Friday, August 31, 2007

Dave's show biz kisses, and more

A few pithy thoughts, then it's holiday time:

It's a tad unnerving to watch Hillary Clinton schmooze with David Letterman; she always seems to be working hard to party hearty, as if she had just mastered a spontaneity manual. But it's still a comfy environment for her, because, much the way that Sean Hannity kisses the rings of visiting Republicans, Letterman can be relied upon to ask questions that are little more than show biz kisses.

Last night, for instance, after welcoming Hillary to his stage for the seventh time, the Late Show host nailed her with a tough opening question: "When you were a little girl, did you go to camp?" A bit later, he did ask her to critique her weaknesses as a campaigner, but when she declined to do so, he dropped that line of inquiry and moved on.

And then, whether he knew it or not, he brought up a hot topic. Noting that Hillary has raised $60 million for her campaign, he asked, "Should it be that expensive?" Actually, if his research staffers had been on the ball (as John Stewart's staffers surely would have been), they might have fed him the same question in a more newsworthy form:

"What's up with this Norman Hsu character, anyway? He raised all this money for you, but now that it turns out he is a fugitive in a fraud case, you're suddenly giving all that money to charity - and, by the way, I see that you didn't decide to divest yourself until after other Democrats had acted first to dump their Hsu donations. So here's the problem: Because you and the other candidates are always so desperate to dash for cash, doesn't that mean you will keep relying on sleazeballs to vacuum the money for you? And that you risk being embarrassed by sleazeballs yet to be unmasked?"

OK, maybe that sounds more like a Chris Matthews filibuster, but you get my point. The incessant pressure to raise money - indeed, the pressure to finish first in the money sweepstakes in order to demonstrate viability - all but ensures that the candidates will be embarrassed on occasion by the shady operators who raise money in their name.

The Republicans have learned that lesson already, with Jack Abramoff (now in jail), and Ohio businessman Thomas Noe (now in hail). Barack Obama has already been compelled to dump all the money raised by an old Illinois associate, Antoin Rezko, who was indicted last year on a fraud rap. It's probably impossible for candidates to fully vet every single person who offers to raise money, but, fortunately for Hillary last night, she never had to tackle that issue at all. (Given the fact that Hsu, in his federal fund-raising filings, had listed a lot of phony addresses, what does that say about Hillary's vetting process?)

In response to Letterman's general question about money, she simply replied that ideally campaigns should be be publicly financed, as a way to bring down the costs of politicking. That answer was good enough for Letterman who promptly shifted gears again, bringing up her husband ("does he ever forget sometimes that he's not running?"), which prompted her to observe that Bill probably would be running if he wasn't barred by the two-term limit, and that comment provoked another round of yuks...although I don't doubt for a moment that she was serious.


Speaking of sleaze, let's pause to observe the two-year anniversary of Katrina by replaying this gem from the overstuffed Bush administration archives:

"We are extremely pleased with the response that every element of the federal government, all of our federal partners, have made to this terrible tragedy."

That "extremely pleased" official was Michael Chertoff, the Homeland Security secretary. Today, he is said to be on Bush's short list for a promotion - to the vacant job of attorney general.

Plus ca change...


Republicans took another political hit this afternoon, when Virginia Senator John Warner announced that he will not run for re-election in 2008. His retirement will clear the way for a highly competitive Senate race in a once-solid Republican state that has been slowly trending blue.

Republicans were already dreading the task of trying to recapture the Senate at a time when they will be burdened by Iraq and the wreckage of the Bush presidency. Even if the venerable Warner had opted to run again in Virginia, the GOP would have been playing defense. Twenty-two of the 34 seats up for re-election in 2008 are currently held by Republicans, and at least five of those 22 - in Colorado, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Maine, and Oregon - have long been considered ripe for a potential Democratic takeover. (Only one Democratic seat, held by Mary Landrieu on Louisiana, is considered vulnerable.)

But with Warner gone, the GOP can definitely add Virginia's seat to its angst list.

