Friday, April 06, 2007


I'm traveling today. As compensation, I'll write on Sunday.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Giving Hillary a run for the money

In the wake of the news that Barack Obama has jolted Hillary Clinton in the fund-raising sweepstakes, and that, by doing so, he has reshaped the ’08 Democratic race, we hereby present the Most Hilarious Spin Award to Clinton’s campaign chairman, Terry McAuliffe.

McAuliffe was asked last night by ABC News to assess the stunning fact that Obama, during the first quarter of 2007, apparently raised more money for his primary season campaign than Clinton did for hers – and that he accomplished this feat by raking in small contributions from a pool of donors twice as large as hers. McAuliffe reacted by saying, “Ultimately, forget the money...”

Forget the money? McAuliffe, the master fundraiser of the Clinton era, the guy who once literally wrestled a 260-pound alligator in order to cajole a $15,000 donation out of a Florida Seminole chief, is saying “forget the money?” That’s like Donald Trump losing out a condo deal and declaring “forget real estate.”

The plain truth is that the Clinton campaign has failed its first big test. The early ’07 goal was to blow Obama (and John Edwards) out of the water by demonstrating implacable money mastery. Instead, Obama in particular has served notice that the rookie is fully capable of slugging it out, over the long haul, with the Friends of Bill and the other well-wired inhabitants of Hillaryland. We don’t yet know officially that Obama has outraised Clinton in primary season money, but ABC News, citing inside sources, reported last night that he collected $23 million, and Clinton $20 million. Her campaign has declined to confirm or deny.

The bottom line is that, at least for now, she has lost the right to be considered the preemptive Democratic favorite.

Here are perhaps the most telling statistics: Ninety percent of Obama’s first-quarter money was comprised of donations smaller than $100, and about half of those people gave about $25 each. Grassroots aside, he also drew some large contributions, of course. Overall, he got money from 100,000 people, averaging $250 apiece; Clinton drew from 50,000 people who averaged $520 apiece – with considerable help from her husband.

Translation: Obama is also well positioned to win the money race during the second quarter.

Here’s why: An individual donor can give a candidate up to $2300 for the primary season. Obama’s current pool of givers is twice as large as Clinton’s; their initial donations were half as large as Clinton’s. Therefore, he can tap his folks repeatedly – whereas there is every indication (and we won’t know all the stats until April 15) that far more of Clinton’s initial smaller pool of donors are already “maxed out” at $2300 apiece.

She might recoup, of course, by expanding her pool of donors this spring; on the other hand, some maxed-out Clinton donors could send money to Obama, just to hedge their bets. Either way, the message of this first financial round is clear: A heck of a lot of grassroots Democrats are motivated not merely to find a fresh attractive face and shake up the traditional political paradigm - but also to put the brakes on any Clinton family dynasty. To use the old phrase, “Clinton fatigue” still lingers, particularly among liberals who disliked Bill’s centrist policy calculations. But it goes beyond that.

I’ll explain further by quoting myself. In a newspaper column last month, I wrote: “There are still a lot of Democrats who remember how they were compelled to defend Bill's lies during the Lewinsky affair; who remember that he had promised to run ‘the most ethical administration in history’; who remember how he left office by pardoning a rich tax felon who had donated generously to Clinton causes and whose ex-wife happened to be one of Hillary's pals. These Democrats have no interest in…a Clinton family dynasty. They have wanted to fight the Clintons for a long time.”

Hillary Clinton can still win this fight – in the end, ideas and message trump money, and many observers think that Obama is still too light on substance – but Obama has officially served notice that she will not be able to avoid one.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Brinksmanship with his back to the wall

It’s time yet again to fact-check President Bush. This has become one of life’s more onerous but necessary chores - the journalistic equivalent of chopping ice or cleaning the cat box – and I’d frankly prefer to focus on something else. But no. I’d be remiss if I failed to address Bush’s fact-defying remarks yesterday in the Rose Garden.

