Friday, March 28, 2008

Casey at the bat, and the brushback pitch

Big story this morning, broken by one of my colleagues: Senator Bob Casey, the ever-cautious Democratic centrist whose surname is golden among white Catholic working-class Pennsylvanians, is endorsing Barack Obama today. It's a surprise, because Casey (also a superdelegate) was expected to hang back during the runup to the April 22 primary. Theoretically, Casey will help Obama with the voters whom Obama needs most.

Endorsements don't always translate into votes, of course, and maybe Casey's nod won't make any difference in the end. Nevertheless, we can expect Hillary Clinton's message practitioners to lurch into characteristic overdrive today, maybe like this...

11:30 a.m., from the spin shop: "Senator Clinton does not need a lecture from Bob Casey about how to reach the hardworking Pennsylvanians who in four weeks will launch her on the road to a party-unifying victory at the Democratic convention. This race is ultimately about the candidates, not about endorsements. Endorsements are not important. We are pleased that Gov. Rendell and congressman John Murtha have endorsed us, and we are confident that the voters will note that importance."

1 p.m., from the spin shop: "Bob Casey lost to Ed Rendell in the 2002 gubernatorial primary, and now he is seeking to avenge his defeat by breaking ranks with the popular governor. It is regrettable that, at a time when Senator Clinton is enjoying unstoppable momentum, Bob Casey is reduced to playing partisan political games."

2 p.m., from the spin shop: "Some may suggest today that Bob Casey is attempting to settle an old score with the Clintons, by endorsing Senator Obama. Some may suggest that this endorsement is just petty payback for what happened at Bill Clinton's 1992 Democratic convention, when Casey's father, the governor of Pennsylvania, was barred from speaking because of his anti-abortion views. But today Bob Casey is not engaging in this kind of petty payback, as far as we know."

3 p.m., from the spin shop: "All endorsements by first-term senators of any state with more than 20 electoral votes, tendered before voters get the opportunity to exercise their democratic rights, should be considered automatically illegitimate. And any presidential candidate with a gift for pretty speechmaking who accepts such endorsements should be considered illegitimate."

4 p.m., an open letter to Bob Casey, from prominent donors to the Clinton campaign: "We have long been strong supporters of Democratic senatorial candidates. We request that you re-clarify your position on the Pennsylvania primary, that you keep an open mind, and that you show respect for the electoral process. If you prefer instead to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters, we have no choice but to remember that you are up for re-election in four years. We have warned House Speaker Pelosi about the consequences of opposing Senator Clinton, and now we are warning you."

5 p.m., a special message from James Carville: "Bob Casey is Judas. Sold her out for a money bag and a fistful of silver. Not tryin’ to say that he’s a turncoat betrayer or that she’s the same as Jesus Christ, but there ya go."

6 p.m., a special message from Bill Clinton: "There's no good reason for male bullies to gang up on a girl who loves this country. Senator McCain, I know he also loves this country. I think it's a shame that others would try to disrupt an election between these two candidates who at least do love this country."

6:10 p.m., from a media availability with Hillary Clinton: "Rev. Wright, Florida. Rev. Wright, Michigan. Rev. Wright, Rev. Wright, Rev. Wright."

6:11 p.m., during a spin shop conference call with reporters: "We also think it's important to remember that Bob Casey hails from a famous political family, and, while we want to underscore our belief that this endorsement is no big deal, we do think that it shows what can happen when a political dynasty presumes to throw its weight around...(long pause)...OK, we'd like to rephrase that."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

More quote marks for McCain

As part of my continuing effort to persuade media colleagues to put quote marks around the word maverick when writing about John McCain, here's his latest pit stop on the flip-flop express.

Ten years ago, while burnishing the "maverick" image that has prompted so much swooning among Washington scribes, McCain styled himself as a courageous foe of the tobacco industry. He routinely condemned them and he vowed to take their money. He championed a Senate measure to slap a tax on Big Tobacco - to the tune of $1.10 per pack - and route the revenue to federal programs designed to curb underage smoking.

When Big Tobacco squawked, and vowed to spend tens of millions of dollars to stop him, McCain declared, "I'm honored by the attacks by people who have addicted our children and lied to Congress" - the latter, of course, referring to the tobacco CEOs who testified under oath about the safe, non-addictive properties of their products.

When he first announced his $1.10 tax plan, he said in a press release: "The health and well-being of America's children is a cause that transcends party affiliation."

When fellow Republicans asked McCain how he could dare push for a tax hike and still call himself a Republican, he replied on the Senate floor (June 17, 1998): "Maybe we ought to remember the obligations that we incur when we govern America. We might want to understand that our obligation first of all is to those who can't care for themselves in this society, and that includes our children. Isn't it out obligation - shouldn't it define the Republican party that we should do everything we can to handle this scourge, this disease that is rampant throughout young children in America? Doesn't that define the Republican party?"

