Friday, June 01, 2007

Democrats who didn't do their homework

It should not be a surprise that the Democrats can’t agree on how best to extricate America from the war in Iraq; after all, a party whose leaders still can’t talk coherently about the past can hardly be expected to talk coherently about the future. And the fact is, some of the top Democratic presidential contenders are still having problems explaining how and why they enabled this war in the first place.

Case in point: John Edwards and Hillary Clinton.

But first, some background: As senators in the autumn of 2002, they both voted for the now-infamous resolution that authorized President Bush to exercise the war option. They have subsequently insisted that they were acting on the best intelligence available at the time. Clinton, while not renouncing her vote, has said that Bush essentially misled her. Edwards has renounced his vote, saying that he would have voted differently had he known then what he knows now.

But there’s a big flaw in their explanations. At the time of the historic vote, they could have easily consulted the latest National Intelligence Estimate – a classified document reflecting the views of the entire intelligence community, and readily available to any senator who wanted to see it. The full 90-page report repeatedly questioned Bush’s claims that Saddam Hussein was a grave threat.

But Edwards didn’t bother to read the report. Nor, apparently, did Clinton.

Such a reading would have been valuable. As Senator Bob Graham, the Senate intelligence committee chairman who had requested the report, explained in a 2005 newspaper column, the document “contained vigorous dissents on key parts of (Bush’s WMD claims), especially by the departments of State and Energy. Particular skepticism was raised about aluminum tubes that were offered as evidence that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program. As to Hussein’s will to use whatever weapons he might have, the (NIE) indicated he would not do so unless he was first attacked.” Moreover, the full document made it clear that “most of the alleged intelligence (about the presence of WMDs) came from Iraqi exiles or third countries, all of which had an interest in the United States’ removing Hussein, by force if necessary.” And the full document strongly questioned the Bush claim that linked Hussein to al Qaeda.

I bring this up now, because the NIE issue is back in the news – thanks to Edwards’ inability to give a straight answer about whether he had read it.

At a forum on Wednesday, Edwards was asked this question about the prewar debate: “There was this National Intelligence Estimate that was confidential – that you had to have security clearance, or members of the Senate could read. Did you have a chance to read that, and was that part of the…”

Whereupon Edwards replied, “I read it. I read it.” He then gave a rambling explanation about how having more information was not necessarily helpful, and about how secrecy was a bad thing, but the gist of his response was in those first six words.

The problem was that an Edwards spokesman had told a reporter, one week ago, that Edwards in fact had not read the full, classified NIE document. When originally asked whether Edwards had read it, Mark Kornblau had replied that “the answer is no.” In lieu of reading the full document, he said, Edwards “was regularly briefed on the information that appeared in the (NIE).”

But even if Kornblau’s version of events is correct, it merely raises more questions. Did Edwards’ unnamed briefers give sufficient weight to the NIE’s “vigorous dissents,” or even mention them at all? And if they did brief Edwards about the flaws in the WMD intelligence, why did he decide to ignore them and vote Yes to authorize Bush?

But the Edwards story doesn’t end there. Yesterday, in the wake of Edwards’ fresh claim that he had read the full report, Kornblau had to come up with a reason why his boss would say such a thing. So he did. He insisted that Edwards had “simply misunderstood the question.”

This must be the season of incomprehension; a few weeks ago, GOP candidate Tommy Thompson said he flubbed an answer because his hearing aid wasn’t working and because he had to go to the bathroom. But Edwards doesn’t have a hearing aid, and, as a pretty sharp lawyer, it’s hard to imagine that he misunderstood such a detailed question, one that spelled out the procedure for reading the classified version of the NIE. More likely, the question hit Edwards in a vulnerable spot, and his response was a verbal wince.

