Friday, July 06, 2007

GOP dissidents in the Cave of Winds

The U.S. Senate has long been derisively characterized as the Cave of Winds, because the august members of the upper chamber tend to talk a good game without actually doing anything. Bear this in mind while watching the parade of Republican senators who seem eager to declare their rhetorical independence from President Bush and his ruinous war.

Yesterday, Pete Domenici of New Mexico became the third GOP senator to break with Bush within the last two weeks, echoing Dick Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio. Domenici, who faces a tough ’08 re-election race in a newly swing state where he was once considered inviolate, voiced his desire for “a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to continuing home.”

However – and here’s the rub – he also signaled that he has no intention to join the Senate Democratic majority in actually crafting a substantive antiwar bill (“I’m not calling for an immediate withdrawal or a reduction in funding”); not did he even hint at any desire to round up his fellow Republicans to vote for such a bill, and to stand firm by overriding the inevitable Bush veto.

Domenici sounded just like Lugar. Eleven days ago, the Indiana lawmaker called for a major change in Iraq strategy during a speech on the Senate floor – then proceeded to undercut his words by scoffing at the Democrats’ attempts to take action. In subsequent TV interviews, he dismissed the idea of enacting “so-called timetables” and characterized them as “very partisan.” And that’s certainly how he felt back in the spring when he and his GOP colleagues voted against Democratic efforts to enact a withdrawal timetable.

Stephen Colbert wins first prize for nailing Lugar – and, in essence, exposing the GOP dissidents as typical inhabitants of the Cave of Winds. From his show last Thursday: “According to (Lugar’s) spokesperson, this speech was ‘months in the making, weeks in the writing.’ Which means Senator Lugar already thought that the war wasn’t worth it back in April when he voted against a timetable for withdrawal…Why did he wait to make the speech? He wanted to make sure it was perfect…This, folks, is just the latest example of what I call ‘courageous waiting.’ Anyone can see a crisis and so something about it, but it takes a special breed to recognize a problem, wait until nothing can be done, and then express an opinion.”

Rather than actually confront Bush – a president who has long demonstrated that he is immune to rational persuasion – the GOP dissidents continue to believe that the prudent course of action is…rational persuasion. Hence, Domenici said yesterday that he supports the bipartisan Senate bill that would codify the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group as official U.S. policy. The problem is that, although the Iraq Study Group did envision a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops by next March, it did not call for the imposition of any enforceable timelines. Which means that such a law would leave Bush plenty of wiggle room to simply stay the course.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, clearly aware that these Republicans are talking bravely but offering little else, issued a statement yesterday that essentially called upon the dissidents to either put up or shut up:

“We will not see a much-needed change of course in Iraq until Republicans like senators Domenici, Lugar, and Voinovich are willing to stand up to President Bush and his stubborn clinging to a failed policy – and, more importantly, back up their words with action. Beginning with the Defense Authorization bill next week, Republicans will have the opportunity to not just say the right things on Iraq, but vote the right way, too…”

Reid was referring to the impending Senate Democratic bid to attach binding antiwar language to a Pentagon spending bill – perhaps a requirement that troop withdrawals begin within four months, followed by a large-scale pullout next spring. He’s clearly challenging the big-talking Republicans to walk the walk, but don’t hold your breath. (Also yesterday, GOP House member John Doolittle told an audience in his conservative California district that the Iraq war is a "quagmire" and that he now wants our troops to be pulled off the front lines. But, like the Senate GOP dissidents, he says he wouldn't support a mandatory withdrawal timeline, either.)

It’s not hard to dissect the GOP dissidents’ strategy. They’re just trying to talk their way out of their political bind. With the ’08 elections looming, and with a landslide majority of Americans now opposing the war and supporting a troop drawdown, these nervous Republicans are trying to put themselves on record as skeptics; this way, when the political climate gets even worse for the GOP next year, they can cite their ’07 speeches as proof that they had already distanced themselves from the loyal Bushies. On the other hand, they don’t want to actually help the Democrats confront Bush by enacting substantive legislation, because that would tick off the loyal Bushie conservative voters. Domenici, and a number of his politically vulnerable colleagues, will need those voters in 2008.