So much of what he said about Iraq and the Democrats was so far removed from empirical reality that I am tempted to recall what the writer Mary McCarthy once said about her contemporary Lillian Hellman: “Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the.” With respect to the president, that’s probably too harsh. He did, after all, start by saying “good morning,” and it was indeed a nice morning. He also vowed again to veto any congressional bill that includes a U.S. troop withdrawal timeline, and we can probably believe that, too.

It’s the other assertions that seemed problematic. To be charitable, let's just say that he repeatedly engaged in highly selective semi-truthiness. For instance:

1. He said that unless the Democratic Congress bows to his agenda, and speedily agrees to keep financing his war with no strings attached, the funds will start drying up this month, and our military resources will be severely strained: “Congress’ failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines, and others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people.”

But there’s a problem with trying to label the Democrats as anti-loved ones. The hitch is Bush’s own treatment of the loved ones. Long before the Democrats took over Congress, military leaders were warning that the military was overstretched; long before the Democrats won a share of the power, loved ones were being repeatedly sent back to the front lines, or getting their tours extended beyond the norm.

In fact, just 24 hours before Bush tried to pin that on the Democrats, here’s what the wire services reported: “For just the second time since the war began, the Army is sending large units back to Iraq without giving them at least a year at home, defense officials said Monday. The move signaled how stretched the U.S. fighting force has become….The Army will try not to shorten the troops' U.S. time, ‘but in this case we had to,’ said a senior Army official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. ‘Obviously right now the Army is stretched,’ the official said.”

Indeed, voters decided last year that the burden on our “loved ones” was unacceptable – which is one reason why they rebuked Bush by kicking his GOP congressional enablers out of power and installing the Democrats.

And this is why Bush no longer has the standing to claim that he speaks for “the American people.” On Iraq, according to every poll from Gallup to Fox News, he essentially speaks these days for about 30 percent of the American people (that’s the share that supports his handling of the war). He is also playing a weak hand in the current showdown with the Democrats. In the latest Gallup poll, 60 percent of Americans support an ’08 withdrawal timeline; 80 percent support stricter readiness criteria for troops heading to Iraq. Both those positions are in the (as yet unreconciled) Democratic measures that Bush has vowed to veto. The latest Pew poll puts timeline support at 59 percent; the latest Newsweek poll, at 57 percent.

2. At another point yesterday, the president asserted that the Democrats are “more interested in fighting political battles in Washington than providing our troops what they need” – this, from the same president who has repeatedly failed to provide our troops what they need, starting with sufficient body armor.

In January 2006, a Pentagon report concluded that, during the first two years of the war, troops were issued only enough body armor to cover part of their chests and backs, and that as many as 80 percent of Marines who had been killed in Iraq from wounds to the upper body could have survived if the government had provided sufficient body armor. (Lest we forget, Bush and his war planners worked with a Republican Congress from January 2003 to January 2007.)

Bush’s attempt yesterday to pin that problem on the Democrats is further undercut by a new report issued just two months ago, by the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. This one goes far beyond body armor: “(Soldiers) experienced shortages of force-protection equipment, such as up-armored vehicles, electronic countermeasure devices, crew-served weapons, and communications equipment. As a result, Service members were not always equipped to effectively complete their missions.”

3. Bush chided the Democrats for taking their spring recess before finishing work on his Iraq supplemental bill, thereby implying that while they gambol, the troops will be hung out to dry. Perhaps he simply forgot that when the Republicans ran Congress in 2006, they too took their spring recess before finishing work on that year’s Iraq supplemental bill; indeed, they didn’t sign off on Bush’s spending request until mid-June.

And did the money for the troops run out when his allies went on vacation – as he claims will occur because the Democrats are currently out of town? Nope. That’s because the Pentagon merely shifted money from other accounts and covered the troop funds in the interim. The same kind of thing would happen again. Somehow Bush failed to mention yesterday that Congress last autumn set up a $70-billion emergency fund, to keep bankrolling the war in the event that money glitches arose in 2007.