(Indeed, even Warner would have faced a tough election, given the evidence that Virginians have grown increasingly weary of the war, and hostile toward national Republicans. Warner was an Iraq war enabler at the outset, and only lately has he taken measured steps to distance himself.)

Looking ahead, it would appear that Democrat Mark Warner (no relation), the popular ex-governor who recently flirted with a presidential bid, has the inside track - whereas the Republicans might well be forced to endure a bloody primary, potentially pitting a moderate (congressman Tom Davis) against a conservative (Jim Gilmore, whose '07 presidential bid lasted about 17 minutes).

In other words, the Republicans may have to raise and spend serious money just to hang onto a seat once thought to be inviolate. And a political party rarely scores big on the national map when it is forced to play defense.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

An outbreak of no-risk rectitude

Following up on yesterday's entry, regarding the fate of Senator Wide Stance (R-Idaho):

It's noteworthy that so many of his colleagues in the family values party are lining up to take him down. Yesterday, Michigan Congressman Peter Hoekstra, presidential long shot/Senator John McCain, and Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman (a vulnerable '08 re-election prospect) all called on rest room habitue Larry Craig to quit the Senate. And today we've heard the same sentiments from Florida Congresspeople Jeff Miller and Ginny Brown-Waite, Indiana Congressman Mark Souder, Louisiana Congressman Bobby Jindal, and Kentucky Congressman Ron Lewis. Plus, the GOP Senate leadership has stripped Craig of all his committee assignments and perks. Plus, they have sent his disorderly-conduct case to the Senate Ethics Committee.

The heat on Craig has become so intense that his spokesman today was forced to publicly deny that the senator is planning to quit. Which is what a spokesman generally tends to say right before the boss announces that he is planning to quit.

But this speedy show of moral umbrage is not as impressive as it seems, given the fact that the Republicans continue to give David Vitter a pass.

Not a single Republican has lined up to declare that the Louisiana senator - a self-described family-values paragon recently outed as a serial patron of prostitutes - should resign his seat forthwith. On the contrary, he was roundly applauded hy his colleagues at a recent closed-door meeting, and enjoys their support today.

One can certainly point out that patronizing hookers is an illegal activity, and that such behavior is not healthy for a marriage, and that the sanctity of marriage is supposed to be a fundamental GOP tenet, and that Vitter has long advertised himself to be a champion of that tenet, and that his hypocrisy is arguably a blow to the GOP's family-values image...but apparently none of that holds any sway among Vitter's colleagues.

So why the double standard? Two points:

1. Whereas Vitter engaged in illicit straight behavior, Craig was seeking to engage in gay behavior. And whereas the Republicans are demonstrably concerned about how gay behavior might impact traditional family values, they are clearly not so concerned about the impact of heterosexual adultery on traditional family values. As Pat Buchanan noted last night on MSNBC, grassroots Republicans, when assessing the severity of sex scandals, are "especially against homosexual activity." And as social conservative Ross Douthat explained yesterday, "it is easier to demonize gay people" than to talk about "heterosexual divorce rates."

2. And this is really the crux of the matter. It's fine for Republicans to display moral outrage against Larry Craig, and demand that he quit, because they know that the Republican governor of Idaho will merely tap another Republican as a replacement, and that therefore the Republican Senate tally will remain at 49. But if they were to bail out on David Vitter, and force him to quit, they would pay a political price. The Democratic governor of Louisiana would tap a Democrat as a replacement, and thus enhance the Democrats' slim Senate majority.

Which prompts a serious question: If Republican Larry Craig was representing a blue or purple state, with a Democratic governor at the helm, would his colleagues be waxing indignant and demanding his resignation?

Or is the current display of umbrage merely an exercise in no-risk rectitude?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

His own private Idaho

Why do errant “family values” Republicans seem to have so many problems with cops?

When these politicians are on the stump, they’re always lauding the police as our front-line protectors. Yet, apparently, when some of these same politicians go to a public bathroom, and allegedly engage in misdeeds that contradict the GOP’s family-values platform, and the police arrest them for those misdeeds…well, all of a sudden these moral paragons start insisting that the cops are all wrong.

