Thursday, August 16, 2007

"It's a quagmire, if you go that far"

I know it’s only Thursday, but the quote of the week already belongs to Dick Cheney.

This gem – dated April 15, 1994 – surfaced this week on YouTube, and deserves to be an instant classic. At the time, former Defense secretary Cheney was working at a conservative Washington think tank. Asked whether it would have been wise to march on Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf war of 1991, after having so easily ejected Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, Cheney replied:

“No. Because if we’d gone into Baghdad, we would’ve been all alone, there wouldn’t have been anyone with us, it would’ve been a U.S. occupation of Iraq, none of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq, took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, what were you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government, you can easily see pieces of Iraq fly off. Part of it Syria would like to have, to the west. Part of eastern Iraq, the Iranians would like to claim. In the north you've got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey.

“It’s a quagmire, if you go that far and try to take over Iraq.

“The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed that we were able to do our job (in Kuwait) with so few casualties that we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families, it wasn’t a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, and took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans Saddam was worth. Our judgment was, not very many. And I think we got it right.”

More than 3600 dead Americans later, I have a question: Why was he against a coup before he was for it? Future historians will surely try to determine why Cheney subsequently fell in with the neoconservatives, and wound up creating the quagmire that he had wisely warned against.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blog lite

I’m literally heading for the hills today, and staying there for the next 12 days. As a result, this blog will downshift into low gear. New posts will be uncharacteristically short (at least by my standards), and they may well appear at odd intervals. I suppose this is what passes for a vacation in the wi-fi era, at least for those of us who are cognitively incapable of becoming totally unplugged. Hope your summer is going well. The normal routine around here will resume on August 28.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Rove's Orwellian retrospective

The deal is, I’ll stop writing about Karl Rove as soon as Karl Rove stops trying to rewrite the history of his own career.

In a press interview late yesterday, George W. Bush’s political guru said it was a “mistaken impression” to believe that his winning strategy was “all about playing to the base, that supposedly the success of the two (presidential) campaigns have been that the president played to the base of the Republican party. Completely inaccurate.”

Oh really? It’s “completely inaccurate” to suggest that Rove charted a campaign strategy that played to the base of the Republican party? It’s a “mistaken impression?”

We all know that Bush’s people have long been fact-challenged about policy matters, such as the alleged rationale for waging war in Iraq, but apparently this state of denial extends to their own behavior as well.

The problem is, they can't simply flush history down the Orwellian memory hole. Rove’s new spin about himself is flatly contradicted by his past actions. It’s true that he positioned Bush as a moderate during the 2000 campaign - selling Bush as “a new kind of Republican,” a “compassionate conservative” – but after Bush came up 660,000 votes short in the popular vote, and had to be installed in the White House by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision, Rove began to chart a very different course.

I know this, because I heard him say so. During a public appearance at a conservative think tank not long after the election, he fretted about the fact that, by his calculations, more than four million Christian evangelicals had failed to show up at the polls in November 2000. Rove made it quite clear that he would motivate those evangelicals to show up for Bush in 2004 – and he made good on that promise by targeting their churches, even to the extent of asking the churches to fork over their membership directories for inclusion in the Bush campaign data base.

Nor was it sheer coincidence that, in 2004, anti-gay marriage referenda appeared on the ballots in 11 states. As numerous political science scholars have determined, those referenda helped attract an outsize number of Christian conservative voters – particularly in pivotal Ohio, where some analysts believe that the heftier base turnout was instrumental in putting Bush over the top.

Contrary to Rove’s denial yesterday, the ‘04 re-election strategy hinged heavily on motivating and expanding the Republican base – as his own lieutenants have long acknowledged. Rove’s pollster, Matthew Dowd, explained the base-motivation strategy in a post-election interview on PBS’ Frontline. When he and Rove were mapping the ’04 strategy, they decided it would be a waste of time to focus most of their efforts on persuading independent swing voters, because, in their calculations, those voters weren’t nearly as numerous as they used to be. “Swings” used to be 20 percent of the electorate, Dowd explained, but in this era of polarization, they are only six or seven percent of the electorate. Hence the decision to motivate and expand the Republican base.

Dowd said: “You obviously had to do fairly well among the six or seven [percent], but you could lose the six or seven percent and win the election, which was fairly revolutionary, because everybody up until that time had said, ‘Swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters, swing voters.’….Nobody had ever approached an election that I've looked at over the last 50 years, where base motivation was important as swing, which is how we approached it…We didn't say, ‘Base motivation is what we're going to do, and that's all we're doing.’ We said, ‘Both are important, but we shouldn't be putting 80 percent of our resources into persuasion and 20 percent into base motivation.’