4. He claimed that the Democrats, by seeking to attach conditions to the war money, are defying "the voters of America" who "don't want politicians in Washington telling our generals how to fight a war." This was a fascinating remark, since it was Bush himself - as Washington's top-ranked politician - who last winter told the generals how to fight the war. Gen. George Casey and Gen. John Abizaid had both testified last fall that a U.S. troop hike would probably be ineffective - in Abizaid's words, "I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future" - and by early January, they were out the door.

5. Bush insisted that, in the wake of his troop escalation, the Iraqi government is making all kinds of gains: “They have said that they will send Iraqi forces into Baghdad to take the lead, along with U.S. troops, to bring security to Baghdad. And they've done that. They said they'd name a commander for Baghdad. They have done that. They said they'd send up -- you know, they'd send troop out into the neighborhoods to clear and hold and then build. They're doing that. They said they would send a budget up that would spend a considerable amount of their money on reconstruction. They have done that. They're working on an oil law that is in progress. As a matter of fact, I spoke to the prime minister yesterday about progress on the oil law.”

But somehow he air-brushed these realities out of his rosy picture: Leading Shiites still oppose political reconciliation with the Sunnis, perhaps the most crucial goal (on Monday, the top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, signaled his opposition); there is still no law to rein in the sectarian militia death squads; no law extending amnesty to former insurgents; no law paving the way for provincial elections (originally slated for this June); and no indication that the Iraqis will meet their April deadline for taking full control of their own army.

6. Bush still seems unwilling to acknowledge that he is out of sync with prevailing American sentiment. At one point, he said: “I'm very aware that there are a group of people that don't think we should be there in the first place.” Well, let’s try to define our terms properly. “A group of people” is what you go to a ballgame with. “A group of people” is what you play poker with. “A group of people” does not seem to be an accurate way to describe 60 percent of the citizenry. Which is why the Democratic Congress seems unfazed by Bush’s threats of brinksmanship.

And speaking of public opinion, consider this remark, uttered yesterday: “You are not having a success in the hearts and minds of Iraq. There’s simply too many killers there, too many factions that don’t want democracy. And I’m not sure, no matter what surge you have, that you can overcome the Iraqi people not cooperating.”

A hostile reporter, berating Bush? A Senate Democrat, pleading for a U.S. surrender?

No, that was Bill O’Reilly.


This just in: Barack Obama raised $23.5 million during the first quarter of 2007, virtually matching the vaunted Clinton political machine. Nearly all this money is earmarked for the primaries, whereas much of Hillary's Clinton haul (she won't say how much) is reserved for the general election, assuming she's the nominee. Another striking statistic: Obama got money from 100,000 people - double the Clinton tally, which suggests that she relied far more on big contributors giving the maximum allowed by law.

Clinton will now have to endure a few rough news cycles; no doubt her people will claim that being dueled to a standstill by a newcomer is really no big deal at all. More on this early tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mitt should heed the old Beatles adage

Full disclosure: Money stories bore me. Four times a year, when the candidates file their quarterly earnings, we in the political press examine the books, read the tea leaves, and tend to validate those who have put big bucks in their coffers. We do this - it's happening now with Mitt Romney - even though history has repeatedly taught us that the strength of a candidate can’t necessarily be measured by the weight of the candidate’s war chest.

For instance, Howard Dean titillated everybody during the second half of 2003, by demonstrating the money-raising potential of the netroots; widely overlooked, however, was the fact that he was spending it almost as fast as it was coming in (in campaign parlance, he had a high “burn rate”), to the point that he was actually forced to cut costs before the Democratic primaries had even commenced. (And we all know what happened to Dean in Iowa, although lack of money was not the only factor.)