First it was Bob Allen, a Florida Republican legislator and diehard opponent of gay rights, who was arrested a few months ago after he allegedly sought to solicit gay sex from an undercover cop in a Florida rest-stop bathroom; in his defense, Allen (who reportedly had tried to worm his way out of the arrest by telling the cop that he was a lawmaker) said that it had all been a big misunderstanding. On the cop’s part, of course.

And now, thanks to an arrest report unearthed by the Roll Call newspaper on Capitol Hill, we have Larry Craig, a Republican U.S. senator from Idaho and diehard opponent of gay rights, who was arrested at the Minneapolis airport on June 11 after he allegedly sought to solicit gay sex from a cop sitting in an adjoining toilet stall; in his defense, Craig (who reportedly tried to worm his way out of the arrest by flashing his Senate ID card and asking the cop, “what do you think about that?”) said that it had all been a big misunderstanding. On the cop’s part, of course.

And the way these guys described the purported misunderstandings…really, it’s priceless. Allen said he was just trying to talk his way out of a scary situation, owing to the fact that he is white and the cop was black and therefore he felt racially threatened. Craig’s explanation, however, is even more inspired. The family-values senator, a diehard opponent of gay marriage and other gay-friendly legislation, who pled guilty to disorderly conduct on Aug. 8, has introduced something brand new in American jurisprudence:

The Wide Stance Defense.

This is nonfiction bathroom humor at its best. The plainclothes police officer, Sgt. Dave Karsenia, had been tasked to investigate reports of lewd conduct in that airport bathroom. He entered a toilet stall and sat down. Soon thereafter, as he related in his arrest report, a well-dressed older gent appeared outside, and repeatedly sought to peer through the crack in the door. This gent, who turned out to be Craig, entered the adjoining stall. Then, “at 12:16 hours, Craig tapped his right foot. I recognized this as a signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd contact. Craig tapped his toes several times and moves his foot closer to my foot…he moved his right foot so that it touched the side of my left foot which was within my stall area.” Craig then swiped his hand under the stall divider, several times. He was arrested moments later.

And that’s when Craig came up with his novel defense. In the words of the arrest report, the senator explained “that he has a wide stance when going to the bathroom and that his foot may have touched mine” as a result.

If Craig is ultimately forced to resign his seat, he should hook up as a comedy writer for Bill Maher or Jon Stewart, because this is great stuff. I had always considered “wide stance” to be merely a baseball term, used to describe a batter who plants himself at the plate with his legs far apart. Ryan Howard of the Phillies? Wide stance. Moises Alou of the Mets? Wide stance. Baseball great Willie Mays? Wide stance.

But as a term for rest room visitation…well, I don’t want to get too personal about this, but, since a U.S. senator on the public payroll brought it up, I have to ask the question:

Is there anyone out there who regularly utilizes a “wide stance” in a public rest room, to the point where you play inadvertent footsies with your neighbor?

Or is this merely the kind of excuse that a hypocrite is likely to dream up on the spot, when cornered by his own behavior? This is the same guy, after all, who waxed morally indignant about President Clinton back in 1999, when he declared on NBC, “I’m going to speak out for the citizens of my state, who in the majority think that Bill Clinton is probably even a nasty, bad, naughty boy.” This is also the same guy who recently signed on as co-chair of the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, because Romney “has very strong family values. That is something I grew up with and believe in.” (Craig is no longer co-chair of the Mitt Romney campaign.)

And the excuses continue. Craig’s introduced a new one at his press conference yesterday. It turns out that there have been scads of allegations that Craig over the years has engaged in furtive lewd acts with men in public bathrooms, and the Idaho Statesman newspaper had spent months examining the claims. It had published nothing all summer, but Craig insisted yesterday that his nervousness about the uncompleted press probe had somehow clouded his judgment and led him to plead guilty on Aug. 8 to the disorderly conduct charge. (The newspaper finally ran a piece on its investigation yesterday, signaling that several allegations might well be true.)

So, bottom line: Craig’s explanation is that he admitted guilt in a lewd-conduct criminal investigation only because he was stressed by a lewd-conduct newspaper investigation into allegations that he continues to deny. This guy needs a lawyer, pronto.

