Friday, June 29, 2007

Not even Fox can skew the mood

It must be frustrating these days to work for the Bush administration TV network – known officially as Fox News – given the president’s lame-duck status and the grim prospects for a Republican victory in 2008. Even the pollster at Fox News seems incapable of divining a silver lining for the beleaguered GOP. The latest survey, released yesterday, reports that only 31 percent of Americans praise Bush’s job performance (the lowest ever recorded by Fox News); reports that only 46 percent of self-identified conservatives praise his performance (another Fox News nadir); and reports that only 42 percent of “born-again Christians” praise his performance (another Fox News nadir).

This time, not even Fox News' loaded questions provided any sustenance. We'll get to that in a moment. But first, some back story:

In the past, the Fox pollster has occasionally managed to word the inquiries in a way that produced the desired responses, thereby providing some aid and comfort to their favored political party, and making it appear that Bush’s prospects weren’t as dire as commonly perceived.

Back in April, for example, Fox worded a question this way: “Do you think that a congressional investigation into the dismissal of the eight federal prosecutors is a good use of taxpayer money?” And, naturally, since the issue was being framed as merely a pocketbook issue for tax-averse Americans, 51 percent said no, the probe was not a good use of their money. (If that’s the only yardstick for public policy, it would have been fascinating to find out what Fox would have discovered if its pollster had also asked, “Do you think that a congressional investigation of the administration’s conduct of the Iraq war is a good use of taxpayer money?” But that question wasn't asked.)

Another April question was little more than a veiled GOP talking point: “After the 2004 presidential election, the president of the left-wing political action committee made the following comment about the Democratic party, ‘In the last year, grassroots contributors like us gave more than $300 million to the Kerry campaign and the DNC, and proved that the party doesn’t need corporate cash to be competitive. Now it’s our party: we bought it, we own it, and we’re going to take it back.’ Do you think the Democratic party should allow a grassroots organization like to take it over, or should it resist this type of takeover?” And, with the inquiry framed that way, naturally 61 percent of Americans said the party should resist such a “takeover.” (The GOP would love to plant the erroneous perception that the congressional Democrats take their orders from The Fox News pollster was happy to lend a hand.)

But lately, some loaded questions have also backfired. Two months ago, Fox asked Americans, “Is it accurate to compare withdrawal from Iraq to surrender?” The introduction of the visceral S-word - much favored by the war's supporters - failed to skew the response. Sixty-one percent of Americans said no, it was not accurate to compare withdrawal to surrender.

So, in the survey released yesterday, the Fox pollster tried again, by radically upping the ante: “If there is an all-out war between the United States and various radical Muslim groups worldwide, who would you rather have in charge – Democrats or Republicans?”

Whoa, an all-out war worldwide…America under siege from an Islamo-fascist conspiracy…a veritable Armageddon that’s too much for even Jack Bauer to handle. Surely only the GOP can save the day, right? The same party that has traditionally trumped the Democrats on national security issues by 25 or 30 points, right?

Wrong. Even with Fox’s Def Con Five framing, 41 percent of Americans said they’d prefer to have the Democrats in charge. Only 38 percent picked the Republicans.

So what can the Fox pollster do next? Surely there must be a question that can produce the desired result. Maybe something like this:

If terrorists were to break into your suburban McMansion and blow up your high-definition TV during the fourth quarter of a cliffhanger Super Bowl, while Bill Clinton was off somewhere having extramarital relations, and Harry Reid was standing in your driveway laughing while Michael Dukakis drove a military tank over your rosebushes, would you deem it a good use of taxpayer money to allow to dictate a Democrat surrender of your country?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Why John and Elizabeth zapped the pundette

It may be sheer happenstance, but over the past five days the John and Elizabeth Edwards tag team has been far more conspicuous than usual.

OK, forget the happenstance. These spouses know exactly what they’re doing, and why. They're running a campaign that needs a boost, especially on the financial side.

Elizabeth, wife of the number-three Democratic presidential candidate, made news on Sunday when she publicly declared in San Francisco that she – unlike her husband – has no problem with the concept of gay married people; “I don’t know why someone else’s marriage has anything to do with me. I’m completely comfortable with gay marriage.” A day later, John and Elizabeth trekked to NBC and sat on Jay Leno’s couch, where John defended his wife: “There’s this strange thing about Elizabeth – she actually says what she thinks. And whatever it is, is whatever it is.” (Maybe she just blurted out her stance on gay marriage in a moment of spontaneous candor; on the other hand, it conveniently signaled liberal gay donors that a gay marriage supporter had the candidate’s ear.)