Hillary Clinton has a similar problem. A new biography indicates that she didn’t read the full NIE, either. Indeed, she has never claimed to have read it. When asked recently whether she had done so, she merely replied that she had been briefed on it. But who did the briefing? As her biographers point out, none of her own Senate aides could have done the job, because they lacked the requisite security clearances to even see the report. So we’re basically left with two scenarios: Either she voted Yes for Bush without performing “due diligence” (a favorite Hillary phrase); or, somebody did manage to give her a comprehensive briefing, which means that she apparently voted Yes for Bush in defiance of the best intelligence available at the time.

Maybe this issue will be pursued at the next Democratic presidential debate, slated for Sunday night on CNN. It would be a natural for Barack Obama, who had the luxury of dwelling in the Illinois legislature at a time when his top ’08 rivals were clearly fearful that voicing skepticism, and voting No, would tag them as national security weaklings.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

All hail the aw-shucks savior

News flash: A dispirited organization, fearful of defeat and disenchanted with its current crop of competitors, eagerly awaits the arrival of its very own aw-shucks savior, its down-home hero who will presumably ride to the rescue and put the team back on top.

But enough about the Yankees and Roger Clemens.

Let’s talk instead about the Republican party and Fred Thompson, because the premise is similar.

Potentially, however, there’s one big difference: Clemens is a cinch Hall of Famer, whereas nobody yet knows whether Thompson has the grit and drive to mow down the opposition. In short, it’s hard to tell whether this guy is for real. It’s truly a sign of GOP desperation that he is being touted so ardently, given the fact that (a) his eight-year Senate career was, by all accounts, undistinguished, in part because he reputedly had an aversion to working hard, (b) he was assailed by conservatives during the ‘90s for failing, in their eyes, to energetically probe Bill Clinton’s campaign donations (c) he has never championed any of the social conservative causes that animate GOP primary voters, and (d) he has zero executive experience.

Regarding (b), here's what Washington Times political writer Donald Lambro wrote two weeks ago: "He led no great crusades (in the Senate), nor did he win any medals for leadership. In fact, when he was called to lead the investigation into illegal campaign contributions from China to President Clinton's 1996 campaign, Mr. Thompson was rolled by the Democrats. Instead of tenaciously digging into the Chinagate scandal, following the money trail wherever it led, Mr. Thompson caved into Democratic demands for a strict time limit on the probe, which ended prematurely, with little to show for it. So much for his leadership abilities."

Nevertheless, some conservative activists and commentators laud Thompson’s savior bona fides. Now that he has formally decided to dip his toe into the ’08 campaign, I offer this sampling of Thompson-mania:

He “looks like a president.” He has “a great voice.” He has “bearing.” He is “folksy.” He’s a “Reaganesque” communicator. He has “off-the-cuff homespun witticisms.” And he “wins the guy-I’d-want-to-get-a-beer-with primary.”

I’d suggest that the beer criterion is not necessarily the best way to pick a president; in 2000, George W. Bush was clearly favored over Al Gore as a drinking buddy, but now, thanks to the party dude, we’re saddled with what is arguably the worst foreign policy disaster in U.S. history. Nevertheless, imagery counts for a lot in this culture. Thompson has been playing folksy, avuncular authority figures for nearly 30 years in films and on TV, and many voters are comfortable with that kind of persona, because it seems so archetypically American. At this point, there’s not much difference between stagecraft from statecraft. And Thompson’s fans clearly believe that folksy and avuncular would play well against Hillary Clinton.

This is assuming he can win the nomination. But I wouldn’t rule that out, given the top contenders’ well-documented flaws (Rudy Giuliani is too liberal on social issues; Mitt Romney and John McCain are pandering flip-floppers). And Thompson has one other advantage: He’s great at playing the role of a just-folks, down-home, plainspoken country boy. Republican voters love that stuff.