No doubt there will be some Republican partisans who will simply try to change the subject (“What about Democratic congressman William Jefferson, and the money that was found in his freezer?” or “What about Kristian Forland, that Nevada Democratic party official who’s currently wanted by the authorities for failing to appear in court on charges of writing bad checks?”). But the smartest conservatives know that Larry Craig, and Bob Allen, and Mark Foley, are blots on the party that claims to stand for moral rectitude, and that cases like these have a damaging impact on grassroots conservative morale.

As Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in an interview yesterday, “There is an expectation that leaders who espouse family values will live by those values. And while the values voters don’t demand perfection, I do believe they want leaders with integrity.” And as for Craig’s wide-stance defense, not even Hugh Hewitt, the normally compliant conservative radio talk show host, can bring himself to stomach that one: “I don’t believe him. Read the statement by the arresting officer. (Craig) must think the people of Idaho are idiots.”

But if Craig continues to insist that the arresting cop misunderstood the whole incident, I can envision his final line of defense, his last-ditch rallying cry to his fellow conservatives:

Ronald Reagan, in his shining city on a hill, sat with a wide stance!”

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Going beyond Gonzo

Now that Alberto Gonzales has decided to walk away from the smoking wreckage once known as the U.S. Justice Department, it will be instructive to see whether President Bush decides to hand the reins to another incompetent crony (assuming there are any left), or whether he takes the high road (a rare excursion) and actually nominates someone with the smarts and integrity to repair the beleaguered institution.

President Gerald Ford took the latter route in 1975, not long after he replaced the disgraced Richard Nixon and was tasked to clean up Justice. The department had been badly tainted by Watergate; as Ford later remarked, "it was essential that a new attorney general be appointed who would restore integrity and competence." He tapped Edward Levi, a University of Chicago legal scholar with strong leadership skills who earned plaudits from Democrats and Republicans alike; as Antonin Scalia would later write, "(Levi) brought two qualities to the job, a rare intellectuality and a level of integrity such as there could never be any doubt about his honesty, forthrightness, or truthfulness."

Will Bush opt for the Levi model, and pick an independent-minded outsider? I suspect that would not be his first impulse, given his habit of relying only on a small circle of diehard loyalists. Yesterday, he was still lauding the loyal Gonzo, complaining about how "it's sad that we live in a time when a talented and honorable impeded from doing important work becauase his good name was dragged through the mud."

By attempting to pin the blame on the era we live in, Bush, of course, was ignoring the fact that Gonzales' record of ineptitude had alienated even those congressional Republicans who had long tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I'm not going to recap all the failings of an attorney general whose best defense, when asked to explain the unprecedented politicization of Justice (witness the prosecutor purge scandal), was that he simply didn't know what was going on. Suffice it to say that Gonzales presided over a department that has been decimated in the upper ranks. This year alone, we have witnessed the departure (via resignation) of the deputy attorney general, the acting associate attorney general, the attorney general's chief of staff, the deputy attorney general's chief of staff, the department's liaison to the White House, a high-ranking counsel at the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, and the assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division.

But Bush may be politically constrained from nominating another White House errand boy. This time he faces a Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee, and there's no way that Patrick Leahy and his crew are going to sign off on anybody who believes that Justice should function merely as a political arm of the Republican National Committee. (Indeed, Democrats have leverage now. They might decree that confirmation for a new attorney general hinges on Bush's willingness to surrender internal documents, and staffer testimony, in the prosecutor purge scandal.) And no quality individual would even want the job, unless he or she can extract assurances from the White House that there will be no political interference.

And for pragmatic reasons alone, Bush needs to find a Levi. Bush soon will be battling Congress over executive privilege and domestic surveillance. Gonzales, with his credibility in tatters, would have been the wrong salesman. There are plenty of respected, independent legal scholars who can make a case for strong executive authority (just as Levi did, during the Ford administration), strictly on the merits.

Now that Bush's circle of inept Texas cronies has shrunk to nothing, he may have no choice except to reach out.