Eight years before Dean, there was also Phil Gramm, the Texas Republican senator, who boasted in 1995 that he would raise $20 million in “easy money” by Jan. 1 of 1996 (a hefty sum at the time), thereby powering his ‘96 presidential bid; he indeed met his goal, but that didn't impress the GOP primary voters. I remember him limping into Iowa, after getting thrashed in Louisiana by Pat Buchanan, and staging a rally for himself at the State Capitol (a school band played pop tunes like "Louie Louie"), and claiming that all was well - but the problem was that conservative Christian Iowa voters, who didn't care about his "easy money," felt that he was too focused on economic conservatism and insufficiently focused on Christian values. So he was thrashed again, and quit the race, canceling all the hotel rooms that his staff had reserved at the Marriott in Nashua, New Hampshire. (I know this, because I was on the hotel waiting list.)

But my favorite money lesson concerns another Texan, former governor John Connally, who raised and spent a daunting $12 million for his 1980 presidential bid – and wound up winning one delegate, Ada Mills of Clarksville, Arkansas, perhaps the priciest investment in modern political history.

So now let's return to the present day. In the wake of the early reports on the presidential candidates’ first-quarter ’07 earnings, we don’t yet know whether Hillary Clinton’s $26-million intake (aided by her husband’s peripatetic efforts) is as impressive as it seems, because we don’t yet know what she has spent – and we probably won’t know until all the details are officially released by the feds on April 15. Nor do we yet know what share of that money is earmarked for the primaries, and what share would be reserved for the general election. But in her case, at least, we can say that her record haul (the largest ever for a quarterly period, at least until we hear officially from Barack Obama) roughly parallels her poll status as the current favorite of likely Democratic primary voters.

Not so with Mitt Romney. In the end, he might prove to be a classic example of the old Beatles adage that money can’t buy you love. And that we political observers need to be skeptical about mistaking gross revenue for candidate viability.

In the case of the GOP candidate from Massachusetts, the incongruities between voter support and donor support are jarring. In Republican polls, he is barely a blip on the radar - according to Gallup, he’s the favorite of three percent of likely GOP primary voters, down there with Sam Brownback, and trailing a non-candidate with high negatives (Newt Gingrich) as well as a TV actor (Fred Thompson) – yet, despite all that, he is reporting the largest first-quarter haul in the Republican field, $20 million, dwarfing the efforts of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, both of whom are household names with far better poll numbers.

So how can a guy do so well at the bank during the first three months of 2007, after spending most of his time fighting off (valid) charges that he is a transparent flip-flopper, and drifting south in the polls as a result? Is donor support a better gauge of the health of his candidacy?

The answer to the latter is, not necessarily. Here’s the fine print about his $20 million: A lot of it stems from his success in plucking the low-hanging fruit. Romney worked his Bain Capital connections (he founded that private equity firm, and he’d made a lot of money for his investors), as well as his Mormon connections (there are some affluent folks in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). It can certainly be argued that Romney, by raising money effectively, is already demonstrating the organizational skills that would be invaluable as chief executive, but he arguably would not have been this effective if he wasn’t so personally wealthy. He invested $2.3 million of his own money (he has never released his total net worth), just to set up his technologically proficient fund-raising machine. None of his rivals can compete with that.

Also, we don’t yet know the composition of that $20 million. One way to measure candidate viability is to note the number of small contributions; a large number would suggest that a candidate has broad backing. It would also be valuable to know whether a large share of that $20 million came from people who have already “maxed out,” by each giving the maximum $2,300 permitted by federal law for a primary campaign. Small contributors can give again; maxed-out contributors can’t. But Romney has yet to release any of this information.

Nor do we yet know anything about Romney’s “burn rate.” Raising a lot of money is not nearly so impressive if you’ve spend an inordinate amount just to raise it – or if you’re already spending it heavily on the campaign trail. Indeed, there are signs that Romney is doing the latter, because, unlike his GOP rivals, he has already been running TV ads in at least three early primary states, with scant payoff at the polls. The April 15 reports, filed with the Federal Elections Commission, will fill in some of these blanks.