Never mind the fact that, in reality, “Ole Fred” (as he calls himself) is a seasoned Washington hand who made a lot of money as a Beltway lobbyist (for General Electric, Westinghouse, the deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for the savings and loan industry, for a British company that was facing billions of bucks in asbestos claims). Republican voters wouldn’t hold any of that against him, not when his persona is so appealing. After all, they’ve endorsed phony populists in the past: in 1988, a very rich guy named George H. W. Bush donned blue work shirts, played horseshoes and ate pork rinds; in 2000, another Brahman from the same family stressed his plain-spoken Texas ways.

Maybe we’ll even see a reprise of Thompson’s best trick, the 1994 pickup truck. He was trailing badly that year in a race for an open Senate seat in Tennessee; then he ditched his Washington threads, donned blue jeans, rented a Chevy pickup truck, drove it around – and he soared in the polls, winning the race handily. Even Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard magazine, in a fawning article last month, referred to the pickup truck as “a Hollywood-style gimmick designed to make Thompson look down to earth.”

My favorite story, however, concerns an incident that reportedly took place at a Tennessee town meeting in 1995. An eyewitness described this sequence: When the event ended, Thompson waved goodbye to the crowd and exited in his famed pickup truck, with a staffer at the wheel. But it turned out to be a short truck ride. A silver luxury sedan was parked not far away. The staffer dropped him off. Whereupon he drove off in the silver luxury sedan.

A rigorous vetting process awaits Thompson; only then will Republicans learn whether he measures up to the hype, or whether he is merely a five-inning pitcher who runs out of gas. Also, they'll soon get a glimpse of his tactical decision-making. He has to decide whether he wants to ante up $15,000 to play in the GOP’s first beauty contest, the Iowa straw poll, which is staged in August. That event is all cornpone. Candidates set up hospitality tents, and local Republicans show up to eat their food. That would be a perfect venue for the red pickup truck.

What’s truly significant, however, is that the Thompson boomlet is happening at all. Republican nomination contests are usually quite predictable; the nod goes to the candidate who is generally viewed as the next guy in line (Bob Dole in 1996), the guy with the largest following (Reagan in 1980), or the guy with the most money and connections (Bush in 2000). Fluid races, lacking prohibitive frontrunners, are exceedingly rare. For the moment, in other words, Fred Thompson’s late ascendance says more about the unsettled state of the GOP than about the candidate himself.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Hillary Clinton, populist poseur?

Hillary Clinton, heroine of the working stiff. Give me a break.

Her big economic speech yesterday, in which she assailed the “income inequality” of the Bush era, was really a bit much. There she was in New Hampshire, deploring the gap between rich and poor, the exodus of U.S. jobs thanks to globalization, the wage stagnation that plagues the average worker…yet she somehow omitted the fact that, for eight years during the 1990s, her own husband was repeatedly assailed – by liberals and labor activists in his own party – for his ongoing failure to tackle those very same issues.

This is a bit of recent political history that few people seem to remember. Notwithstanding Hillary Clinton’s efforts yesterday to paint the 1990s as a golden economic age, the truth is that liberal Democrats were generally frustrated by Bill’s refusal to address the gap between rich and poor, the exodus of U.S. jobs thanks to globalization, and the wage stagnation that plagued the average worker. They wanted him to run for re-election in 1996 as a populist who would address those problems. He did not. Nor is there any evidence that his influential spouse had urged him to do so.

So, for Hillary’s sake, maybe it’s just as well that yesterday’s populist speech didn’t get much coverage (only three paragraphs today in The New York Times). She was decisively trumped by Barack Obama’s health care speech in Iowa; actually, they were probably both trumped by the coverage of Lindsay Lohan’s latest rehab stint. If Hillary’s speech had dominated the news, attentive Americans who remember the ‘90s might have wondered, “If income inequality is such an important issue, why didn’t she and Bill make it a priority when they had the power?”