But unless these Republicans actually back up their words with action, it’s likely that nothing will change. President Bush and Vice President Cheney (or perhaps it’s the other way around) won’t budge unless confronted by a bipartisan, veto-proof demonstration of countervailing power. Here’s one new opinion on how to get Bush’s attention:

“The president is strongly motivated to string out the war until he leaves office, in order to avoid taking responsibility for the defeat he has caused and persisted in making greater each year for more than three years. To force him to begin a withdrawal before then, (Congress should signal) a flat refusal to appropriate money to be used in Iraq for anything but withdrawal operations, with a clear deadline for completion.

“The final step should be to put that president on notice that if ignores this legislative action and tries to extort Congress into providing funds by keeping U.S. forces in peril, impeachment proceedings will proceed in the House of Representatives. Such presidential behavior surely would constitute the ‘high crime’ of squandering the lives of soldiers and Marines for his own personal interest.”

Who’s saying that, John Conyers? Michael Moore? Rosie O’Donnell? Cindy Sheehan?

No, that’s retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, who served eight years under Ronald Reagan, first as the Army's senior intelligence officer, then as director of the top-secret National Security Agency. Even he seems to think that the time for talk is long past. And unless the GOP Senate dissidents agree to act in a substantive fashion, they will merely be gusts of air in the Cave of Winds.


Following up on yesterday's post about John McCain's campaign money woes:

You know that the erstwhile "maverick" must be in bad shape, when it turns out that he actually has less cash on hand than...Ron Paul.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The downsizing of John McCain

The strategists in charge of John McCain’s presidential campaign hosted a conference call with political journalists the other day, and this was their message: “We feel good…We obviously feel confident…We feel confident about our ability to wage this campaign…We feel confident that we’ll be able to do what is necessary to be competitive…We have great confidence in his ability…As I said earlier, we feel confident…We have confidence in our plan.”

Did they mention that they feel confident?

Translation: They’re seriously worried that McCain’s presidential bid might have the same trajectory as a tech stock during the dot-com crash. Or a Detroit automaker during the ‘80s. Or a chain-owned newspaper during the Internet era.

Bullish talk can’t hide the fact that McCain’s ‘08 quest is in deep trouble.He raised less money during the second quarter of this year ($11 million) than he did during the first quarter ($13 million), and he has less money in his coffers now ($2 million, which is a pittance) than he did three months ago ($5 million). By contrast, Rudy Giuliani currently says he has $18 million in the till. The McCain strategists insisted during the conference call that his financial performance is “a remarkable achievement” that “makes us proud,” but nobody really believes that. Campaign aides have to talk that way, because they don’t want to put any more blood in the water – especially when the sharks are already circling.

Still, it was impossible to hide the grim news: “In order for us to have the money necessary to effectively communicate John McCain’s message, you know, we need to downsize our efforts and/or downsize our operation.” So they’ve laid off as many as 50 staffers (although they won’t officially confirm that number), cut the wages of the remaining staffers. Terry Nelson, a top McCain operative who has agreed to work for free, said simply, “We confronted reality, and we dealt with it.”

The “reality,” he said, is that “we face a difficult fundraising environment.” That’s an understatement. McCain’s biggest problem – although his people would never frame it this way – is that his candidacy has lost its raison d’etre. He is too liberal for the GOP’s conservative base, and too conservative for the independents who once lauded him as a “maverick.” No wonder he’s not raising enough money.

Even the McCain strategists acknowledged the other day that his longstanding support for immigration reform – most notably, a path to citizenship for illegal aliens – has turned off conservative donors. Nelson said that McCain’s futile battle for an immigration reform bill, during May and June, “was the right decision for our country (but) it also affected the campaign’s ability to raise money.” Strategist John Weaver insisted that McCain ultimately will be “rewarded” for taking his principled stand “when the voters start tuning in,” but I am skeptical. Conservative primary voters have very long memories, especially on the immigration issue; indeed, they still haven’t forgiven McCain for voting against the Bush tax cuts six years ago.

Nor have they forgiven McCain for his campaign reform law that barred special interest groups from spending their money to influence elections (anti-abortion groups, in particular, were furious). But McCain has already been rebuked on that issue as well. The U.S. Supreme Court, led by President Bush’s conservative appointees, struck down those provisions in a June ruling.

So on what issue can McCain be expected to recoup? Weaver, the strategist, had an answer for that: “He’ll be leading the debate within our party and within the country on the situation in Iraq.”

John McCain is going to lead the national debate on the Iraq war? That would be like asking Robert Downey Jr. to lead the debate over drug use.