"And obviously," Dowd continued, "that decision influenced everything that we did. It influenced how we targeted mail, how we targeted phones, how we targeted media, how we traveled, the travel that the president and the vice president did to certain areas, how we did organization, where we had staff. All of that was based off of that, and ultimately, thank goodness, it was the right decision.”

Dowd was seconded in the PBS show by Bush media advisor Mark McKinnon, who called the base-motivation strategy "pretty struck me as a political consultant as something radical, because for years we had always talked about that persuadable middle electorate, and that's what it was all about. You ignored everything else. All your resources went into that persuadable vote."

And I also recall a sitdown with Rove at the 2004 Republican National Convention. He met with a few of us scribes, to spell out his strategy for winning Pennsylvania. He said nothing about the importance of wooing the moderate Republicans and independent swing voters who populate the Philadelphia suburbs – because, obviously, he did not see that as a priority. Rather, he stressed the importance of mobilizing and motivating the Christian conservatives who were increasingly populating the new exurban communities in places like Lancaster County.

He said at length that many of those people are apolitical and apathetic, and that it was his job to get their attention, because many of them don’t subscribe to “the newsletter from the Christian Coalition.” He said that his challenge “is to get them motivated to participate, to get them literally physically registered. And then getting them out to vote.”

So if Karl Rove insists, in his inevitable future memoir, that he did not deliberately play to the Republican base, booksellers might well be advised to place the tome on the fiction shelf, perhaps next to Orwell.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The draining of "Bush's Brain"

Karl Rove is upbeat and unbowed as he heads for the exit with his head held high. He insists that “Iraq will be a better place” thanks to the Surge, that President Bush “will move back up in the polls,” that the ’06 Republican wipeout was “a really close election,” and that he did not screw up big time in 2005 when he drained Bush’s political capital by putting his boss on the road to stump in vain for the partial privatization of Social Security.

So says the political guru better known by the nickname “Bush’s Brain,” in his de facto resignation announcement, which appeared today in a predictably sycophantic column nestled within the friendly confines of the Wall Street Journal op-ed page. Clearly, he will continue to dwell within the reality-challenged Bush bubble long after he departs at the end of this month, purportedly to spend more time with his family.

Much will be said in the days ahead about how Rove’s signature ambition – crafting permanent majority status for the GOP – turned to ashes in the second-term wreckage of the Bush administration, and about how his combative philosophy of polarized governance probably hastened his boss’ demise. Many observers will cite many different examples. I will cite only one: The aforementioned ’05 campaign to partially privatize Social Security, not only because it illustrates Rove’s arrogance and his fundamental misreading of the public mood, but also because (most importantly) it exposed one of the president’s most fundamental flaws.

Rove had this idea that Social Security “reform” would be good politics, that it would permanently draw into the Republican fold millions of voters who had more faith in the markets than in the federal government. So in the aftermath of Bush’s 2004 re-election victory, when the president’s political stock was at its apogee, he put Bush on the road – for months on end – to talk up the concept of a Social Security overhaul.

There were warning signs, all of which Rove ignored. Bush’s ’04 victory was actually the narrowest re-election win by any president since Woodrow Wilson in 1916. The ’04 election was fought over Iraq, with virtually no mention of a market-based Social Security program or any indication that the public was hungering to overhaul one of the most popular government programs of the 20th century. Nor was there any appetite, within the congressional GOP majority, to take on such a politically risky endeavor. But Rove (who treated Capitol Hill Republicans with high-handed disdain) figured that once Americans got the opportunity to hear Bush wax eloquent about the conservative vision for Social Security, their hearts and minds would follow, and then the GOP lawmakers would simply implement the Rove vision.

But a weird thing happened during that spring of 2005. The longer Bush stayed on the road talking up partial privatization, the more people got turned off to the idea. The more he tried to explain it, the more confused people became. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq kept getting worse (this was roughly $200 billion ago), and, consequently, the more Bush talked about Social Security, the less popular he became, and the more finite political capital he expended.

As GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio now tells The Atlantic magazine, thinking back to those first months of 2005, “We came out of the election and what was our agenda for the next term? Social Security. There was nothing else that we were doing. We allowed ourselves as a party to be defined by – in effect, to live and die by – the war in Iraq.”

Yet even when the failures of the privatization pitch were obvious, Rove reportedly opted to stay the course and keep Bush talking. In the fortuitously-timed Atlantic article, a former Bush official laments, "The great cost of the Social Security misadventure was lost support for the war. When you send the troops to war, you have no higher responsibility as president than to keep the American people engaged and maintain popular support. But for months and months after it became obvious that Social Security was not going to happen, nobody - because of Karl's stature in the White House - could be intellectually honest in a meeting and say, 'This is not going to happen, and we need an exit strategy to get back onto winning ground.' It was a catastrophic mistake."

