Friday, May 25, 2007

War and the art of the possible

The party-base recriminations are flying. Just as Rush Limbaugh and the Republican right went ballistic last week when the Washington GOP worked with Ted Kennedy to craft a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, the antiwar Democratic left is incensed at the moment because its Washington leaders have caved to President Bush on Iraq, allowing him to get his war money without the caveat of a troop withdrawal timeline.

Some of the commentary is predictably scathing. Liberal organizer/activist Robert Borosage rebukes the congressional Democratic leaders in advance for what he calls their “consistent inanity,” and contends that, by backing down, they are “voting to enable a rogue president. They are sacrificing the nation’s security and the lives of many young soldiers to stand with George Bush. Elsewhere, liberal blogger John Nichols writes at The Nation that “this failure to abide by the will of the people who elected Democrats to end the war will haunt Pelosi, Reid, and their party – not to mention the United States and the battered shell that is Iraq.” Elsewhere, is threatening to find and fund ’08 candidates who are willing to launch primary challenges against those Democrats who voted Yes on the money. Elsewhere, activist/author David Sirota accuses the Democrats of “behaving like cowards,” of cooking up a “manure sundae,” and declares that “we are watching the rise of the Dick Cheney Democrats.”

The Democratic party is at it again, employing its traditional talent for intramural invective. This old habit doesn’t necessarily serve its members well. Liberals have long complained – accurately – that Bush has been pursuing his war with scant regard for the facts on the ground, but their current anger at the Democratic Congress suggests that they, too, are prone to ignoring reality.

The facts on the ground, in Washington, are simple: The Democrats may have the gavel, but they don’t have the votes to impose their will on Bush and override his vetoes. The margins are way too thin. And a fair number of elected Democrats represent moderate swing districts, in places like Indiana and North Carolina, where constitutents have soured on the war, but nevertheless might view a war money cutoff as tantamount to abandoning the troops in harm’s way.

As Jonathan Alter points out in his latest column, “This (swing state factor) is not a figment of some spineless Democrat's imagination, but the reality of what he or she will face back in the district over Memorial Day. Democrats who vote to cut funding not only risk getting thrown in the briar patch by Republican hit men in Washington; they also might not be able to satisfy their otherwise antiwar constituents at home….Democrats who vote to cut off funding can be more easily blamed for the war's failures, especially in swing districts.” All told, “Bush and his war might be terribly unpopular, but under our system, he's still holding the high cards.”

Politics is not only about passion; it’s also about practicing the art of the possible. And I suspect that the anger in some liberal quarters will wane as long as the congressional Democrats treat this week’s action as merely a tactical retreat, as just a speed bump in the long-run campaign to ratchet up the pressure on Bush. There are funding fights slated for this summer; there will be a “progress” report on the Surge in September. Barring a miracle in Iraq, Bush’s political standing, even among Republicans, is likely to weaken further as the ’08 election season nears, thus presenting new opportunities. Even Bush seems to recognize the need to cede a little; it’s noteworthy that he is suddenly talking now about embracing some of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group – the same body that he spurned last winter - and that the White House is now launching media trial balloons about '08 troop drawdowns.

Time is on the Democrats’ side. The party that’s saddled with an unpopular war tends to be punished at election time, as the Democrats should well remember. They lost the ’52 race in part because of Korea, and lost the ’68 race because of Vietnam. And now that the GOP has been successfully tagged as the Iraq war party, the Democrats will have the wind at their backs in 2008 – if they can manage not to slice each other up along the way.

And have a great holiday.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Confessions of a "quiet girl"

One of President Bush’s inexperienced ideological apparatchiks provided us yesterday with an illuminating tutorial on the rule of law.

Here’s the gist of Monica Goodling’s advice: Even if you think that maybe you might be breaking the law, you’re still blameless as long as you think you didn’t really “mean” to do it. And even if you essentially have to admit that you did break the law, you’re still OK as long as you think your motives were pure, and as long as you think of yourself as (in her words) “a fairly quiet girl who tries to do the right thing and tries to treat people kindly along the way.”

You kids watching at home, I would not advise following Monica’s legal advice. Granted, this advice comes from a former top official of the U.S. Justice Department, but it’s important to remember that you are living in the Bush era, when it is considered perfectly acceptable to entrust a top Justice post to somebody who has never prosecuted a case in court, somebody who earned her spurs at the Republican National Committee, somebody who earned her law degree from Pat Robertson’s Regent University, which, last we checked, was rated nationally as a fourth-tier law school. There is no fifth tier.

