Friday, April 11, 2008

Condi and Bill in the silly season

On the presidential election calendar, April often marks the start of the silly season. April is typically a time for silly stories that come and go within the space a single news cycle (bulletin: a talk-radio loudmouth calls John McCain a "warmonger" - and refuses to apologize!), and silly stories that linger for awhile until people come to their senses (April, 1992: a semi-loon named Ross Perot is the top choice for the presidency, beating Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush in the polls).

So it's in the spirit of silliness that today I linger briefly over this week's silliest - and most hilarious - April story: the chatter about Condoleezza Rice showing some interest in the number-two slot on John McCain's Republican ticket. If I hadn't been tracking the stories all week long, I would have sworn that the whole thing had been crafted by Bill Maher's gag writers as some kind of cosmic joke.

It all started last Sunday, when former Iraq occupation spokesman Dan Senor surfaced on ABC to declare that Rice was interested in running with McCain and that, in fact, she "has been actively, actually in recent weeks, campaigning for this."

Then Senor tried to make his own case for Condi: "What the McCain campaign has to consider is whether or not they want to pick a total outsider, a fresh face, someone a lot younger than him, a governor who people aren't that familiar with. The challenge they're realizing is that they'll have to spend 30 to 45 days, which they wont't have at that point (in the weeks after Labor Day), educating the American public about who this person is. The other category is someone who people instantly say, the second they see that (running mate) announcement, 'I get it, that person could be president tomorrow. Condi Rice is an option.'"

Then we had a story featuring McCain's reaction; he politely called Rice a great American and said that her purported interest was news to him. Then we had a story featuring Rice's demurrals, and about her professed intention to return to Stanford. Then we had a story about how she had dazzled conservatives two weeks ago at a Washington confab, and about how conservative leader Grover Norquist viewed her as a great choice for veep. Then we had a story about a new poll which claims that a McCain-Rice ticket would actually win the deep-blue state of New York if matched against a Democratic dream ticket (a classic silly season tabulation, right up there with the aforementioned '92 polls about Ross Perot).

Dare we waste (cyber)space by enumerating the gaping holes in this trial balloon?

The very last thing McCain needs is to place a Bush enabler on his ticket. His prospects of winning this election - and I believe he has definite prospects - hinges on his ability to distance himself from Bush, not lash himself to the tattered mast by picking one of Bush's credibility-challenged acolytes.

If McCain chose Rice, the stench of the last eight years would overwhelm his campaign. He would be forced to explain, defend, reject, or denounce all kinds of golden odlies, such as:

Her Sept. 8, 2002 assertion that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed because "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Her other assertion, that same day: "We do know there have been shipments going into...Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to—high-quality aluminum tools that only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs." (The State Department and the Energy Department had both concluded, long before, that those tubes were to be used for "conventional ordnance production," not nukes.)

Her certitude, voiced on July 30, 2003, that Saddam definitely had the goods and therefore had to be deposed by force: "This man was a threat. He had weapons of mass destruction." (Two days before her statement, David Kay, Bush's top weapons inspector, had told administration officials during a briefing that he had found nothing.)

Her insistence, during the spring of 2002, that the 9/11 attack had been a complete surprise: "I don't think anyone could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center." (Back in 1998, that exact scenario had been war-gamed by terrorist experts, in consultations with the Federal Aviation Administration; in 1999, the CIA-affiliated National Intelligence Council had warned about al Qaeda flying aircraft into symbolic American targets.")

Could this Condi silliness morph into something real? The Democrats should be so lucky.


Speaking of silliness, let us today consider Bill Clinton. It may soon be time for Hillary to ship him off to a private fund-raiser in Guam, where perhaps security guards can foil YouTube by confiscating all camera-ready cellphones in advance.

Yesterday, Bill actually decided to talk (and talk) about the lies that Hillary recently told about being under sniper fire in Bosnia. He said it was so unfair that she has been criticized for that. He said that it was all the media's fault. (Naturally.)

Here's what he said while stumping for his spouse in Indiana, courtesy of NBC: "A lot of the way this whole campaign has been covered has amused me...there was a lot of fulminating because Hillary, one time late at night when she was exhausted, misstated, and immediately apologized for it, what happened to her in Bosnia in 1995. Did y'all see all that? Oh, they blew it up....I think she was the first first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt to go into a combat zone. And you would’ve thought, you know, that she'd robbed a bank the way they carried on about this. And some of them when they're 60 they'll forget something when they're tired at 11:00 at night, too."