And the aforementioned Mormon factor is worth more attention. There’s a lot of money in that community, and it can help buoy Romney during this critical pre-primary phase. I spoke this morning with Larry Sabato, the uber-political analyst, who spent last November as a guest professor in Utah. He said this: “For Romney, the upside of Mormonism is that they are very well-organized and they are accustomed to giving. It’s part of their tithing tradition. They are hard-working and success-oriented, and they are also prominent in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada and Colorado. And the potential for Romney in Utah is obvious. It’s important to remember that it’s known as the Beehive State.”

The potential downside, however, is just as obvious. That same Mormon money which is boosting Romney today might prove to be a liability next winter, when the GOP primary voters cast their ballots. In an early crucial state such as South Carolina, it’s easy to imagine that some evangelical Christian voters, who already view Mormonism as a cult religion, might not feel any warmer toward Romney if they think he has been heavily bankrolled by adherents of the Mormon church.

This is why I’d prefer to stay away from money commentary (although I might threaten to do another quite soon, when Obama surfaces). There are too many caveats among the tea leaves. The bottom line is, money can put you in play, but you can still get booed off the field. Just ask President Steve Forbes.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Matthew Dowd assails his old boss as "secluded and bubbled"...NOW he tell us

Until now, only the Democrats seemed to have mastered the art of the retroactive apology. “I was wrong,” said John Edwards and John Kerry and Chris Dodd, while apologizing for their votes to authorize the Iraq war. It strained credulity to think that any Republican, and certainly not a “loyal Bushie,” would ever confess misjudgment, or to even hint that the current president was anything short of peerless.

Yet now we have Matthew Dowd, a former key member of the Bush inner circle, declaring publicly that (a) the Decider has feet of clay, (b) the war in Iraq is a disaster and we should pull out, and (c) the best 2008 candidate might arguably be Barack Obama. A Bush guy was saying this stuff? I thought I was reading a put-on from The Onion. (Today's Onion headline, for instance: "Bush refuses to set deadline for withdrawal of head from White House banister.")

But yes, this was Bush’s 2000 campaign pollster and 2004 chief campaign strategist, telling The New York Times that Bush is not the same man whom Dowd had first fallen in love with. He is upset, for instance, that Bush’s attitude is “my way or the highway.” Moreover, “…I’m so disappointed in things. I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in…(He's) not the person I thought…If the American public says they’re done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want. They’re saying, ‘Get out of Iraq.’”

First, a little perspective: It’s not totally unusual for a presidential insider to go public with a renunciation of the boss, even while the boss is still in office. In 1979, ex-Jimmy Carter speechwriter James Fallows wrote a magazine article attacking Carter's "passionless presidency." In 1986,White House budget whiz David Stockman published a memoir that trashed the Reagan tax cuts and dismissed supply-side Reaganomics as mere smoke and mirrors – and this was right after he had helped Reagan sell the budget plan to Congress and the American people. Then in 1987, Donald Regan, fresh from serving the same boss as chief of staff, wrote a memoir claiming that the president was a hapless captive of his wife Nancy, who made key decisions by consulting an astrologer. And a decade after that, ex-Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos went public with a book that detailed many Clintonian flaws.

So Matthew Dowd is the first major player to jump from Bush’s notoriously tight ship; given this president’s downward spiral, it’s not entirely surprising. And, undoubtedly, Dowd’s defection will be fodder for Bush’s critics. But what are we really supposed to think of this guy? Could it be that his renunciation of Bush seems a tad opportunistic? Is it out of line to suggest that this pollster, even while giving voice to his sincere disappointment in Bush, is also distancing himself publicly in order to salvage his own reputation and ensure that he works in the future?

At one point in the Times interview, Dowd said: “I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people, but bring the country together as a whole.” Dowd was referring to the fact that Bush decided, almost at the outset of his presidency, to govern as a divider, not a uniter; and to campaign for re-election in 2004 by playing to (and expanding) the conservative base, at the expense of virtually everyone else.

But what Dowd didn’t say, and what the story didn’t say, was that he was arguably the prime architect of the Bush strategy that he is now denouncing. Generally, when ex-aides trash a president, it’s because that president failed to heed their advice (“if he had only listened to me”); here, we seem to have the opposite. Dowd is trashing Bush in part because he did heed Dowd’s advice.

