel punted for a number of reasons (he’d be starting from zero in the money chase, he has virtually no national name recognition despite his constant presence on the Sunday TV shows), but I’d bet he is most sensitive to the fact that a Republican running on an antiwar platform would probably be as popular in the ’08 GOP primaries as Dick Cheney at an ACLU convention.

There is still a limited market for a GOP candidate who opposes the Iraq war; the latest CBS-New York Times poll shows that grassroots Republicans – in contrast with the general American electorate – still support their president. Seventy five percent applaud George W. Bush’s performance, including his handling of Iraq.

Those numbers bear watching. If Hagel ultimately changes his mind and decides to take the plunge, you can assume that he has found evidence that disenchantment with the war has finally begun to ripple through the Republican rank and file. Indeed, one CBS-NYT statistic does suggest a possible future mood shift: 58 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they would prefer a candidate who exhibits some flexibility on when to withdraw U.S. troops – as opposed to a candidate who thinks we should stay in Iraq until we succeed. Only 39 percent said they would prefer the latter stance (which has been adopted by virtually all of the announced Republican candidates). Conceivably, that gap could widen, and overall support for Bush’s war performance could slide, if his troop escalation strategy fails to pay off. But this seems unlikely, which is why Hagel may well spend the rest of the year in Hamlet mode.

Most Republican primary voters would prefer to find a “real” conservative who meets all the litmus tests, including steadfastness on the war. (Hagel’s voting record is actually quite conservative, but his record is trumped by his high antiwar profile). And given the fact that most of the leading candidates have flunked those tests at one time or another – including Rudy Giuliani, who in 1989 declared “there must be public finding for abortions, for poor women” – these voters are still looking for the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan.

Which brings us to Fred Thompson, the actor/ex-senator who has played so many government authority figures in the movies - including a president - that a lot of Americans probably can’t tell which ones were real and which were fictional. (Actually, I liked his role as the air traffic control chief in Die Hard II: “Pack ‘em and stack ‘em!”) He’s flirting with a presidential bid, to fill that conservative niche, as he made clear on Fox News the other day, much to the delight of the conservative punditocracy. He would easily trump Hagel on name recognition, a key commodity these days, because the money chase and the front-loaded primary schedule dictate that only celebrities need apply. Esp[ecially those with Reaganesque communication skills. More importantly, he passed all the litmus tests that were thrown his way on Fox News.

Iraq? Check. (“I would do essentially what the president's doing.”)

Gay rights? Check. (“Marriage is between man and a woman,” and civil unions is “not a good idea.”)

The right to bear arms? Check. (“I’m against gun control generally. Check my record.”)

Abortion? Check. (“I think Roe versus Wade was bad law.”)

Pardoning Scooter Libby? Check. (“I’d do it now.” In fact, he’s a member of Scooter’s Defense Fund.)

He isn’t perfect; as a Tennessee senator during the ‘90s, he opposed conservative efforts to crack down on lawsuit damage awards, and he was deemed by conservatives to be insufficiently aggressive during his ’97 probe of Bill Clinton’s campaign finance practices, but Fox was kind enough not to question him about either. Yet the fact that he looks good to grassroots conservatives is evidence of their disenchantment with the rest of the GOP presidential field. Six in 10 Republicans tell the CBS-NYT pollsters that they still want more choices.

Whether swing-voting Americans are also hungry for a “real” conservative is another matter. Sticking with Bush on the war may be popular inside the GOP bubble, but it is not popular on the outside. Pardoning Libby might be popular on the inside, but it is not on the outside (in the latest CNN poll, 69 percent of Americans say they are opposed). The burgeoning Bush administration scandals, particularly at the Department of Justice and the FBI, have the potential of further taxing swing voters’ patience for Republican governance. Whoever ultimately snags the nomination will still need to somehow finesse the gap that separates the Republican base and the rest of America.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Democratic politics: sly on Iraq, silly on Fox

In the wake of all the latest Bush administration crises – the Walter Reed embarrassment, the Scooter Libby conviction, the apparent firing of eight federal prosecutors for partisan political reasons, the FBI’s confessed abuse of the Patriot Act – it’s easy to overlook the fact that, late last week, the congressional Democrats actually found their voice on Iraq.

They coalesced around a pair of plans that essentially aim to withdraw U.S. combat troops by next year, redeploy some of them to support rules, and spend extra money on fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. The Democratic ideas are similar to those offered last autumn by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, before they were deep-sixed by the Decider. And he is no more interested now than he was then.

The Democrats’ prospects for actually achieving their goals are virtually nil, because Bush has already vowed to veto any such legislation, and the Democrats lack the requisite House and Senate votes to override him.

