Friday, May 04, 2007

The Gipper triumphs as the sage for all seasons

It wasn’t even close. I scored it this way: Gipper 14, Decider 2.

In other words, 14 favorable remarks about Ronald Reagan; and only two about He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Actually, for President Bush, the disparity was far worse than that. While the 10 Republican presidential candidates were debating last night, I also tracked the number of putdowns directed at Reagan, versus the number of putdowns aimed at Bush. Final score: Gipper 0, Decider 11.

For a party in the throes of an identity crisis (strategist and former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed said last month, “We’re in the political equivalent of a world without the law of gravity”), there’s clearly scant appetite for treating the lame duck as sage and role model. Bush is the albatross who deserves to be assailed when not simply ignored; Reagan, on the other hand, is the northward arrow on the party’s compass, the font of all wisdom, the seer whose every act as president was (retrospectively) perfect.

Given the fact that Bush is still popular among the Republican base (which controls the nomination process), these candidates understand that overt Bush-bashing would be politically suicidal. But given the fact that Bush’s popularity is now confined to the Republican base, and that most swing-voting independents (who are pivotal in the general ekection) now view Bush as a disaster, these same candidates understand that they will never win the White House unless they cut loose from the guy.

Hence, the dissing. John McCain was particularly outspoken, apparently trying to compensate for his embarrassing rose-colored stroll through the war-torn Baghdad marketplace; he volunteered that “the war was terribly mismanaged, terribly mismanaged…We have to fix the mistakes that were made.” Over an hour later, he said it again, contending that, if he had been president instead of Bush, “I would not have mismanaged the war.” And, alluding to the fact that Bush has never vetoed a congressional spending bill, he declared that he would have vetoed spending bills, “in the tradition of Ronald Reagan.”

Bush was even cuffed around by the minnows in this candidate pool. Congressman Tom Tancredo said that “the great thing about Ronald Reagan was, he was a uniter” - as opposed to the guy who pledged that he would be a uniter, not a divider. Congressman Duncan Hunter complained that Bush has not been enforcing our trade laws, or showing sufficient spine on border security.

But the Bush-bashing prize goes to Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor. At one point, he accused Bush of deceiving the American public. Like many other Republicans, Huckabee is still peeved that Bush waited until after the ’06 election to fire Donald Rumsfeld, and, worse yet, praised Rumsfeld on election eve, even though he was already intending to dump him. When this issue was raised last night, Huckabee didn’t duck it: “I would’ve (fired Rumsfeld) before the election. I certainly wouldn’t have said that we are not going to do it, then, right after the election, done so. But that’s the president’s call. Clearly there was a real error in judgment.”

Then he went after Bush and his war planners (“civilians in suits and silk ties”) for ignoring the military’s plea for a much larger Iraq invasion force. And later, in a populist outburst at odds with the GOP’s big-business ethos, he assailed Bush (not by name, of course) for failing to stop the exodus of American jobs: “A president needs to make it clear that we’re not going to see jobs shipped overseas…and then watch as a CEO takes a $100-million bonus to jettison those American jobs somewhere else…That’s criminal, it’s wrong, and if the Republicans don’t stop it, we don’t deserve to win in 2008.”

Nobody quoted Bush about virtually anything. By contrast, Reagan’s honeyed words and purportedly flawless deeds were invoked at every turn, to justify whatever point the candidates were trying to make. They believe America needs “vision,” just like Reagan had; they believe America needs a strong defense, just like Reagan did. They twice invoked his “shining city on the hill.” And Rudy Giuliani wants to get tough with the Iranians, just as Reagan used to do (back in January 1981, said Rudy, “they looked in Ronald Reagan’s eyes, and in two minutes, they released the hostages”).

For instance, did you know that Ronald Reagan would have approved the Republican Congress’ intrusion into the lives of Terri Schiavo’s family down in Florida? I didn’t know that (I’ve always assumed that Reagan respected state’s rights), but long-shot candidate Duncan Hunter is sure of it: “Ronald Reagan said, ‘Err on the side of ‘life’.”