Then, on Tuesday, Elizabeth decided to return the favor by defending her husband. Dialing into Chris Matthews’ show on MSNBC, she picked a fight with Ann Coulter, the poisonous pundette, who was on the set, decked out in her requisite cocktail-party finery. Elizabeth proceeded to scold Coulter (or tried to, anyway) for the latter’s track record of insults – calling John a “faggot,” for instance, and joking about the couple’s deceased teenage son.

So that was Tuesday. On Wednesday, John returned the favor, appearing on Chris Matthew’s show, and defending his wife for defending him: “I applaud Elizabeth. When people like Ann Coulter…engage in this kind of hate-mongering, you have to stand up to it.” He reiterated the point in a talk with ABC, saying that he was “very proud” of Elizabeth.

So that was Wednesday. Earlier today, Elizabeth resurfaced on NBC and defended her husband all over again, by condemning Coulter for her “name-calling about John…John’s political campaign has been based on real ideas and substance.” Also today, the Des Moines Register (the home newspaper Iowa caucus participants) ran a story about Elizabeth, who had chatted by phone with the paper on Wednesday; she told the reporter, “At some point, somebody has to stand up and say, ‘That’s enough’” – thereby hitting the same talking point that John had invoked on MSNBC Wednesday, when he had defended her for defending him.

I have no doubt that the Edwards spouses feel strongly about Coulter, a master publicist for the politics of insult. But, in a sense, they need her right now; politically, she serves two useful purposes. By assailing her as a dangerous enemy, the Edwards campaign can potentially raise a lot of money from incensed liberal voters – and what better time to contribute than right now, with the ’07 second-quarter fundraising deadline just two days away, and with all reports indicating that Edwards will raise a pittance, at least when compared to the expected hauls for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama? (Politically speaking, their targeting of Coulter is roughly akin to the GOP fundraising practice of scaring its base with dark invocations of Ted Kennedy, Michael Moore, or the Clintons.)

Indeed, by staying in the news cycle for days on end with their Coulter condemnations, the Edwards tag team has managed to shift public attention away from the two Democratic frontrunners as the second-quarter money clock winds down. The hope, apparently, is that this publicity blitz can enable the Edwards campaign to at least narrow that fundraising gap. And the campaign sees no downside in keeping Elizabeth front and center; she is a crossover figure who attracts liberals and feminists (in part because she’s an independent-minded career attorney), as well as traditional women who like the fact that she talks freely about her health and personal tragedies.

Timing is everything in politics, and Elizabeth appeared to be playing innocent this morning when she was asked on NBC whether it was sheer happenstance that her targeting of Coulter had occurred at such a crucial moment in the fundraising calendar. She replied, “I had no idea when she was going to…get back on the air again…It just happened to be at the end of the quarter.” She omitted the fact that, after Coulter called her husband a “faggot” last winter, the Edwards camp posted the slur in a video that helped raise $300,000 – all of which just happened to be timed for the end of the first fundraising quarter.

John Edwards was less coy about the whole Coulter deal. When Matthews asked him late yesterday whether it was right to both “attack her and exploit her, he basically replied, Heck, yeah: “If we ask Americans…to join us in standing up and being strong, there’s nothing wrong with that…We are raising money. I don’t know the numbers. I hope they go up.”

And by talking so much about how he and Elizabeth are determined to fight back against the “hate-mongers,” he was also trying to remind liberal donors and primary voters that the Clintons aren’t the only pugilistic marriage partners in the Democratic race. It’s unclear, however, whether he can ultimately convince those voters that the Edwards tag team is Bill and Hillary without the baggage. The odds remain strong that, by next February, John and Elizabeth will be lauding each other in defeat…while Ann Coulter, forever impervious to assault, is tossing her tresses.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A bellwether Republican defects on Iraq

The Bush administration has lost Dick Lugar, and that’s akin to a seismic crack appearing in the wall of a dam.

Given the extent of the debacle in Iraq, and the impending ’08 election calendar, it was probably inevitable that a respected Republican senator with strong foreign policy credentials would publicly renounce the Bush war strategy and thus provide political cover for timorous GOP colleagues who have long yearned to do the same. All year long the White House has tried to forestall such an event, by perpetually pleading for more patience, but the clock ran out on Monday night.

Dick Lugar – the senior senator from red-state Indiana, a Bush loyalist on every key Iraq vote dating back to 2002, winner of landslides in all his Senate elections (especially in 2006, when he didn’t even draw a Democratic opponent), a long-acknowledged dean of the GOP foreign policy establishment, a former Foreign Relations Committee chairman, a guy who routinely draws near-zero ratings from liberal groups, a ’96 presidential candidate who warned about nuclear terrorism even though nobody listened – stood on the Senate floor and issued his declaration of independence from the Bush war team.