But they already know that. They will push their legislative measures anyway, beginning this week, because they figure that no matter what happens, they will gain the political advantage:

If a sufficient number of Republicans were to break with Bush, help override his veto, and hence force a major course correction in Iraq, then the Democrats calculate that they’d be greeted as liberators by the war-weary American majority. Indeed, the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll reports that 63 percent oppose Bush’s troop escalation strategy, and the latest Gallup poll reports that 60 percent would like to see a 2008 pullout deadline. But that “Democrats force Bush to change course” scenario isn’t very plausible, at least not this year.

So consider this scenario, which is far more likely: If most Republicans stick with Bush and block all opposition efforts to change course in Iraq, and then the war continues to go badly, the majority Democrats calculate that, politically speaking, they will gain the upper hand anyway – because the Republicans, having just demonstrated that once again they were impervious to change, will be forced to compete in the ’08 race with the war as their albatross. If they vote No on all Democratic efforts to try something else, then they will truly “own” this war for the second straight election cycle.

There is another scenario, of course: The so-called Surge will turn the tide, the Sunnis and Shiites will dial down the mutual destruction, and the freedom-loving Iraqi citizenry will finally start throwing those flowers we heard so much about back in 2002. Conservatives have long been preparing us for that day; I recall a 2005 cover story in The National Review which began by saying “It is time to say it unequivocally: We are winning in Iraq.” And yes, if that happens, the Republicans will have a great year in 2008.

But the Democrats, rather than “rooting for defeat,” are simply recognizing empirical reality – that the victory-in-Iraq scenario is at best a long shot, and thus they can only benefit politically if Bush and his stalwart congressional allies continue to defy the wishes of the American majority.


Speaking of Democratic decisions, however…

At the risk of riling the liberal netroots, I question the party's Friday decision to stiff Fox News by canceling its Fox-hosted presidential debate slated for August in Nevada.

The Nevada Democrats, led by home-state Senate leader Harry Reid, had originally agreed to let Fox News co-host and broadcast the event; they saw it as a way for the ’08 presidential candidates to reach out to red-state voters. Reid originally announced that he was “happy” to have Fox as a partner in the debate. But, over the past few weeks, liberal activists led by mounted a petition drive to have Fox dumped, citing the network’s well-known conservative bent.

So, three days ago, the Democrats caved. They claimed that they were dumping Fox because network chairman Roger Ailes on Thursday night had supposedly uttered a joke equating Barack Obama with Osama bin Laden. Actually, the joke was primarily aimed at Bush: “It is true that Barack Obama is on the move. I don’t know if it’s true that President Bush called (Pakistani president) Musharraf and said, ‘Why can’t we catch this guy?’” I can envision Bill Maher delivering the same joke in his HBO monologue.

Anyway, the Democrats were clearly looking for an excuse to dump Fox, because they didn’t want to admit that they were caving to left-flank pressure. And here’s what bothers me about that pressure:

Flip the situation around. Imagine if National Public Radio and PBS were slated to host an ’08 Republican presidential debate, and suddenly the party’s right-flank – in the form of religious conservatives – started pressuring the GOP to dump those sponsors, on the grounds that they were biased lefties who would never give the candidates a fair shake. If that was the current situation, some of the same people who are celebrating the Fox cancellation would be outraged.

And even if one credibly argues that Fox is more biased than NPR, my answer is: so what? I have often argued in this space that Fox sometimes acts as the Bush administration network, but again my answer is: so what? I am well aware (according to one study last week) that Fox recently devoted far more air time to Anna Nicole Smith still being dead than to the Walter Reed scandal, but to that I again say: so what?

The bottom line: everybody should always be talking to everybody. Democrats should make their best pitch on Fox - just as Republicans should do the same on all the outlets they regularly assail for “liberal bias.” Liberals certainly expect Bush to take questions from hostile reporters such as Helen Thomas (who makes no bones about her hostility), so how can they argue that their own team should get a pass?

Whoever becomes president in 2009 will spend the next four or eight years dealing out of necessity with all kinds of disagreeable characters the world over, so why should Democrats wince about taking disagreeable questions from a Fox News commentator, or having their debate remarks aired in unfiltered form by Fox News?

But if the dumping of Fox is such a principled stance, then I certainly assume that no Democrats will henceforth agree to appear on Fox ever again, given the fact that Fox (in the words of is a “right-wing misinformation network.” But wait…who was that woman who appeared just 24 hours ago on Fox News Sunday?

It was Maxine Waters, one of the most liberal House Democrats, arguing for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, talking freely with the media enemy. Last week, Senator Carl Levin did the same. Next week, undoubtedly, there will be another Democrat.

If the Iraq Study Group is right to argue that we’d be better off talking to our enemies abroad, then why shouldn’t U.S. politicians talk openly with those whom they perceive to be their enemies at home?