Yesterday, she voiced these complaints about the Bush era: “Companies also think nothing of shipping our jobs – even entire factories – overseas. Today, competition no longer stops at the water’s edge…Unfortunately, we’re not managing globalization properly. Instead of working for all of us, globalization is only working for some of us…(W)hile productivity and corporate profits are up, the fruits of that success just hasn’t reached many of our families. It’s like trickle-down economics without the trickle. As a result, the gap between those who are enjoying the fruits of the modern economy and those who aren’t is growing wider….Well, now we haven’t heard much from Washington in the past six years about how to solve this growing problem of inequality.”

I’m not contesting her economic assessment of the Bush era. But the fact is, liberals in her own party voiced the same complaints about the Clinton administration, in virtually the same language. I know this, because they told me all the time.

During the 1996 campaign, when Bill Clinton was cruising toward re-election and arguably had the luxury of picking and choosing his campaign issues, liberal economic think tanks were putting out statistics showing that (a) the typical family was making less than in 1989, the first year of the senior George Bush’s presidency, and (b) that the gap between rich and poor had widened since Clinton took office. Even a member of Clinton’s Cabinet, Labor secretary Robert Reich, had declared in a 1996 speech that “the paychecks of large segments of our population have gone nowhere” – but he never did that again, because, in Clinton White House parlance, he was subsequently “shut down.”

Liberals and labor activists complained that Clinton was governing as an “Eisenhower Republican,” (actually, that’s how Clinton once described himself); that he was stressing fiscal austerity and balanced budgets as a sop to Wall Street; that he favored unfettered free trade and globalization over protections for domestic workers; and that he was indifferent to the plight of unions, which were being marginalized in the private sector. Indeed, the U.S. Census Bureau in June 1996 reported that the share of national income earned by the top five percent of households grew faster in the first two years of the Clinton administration than during the Ronald Reagan years.

Jeff Faux, a liberal economist and occasional advisor to congressional Democrats, told me in September 1996 that the Clinton regime lacked political courage: “To pull up the wages of working people, you need solutions that are not ‘acceptable’ in politics today. You’d need a politician to say, ‘We need more unions,’ but that would mean going up against business. On free trade, you’d need some sort of protection for domestic workers who are threatened by low-wage foreign competitors, but that would mean going up against the multinational business community, for whom low wages are the point. It would mean big redistribution changes in the tax code. It would mean (laws) making corporations more accountable. All of these solutions require political conflict. But let’s not be na├»ve – politicians don’t want to tackle that, and disturb all their business money.”

That same month, I asked a Clinton campaign official why the president was not stumping as a populist. His reply: “We made a very conscious decision, early last spring, not to talk about the wage issue. Some people argued that our message should be, ‘We dug the country out of the (recessionary) hole, so now we’ll move on to tackling wage stagnation.’ But (Clinton pollster) Dick Morris said, ‘Let’s just talk about the good stuff, let’s not muddy our own positive message.’”

This decision didn’t sit well with the liberal/labor faction, and Robert Reich sounded off publicly after he quit as Labor secretary, In a 1998 interview with the online magazine Salon, he said: “(T)he assumed necessity of balancing the budget still has public policy in a straitjacket. President Clinton’s programs might look like a lot of new spending, but $100 billion out of a $1.7-trillion budget is rather small, relative to the challenges facing the country right now: Over 41 million people without health insurance, far more than were without it in 1992 (when Clinton won the presidency); over 20 percent of our children in poverty; the median wage, adjusted for inflation, below where it was in 1989; a growing gap between rich and poor; and so on.”

Hillary Clinton, in her speech yesterday, touted some ‘90s achievements (“22 million new jobs”), and the Census Bureau did report in 2000 that median household income had jumped for the fifth straight year, and that the poverty rate was the lowest since 1979. But the same census stats showed that the gap between rich and poor had actually increased during the Bill Clinton era: In 1999, the top five percent of households captured 21.5 percent of the total national income pie; seven years earlier, they had 18.6 percent. The lowest category of households (those with incomes below $17,196) actually lost ground; they had 3.8 percent of the national income pie in 1992, but only 3.6 percent in 1999. In fact, every household category up to $80,000 lost ground during the ‘90s.