While testifying yesterday on the prosecutor purge scandal (and becoming the latest Justice bigwig to plead ignorance on the origins of the purge list), Goodling did something that is virtually unprecedented, at least for a loyal Bushie: She confessed error. No doubt she felt comfortable doing so because she was testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution, but whatever. It was still bracing to see somebody from this administration dip a toe into the world of factual reality.

And the reality, of course, is that this administration has been laboring to politicize the once-independent Justice Department, seeking to make it the legal arm of the Republican party. The fired U.S. attorneys have been saying this for many months; the documentary evidence has been overwhelming; and a newly retired senior career Justice official, Daniel Metcalfe, spilled the beans just last month.

The civil service laws state quite clearly that job applicants for non-partisan positions should be quizzed only on their competence and professional qualifications, not on their political leanings. Any screener who stresses the latter should be considered in breach of the law.

Here’s Goodling yesterday, talking about her five years at Justice: “I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions. I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions. And I regret those mistakes.” Later, when asked how often this happened, she said: “I can’t think that I could have done it more than 50 times, but I don’t know.”

Goodling is currently the target of an internal Justice probe into whether she violated what the department calls “prohibited personnel practices.” (Translation: Even though she was basically doing what her superiors wanted, she’s being set up to take the fall.) Indeed, recent news reports have detailed her screening criteria for nonpartisan posts. She stalled the hiring of job applicants whom she suspected to be liberals (she copped to one specific case yesterday, confessing that she made a “snap judgment”); she ousted career prosecutors who failed her political litmus tests; she researched applicants’ campaign contributions; and, at one point, this law grad from a religious-right institution even came up with a personal morality pop quiz, asking one Justice applicant, “Have you ever cheated on your wife?”

All told, Justice careerists and applicants who ran afoul of Goodling were sometimes warned that they had "a Monica problem." But yesterday, despite the fact that she was ‘fessing up, she did so with a caveat. She offered what I would essentially call the Nice Girl Defense. A nice girl doesn’t plot to do anything wrong, it just happens. Witness this exchange yesterday:

Q: “Do you believe that (it was) legal or illegal for you to take those political considerations in mind?”

Goodling: “I don’t believe I intended to commit a crime…I crossed the line of the civil service rules.”

Q: “Rules? Laws. You crossed the law on civil service laws. You crossed the line on civil service laws, is that right?”

Goodling: “I believe I crossed the lines. But I didn’t mean to.”

I don’t believe I intended to…I didn’t mean to…

Kids at home, I would advise you not to employ the Goodling defense if you ever get stopped by a cop for speeding. For instance, if a cop says that radar clocked you going 75 in a 55 zone, do not bother to say “I don’t believe I intended” to speed. Nor should you say “I didn’t mean to.” He’ll write that ticket anyway.

Goodling’s attempt to offer mitigating circumstances merely prompts more questions. Was she aware of the civil service bar on partisan screening? Did her Bush superiors indicate to her that she was expected to abide by those rules? After she breached them a few times, did anybody flag her behavior and tell her to stop? Can she credibly argue that she “didn’t mean to” cross the line - when in fact she was a repeat offender, doing so on roughly 50 occasions? (Best defense: She just couldn’t help it.)

Here’s the short answer to all of the above: Goodling was merely an instrument of the Bush administration strategy to politicize the nonpartisan institutions of government.

All we need do is connect the dots. Lest we forget, Lurita Doan, the chief of the General Services Administration, was recently summoned to Capitol Hill to explain why – in apparent violation of federal law – she allowed a Karl Rove political lieutenant to brief nonpartisan GSA workers on the GOP’s ’08 election prospects. At that Jan. 26 event, Doan also reportedly discussed ways that her agency might be able to help GOP candidates, whom she referred to as “our candidates.”

And now we have word that the independent Office of Special Counsel has found Doan to be in breach of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from engaging partisan political activity in the federal workplace. Yet Doan is not an isolated example, either; reports have indicated that similar partisan briefings have occurred at virtually all federal agencies.