And when fellow Republicans that day called him a tax-raiser, he replied: "This bill is not about taxes. It's about whether we're going to allow the death march of 418,000 Americans a year who die early from tobacco-related disease and do nothing."

Indeed, when McCain was asked earlier that spring on PBS whether he'd give in to his Republican critics, he replied, "Never."

Well, you guessed it. McCain has given up. Today he is against the concept of taxing Big Tobacco, after he was for it.

Right now, there's a Senate bill - nearing a vote - that would slap a 61-cent tax on every pack of butts, and earmark the money for a children's health program. But as McCain reportedly remarked at a recent policy conference, "Now help me out here: We are trying to get people not to smoke, and yet we are depending on tobacco to fund a program that's designed for children's health? I can't buy that."

Who would ever want to buy such a whacky concept? McCain did, of course, but that was in his previous incarnation. McCain 2.0 has recalibrated his convictions, bringing them more into line with Republican orthodoxy. By that standard, the idea of imposing a sin tax on a major industry - one, by the way, that gives most of its money to the Republican party - is ludicrious and, even worse, smacks of liberalism. As such, it was necessary for the "maverick" to stand down.

Ten years ago, while championing the tobacco tax, he told GOP colleagues that the vote was about "whether we're going to have the will to serve the public interest, or the special interest."

The new McCain has now given us his answer.


Did you know that Hillary Clinton really did brave sniper fire in Bosnia, after all? See the exclusive video right here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Under fire, but not from snipers

Maybe she was hoping that the toy companies would agree to market a Hillary Clinton Action Figure. More likely, she was probably hoping that she could inflate her meager foreign policy experience by goading the electorate into swallowing a lie.

Now that Clinton has been exposed as a serial peddler of falsehoods, in her retelling of the 1996 visit she made to Bosnia as First Lady, it's worth noting why this campaign episode is important. She has based her increasingly desperate candidacy on the proposition that she is best qualified to be commander-in-chief at 3 a.m. on Day One, and that in turn hinges on the argument that she has passed some of the character tests that are requirements for command. Physical courage, for example.

Hence, her desire to make people believe - in direct contradiction to the facts, as captured on video - that she braved sniper fire in Bosnia. And it's not actually the lie that was most telling. It's her attempt to lie about the lie.

This week, Clinton has claimed that she merely "misspoke" when she said in a March 17 speech: "I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base." (Whereas, as the video clearly shows, she sauntered across the tarmac, bent down to engage a Bosnian child in conversation, with daughter Chelsea in tow, then continued to saunter.)

But in fact Clinton did not "misspeak" (as she insisted again yesterday on Pittsburgh radio); nor was it merely a case of being "sleep-deprived" (as she insisted yesterday in a chat with a Pittsburgh newspaper). Her March 17 remarks were scripted in advance, and even appeared in the text of the speech posted on the Clinton campaign website. It was clearly the campaign's intention to show her braving enemy fire.

Nor was it the first time that she sought to rewrite reality.

She also apparently "misspoke" in Texas on Feb. 29, when she told an audience: "I remember particularly a trip to Bosnia, where the welcoming ceremony had to be moved inside because of sniper fire." And maybe she was merely "sleep-deprived" in Iowa on Dec. 29, when she said that she and her entourage "ran out because they said there might be sniper fire. I don't remember anybody offering me tea on the tarmac."

On Dec. 29, she also told the Iowans that since the airport was too dangerous for a presidential visit, she was sent instead ("if a place was too dangerous, too small, or too poor, send the First Lady")...which, if true, prompts me to wonder why she decided to bring her daughter along. Are we supposed to believe that the Tuzla airport was too treacherous to risk Bill's life, but not Chelsea's?

Her last spin offering yesterday was a surrender of sorts. She said that she'd "made a mistake," and that "it proves I'm human." In a sense, she is right. Aspirants for the highest office are very human; by definition, they are often abnormally driven and self-absorbed and prone to believe whatever delusions leap off their tongues.

So Clinton is hardly the first to fit that profile. Ronald Reagan, whose World War II experiences never extended beyond the Hollywood lot, used to give speeches implying that his scripted roles were actually real. Lyndon Johnson, as a young congressman in 1942, flew once as an observer on a Pacific bombing mission, but the plane turned back within 13 minutes because of a faulty generator, having never reached its target - yet LBJ later claimed that (a) he had been under fire, (b) he had actually flown on many missions, and (c) the crews had nicknamed him Raider Johnson.

So you can rightly characterize this kind of bull-slinging as "human," but, really, it is something more. It is calculation. In the Bosnia case, it was a deliberate attempt to falsely inflate, by dint of repetition, the "experience" credentials that supposedly will inspire the superdelegates to overturn the verdict of Democratic primary voters...and inspire Barack Obama's delegates to abandon their pledges and flock to her banner.