In short, he called for a reduction in U.S. troops. Others are bound to follow – GOP senator George Voinovich of Ohio joined Lugar in dissent yesterday, calling for "gradual military disengagement," and senator John Warner of Virginia said of Lugar, “I hail what he did” – in the clearest indication thus far that Republicans will refrain from joining hands with Bush and jumping off the cliff.

Apparently, there is an ebbing desire among Senate Republicans to buttress a president whose approval rating is now on the south side of 30 percent; as Warner reportedly said yesterday, “”you’ll be hearing a number of (Iraq) statements from other colleagues,” after the Fourth of July recess. They well recognize that Gen. David Petraeus is already trying to pre-spin his September report on the Surge by dampening any expectations of success; Lugar, by delivering his speech on Monday night, has signaled that the senators are not content to simply wait around until Petraeus shows up to plead for more patience.

If a Democrat had given the Lugar speech, Bush’s surrogates would have assailed the speaker as a defeatocrat who was obviously “rooting for failure.” But Lugar’s credentials have inoculated him from rhetorical attack; indeed, GOP senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama said yesterday that when Lugar speaks out on foreign policy, “everybody tends to listen.”

Some Lugar highlights: “In my judgment, the current surge strategy is not an effective means of protecting (America’s national security) interests. Its prospects for success are too dependent on the actions of others who do not share our agenda. It relies on military power to achieve goals that it cannot achieve. It distances allies that we will need for any regional diplomatic effort. Its failure, without a careful transition to a back-up policy would intensify our loss of credibility. It uses tremendous amounts of resources that cannot be employed in other ways to secure our objectives. And it lacks domestic support that is necessary to sustain a policy of this type.”

Therefore, he said, “our security interests call for a downsizing and re-deployment of U.S. military forces…I believe that we do have viable options that could strengthen our position in the Middle East, and reduce the prospect of terrorism, regional war, and other calamities. But seizing these opportunities will require the president to downsize the U.S. military’s role in Iraq and place much more emphasis on diplomatic and economic options.”

Perhaps most tellingly, in a message to his normally supine Republican colleagues, this erstwhile Bush loyalist said: “We don’t owe the president our unquestioning agreement.”

With elections looming, elected Republicans can’t afford to march to Bush’s tune anymore. The latest CNN-Opinion Research poll, released yesterday, reports that 38 percent of grassroots Republicans now oppose the war – and that 42 percent now support the withdrawal of at least some U.S. troops from Iraq. Given this growing level of disaffection even within the GOP base, many senators and congressmen seeking re-election in 2008 are therefore well advised to create some distance (at least rhetorically, if not on actual war votes) from the lame-duck war commander. And any Republican who represents a swing state or swing district is doubly advised, given the sentiment of independent voters. The CNN poll reports that 63 percent of all Americans now support partial or full withdrawal.

Lugar, in his speech, specifically addressed the domestic political climate, arguing that Bush’s war strategy has already damaged his party: “Many political observers contend that voter dissatisfaction in 2006 with Administration policies in Iraq was the major factor in producing new Democratic Party majorities in both Houses of Congress.” He was clearly implying that further horrors await the GOP unless Bush changes course with all deliberate speed: “The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for military operations in Iraq. Some will argue that political timelines should always be subordinated to military necessity, but that is unrealistic in a democracy.”

If a Republican with tough ‘08 re-election prospects had made this argument, he might have been easily dismissed (at least by White House loyalists) as a nervous Nellie who was merely interested in saving his political skin. That's what happened several months ago, when Sen. Gordon Smith of blue-state Oregon, an imperiled '08 candidate, broke with Bush on Iraq. But Lugar’s credibility on this point is buttressed by the fact that his own political future is secure. A break with Bush is more significant when it’s staged by a red-state senator who has just won re-election with 87 percent of the vote.

This new GOP restiveness doesn’t necessarily translate into substantive Democratic victories, at least in the short term. For instance, Lugar didn’t declare that he would defect to the Democrats and vote this summer for a withdrawal timeline or anything else. But his willingness to speak out is further evidence of Bush’s growing isolation, and a fresh signal that Republicans are deeply concerned about the national mood and their ’08 prospects.