McCain’s deep investment in that war might help him gain some traction with conservative hawks; maybe they’ll write him a few checks. But his staunch support for Bush’s debacle is further evidence that his “maverick” creds are a fiction. Most swing-voting independents, having long soured on both the war and Bush’s stewardship, aren’t going to give McCain a dime for his “principled” defense of our Iraq misadventure. Weaver insisted during the conference call that “John McCain is the ‘change’ Republican candidate in a ‘change’ election cycle,” but, on the most crucial issue facing America, McCain is the antithesis of change.

In fact, if the desire for “change” is measured in money, McCain and his Republican rivals are at a distinct disadvantage. It speaks volumes that the top two Democrats, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, together raised far more money during the second quarter ($60 million) than the top three Republicans combined (Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and McCain - $42 million). It’s impossible for the GOP strategists to spin that one away.


By the way, how does McCain think he can "lead" the debate on Iraq, when even Republican senators are bailing out on Bush and his enabler, McCain? Last week, it was Dick Lugar and George Voinovich. Earlier today, it was Pete Domenici. In remarks on his home turf, the New Mexico senator said this: "I have carefully studied the Iraq situation, and believe we cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress to move its country forward. I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops. But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home."


Another great moment in Bush administration flackery, from today's White House press briefing. Spokesman Scott Stanzel was at the podium.

Q: "Scott, is Scooter Libby getting more than equal justice under the law? Is he getting special treatment?"

A: "Well, I guess I don't know what you mean by 'equal justice under the law.'"

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

To quote Madonna, "Holiday! Celebrate!"

What are you doing here? Don't you know it's a holiday? Take a break. Go have some fun. I certainly am. Check back tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Scooter Libby's independence day

A show of hands: How many of you are surprised that President Bush has put his thumb on the scales of justice and decreed that a convicted perjurer in a national security case, a felon who was enmeshed in a White House campaign of deception to discredit a critic of the Iraq war, is somehow less deserving of jail time than Paris Hilton?

No, it’s hardly a surprise that the same guy who once promised to “restore honesty and integrity to the White House,” the same president who had previously denied more than 4000 commutation requests, has now opted to grant Scooter Libby his very own Independence Day. And it seems only perversely fitting that Bush canceled Libby’s 30-month prison sentence on the fourth anniversary of his mocking invitation to the insurgents in Iraq (“Bring ‘em on!”). Under the ethos of this administration, those in the inner circle who blunder or break the law in the service of ruinous policy shall be deemed exempt from the rules of accountability that apply to the rest of us.

Never mind the fact that Bush played fast and loose with the Department of Justice guidelines, which state that “requests for commutation generally are not accepted unless and until a person has begun serving that sentence.” (Libby, free on appeal, hadn’t yet served a day.) Or the fact that Bush, by decreeing the sentence “excessive,” slapped down a federal judge whom he himself had appointed to the bench. (The tough-on-crime judge, Reggie Walton, apparently had made the mistake of insisting that high government officials had a “special obligation” to obey the law.) Or the fact that, just 12 days ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that makes it tougher for convicted felons to reduce their jail time (the high court upheld the 33-month sentence of Victor Rita, who had been convicted of making false statements in a weapons investigation; Rita, like Libby, had been punished in accordance with federal sentencing guidelines).

None of those little details matter a whit to those Republicans who are cheering Bush this morning (the same Republicans who, during the Bill Clinton era, routinely invoked the primacy of “the rule of law”).

And Bush badly needed to hear those cheers. The decision to free Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff was a political act, designed to shore up support among his sole remaining constituency. His presidency has devolved to the point where only 27 percent of Americans praise his work – that’s Dick Nixon/Jimmy Carter territory – and his national share would be even lower, if not for the fact that roughly two of every three Republicans are still on board. He could ill afford to tick them off any further.

Grassroots conservatives have been especially angry at Bush lately, because of the immigration reform flap. In their view (amplified daily on talk radio), Bush’s support for the path-to-citizenship bill was proof that he is soft on illegal aliens, soft on border security, and therefore soft on national security. His only path to political redemption was to show the base that he could stand up and be a man. Which meant showing loyalty to Scooter Libby. In their view, Libby hadn’t really done anything wrong, such as lying under oath about sex.

So Bush had to show loyalty to the few (shaky) supporters he still has. And, of course, he had to show continued loyalty to his constituency of one, Libby’s ex-boss, the sole occupant of the mythical fourth branch of government. The Associated Press, reporting last night on the decision to commute Libby’s sentence, deadpanned: “White House officials…would not say what advice Cheney had given to the president.”