Regarding the latter, she's clinging to that possibility as well, telling Time that "every delegate with very few exceptions is free to make up his or her mind however they choose. We talk a lot about so-called pledged delegates, but every delegate is expected to exercise independent judgment."

So-called pledged delegates...I suppose that tearing one's party apart in the service of personal ambition can also be categorized as very human.


Speaking of very human: If you're missing the Eliot Spitzer story, and the whole topic of political sex scandals, you can journey down memory lane to the scandal that changed the rules of political reporting. That would be the Gary Hart affair, two decades ago. I wrote this freelance article, in the new issue of Smithsonian Magazine.


And speaking of freelance articles, I wrote this new piece, in Obit Magazine, about the 4,000th American death an Iraq. It barely overlaps with what appeared on this blog yesterday.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The 4,000th death as metaphor

The occasion of the 4,000th American military death in Iraq has actually triggered something akin to a miracle on the home front, forcing people to focus anew (albeit briefly) on President Bush's historic misadventure - at the expense of ignoring (albeit briefly) the potential death spiral of the fractious Democrats.

I won't use this milestone to broadly recount how the "cakewalk" morphed into a catastrophe, or to lament on how Bush will be dropping his slop into the lap of his successor. I'll simply note the manner in which the 4000th soldier met his demise (in the company of three comrades), and suggest why the incident is a metaphor for the ill-begotten war.

The 4,000th was killed by a roadside, makeshift bomb - in military parlance, an improvised explosive device (IED). How perversely fitting. According to the Pentagon, IEDs for the first time are now responsible for a majority of American military deaths. Twenty-one percent of the first 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; 35 percent of the second 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; 46 percent of the third 1,000 deaths were caused by IEDs; for the fourth 1000 deaths, it's 54 percent.

Why the death toll? Because, as has been well documented, the Bush war planners in 2002 and 2003 did not anticipate that insurgents armed with IEDs would be an obstacle to the vaunted American military juggernaut - because they didn't forsee the possibility of an insurgency, despite CIA prewar warnings. All this, despite Bush's assurance, in an Oct. 7, 2002 speech, that "we will plan carefully" for any conflict in Iraq.

The Bush planners, in the early months of 2003, spoke instead of quick surrenders and citizens greeting us with flowers. They hinted at times of a two-week war. They never bothered to draft a plan to secure the thousands of Iraqi munitions caches, which reportedly contained as much as one million tons of explosives; as Gen. John P. Abizaid, the new chief of U.S. Central Command, confessed to Congress when the war was four months old, "I wish I could tell you that we had it all under control. We don't."

So explosives, reportedly by the tens of thousands, were spirited away from these ill-guarded munitions dumps, and, by the summer of 2003, IEDs were killing American soldiers, many of them traveling in lightly-armored Humvees that offered little defense from the blasts. Soldiers foraged on their own for scrap metal, in the hopes of shoring up their vehicles. The Pentagon set up a team to figure out how they could combat the IED epidemic; the task-force workers put up a sign on the wall that said "Stop the Bleeding."

The bleeding continued, but for several more years the Bush team didn't see the urgency. Military specialists and outside consults reportedly staged presentations on the IED issue for then-Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, the now-disbarred felon Lewis "Scooter" Libby. But the Bush team felt that training the Iraqi army was sufficient, and Cheney hewed to his belief that the insurgency was dying. These sentiments slowed Pentagon efforts to combat the IEDs by, among other things, investing in more solidly armored vehicles.

Result: In 2005, the Marines Corps' inspector general was still complaining that the 30,000 Marines in Iraq were traveling in vehicles that were no match for the IEDs. Part of the problem was that, faced with a weapon that nobody seemed to have anticipated during the runup to war, the government finally responded by flailing in all directions. At one point, 132 different government agencies were reportedly scrambling to address the IED issue, with minimal coordination among them.

The military during the past several years has become more adept at protecting the soldiers and tracking down IED bomb-makers - at a cost, during the Pentagon's current fiscal year, of at least $4.5 billion in off-budget "supplemental" funding - but, as recently as last May, the House Armed Services Committee still concluded that the anti-IED project had achieved only "marginal success."

And so the 4,000th soldier died, yet another facet of the failed Bush legacy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Hillary surrogate retrofits his convictions

It was excrutiating yesterday to watch Senator Evan Bayh audition on CNN for the job of Hillary Clinton's running mate. One of the requirements, apparently, is that the applicant must be ready and willing to scrap his convictions for the good of the team. By that measure, Bayh probably ensured his status on her short list. Assuming she ever gets the chance to wield such a list.