But now Hillary is calling for “opportunity for all and special privileges for none,” for laws that would stop American companies from shipping jobs overseas, for laws that would “help more workers join unions,” for “a new vision of economic fairness.” Perhaps she is sincere; perhaps she is instinctively more “progressive” (her word) than Bill; perhaps she is privately frustrated that her husband’s administration did not sufficiently address the problems she now bemoans. On the other hand, lest we forget, the Clintons are master tacticians who know that populist rhetoric is red meat for liberal primary voters. Lest we forget, Bill campaigned as a populist in 1992, complaining about how “the rich get the gold mine” while everybody else “gets the shaft,” and about how average folks were “working harder for less,” only to trim his sails once in office.

So which is the real Hillary?

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Happy anniversary to Dick Cheney. Two years ago today, he said this: "The level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think we're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

"See You in September?" Not!

Just a few weeks ago, the Bush administration and its diehard defenders were essentially singing See You in September – contending, in essence, that the American majority should squelch its antiwar fervor until the leaves begin to turn, because, by September, we will supposedly know how well the Surge is working, and how effectively the Iraqis are pursuing national reconciliation. September will be the critical month, they said, because that’s when General David Petraeus, their Iraq commander, is slated to provide Congress with an extensive “progress” report.

The congressional Republicans, anxious as always to fall into line despite their growing restiveness, dutifully took up the chant. House Minority Leader John Boehner said on May 6, “By the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working…” Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon said he and his colleagues hoped to get “a straight story” on the Surge “by September.” Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota (who, like Smith, is up for re-election next year) said ‘there is a sense that by September, you’ve got to see real action on the part of the Iraqis.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell invoked September last week, declaring “the handwriting is on the wall.” Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, appearing on CBS two days ago, went even further, arguing that “by September, when Gen. Petraeus is to make a report, I think most of the people in Congress believe, unless something extraordinary occurs, that we should be on the move to draw those Surge numbers down.”

Well, guess what: The military brass, along with various think tank warriors and media enablers, are already trying to weasel out of the September deadline.

It’s clear they already know that this disastrous war will hardly look different in September; hence the need to start low-balling expectations as early as possible. The aim, of course, will be to pre-spin September’s undoubtedly mixed results as an argument for giving the Bush team even more time to chase its ever-elusive dreams. Which means that September could be a tough month for those Republicans who have already promised to hang tough with Bush until then, but not necessarily beyond. Right now, they seem to think that Petraeus is going to provide them with political cover in September, but that’s likely to be merely another Iraq war delusion.

The low-ballers are working hard at the moment. Over at Fox News (of course), Brit Hume harrumphed the other day, “It’s out there in the public parlance about how September is the big month. Not helpful to the president’s cause, or to Gen. Petraeus’ efforts. You know, you’re not going to have all the troops on the ground until (June). And basically, they get the balance of the summer to fix the situation. Not realistic.” He was seconded by a Fox News military analyst, Lt. Col. Bob Maginiss: “I talked to a general yesterday over in Iraq, in Baghdad. He said, look, after September, there’s a lot to be done. And if all the momentum is going to stop right after Dave Petraeus reports to the Congress and to the president about our progress, then we’re in trouble. It’s going to take awhile.”

Petraeus himself has already signaled that “I don’t think we’ll have anything definitive in September,” and some of the scholar-hawks concur. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on May 22 that the fractious Iraqis probably won’t make much headway this summer on key internal reforms: “(W)e shouldn’t kid ourselves that even in the unlikely event that all these bills are approved in September, they will mark a turning point in the war. At best, they will give (Petraeus) and President Bush some signs of progress they can point to in arguing for more patience from the American public to giver the ‘surge’ a chance to work.”