Looking ahead, perhaps the real question is, which ’08 GOP presidential candidate will read the tea leaves and adopt the Dick Lugar template?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cheney stiffs the Founding Fathers

Well, it appears that all the political science textbooks got it wrong. It appears that the U.S. Constitution got it wrong. It appears that even the Founding Fathers got it wrong. For several centuries now, we’ve all assumed that the vice-president has been part of the executive branch of government – but now Dick Cheney has set us all straight:

From his secret undisclosed location, he has decreed that, in fact, the vice-president is not part of the executive branch of government. It is tempting to contend that Cheney must be in the last throes of sanity, considering the fact that his primary workplace is located in the Executive Office Building, but maybe he is right and everybody else is wrong, which means that there needs to be a massive attitude adjustment in this country. Maybe he really does have the right to defy the rule of law and operate as he sees fit.

Maybe, for instance, he really does have the right to tell the National Archives to take a hike; after all, the bureaucrats over there seem to think that Cheney is covered by Executive Order 12958, which compels the vice-president to tell the National Archives how his office handles and safeguards classified information. It’s true that the executive order covers any “entity within the executive branch that comes into possession of classified information,” but the hitch, apparently, is that this is a mere executive order. And Dick Cheney says he doesn’t have to comply – in fact, he hasn’t complied for the past four years – because he says his office is not “an entity within the executive branch.”

And if he says he’s right, who’s going to persuade him that he’s wrong? Certainly not his subordinates in the White House. Yesterday, deputy White House secretary Dana Perino took some buckshot in the face as she sought to teach the Cheney civics class. At one point, a reporter asked, “Does the president believe that (Cheney) is part of the executive branch?” And Perino replied, “I think that’s an interesting constitutional question, and I think that lots of people can debate it.” (Actually, the question itself was settled when the Constitution was ratified in 1787, but we’ll get back to that later.)

Reporters tried to reword the inquiry: “What is the White House’s view of the argument the vice president is making on whether or not he’s part of the executive branch?” And she replied, “I’m not opining on it.”

Then they tried another approach. They pointed out – this was a good one – that, back in 2001, when Cheney was fighting attempts by Congress to determine who had attended his secret meetings on energy policy, his whole argument was that he didn’t have to comply…because he was a member of the executive branch. In fact, let’s resurrect Cheney’s actual words at the time: he said that a congressional investigation into his energy task force “would unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch.”

Perino was asked how she could square the two Cheney positions. Why should he not be considered a member of the executive branch in 2007 (when that argument apparently suits his interests), after having considered himself a member of the executive branch in 2001 (when that argument apparently suited his interests)?

Perino: “Look, I’m not a legal scholar…I’m not opining on his argument that his office is making.”

So they tried another approach: If Cheney doesn’t deem himself to be a member of the executive branch, “does the White House then believe he should get funding for the vice-president’s office from the legislative branch instead of from the executive branch?” (This was a clever question, since Congress is currently pondering the executive branch budget. President Bush reportedly wants $4.75 million of that budget to be earmarked for Cheney's office.)

Penino's response: “I don’t know.”

Later, the reporters tried again: “You can't give an opinion about whether the Vice President is part of the executive branch or not?”

Penino: “I think it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”

OK, we get it. Cheney is his own fourth branch of government, and Bush won't contest what Cheney decrees. This being the case, there isn’t a moment to lose: all the civics textbooks need to be thrown into the recycling bins. But we can’t stop there. We will need to rewrite the U.S. Constitition, to bring it into compliance with Cheneyspeak.

For instance, Article II, Section I (which deals exclusively with the executive branch) currently states that “the executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the vice-president chosen for the same Term, be elected…” But perhaps that language, and all references to the veep as a member of the executive branch, can simply be excised.

Perhaps the Federalist Papers can be rewritten as well, before any high school kids get the wrong idea. Alexander Hamilton is just a dead white guy, what does he know? Back on March 3, 1788, in Paper No. 68, the Founding Fathers’ chief expert on executive power wrote that “the vice president may occasionally become a substitute for the president, in the supreme executive magistracy.” Hamilton rejected an idea, popular at the time, that the Senate should elect one of its own people to serve as vice president; he persuaded his colleagues that the number-two member of the executive branch shall “be chosen in the same manner with the president,” via national election.

But Hamilton is in no position to argue with Cheney, so let’s move on. The next task would be for the U.S. government to rewrite its own websites. This government site states: “The executive branch of the government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. The president, vice president, department heads (cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies carry out this mission,” but obviously whoever wrote that is clearly in error.

And these errors are apparently endemic. Take, for instance, the official White House website: “…the Cabinet includes the vice president and the heads of the 15 executive departments.” Not only that, the vice president even gets his own web page. What were they thinking?