Doan, however, still maintains that she doesn’t remember that Jan. 26 meeting. By comparison, Monica Goodling is Jimmy Stewart, which might be enough to earn her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


The liberal Democratic base is outraged today about the congressional cave-in on the Iraq war money. The Democrats are giving Bush what he wants, financing without a withdrawal timeline, and the Capitol Hill voting is expected today. But I don't see why anybody should be shocked, since this outcome has long been obvious. I'll return to the topic tomorrow; for now, I'll quote my own newspaper column of April 29:

In a British-style parliamentary system, (Bush) would be gone by now. But even a politically weakened American commander in chief can still play a strong hand - which is why, at least for now, the congressional Democrats are doomed to fail in their current bid to legislate an end to the war. Public sentiment (against the war) is irrelevant; all that matters, in this hardball political moment, is the stubborn stance of the Decider and the math on Capitol Hill. Bush will veto any spending bill that contains a pullout timetable, and the Democrats lack the votes to override him. Later this spring, they'll probably wind up giving him the war money he wants, absent any pullout timetable, in part because they don't want to be tarred as being "against the troops," particularly on the eve of an election year. (Indeed, a CBS News poll reported this month that only 9 percent of Americans favor cutting off all the war money.) So, looking down the road, it's a cinch bet that our soldiers will still be dying on the day Bush fobs off the disaster on his successor.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Life is good in Goreworld

Depending on how one keeps score, we’re currently enduring the third (or fourth, or fifth) Al Gore Boomlet.

Let’s see: There was a boffo guest stint on Saturday Night Live, right before he pulled the plug on a 2004 candidacy…a gush of Gore nostalgia, and four magazine covers, when the theatres were playing An Inconvenient Truth…an ‘07 victory lap at the Oscars, coupled with entreaties from the Hollywood crowd that he run again in ‘08….and now, this week, a national tour for his new book, The Assault on Reason, a broad brush indictment of the political-media industrial complex, coupled with a media blitz that allows him to play wink-wink with the TV anchors.

Message to Goreheads, and to all the other nostalgic Democrats who somehow forget that he was widely reviled in 2000 for failing to parlay years of peace and prosperity into victory:

He ain’t running next year. Get over it.

He performed last night on the friendly confines of Larry King’s CNN show, and it’s clear he is having a grand old time. He’s playing the media the way Herbie Hancock tickles the piano keys, with the deft touch of a seasoned pro. He knows that he can continue to stoke maximum attention for himself, and for his big-picture concepts, if he simply plays along with the will-he-or-won’t-he guessing game. He also knows that the some of the same media folks pining for his ’08 entry today would commence to tear him apart if he actually stepped into the ring. So it’s a win-win for Gore; he perpetuates the tease, by signaling that he really has no interest in running, while stopping just short of a Shermanesque refusal. (Gore to King: “I’m not thinking about being a candidate….I haven’t ruled it out for all time.”) Then it’s on to the next venue.

Why on earth would Gore want to revisit the indignities of 2000, and risk new ones? He’s clearly thriving inside Goreworld, an environment of his own design where he can frame a mega-message as he sees fit, circulate it through channels of his choosing, and show up at handpicked events where he is inevitably lionized. He was never a natural politician, and the street rules of politics have not become more high-minded during his seven-year absence. I believed Gore last night when he told King, in reference to politics, “I don’t have to play that game….I’m enjoying my life, I’m serving in other ways, I’ve been focused on a different kind of campaign.”

And nobody with a yen for traditional political combat would write a book like The Assault on Reason. The typical candidate tome, appearing on the eve of a presidential primary season, is filled with poll-tested swill and boilerplate passages such as “I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us” and “Together, we can forge a new tomorrow,” or whatever. Gore’s book, by contrast, is a scathing putdown of the prevailing American culture, everything from television’s obsession with celebrity trivia, the average citizen’s couch-potato propensities, and the average politician’s willingness to play on voters’ fears with the help of propaganda techniques perfected by “a new generation of media Machiavellis.”

Nor would a prospective candidate pepper his book with quotes from German philosophers, 17th-century British essayists and poets, or from academic neuroscientists who specialize in researching the pain-sensing neurons of the brain. That's just the kind of smarty-pants stuff that people didn't like about Gore in 2000, back when they seemed to think that Bush was better because he'd be more fun to drink brewskis with. But Gore is happy to invoke the heavy thinkers now, because he's free of his political restraints.

He elaborated on his big themes last night on CNN: “We have this huge onslaught of trivialities (on television)…So much of it is mind-deadening…The danger is that the volume of it excludes serious discussions of the choices we have to make as a free people.” These observations about TV aren’t exactly profound – Edward R. Murrow complained about the exact same tendencies in a 1958 speech that ultimately doomed him at CBS – so maybe Gore’s image as a seer is a tad overstated. I would argue, however, that anybody willing to say all this stuff out loud is clearly not thirsting to run for president.