Another prominent think-tanker, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, is quoted today saying much the same thing. Having just returned from Iraq, where he conferred with U.S. military officials, Kagan says the September report by Petraeus will probably be a mixed bag, with scant evidence of any major political breakthroughs between Sunnis and Shiites in Baghdad: "I think the political progress will be mostly of (the) local variety."

And while the war’s enablers play lowball, the Bush team has made life even more difficult for its restive Republican allies, by refusing to spell out its criteria for progress. Ideally, if the White House would agree to provide some “metrics” (to borrow a Donald Rumsfeld word), the congressional GOP would then be able to determine in September whether Petraeus was succeeding or failing. But the White House won’t do that; as defense policy expert Stephen Biddle, an independent advisor to Petraeus, reportedly complained a few weeks ago, “By being unbelievably vague about everything, (Bush’s people) are making it very hard for congressmen and senators to go to their constituents and say, ‘Look, here’s why things are going better than you might imagine.’”

But it’s no mystery why the Bush team won’t establish any metrics: They don’t want to be held accountable in the event that the September report fails to meet those metrics. They figure that if they stick with vague criteria, they can most easily spin an ambiguous September report as proof that the Decider should be indulged even further.

Certainly, that would put the tentative Democrats squarely on the spot, but they don’t have the votes to force Bush to change course. They can only do that with the help of mass Republican defections. For those Republicans who are nervous about their ’08 re-election prospects, September will truly be decision time. The low-ballers have already made that abundantly clear.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Decider's holiday greetings

President Bush, Memorial Day, 2004: “Through our history, America has gone to war reluctantly, because we have known the costs of war...Because of (our slain soldiers’) fierce courage, America is safer, two terror regimes (in Iraq and Afghanistan) are gone forever, and more than 50 million souls now live in freedom.”

Bush, Memorial Day, 2005: “Freedom is on the march and America is more secure.”

Bush, Memorial Day, 2006: "In this place where valor sleeps, we are reminded why America has always gone to war reluctantly, because we know the costs of war."

Staff Sgt. David Safstrom, Delta Company, 82nd Airborne, currently on his third tour in Iraq, quoted today: “What are we doing here? Why are we still here?…We’re helping guys that are trying to kill us. We help them in the day. They turn around at night and try to kill us.”

Sgt. First Class David Moore, a self-described “conservative Texas Republican” who now supports troop withdrawal, quoted today: “In 2003, 2004, 100 percent of the soldiers wanted to be here, to fight this war. Now, 95 percent of my platoon agrees with me.”

Sgt. Kevin O’Flarity, a squad leader, quoted today: “I don’t believe we should be here in the middle of a civil war. We’ve all lost friends over here. Most of us don’t know what we’re fighting for anymore. We’re serving our country and friends, but the only reason we go out every day is for each other. I don’t want any more of my guys to get hurt or die. If it was something I felt righteous about, maybe. But for this country and this conflict, no, it’s not worth it.”

U.S. intelligence assessment, written in January 2003 (two months before the war began), and finally released last Friday by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence: Any attempt to establish democracy in Iraq would be “a long, difficult, and probably turbulent challenge,” because Iraq’s political culture did “not foster liberalism or democracy.” There was also “no concept of loyal opposition and no history of alternation of power.” As a result, there was “a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so.” Also, a U.S. invasion would allow al Qaeda “to establish the presence in Iraq and opportunity to strike at Americans it did not have prior to the invasion.”

Bush, at a press conference last Thursday: “I’m credible, because I read the intelligence.”

Senior Iraqi government official Ali Allawi, in his newly-released book The Occupation of Iraq, which documents the Bush team's ignorance of Iraqi sectarian tribalism: “Bush may well go down in history as presiding over one of America’s great strategic blunders. Thousands of servicemen have been the casualties of a failed policy.”

Bush, Memorial Day, 2007: “Our duty is to ensure that (the war's) outcome justifies the sacrifices made by those who fought and died in it. From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled, where our nation is more secure from attack, and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it. This is our country's calling."