Cheney’s public standing is equally abysmal, but Bush is long past caring what most Americans think. His support among swing-voting independents is now at 18 percent, and there’s nothing he can do to win them back. So, in a sense, it’s probably liberating to be a maligned lame duck. Perhaps the best way to assess his Libby decision is to invoke the lyrics of Kris Kristofferson:

“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Monday, July 02, 2007

It's bad politics to insult Cuban-Americans

Fred Thompson, the GOP’s purported dream candidate, might be well advised to brush up on his rhetorical skills prior to his official launch. Clearly he’s still a bit rusty on the stump, after all those years of Hollywood make-believe.

The other night, while speaking in South Carolina about the importance of tougher border security in the age of terrorism, Thompson warned that those Cubans who habitually escape their island with a yearning to breathe free might really be coming here to blow us all up. Thompson said that, in 2005, we “rounded up over a thousand folks who originally came from Cuba. If they’re coming Cuba, where else are they coming from? I don’t imagine they’re coming to bring greetings from Castro. We’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb.”

Unless you closely follow Republican presidential politics – and, more specifically, Florida politics – those remarks probably seem unremarkable. But, politically speaking, they are downright stupid. In fact, it’s the kind of stupidity that can seriously damage a Republican hopeful, particularly a semi-candidate whose impressive poll standing, at least at this point, is basically smoke and mirrors.

Thompson appeared to be saying that the Cubans who embark for America are not coming here to enjoy the fruits of freedom; rather, they are potential terrorists because, after all, “we’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb.” Perhaps he could have justified that remark by also providing some proof that some of those “thousand folks,” or Cuban emigrants captured in other years, did in fact turn out to be terrorists. But he didn’t, thus leaving the impression that Cubans in general are seeking entry to do us harm, not to pursue the American dream.

I doubt that is what Thompson meant to imply; indeed, he later wrote on his blog that he wanted to “clarify something” about his South Carolina remarks. He then insisted that he meant to say that Fidel Castro might be sending Cuban agents through Mexico, disguised as Cuban emigrants, and that he didn’t intend to cast suspicion upon “the vast majority who immigrate legally.”

Oh. Well, then perhaps he should have explained all that in his speech. Because, as conservative commentator Jim Geraghty points out, Thompson seemed to be maligning all the anti-communist Cubans who seek to reach these shores…and, for a Republican, that is very bad politics.

In Geraghty’s words, “Aw, man. Of all the groups Fred Thompson could cite as a potential security threat, did he have to pick the Cubans? The one group of Hispanics that leans Republican?”

There’s the rub. At a time when the GOP, thanks in part to the conservatives' harsh tone in the immigration reform debate, is losing support among the fastest growing demographic group in the electorate – a new Gallup poll shows that Hispanics nationwide are leaning Democratic by nearly 3-1 – Thompson has managed to (inadvertently) insult the only Hispanic constituency that has stayed loyal to the GOP - most notably, in the pivotal state of Florida.

To gauge the political importance of the Cuban-Americans in Florida, consider this: if it wasn’t for them, George W. Bush would have spent the last six years in private life, probably trying to fulfill his old dream of becoming baseball commissioner. As you know, Bush officially won Florida in 2000 by 537 votes. He would never have managed that feat if Cuban Floridians, roughly half a million strong, hadn’t favored him over Al Gore by a margin of 81 to 17 percent.

Fairly or not, Thompson’s poorly-worded remarks have already been immortalized on YouTube, and Democratic operatives are reportedly circulating the video. Hillary Clinton, who happened to be in Miami for a Saturday speech to an Hispanic group, promptly waxed indignant, as opposing politicians are wont to do: “"I was appalled when one of the people running for or about to run for the Republican nomination talked about Cuban refugees as potential terrorists.” (Actually, it was her husband’s administration that sent a six-year-old boy back to Cuba, thereby insulting the Cuban-American electorate, which is precisely why Thompson should never have given her the opening.)

You can also bet that if Thompson wins the nomination, his remarks will be dredged up in the autumn of ’08, as Democrats seek to capture the crucial Sunshine State. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Thompson must first contest the other Republicans, some of whom might well be tempted to circulate his remarks when they compete for Cuban-American votes in the Florida GOP primary next January.

So perhaps the moral of this tale is, if you’re going to be touted by your fans as a Reaganesque communicator, it would be wise to shake off the cobwebs and live up to the hype.