Monday, August 27, 2007

The goal is stability, not democracy

In a speech the other day, President Bush had this to say:

"Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him. And it's not up to politicians in Washington, D.C. to say whether he will remain in his position -- that is up to the Iraqi people who now live in a democracy..."

Oh really?

Then why has a high-powered, Bush-connected Republican lobbying firm signed a $300,000 deal to destabilize "good guy" Nouri al-Maliki, and replace him with the firm's new client, Ayad Allawi – a former interim prime minister and neoconservative favorite who has longstanding ties to the CIA? Since when do the lobbyists in Washington, D.C., have a say in who runs Iraq?

The Barbour Griffith & Rogers lobbying contract to provide Allawi with what the firm calls "strategic counsel" is further proof that the Bush team's dream of a democratic Iraq is dead. The much-ballyhooed Iraqi elections have produced little more than sectarian civil war, with U.S. troops caught in the middle; therefore, perhaps the only administration option at this point (and military sources are saying it out loud) is to knock off the democracy rhetoric and find a way to impose, upon the “free” Iraqi people, a U.S.-friendly strongman who can maybe knock heads and curb the chaos.

Hence, Ayad Allawi, who said yesterday on CNN's Late Edition that he wants to "save the American mission in Iraq." (Is it any coincidence that he made himself available to CNN, at virtually the same time that he signed the U.S. lobbying contract and penned an op-ed in The Washington Post?)

His CIA ties date back to the early 1990s; the CIA helped bankroll his political operation, the Iraqi National Accord (INA), and continued to finance him for more than a decade. He also reportedly worked with the CIA on plans to set up an Iraqi intelligence agency. He served as prime minister until the duly elected government took over in 2005. In the view of many American hawks, he looks infinitely preferable to Maliki, a sectarian Shiite who's in cahoots with some of the warlords and thus has proved incapable of taming the bloodshed.

Who knows, maybe Allawi would do a better job on the security front. But it’s hard to imagine that this guy, a Shiite with a pro-American pedigree, would ever rise to the top in a free Iraqi election. So the fact that some Republican lobbyists are shilling for his ascension is stark evidence that the last-ditch GOP dream for Iraq is merely stability, not democracy.

As for that $300,000 lobbying contract, it’s not even Allawi’s money. In his CNN appearance yesterday, during which he shilled for himself, Allawi said that the money was provided “by an Iraqi person who was a supporter of us, of the INA, of myself, of our program, and he has supported this wholeheartedly.” He won’t name his money source, but it doesn’t take a PhD in foreign affairs to figure out that this well-heeled “Iraqi person” is allied with those in America who want to dicate who should run Iraq, notwithstanding Bush's pro forma democracy rhetoric.

And speaking of Bush, does he even run the show anymore? What explains the fact that, at the same time he was voicing support last week for “good guy” Maliki, a powerful Republican lobbying firm was ginning up support for a Maliki rival? (Indeed, the contract is being handled by Robert Blackwill, a former Bush envoy to Iraq.)

There are several possibilities, neither of which is very flattering to Bush:

1. Bush is deliberately deceiving us. He says publicly that he is for Maliki, and that Maliki’s fate hinges solely on the sentiments of the Iraq “democracy,” but he really doesn’t believe a word of it, because privately he’s winking approvingly at the Republican lobbyists’ campaign to undercut Maliki and install a U.S. puppet.

2. Bush is entirely sincere in his support for Maliki, but powerful backstage fixers in his own party don’t take him seriously anymore, and thus feel free to contradict him, and work against him in public – while earning a big paycheck besides.

Take your pick. And while you ponder, let us engage in a bit of nostalgia. For starters, yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of Dick Cheney’s declaration: “Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us.”

And let us conclude by harkening back to June 28, 2004. That was the day when Ayad Allawi was installed as interim Iraqi prime minister, in a private Green Zone ceremony lasting barely five minutes. Bush got the news from Condoleezza Rice, who passed him a note. Bush then scrawled a few celebratory words in response. Try not to choke as you scan this pearl of presidential wisdom:

“Let freedom reign!”