(That’s a fascinating claim, since even conservatives say that Ronald Reagan, as president, often failed to err on the side of life. Conservative author and former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote this on page 65 of his book Dead Right: “To pro-life conservatives, the ghastliest proof of the unabated decay of American morality in the Reagan 1980s was the administration’s diffidence in the face of…the killing by abortion of nearly 2 million children a year. True, Ronald Reagan, as president, published an essay denouncing abortion, and appointed one justice, Antonin Scalia, who agreed that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. Otherwise, though, Reagan accomplished little for the anti-abortion cause.”)

And did you know that Ronald Reagan believed with unshakable conviction that “we should never retreat in the face of terrorism”? That’s what Giuliani says Reagan believed; Giuliani was trying to contrast the resolute Reagan with the current Democrats in Congress. The problem is, Giuliani was invoking Reagan myth, not fact. In October 1983, after suicidal terrorists in Lebanon blew up 241 American servicemen in their barracks, Reagan called it a “despicable act” and his administration vowed not to be “cowed.” But Reagan did not retaliate; instead, he moved the remaining troops offshore, where they could not be targeted. Then, in February 1984, he withdrew all his troops from Lebanon. (If Bill Clinton had reacted in that fashion, somebody on that stage last night would have brought it up.)

But the best Reagan invocation last night was offered by Mitt Romney. Usually Reagan is lauded as a man of unshakable convictions, but Romney did something different. In an effort to defend his track record of abortion flip flops, Romney said that he drew his inspiration from Ronald Reagan – because Reagan had been a flip flopper, too (signing a pro-abortion bill while governing California). Romney said: “I changed my mind (on abortion). I took the same course that Ronald Reagan…took.”

I’m sure that Nancy Reagan, sitting in the audience, appreciated that one.

Maybe Giuliani should have tried that same Reagan flip flop theme, on his own behalf. Because he clearly needed some help last night, as he struggled to sound coherent on the abortion issue. Maybe his image as America’s 9/11 mayor is more compelling to the Republican base; but if being soft on abortion is a deal-breaker for the base, then Giuliani will have problems.

On the one hand, he twice said “I hate abortion.” On the other hand, when asked whether he endorsed the repeal of Roe v. Wade, he said, “It would be OK. It would be OK to repeal. It would be OK also if a strict-constructionist judge viewed (Roe) as precedent.” (Translation of the latter sentence: If the high court says that Roe is still the law of the land, Rudy is fine with that.)

And later in the debate, he got tied in knots on the issue of taxpayer-funded abortions for poor people (and not for the first time, either, because a few weeks ago he said that he supported the concept, then spent days trying to dilute what he’d said). Last night, he first said that he was opposed to publicly-funded abortion. Then he tried to pass the buck: “States should make their decisions. Some decide to (pay for those abortions), most states decide not to do it.” But when it was pointed out that the state of New York did pay for those abortions during his mayoral tenure, he acknowledged that he supported that position at the time – although, today, in other states, “people could come to a different decision.”

Giuliani, at least, was clear about his support for science. He and six other candidates indicated last night that they do believe in evolution…But wait, I’ve got it backwards: By a show of hands at the debate, three Republicans who want to be president in 2008 – Huckabee, Tancredo, and Sen. Sam Brownback – declared that they do not believe in evolution.

Unfortunately, there was no time for them to explain. One of them probably would have insisted that Ronald Reagan had no room for science in his shining city on the hill.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

GOP debate tonight is really Reagan v. Bush

If you tune in tonight for the Republican presidential candidate debate (8 p.m. EST on MSNBC, live from the Ronald Reagan Library), here’s a tip on how to keep score:

Take a blank sheet of paper. Draw a vertical line down the middle. Write “Reagan” on top of the left side. Write “Bush” on top of the right side. Then listen to the 10 GOP hopefuls, and tally how often they favorably invoke either president.

Odds are high that Reagan will win, and the reasons are obvious: (1) He’s dead, and that fact alone is bound to ratchet up the nostalgia factor, (2) His ‘80s tenure is firmly ensconced in conservative mythology as a golden era, (3) A lot of tonight’s TV viewers are likely to be next winter’s GOP primary voters, and they love Reagan, and (4) The current Republican in the White House is…shall we say…a far trickier sell at the moment.