Gore said last night that the ’08 Democratic candidates are “trapped in a bad system,” characterized by “the impressionistic approaches that come out of the daily news cycle, the tit for tat of what is a hot buzz-word issue of the day…the media’s obsession with the so-called horse race.” He said that the candidates are “all trapped in the spin cycle, ‘what is their motivation for doing this or doing that? What are they thinking about this or that?’ I think we ought to have a much greater focus on what the actual problems of the country are and how we can solve them.”

Somebody who is comfortable in the role of outsider can afford to talk that way. A prospective presidential candidate would never talk that way; any White House aspirant who implies that he is better or nobler than the political process probably wouldn’t get very far. And it’s not as if the Democrats desperately need Gore in order to win in 2008; the polls report broad rank-and-file satisfaction with the current Democratic field. And among Americans generally, Gore still has high negatives, competitive with Hillary Clinton.

So the odds are that this boomlet shall pass as well. Gore will hew to the high road, where the issues are loftier – and his prospects for success are just as daunting. Consider, for instance, this classic juxtaposition last night on CNN:

At one point, Gore went on a tear about the shallowness of cable TV coverage, complaining how “the line between entertainment and news is now very blurred, and a lot of news organizations feel the need to run polls and conduct focus groups the same as politicians now. And so we get a lot more of…Paris Hilton's legal battles on her jail term than we get about how we can solve the climate crisis.”

Several minutes later, as he was still talking, this is what appeared in the crawl at the bottom of the screen:

“Two weeks before Paris Hilton goes to jail, is she turning to religion to save her?”

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Straying beyond the factual

On paper, Bill Richardson would appear to be the perfect Democratic presidential candidate. He has serious executive experience at the federal level (Energy secretary, U.N. ambassador), a long stint on Capitol Hill (14 years as a congressman), and, perhaps most importantly, he is currently the popular governor of a swing state (New Mexico), where his track record as a tax cutter has earned plaudits from Forbes magazine and the libertarian conservatives at the Cato Institute think tank. Plus, he’s an Hispanic at a time when the Hispanic vote is becoming more pivotal to victory. Plus, he’s a four-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Plus, he’s a back-slapping people person in the mold of his ex-boss, Bill Clinton.

But I suspect that even if Richardson was somehow able to outfight his two mega-celebrity rivals (Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama), and neutralize the charismatically gifted John Edwards, he might still be politically vulnerable to Republican attack.

I can see it now: “Bill Richardson, serial exaggerator.” In other words, a replay of 2000, when Al Gore wore the label.

I say this, because Richardson has been known on occasion to stray beyond the factual. Maybe that’s a key character flaw, maybe not. But the point is, the GOP has been masterful at converting trivialities into hyperbole. And yesterday, for instance, even as Richardson officially announced his ’08 candidacy, two seemingly minor matters caught my attention.

First, while launching his campaign in vote-rich and heavily Hispanic California, he hawked his credentials as a son of the Golden State: “It means so much to me to announce my candidacy in California, the state that I was born.” I was surprised to learn he was a native Californian…but, it turns out, that was only technically true. Within hours, he felt compelled to amend his story, by confessing that that his stint as a native Californian lasted “about eight hours,” because his father had wanted him to be born on American soil, as opposed to Mexican soil. So why did Richardson stress California roots in his announcement? Because, he replied yesterday, “now there’s the California primary, so I’m trying to improve those roots.” (Italics are mine.)

Second, Richardson was dogged yesterday by a complaint from a New Mexico woman who contends that her governor has been repeatedly misquoting her on the campaign trail. De’on Miller says that Richardson has been telling a “lie” about her, inventing an exchange that she says never took place, and she is demanding an apology.

In 2004, Richardson attended a memorial service for Miller’s son, Aaron Austin, a Marine lance corporal who was killed in Iraq. In campaign speeches, Richardson has often recalled having a conversation with Miller that day; according to Richardson, Miller said this to him: “I wanted you to know that my son was 17. He’s a Marine. That’s all he wanted to be. He was proud to serve his country. And I know he is happy today. What I also want to thank you for is this check I just got from the United States government. It’s $11,000.” Richardson says that this conversation inspired him to push successfully for state legislation that provides a much high death benefit to the survivors of National Guardsmen killed in Iraq.