As a 2006 New Republic report makes clear, Dowd wrote a memo right after the 2000 election which argued that Bush should govern as a partisan, rather than seek middle ground; he even persuaded Karl Rove to see it his way. And when they opted in 2004 to stoke the conservative base by trashing John Kerry’s war credentials, Dowd was right in the middle. It worked. As political writer Tom Edsall concluded, in his report, “Four years after he wrote his memo, Matt Dowd was vindicated at the polls.” (In other words, some Bush skeptics, when reading about Dowd’s conversion, might well react by saying, “Now he tells us.”)

And those still residing in the Bush inner circle might well be a tad annoyed that one of the president’s key enablers is publicly declaring a desire “to re-establish a level of gentleness in the world.” And those folks generally don’t like dissenters, anyway. Which is why, as soon as I read Dowd’s remarks, I wondered how they would come after him, and seek to explain away the substance of his remarks. I didn’t have to wait long. On CBS yesterday, White House aide Dan Bartlett suggested that Dowd is dissing the Decider because he is messed up emotionally.

Dowd was recently divorced, a daughter died, and a son is heading to Iraq. Therefore, Bartlett suggested, his criticisms of Bush can be dismissed as the workings of an illogical mind: “I think he’s been on a long personal journey over the last couple of years, both in his private life, as well as his — the politics that he participate in…He himself has acknowledged that he’s going through a lot of personal turmoil but also he has a son who is soon to be deployed to Iraq. That could only impact a parents’ mind…”

The White House worked this angle again today, painting Dowd as overwrought. Spokeswoman Dana Perino said, "War brings out a lot of emotions," and she cited his "personal hardships." When a reporter asked her whether she was suggesting that Dowd's personal hardships had triggered his defection, she replied, "I don't know." Moments later, she tacked the other way and said, "I think it's relevent." Moments after that, having judged him, she then declared, "I'm not going to judge him."

Will Dowd be offended by those remarks? I doubt it. I met him a few times, and he struck me as a fatalist. As he said in one conversation, in August 2004, “I’m Irish, so of course I expect something bad to happen every time I wake up in the morning.”


In my newspaper column yesterday, I wrote at length about the Bush track record of incompetent governance. I mentioned that liberals tend to frame Bush’s incompetence as an indictment of conservative ideology – arguing, in other words, that those who don’t respect public service are not likely to care about governing well.

But yesterday I received an email from one reader - Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan White House aide and a conservative Bush critic - who argued that there is a link between bad governance and Bush’s policies. I recognized his name; last year he wrote a book entitled Imposter, and assailed many of those policies.

Here’s an excerpt from the email (with his permission):

“I remember two years ago telling my editor that Incompetent might be a better title for my book than Impostor. However, while I still think Bush is incompetent, I think some of those on the right who are belatedly making this argument…are using it as a way of avoiding addressing the actual substance of Bush’s policies. When they complain about incompetence, (they claim that) it is in the implementation of his policies, not in their origination. This is especially the case with regard to Iraq, where right-wingers like (Weekly Standard magazine editor) Bill Kristol would have us believe that the only mistake in Iraq was that we didn’t try harder. They still refuse to accept that the whole operation was fundamentally ill-conceived. This is true of many other Bush policies that were both badly implemented and ill-conceived as well.

“This is where Rudy (Giuliani) worries me. He often comes across as a competent Bush—someone with the same bad ideas, but someone who would do a better job of implementing them. But if the ideas are bad in the first place, is that what we really want? Maybe one of Bush’s saving graces is that he didn’t do a better job on things like getting Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court (or Alberto Gonzales—imagine us with those two instead of Roberts and Alito; it’s frightening).”

By the way, Bruce Bartlett worked until recently for a conservative think tank in Texas. Then he wrote Imposter. Then he sent the manuscript to his think tank boss, as a courtesy. And then he was fired.

No wonder Matthew Dowd is trying to embrace “gentleness.”