I’m not suggesting that the 10 candidates will purge President Bush from the discussion; that would be bad form. Republicans generally have an abiding respect for hierarchy, and they tend (arguably more than Democrats) to stick with their leaders, no matter how embattled. In the latest polls, roughly 75 percent of Republicans still support Bush; that’s down 15 points from his peak-popularity period, but still strong. The conservative base won’t warm to any candidate who appears to be bailing on Bush for political purposes (such as a desire to connect with swing-voting independents).

For those reasons, I expect that most candidates will praise the Bush tax cuts (one of the only issues that still unites all conservative factions); and many will praise Bush’s work to create a more rightward U.S. Supreme Court by tapping John Roberts and Sam Alito (an issue of particular interest to social and religious conservatives). I also expect that they will find ways to tiptoe around Iraq by praising the president’s broader efforts in the war on terrorism, and reminding viewers that a 9/11-style attack has not occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11.

At the same time, however, it’s highly unlikely that these 10 guys will try to sell themselves as the next George W. Bush.

The president has inflicted too much damage on the Republican brand – those aforementioned swing-voting independents bailed on the party last year, as evidenced by the ’06 election results – so I expect that the candidates will distance themselves, albeit oh so subtly, from the lame duck. Perhaps by talking about the need for “a new direction.” Or “a return to our most basic values.” Or “a reaffirmation of the beliefs that we Republicans hold most dear.”

I expect to hear Mitt Romney laud his record as Massachusetts governor, thereby advertising the competence issue without needing to specifically mention the certain someone whose competence has been widely questioned. Ditto John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, doing subliminal riffs on how they would provide effective leadership in the future.

It’s a delicate dance, but Republicans have long been anticipating that it would be necessary. Fourteen months ago, at a Republican confab in Memphis, Tennessee, I sat in a hotel lobby with New Hampshire GOP power broker Tom Rath, and he laid the whole thing out for me: “Unless things improve (for Bush), you won't see any (’08 candidate) running back to embrace the mother ship. Nobody is running as his natural political heir.” I asked why not. Choosing his words carefully, Rath replied that there was a broad concern within the party about “competence,” about Bush’s "democratization" crusade abroad, about his "execution" of the war in Iraq. Most of all, said Rath, “there is really a concern about being adrift from our basic principles."

Indeed, legendary conservative fundraiser and activist Richard Viguerie recently told Time magazine that Bush simply doesn’t measure up to Reagan. Referring to the Iraq war, Viguerie said that, among conservatives, “there is a growing feeling it was a mistake. It’s not a Ronald Reagan-type idea to ride on our white horse around the world trying to save it militarily. Ronald Reagan won the cold war by bankrupting the Soviet Union. No planes flew. No tanks rolled. No armies marched.”

It’s also true, of course, that this Reagan nostalgia is at odds with reality. When the candidates tonight offer their requisite praise, no doubt they’ll neglect to mention that, during Reagan’s tenure, federal spending rose by 25 percent, that the size of the federal workforce actually grew, that he raised taxes in 1982, that the size of the federal deficit doubled, and that, on the social front, he rarely gave more than lip service to the anti-abortion movement. In fact, at the time, conservative activists often joked, “It’s not that Ronald Reagan lacks principles, it’s just that he does not understand the ones he has.”

No matter. Reagan – not Bush – is the lodestone for conservative voters who feel a tad disoriented these days. The question, however, is whether anyone in the current GOP field has the requisite qualifications to be viewed as Reagan’s natural heir, and whether they can begin to close that sale tonight.


But don’t expect to get a definitive answer. Ten candidates will compete over a span of 90 minutes. That’s a mere eight minutes per candidate, once you subtract time for questions. No wonder we’ll generally hear scripted sound bites; there’s scant time for anything else. The Democrats had the same problem in a debate last Thursday night.

I wouldn’t want to argue that Republicans with no hope of winning (Ron Paul, Duncan Hunter, Jim Gilmore, Tom Tancredo) should be barred from all debates. Suffice it to say, however, that Fox News and the South Carolina Republican party, in preparations for another debate on May 15, appear to have discovered a rational way to clear the stage for the big boys.