Unless the Republicans can find a way to oust Cheney from his job, we had better get with the program and cleanse those websites, as well as rewrite American history. The Vice has decreed that it's time to flush all these inconvenient facts down the memory hole. Where’s George Orwell when we need him?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ole Fred and the artifice of star power

In the wake of my Sunday newspaper column on the mediagenic assets of lawyer-actor-lobbyist-senator-actor Fred Thompson (that’s the career chronology of the GOP’s savior in the wings), I’m going to linger a bit longer on the words and wisdom of Arthur Miller.

In his book On Politics and the Art of Acting, the late playwright noted that successful politicians in our media-soaked culture tend to be masters of performance art. They know how to project “a relaxed sincerity…a laid-back cool…a self-assurance…a genial temperament,” all of which is meant to create the impression that hanging out with them is akin to taking ‘a quiet Sunday row around the lake.” And I argued yesterday that Thompson (or, as he has called himself, "Ole Fred") has the potential to project in this fashion, given the fact that he has honed his laid-back avuncular image on Law & Order and in dozens of movies over the past several decades.

Miller also contended that the most successful politicians – he cited Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton – are those who are somehow capable of mesmerizing the public via their celebrity star power, to the point where they get a pass on their presidential shortcomings. In print yesterday, I didn’t have room to explore this argument, so here goes:

Miller cited Reagan as the exemplar of the “relaxed sincerity” model: “He disarmed his opponents by never showing the slightest sign of inner conflict about the truth of what he was saying. Simple-minded as his critics found his ideas and remarks, cynical and manipulative as he may have been in actuality, he seemed to believe every word he said. He could tell you that atmospheric pollution came from trees, or that ketchup was a vegetable in school lunches, or leave the impression that he had seen action in World War II, rather than in a movie he had made or perhaps seen, and if you didn’t believe these things you were still kind of amused by how sincerely he said them. Sincerity implies honesty…He not only acted all the time, but did so sincerely.”

But Miller confessed that his wariness of star power was bipartisan. Six decades after the death of FDR, he recognized – at least in his most rational moments – that Roosevelt had failed as president on a key moral issue of his era: aiding the Jews of Europe. Miller wrote that, for instance, Roosevelt had “turned his back (on) the pleas of a shipload of Jewish refugees, men, women, and children who had arrived from Germany on the St. Louis, and were denied entry into America and had to return to Nazi Germany and their fate…he was seen as having chosen not to confront American anti-Semitism…There were some very good reasons to reevaluate one’s belief in Roosevelt. There were days when it seemed he had fooled a lot of people who had trusted him.”

And yet, Miller remains mesmerized: “To this day I can’t see a photo of him without feeling something like pride and a certain happiness which I seem to take in his style. It is emphatically not that I have carefully compared his positive and negative points, but something far less rational that keeps him a noble figure for me…(N)o verdict based on reason out to utterly blot out his bad deeds as I usually find myself doing. The truth, I think, is that he had the impact of a star before whom resistance melts away, a phenomenon quote beyond the normal procedures of moral accounting.”

Miller argues that Bill Clinton was able to navigate the Lewinsky scandal, and survive impeachment, in part because his own star power trumped the public’s temptation to utterly condemn him: “His love of acting may be his most authentic emotion, the realest thing about him…His closest American equivalent is Brer Rabbit, who ravishes people’s vegetable gardens, and, just when he seems to be cornered, charmingly distracts his pursuer with some outrageously engaging story, long enough to let him edge closer and closer to a hole down which he escapes…The actor lies; but with all the spontaneity that careful calculation can lend him.”

Fred Thompson, in other words, can potentially use his laid-back celebrity style, and the free advertising he receives from every Law & Order rerun, to override public doubts about his substance and his thin senatorial record. (On the blog recently, I charted some of the doubts.) Miller probably would have winced at the possibility that Thompson might succeed:

In politics and in mass culture, he wrote, “when one is surrounded by such a roiling mass of consciously contrived performances, it gets harder and harder for a lot of people to locate reality anymore. Admittedly, we live in an age of entertainment, but is it a good thing that our political life, for one, be so profoundly governed by the modes of theatre, from tragedy to vaudeville to farce? I find myself speculating whether the relentless diet of crafted, acted emotions and canned ideas is not subtly pressing our brains not only to mistake fantasy for what is real, but also to absorb this process into our personal sensory mechanism.”


By the way, if you link to the aforementioned Sunday column, you might spy a factual error. The column stated that Thompson "attacked" John McCain's campaign finance reform law. The truth is the opposite; Thompson backed the law. The error occurred because my original draft had a typo in it - I wrote that Thompson had "acked" the McCain law. The editors thought I meant to say "attacked," whereas I meant to say "backed." Apologies. My bad.