But Miller says she never talked to Richardson about money. She told the Associated Press: “I didn’t exchange words at all with the governor there, except when he gave me the flag. And those few words – whatever was exchanged when he handed me the flag and the Spirit of New Mexico award – certainly had nothing to do with money….I don’t know a person rich or poor that would be told that their only living child has been killed, and you’re going to strike up a money conversation? I didn’t discuss money with my mom or anyone like that. Why would I discuss it with him at a memorial service for my son? I’m still in shock (at that moment)…if I had every bill in the world due and no money, I’m not caring about that…I got the feeling he’s trying to use us to make us sound like little podunks or something. My husband makes $60,000 a year. I’m a college graduate. You know, I find it all very insulting.”

The Richardson camp is sticking with the candidate’s version of the conversation, although it acknowledges that, in the retelling, Richardson has frequently gotten the son’s name wrong, misstated his age, and referred to him as the first New Mexico citizen killed in Iraq, when, in reality, he was the third.

Maybe this story, and the California conflation, strike you as trivial. (Miller also says she’s a Republican who generally likes Richardson, so maybe factor that in.) But the potential problem, this kind of stuff has come up before.

Richardson used to claim that, during a youthful stint on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had served as the top foreign affairs aide to liberal legend Hubert Humphrey. But he dropped the claim when the press discovered it was untrue. Richardson didn’t go quietly, however, saying, “I was not the top aide, but I was a top aide, what the hell’s the difference?” To which a former Humphrey aide said that Richardson “was just a regular member of the subcommittee staff.”

Richardson also used to claim that, as a young amateur baseball player, he had been drafted in 1966 by the big-league Kansas City Athletics. He repeated this claim for nearly four decades; it turned up in his campaign biography when he ran for Congress, and again in a Clinton White House press release in 1997, on the eve of his stint as U.N. ambassador. Eighteen months ago, a New Mexico newspaper established that the claim was bogus. Richardson didn’t dispute finding: “After being notified of the situation and after researching the matter….I came to the conclusion that I was not drafted by the A’s.”

Again, none of this necessarily means that the guy can’t be trusted to keep America safe; and we would be hard pressed to find a politician who doesn’t invent facts or stretch the truth on the campaign trail. But if Richardson winds up on the national ticket (arguably as running mate), his verbal expansiveness might be grist for GOP caricature.

Lest we forget, those are the same folks who successfully painted Al Gore as a compulsive liar, simply by listing the small fibs he had really uttered, and making up some bigger fibs that he had never uttered. (Gore never said that he had invented the Internet, merely that he had worked to set it up during his ‘80s Senate career.) Indeed, the guy who used the Gore/Internet lie in his stump speech sits in the White House today.


Speaking of the guy in the White House, he uttered this gem yesterday: Any attempt by the Democratic Congress to conduct a vote of no-confidence in attorney general Alberto Gonzales would be mere “political theatre,” concocted by “actors on the political-theatre stage.”

This, from the same guy who perfected the flight suit strut on Mission Accomplished Day, with the event staged at twilight, or, as they call it in Hollywood, “magic hour.”

Monday, May 21, 2007

The GOP's immigration detonation

The ticking time bomb has finally detonated.

It has been clear, for some time now, that the immigration issue had the potential to wreak havoc within the increasingly fragile Republican coalition. Big business (and President Bush) want to let the 12 million illegals stay in America and earn their path to citizenship as guest workers; by contrast, the GOP’s conservative base assails anything that smacks of “amnesty,” and insists that the U.S. safeguard its borders in by kicking the illegals out of the country.

Now we have the Senate compromise bill, which does a little of both. But the noxious bottom line, in the eyes of infuriated GOP conservatives, is that the deal offers legal status to most of those 12 million people, and that provision alone is grist for outrage. The result is that Republicans now have yet another reason to fight among themselves, at a time of political weakness when they can ill afford further discord. Worse yet, this issue is a potential loser for many of the ’08 presidential contenders, as I will explain below.

Here’s a general take on the current GOP mood, in the wake of the immigration deal: “Republicans were already vulnerable due to Iraq, Scooter Libby’s indictment, corruption, Jack Abramoff, high gas prices, massive deficits, Homeland Security employes arrested on child porn charges, the loss of good jobs, and the generic Second Term Blues faced by most presidents. Did they really need to also fight amongst themselves with this? The more conservatives spend fighting each other, the less chance they have to do damage to (Democrats).” In other words, for Republicans, the proposed guest-worker law is a “textbook definition of a disaster.”