It’s simple: If a candidate isn’t registering one percent support in the polls, he’s out. That yardstick would indeed help cull the field. The Democrats haven’t yet come up with anything similar - which should come as a relief to Mike Gravel and to those who believe that a former senator from Alaska, out of office for 26 years, deserves equal time.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Democrats peak, Richardson flunks, and a Rupert fantasy

Quick hits on a very busy day:

Why do I get the feeling that the congressional Democrats peaked yesterday?

They had their “signing ceremony” for the doomed bill that would have tied Iraq war money to a pullout timetable, and they delivered floor speeches mocking President Bush for his “Mission Accomplished” event. But now, lacking the votes to override his veto, they’ll start giving ground. The timetable language will be jettisoned; instead, Democrats will try to require that the Iraqi government get its act together – or else.

But even their attempts to codify “benchmarks” probably won’t get very far, either. The Democrats need a considerable number of Republican votes in order to get any leverage with Bush, but GOP lawmakers have already signaled that, while they’re open to the idea of benchmarks, they’re nevertheless not very interested in requiring that the Iraqis actually suffer any consequences if such benchmarks are not met. And, given the fact that the Maliki government is politically weak, and is beholden to some of the Shiite militias that are sowing the sectarian violence, tough consequential benchmarks probably wouldn’t work anyway.

So when the Democrats essentially come up empty in their clash with Bush, what will be the reaction among antiwar liberals in the party base? They’ll probably fume online, citing the mandate of the '06 elections and turning up the heat on the ’08 presidential candidates; on the other hand, the status quo in Washington would mean that Bush continues to own the war.


Speaking of Democrats, let us rebuke ’08 president candidate Bill Richardson for flunking an important history test.

It all began last Thursday night, in a debate featuring all the Democratic candidates. When asked to name a Supreme Court justice whom he would regard as a model for future nominees, Richardson invoked Byron “Whizzer” White. Many liberals didn’t like that answer, because it turns out that Whizzer dissented on Roe v. Wade, arguing against legal abortion.

Flash forward to the weekend, when Richardson showed up at the annual California Democratic convention. He was asked by reporters about Whizzer, and he replied: “White was in the 60s. Wasn't Roe v. Wade in the 80s?"

There are a few problems with that answer. First, it was clear that Richardson didn’t even know how his ideal high court judge had voted in one of the most important legal rulings of the 20th century. And, second, he didn’t even know when that ruling was handed down. (It was 1973, not “the ‘80s.”)

I argued a few weeks ago that it was no big deal when candidates flunked the price of a gallon milk. I’d argue here that it’s a bigger deal when a candidate flunks basic contemporary history.

And I’d also suggest that if a Republican presidential candidate had placed the Roe ruling in the wrong decade, there would have been much talk in liberal circles about how such a remark was further proof of the GOP’s cavalier disrespect for the right to choose.


News item, May 1, 2007: Rupert Murdoch, New York Post owner and conservative empire magnate, offers $5 billion to buy the Wall Street Journal...

The Wall Street Journal, front page, May 1, 2012:

A gang of thugs and perverts, perhaps in cahoots with terrorist cells emboldened by the weak policies of the Democratic administration in Washington, have infiltrated the New York City firms that try to police lending practices in the commercial real estate market, insider sources allege.

One blonde beauty at Moody’s Investors Service, in a gut-wrenching cry for help, captured on a 911 tape exclusively obtained from police, is rumored to have said that a fiend stormed her office while the comely brunette was attempting to crack down on lenders who have been offering 10-year, interest-only loans with back-end balloon payments. "Please help me!" she cried out. "This terrorist action is hurting decent flag-waving Americans who want to minimize their financial risks in commercial property deals! Please make him stop!"

It is not yet known whether the commercial real estate crisis is Bill Clinton's fault. Nor is it yet known whether the Moody’s employe’s dramatic plight, at the hands of the rumored perverts, has any connection to the current Democratic administration’s recent decision to forestall military action in the Middle East in favor of stepped up diplomatic efforts. But rock icon Britney Spears declared yesterday, “Unlike my feelings about the last president, I do not support this current president.”