And it was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end. The Katrina debacle soon followed, the war got even worse, and the historic Republican realignment long envisioned by Rove was rudely interrupted by the loss of the House and Senate in 2006, in what he still dismisses as “a very close election.” (That’s an old Rove delusion, which I refuted here.)

Still, it would be unfair to put all the blame on Rove. It is important to remember that he was merely the backstage guru to a guy who often seemed to have little more than a passing relationship with the English language. It is theoretically possible that Americans might have embraced partial privatization if the concept had been pitched by a president blessed with rhetorical coherence; instead, it was pitched by Bush.

What follows is verbatim, taken directly from a White House transcript. The place was Tampa, Florida. The date, Feb. 4, 2005. A woman has asked about the hefty transition costs of moving Social Security into the private realm. Bush replied:

“Because the - all which is on the table begins to address the big cost drivers. For example, how benefits are calculate, for example, is on the table; whether or not benefits rise based upon wage increases or price increases. There's a series of parts of the formula that are being considered. And when you couple that, those different cost drivers, affecting those- changing those with personal accounts, the idea is to get what has been promised more likely to be - or closer delivered to what has been promised. Does that make any sense to you? It's kind of muddled. Look, there's a series of things that cause the - like, for example, benefits are calculated based upon the increase of wages, as opposed to the increase of prices. Some have suggested that we calculate - the benefits will rise based upon inflation, as opposed to wage increases. There is a reform that would help solve the red if that were put into effect. In other words, how fast benefits grow, how fast the promised benefits grow, if those - if that growth is affected, it will help on the red. Okay, better? I'll keep working on it.”

I know we’re all supposed to pay obeisance these days to the Cult of the Consultant, but perhaps we should remember that, in the end, a consultant is probably only as good as his client. In the end, Bush's Brain could not supply him with a silver tongue.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Romney wins, sorta

It's not the win that counts, it's the spin. And, by that measure alone, Mitt Romney should be smiling this morning, because the Washington media establishment has decreed that his first-place finish in the Iowa Republican straw poll is an awesome achievement. The Washington Post trumpets it as "a convincing victory." The Politico website trumpets it as...yes..."a convincing victory."

Apparently, this is what passes for "convincing" these days:

1. Competing last night against a motley collection of second and third-tier candidates, none of whom had any money, Romney won 31.5 percent of the voters who showed up for the event. Put another way, Romney spent at least $2 million on the straw poll (that's the unofficial estimate, and it's probably low), whereas none of his rivals could afford to hire even a single bus to haul their followers to the event...and 68.5 percent of the attendees still voted against him.

2. Romney's bid to emerge as the clear favorite of "base voters" (the social and religious conservatives, who are numerous in Iowa) failed conspicuously. He received fewer votes (4516) than Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, the two rivals who are also competing heavily for the base voters (they received a combined 4779). This suggests that the race for the base is still wide open, and that Romney's long track record of flip flops remains a sticking point for many conservatives.

3. Romney's aforementioned vote total (4516) is glaringly less than George W. Bush's first-place victory total at the 1999 straw poll (7418). In fact, Romney got fewer votes than even the second-place finisher in 1999, the self-funding millionaire Steve Forbes (4921). The reason for Romney's deficit? Horrendous turnout. Only 14,302 Iowa Republicans bothered to show up yesterday; that's two percent of all registered Republicans statewide. In 1999, the straw poll drew 23,685 attendees. It's possible that the absence of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and the ever-teasing Fred Thompson helped to depress the turnout, but Giuliani and McCain skipped the event in part because they were not likely to score well with the base voters anyway. All told, the poor straw poll turnout was yet another symptom of the national GOP malaise, the conservative electorate's general lack of enthusiasm about its '08 choices.

4. Regarding Romney's money: If we accept the very conservative estimate that he spent $2 million on the straw poll (his aides won't say how much he spent, but let us remember that he ponied up $2 million just on Iowa TV ads - and that doesn't include the buses he hired, the bands he hired to play music, etc.), this translates into $443 for each vote he received. Romney's real figure is probably much higher. By contrast, Mike Huckabee's campaign reportedly spent $150,000 on the straw poll, and never hired a single bus; Huckabee therefore spent $57 on each vote he received.

All these caveats notwithstanding, "Romney wins" will be the shorthand in the days ahead, and he has the money and organization to excel at this game of smoke and mirrors. The Iowa straw poll has been a crock in the past - the '95 event was a triumph for Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, who was later clobbered in the Iowa caucuses - but it will be up to Giuliani, in particular, to outflank Romney in the big states and thus demonstrate that Romney's "convincing" summer victory was truly ephemeral.