One of the tasks of any Clinton surrogate these days is to pick up the goalposts and move them around, with the aim of supplying Democratic superdelegates with a plausible reason why they should coronate the chronically trailing candidate. And Bayh, who is also being entrusted with delivering his state of Indiana to Clinton in the May 6 primary, spun a very creative argument on CNN.

Bayh said that the Democratic nomination should be awarded to the candidate whose primary victories, when added together, represent the most electoral votes in the November election; not coincidentally, Clinton's victorious states currently add up to 219 electoral votes, while Obama's stack up at 202. (I'm not counting meaningless Florida and Michigan, for reasons I explained on Friday.)

The absurdity of this argument - that winning big primary states is proof of November electability - is easily demonstrable; in 1980, 1988, and 2004, Jimmy Carter, Mike Dukakis, and John Kerry, respectively, all triumphed during the primaries in a number of big states with a lot of electoral votes, only to be defeated in those states by their Republican opponents in November.

But that's not what interests me most about Bayh's argument. The hypocrisy is what interests me most.

Here he was yesterday, on CNN: "...we do elect presidents based upon the Electoral College. So who carried the (primary) states with the most Electoral College votes is an important factor to consider because, ultimately, that's how we choose the president of the United States."

So Evan Bayh believes that the Electoral College should be an important determinant, both in choosing a nominee and choosing a president? Wait a sec, let's take a quick stroll down memory lane.

On Nov. 16, 2000, Bayh appeared on CNN and voiced his support for a constitution amendment eradicating the Electoral College as the means for choosing a president, and relying instead on the popular vote. He said, "I do believe that we should have popularly elected officials in our country. I think our government officials should reflect the will of the governed...we ought to try and make sure that in the future we have the person who gets the most votes hopefully will be the president."

Here he is in a speech on April 10, 2001, when he dismissed the Electoral College as outmoded: "Times have changed over the last couple hundred years, and where before we were interested in insuring that every state was adequately represented, now we are a country of people, not just of political subsidiaries. And you can make a compelling case for the direct popular election of the president. You can make a compelling case for the direct popular election of the president...I personally feel that we've moved to the point where we ought to have people choosing the president."

Here he is again five years later, in a North Carolina newspaper: "I think our president should be chosen by the majority of the American people." As for using the Electoral College to elect presidents, "I just don't think in the modern era that is appropriate."

It should also be noted that the abolition of the Electoral College has long been a Bayh family crusade; Evan's father, Birch Bayh, a long-serving Indiana senator a generation ago, has spent part of his time as elder statesman serving on reform panels that want the College gone.

Still, I have a twinge of sympathy for the younger Bayh. Politicians often retrofit their principles in accordance with the exigencies of the moment. And the moment apparently calls for desperate rhetorical measures, since Clinton is losing in the popular vote, the pledged delegate count, and has been routed in the tally of superdelegates who have made up their minds since early February.

And, in this case, Bayh is merely toeing the Clintonian line - because the candidate for whom he is currently auditioning was also apparently against the electoral-vote standard before she was for it. As Hillary said at the end of 2000, "I believe strongly that in a democracy, we should respect the will of the people and to me, that means it's time to do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president." (Hat tip for that quote to Kit Seelye of The New York Times.)

But this retrofitting doesn't work even on its own terms. Clinton's 14 winning states, totaling 219 electoral votes, includes California and New York. Those two states are worth 86 electoral votes. Those two states, in 2008, will almost certainly vote Democratic in November - no matter who wins the nomination. So, even by the electoral-vote measure that Bayh and Clinton formerly denounced, Clinton is inflating her primary season achievements.

And every day that she and her surrogates persist, the Republicans sit back and smile.


Speaking of Republicans, John McCain got a helping hand yesterday from Brit Hume on Fox News. Although in the end I wonder whether Hume did him any favors.

Hume was opining about McCain's error last week about how the Shiites in Iran were supposedly training terrorists for al Qaeda (a Sunni group) and sending them into Iraq. The error was so flagrant that even fellow warrior Joe Lieberman felt compelled to correct him. But, as I mentioned here last Thursday, McCain repeated this error in several venues, thereby grossly exaggerating the al Qaeda threat in Iraq (just as Bush and Cheney routinely do).

Of course, if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had gone to Iraq and uttered such a jaw-dropping inaccuracy, Fox News would be running the video on every talkfest. But Hume told his viewers yesterday that, since McCain did it, it was not such a big deal.

"The mistake," Hume said, "raises not the question about his knowledgeability - we all kind of believe that he has that. The question perhaps is about his age, which is an issue...that he might have had kind of a senior moment there. And I think that's unfortunate for him."

So...It was really OK that McCain screwed up so badly on a fundamental piece of national-security info, because he was merely having a "senior moment." This is a defense? To suggest that the guy carrying the nuclear football may be prone to a "senior moment?" Better that such moments be reserved for botching the food order at the early-bird special.