Watch for further reports on this outrage next week, exclusively, here in the Wall Street Journal, as well as in The New York Post, The Times of London, The Sun of London, The Weekly Standard magazine, on Fox News and 35 affiliates nationwide, on the British Sky satellite network, and on my (A book is in the works at HarperMorrow, and movie rights have been optioned at Twentieth-Century Fox.)

“Attack on the Bond Ratings Firms” will appear immediately following the conclusion of our current print/broadcast series, “The Dominance of the Liberal Media."

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

On "Mission Accomplished" day, let us revisit those old certitudes

Four years ago today, he emerged from the skies in an SB-3 Viking fighter plane, stepping from the cockpit in full combat regalia, and many who witnessed the moment assumed (erroneously, as it turned out) that the triumphal image of George W. Bush in a flight suit, playing the role of conquering hero, would resurface one year later in a 2004 Republican TV ad.

Happy “Mission Accomplished” Day, everyone. I marked the date yesterday with a torrent of words in this space, and no doubt I’ll add a fresh torrent this morning on Philadelphia’s NPR station (90.9 FM), beginning at 11:05 a.m. (also available online, here). So for the rest of this post, I’ll let others do the talking. Let us briefly return to those halcyon days when the president’s wisdom was rarely questioned, when his surrogates uttered certitudes, when an awestruck media marched in tune....

Pentagon adviser Ken Adelman, writing in a guest newspaper column, Feb. 13, 2002: “I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk. Let me give simple, responsible reasons: (1) It was a cakewalk last time; (2) they've become much weaker; (3) we've become much stronger; and (4) now we're playing for keeps.”

Vice President Cheney, in a speech, Aug. 26, 2002: “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us…Time is not on our side.” (emphasis mine)

Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to U.S. troops on Feb. 7, 2003: “(The war) could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months."

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, in House testimony Feb. 27, 2003: Asked to comment on Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki’s prediction that the U.S. would need several hundred thousand soldiers to police the postwar ethnic tensions, Wolfowitz dismissed that assessment as “wildly off the mark,” because Iraqis “will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep (troop) requirements down.”

April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks, confronting the president over the war at a March 6, 2003 press conference: “Mr. President…how is your faith guiding you?”

Wolfowitz, in a speech on March 11, 2003: "The Iraqi people understand what this crisis is about. Like the people of France in the 1940s, they view us as their hoped-for liberator."

Cheney on NBC, March 16, 2003: “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

Barbara Bush on ABC, March 19, 2003: “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths and how many, what day it’s gonna happen? It’s not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

Judy Miller of the New York Times, talking on CNN, March 19, 2003: According to “a slew of information from defectors” and her other “intelligence sources,” American troops would soon find the WMD sites; indeed, “one person in Washington told me that the list could total more than 1400 of those sites.”

Wolfowitz, in Senate testimony, March 27, 2003: “We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.”

Neoconservative leader Bill Kristol, April 1, 2003: “There is a certain amount of pop psychology in America that the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni….There’s almost no evidence of that at all.”

David Asman, Fox News, April 9, 2003 (upon the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, where tight shots by the cameras masked the fact that the crowd barely filled one quarter of the plaza): “My goose bumps have never been higher than they are right now.”

Brit Hume, Fox News, same time: “This transcends anything I’ve ever seen.”

Dick Morris, Fox News, April 9, 2003: “Over the next couple of weeks, when we find the chemical weapons this guy was amassing…the left is going to have to hang its head for three or four more years.”

Fred Barnes, Fox News, April 10, 2003: “The war was the hard part….And it gets easier. I mean, setting up a democracy is hard, but not as hard as winning a war.”

Columnist Charles Krauthammer, April 19, 2003: “The only people who think this wasn’t a victory are upper West Side liberals, and a few people here in Washington.”

Morton Kondracke, Fox News, May 1, 2003, after Bush landed on the Lincoln: “This was fantastic theatre,” akin to actor Bill Pullman’s stint as a presidential flyboy who battled aliens in Independence Day.