That assessment comes from the conservatives at the National Review.

Now let’s look at how the immigration issue puts the squeeze on most of the serious ’08 contenders. Two of them look like flip-flopping opportunists; another looks like a man of principle who will suffer as a result:

Rudy Giuliani. He’s stuck between his old support for illegal immigrants, and his current need to curry favor with those outraged Republican conservatives (many of whom will vote in the early ’08 primaries). As mayor of New York back in 1996, he sued in court to block new federal provisions that were designed to bar illegals from seeking public services; Giulani, who at the time styled himself as a prominent national defender of immigrants, contended that those provisions would merely “terrorize people.” Yet today, anxious not to incur conservative wrath, he has dumped his previous convictions. He is saying virtually nothing about the Senate immigration deal, aside from boilerplate about how his first priority is “to ensure our borders are secure.”

Mitt Romney. Unlike Giuliani, who has simply muzzled his old stance, Romney has seamlessly switched sides. A mere year ago, Romney told a reporter: “Those that are here paying taxes and not taking government benefits should begin a process toward application for citizenship, as they would from their home country." In other words, he didn’t believe in simply kicking out the illegals. Moreover, when the Senate last year was weighing a reform measure that contained provisions more liberal than those in the current deal, Romney said publicly that the ’06 effort was “reasonable.” But that was then, and this is now. Spying an opportunity to toss red meat to the base, he now declares that “any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely…is a form of amnesty.”

John McCain. I have remarked frequently, in this space, about his frequent rightward pandering, much of which has undercut his “straight talk” reputation. But on the immigration issue, he has essentially stood firm. He has long been a key Senate player in favor of guest-worker reform, he risked conservative base wrath last week by sharing a Washington podium with fellow reformer Ted Kennedy, and he spoke favorably (albeit briefly) about a guest-worker program during last Tuesday’s GOP candidate debate. The result is that top conservative activists now say he is “toast.” In the words of Minneapolis attorney Scott Johnson, a prominent conservative blogger: “"It seems to me that for those of us who have kept an open mind on Senator McCain, hoping that he might pay us that minimal respect, the time has come to check out on his candidacy. Claiming paternity of the prospective immigration amnesty along with (Kennedy), Senator McCain has saved me the traditional buyer's remorse. Pending further developments, I've narrowed the field of acceptable Republican candidates. I'm opting for Anybody But McCain."

McCain is clearly bugged by Romney's repositioning on immigration. In a conference call with bloggers today, McCain said: "Maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if (Romney's stance) changes. Maybe he can get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his yard." (McCain was going for a three-fer: swiping at Romney for flip-flopping, ridiculing Romney for his recent claim that he went hunting a few times, and resurrecting the recent story about how Romney once had illegal immigrants landscaping his suburban Boston home.)

Meanwhile, down in the second tier, Sam Brownback – renowned in some conservative circles as a conviction politician – is now telling people that he was for guest-worker reform before he was against it. In an earlier incarnation, he was one of the seven original sponsors of the liberal provisions floated by McCain and Kennedy. But now he’s insisting that the Senate deal is a menace to America. Could his new stance have anything to do with the need to woo conservative primary voters? His spokesman says no, of course not; the real reason, he claims, is that Brownback simply doesn’t trust “the Democrat Senate” to craft the best possible law.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines, Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson are condemning the deal in language echoing the conservative base. Perhaps that’s the smart politics at the moment, because, as National Review Online contends, “the top tier GOP candidate…who best channels the base’s seething outrage over this deal gets the nomination.” But the spectacle of pandering and flip-flopping candidates, competing for the favor of grassroots voters who are at odds with their own party establishment and White House, is hardly the prescription for Republican harmony.

As one noted observer put it the other day, “Even before the deal, Democrats entered the 2008 cycle unified and energized; Republicans, divided and demoralized. The president and the (GOP) senators have now managed to divide and demoralize their party even further…And triggering an internecine party conflict on the eve of a difficult and dangerous election is no way to re-elect a damaged incumbent party.”

So says conservative scholar David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush.


Speaking of the GOP, who could have ever dreamed that the party would field so many candidates with so many divorces? Times have changed in the party of "family values." I dealt with this development in my latest Sunday print column.