David Broder, The Washington Post, reacting to the events of May 1: “This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command.”

Columnist Robert Novak: “Could Joe Lieberman get into a jet pilot’s jump suit and look credible?”

President Bush, in his May 1 speech: “We have begun the search for hidden chemical and biological weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated….Our coalition will stay until our work is done. And then we will leave — and we will leave behind a free Iraq.”

Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, same day: “I think it was time to say to the American people, the hostilities in Iraq have ended.”

Bush, speaking to the press, May 29, 2003: “We found the weapons of mass destruction,” claiming that two mobile labs “to build biological weapons” had been discovered. (This was false.) “For those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they’re wrong. We found them.”


British satirist Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), commenting on the dangers of propaganda: “When a man’s fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at (odds) with the senses and common understanding, as well as common sense…the first (convert) he makes is himself, and when that is once (achieved), the difficulty is not so great in bringing over others - a strong delusion always operating from without, as vigorously as from within.”

Monday, April 30, 2007

The latest from Iraq, four years after the end of "major combat operations"

On the eve of the four-year anniversary of President Bush’s Top Gun performance (when he declared that “major combat operations are over”), and before we hit a few Sunday show highlights, let’s take stock of the latest war news - connecting the dots, as it were:

In a bid to find a more flexible definition of “success,” the Bush administration is now cooking its death statistics by omitting all Iraqi civilian deaths caused by car bombs. This is a convenient omission, since much of the unceasing sectarian Sunni-vs.-Shiite violence is caused by car bombs; if you take the car-bomb death toll out of the stats, the Bush team can make it appear that the “surge” is succeeding better than it actually is. The president did try to explain the policy last Tuesday: “If the standard of success is no car bombings or suicide bombings, we have just handed those who commit suicide bombings a huge victory.” But for those of you who think and speak in English, allow me to consult my Orwellian-to-English dictionary and translate Bush’s remark: “If we tell the truth to the American people about the true level of violence, we embolden the terrorists, so we’re going to adjust the ‘standard of success’ to our liking.” Or something like that…

…Meanwhile, in another bid to redefine “success,” or at least to delay such a judgment, the Bush team is now signaling publicly that it doesn’t expect the Iraqi government to accomplish anything substantive until at least next autumn. The Bush team now says it doesn’t believe that President Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has the requisite clout to do any of the voluntary benchmarks that Bush suggested this past January in his State of the Union speech (such as concrete steps to Sunni-Shiite reconciliation). By the way, the Bush team has introduced a new word: “outputs.” That is defined as a sign of favorable activity, such as a willingness of the Iraqi Parliament to do some real work thus summer as opposed to taking its intended two-month break. But, as a Bush source explained over the weekend, “outputs” of favorable activity is not to be confused with “outcomes,” which is defined as the Iraqis actually accomplishing something (and thus perhaps easing the domestic political pressure on Bush)…

…Meanwhile, in a story that has been somewhat overlooked, the Bush team has signaled that the training of Iraqi troops is no longer the top priority of the U.S. mission. (Remember “as the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down”?) Apparently, conditions on the ground are so severe that our soldiers are needed just as much on the front lines; the military brass can’t afford to prioritize Iraqi training, because they’re too busy trying to stabilize the country. According to a McClatchy report, “Military planners have abandoned the idea that standing up Iraqi troops will enable American soldiers to start coming home soon and now believe that U.S. troops will have to defeat the insurgents and secure control of troubled provinces. Training Iraqi troops, which had been the cornerstone of the Bush administration's Iraq policy since 2005, has dropped in priority, officials in Baghdad and Washington said.” (Somehow, that doesn't seem to square with what Bush said on Jan. 10 of this year: "We will accelerate the training of Iraqi forces." But at this point, most Americans don't believe him anyway.)...

…Meanwhile, Pentagon inspectors said Friday that eight major reconstruction projects in Iraq, financed by the American taxpayer and previously declared by the Bush team to be successes, have in fact turned out to be duds. Stuart Bowen, the top Pentagon watchdog in charge of assessing the U.S. reconstruction program, has long suspected that many of the purported success were actually failures, and now says that “these first inspections indicate that the concerns that we and others have had about the Iraqis sustaining our investments in these projects are valid.” The significance of this story is that it demonstrates, again, how difficult it is for the press to report “good news” from Iraq, when even the successes turn out to be otherwise. Indeed, Bowen said that his inspectors can’t take a broader sampling of other reconstruction projects – because it’s unsafe to travel to the sites. (As I mentioned here recently, the congressional Republicans sought to eliminate Bowen’s job last autumn, back when they were still running Capitol Hill and serving as Bush’s enablers.)…

…And meanwhile, now we have another ex-insider, the former CIA chief George “Slam Dunk” Tenet, dishing in public at Bush’s expense, in part because he doesn’t appreciate the fact that he was scapegoated for the failures of his superiors. In his newly-released memoir (which also seeks to absolve himself of all blame for Iraq), he writes that the administration went to war without firm evidence that Saddam Hussein was a legitimate threat to America: “There was never a serious debate that I know of within the administration about the imminence of the Iraqi threat,” nor “was there ever a significant discussion” about whether there were valid alternatives to a U.S. invasion. (At this point, those observations are hardly earth-shaking.) Perhaps more importantly, he thinks the troop “surge” is probably doomed to fail: “It may have worked more than three years ago. My fear is that sectarian violence in Iraq has taken on a life of its own and that U.S. forces are becoming more and more irrelevant to the management of that violence.”

So, given all these dire developments, not to mention the fact (as I noted yesterday in my latest newspaper column) that Bush’s prosecution of the war is applauded at this point by only 27 percent of the American people, who do you suppose the Bush team tapped to go on the Sunday talk shows to plead the Decider’s case?

That would be Condoleezza Rice - the same person who sought to rally the public, during the run up to war, by intimating that unless we invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein might hit us with a “mushroom cloud.” (To be more precise, she warned in January 2003 that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”)

Anyway, she did a trifecta yesterday (CBS, ABC, CNN), and said of course that the boss won’t compromise with the Democratic Congress and accept any specific or general withdrawal timeline. But she went further. She also said he won’t agree to any attempts by Congress to write a law that punishes the Iraqis for failing to get their act together. That’s potentially significant, because even Republicans on Capitol Hill have signaled that they’d be open to language that puts teeth in the benchmarks.

And if any of those Republicans were hoping for some candor, forget it. Rice stayed in her old groove, repeating old falsehoods. For instance, she’s still insisting – against all evidence – that everybody screwed up during the prewar phase, that everybody believed that Hussein has WMD: “It was an intelligence problem worldwide. We all thought — including UN inspectors — that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

Wrong again.

Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector has long stated that, during the prewar phase, he repeatedly told the State Department that the WMD evidence was slim or nonexistent. Also, the UN’s nuclear watchdog group, the International Atomic Energy Agency, was on record questioning the WMD claims as early as 2002. And there was this report, a month before the war, quoting UN weapons inspectors as being openly contemptuous of the American claims – specifically, that the WMD tips supplied by the Americans were “garbage after garbage after garbage.”

And today, in the wake of Rice's contention that we really shouldn't be putting too much pressure on the Iraqis, we even have a report that the Iraqi government has been firing some of its military commanders - because these commanders, in seeking to quell the sectarian violence, have been too aggressive in their efforts to quell the violent Shiite militias. Turns out, these violent Shiites are closely allied to Iraqi's Shiite government...

All told, it’s no wonder that so many elected Republicans are increasingly nervous about 2008, and contemplating the prospect of spending 2009 at a law firm or a K Street lobbying firm or a think tank. As one prominent donor-activist told me privately a week ago, “We just want the Bush people to go away, they’re killing us. But almost all of us are still too afraid to go on the record about it.”

Apparently David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, is hearing the same thing. As he wrote yesterday (from behind the subscription wall), “On Capitol Hill, there is a strange passivity in Republican ranks. Republicans are privately disgusted with how President Bush has led their party and the nation, but they don’t publicly offer any alternatives. They just follow sullenly along….They are like people marching quietly to their doom.”