At least when Bill said, in 1998, that he "didn't have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky," he was only uttering one falsehood. The remarks above are replete with falsehoods:

Hillary didn't just lie about sniper fire "one time late at night." She did it on a number of occasions, including the light of morning. And she didn't "immediately" apologize for it; she stuck with her story for days, even after it was being questioned, and apologized only after she was busted by the video footage from 1996 (not 1995, as Bill had said.) And she wasn't the first first lady since Eleanor to visit a war zone; Pat Nixon went to Saigon in 1969, a fact that has been in the news since late March.

Earlier this morning, Hillary's office issued a statement thanking Bill for his concern, but stressing that the sniper story "was her mistake, and she takes responsibility for it."

Memo to Bill, who is imperiling his reputation as the smartest pol of his generation: When your wife is caught lying on camera, just leave it alone. Bringing it up again, and seeking to rationalize it, is the ultimate in silliness.


I'm guesting on MSNBC's Hardball tonight (5 p.m. EST), probably at the bottom of the hour. No doubt we'll be discussing this story - and whether, as a result, Obama will lose some votes in Philadelphia on April 22.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A politician, not a messiah

The flip flop is a staple of politics as usual. Here’s a fresh example, starring Barack Obama:

A mere five months ago, in Iowa, Obama didn’t like it when outside “special interest” groups sided with his rivals, pumped their own money into the campaign, and ran independent ads against him. Most of those groups were actually affiliated with organized labor – and three quarters of the money came from labor - but he didn’t cut them any slack.

Obama assailed these independent groups as symptoms of "the same tired old political textbook that so many Americans just don’t trust anymore." He denounced their independent efforts, and said that he intended to run "a new kind of campaign." Meanwhile, his campaign manager, David Plouffe, cited several prominent unions for their pro-Clinton activities, and complained about how "shadowy" organizations were unleashing a "flood of Washington money" in an "underhanded" attempt to influence the caucuses.

In particular, Plouffe assailed AFSCME, referring to the public employes’ union as "Hillary Clinton’s friends in Washington" - that’s the kind of attack that Republicans typically launch, tagging labor as just another Beltway special interest – but AFSCME was hardly alone. The Obama campaign put out a December memo railing against "huge, unregulated contributions by special interests" and singled out, among others, the Service Employes International Union, which had affiliates working on behalf of John Edwards.

One liberal commentator, Ari Melber, wrote at the time: "Obama’s concerns sound more like sour grapes – AFSCME and SEIU would probably face little criticism if they were spending money on him."

He got that right. Fast forward to the Pennsylvania primary, present day...and the news that SEIU and an affiliated health-care local union are pouring upwards of $1 million into an independent pro-Obama effort that parallels the official Obama operation. Nothing illegal about that, then or now. The issue here is the difference between Obama’s stance, then and now.

Of the current outside effort by this "shadowy" "special interest," the candidate has said exactly zilch, uttering nary a whisper of protest. (Nor did he protest when SEIU spent $5 million on his behalf in several other primaries that preceded Pennsylvania.) Apparently he was against "the same tired old political textbook" before he was for it.

At times like these, I am tempted to send this message to his ardent devotees: Let us all remember, this guy does not walk on water. He’s a politician who is trying to win, and he will flip where he once flopped if that’s what it takes.

And why shouldn’t he? He pays no real penalty for expunging his December convictions. The issue of "independent campaign expenditures" and "special interest campaign influence" is of burning importance to roughly one percent of the general public, and that’s only if you include the good-government reformers and the editorial writers. Few others care about this stuff. And all Democratic politicians, including Obama, are well aware that, during the autumn campaign, labor’s independent expenditures will be crucial to the party’s White House prospects.


Today, President Bush said a few upbeat words about Iraq, the surge, and the latest Petraeus-Crocker road show. I know, your pulse is quickening already. Actually he signaled his sentiments (the same as his old sentiments) in advance late yesterday, by granting an exclusive interview with the like-minded neoconservative William Kristol (who, naturally, reports to us this morning that Bush is "impressive").

Here's what Bush told Kristol. Stop me if you've heard this before: "There is progress...We are better off now than we were prior to the surge. And we're headed toward a day when the Iraqis are going to be able to manage their own affairs from a security perspective. But we're not there yet."

Then today he said that "it's clear we're on the right track," and that "progress" was being made.

But rest assured that, regardless of whatever Bush says now, it can’t possibly compete with what he articulated five years ago, almost to the day, in a message to the Iraqi people. Here it is, verbatim from the White House transcript of April 13, 2003:

"You’re free. And freedom is beautiful. And, you know, it’ll take time to restore chaos and order – order out of chaos."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Iraq and rhetorical aspirin

George Orwell, best known for his novel 1984 but renowned in some circles (mine, anyway) for his spirited attacks on the bureaucratic debasement of the English language, would have winced at the evasive euphemisms repeatedly employed yesterday by Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

In perhaps his most famous essay, written 62 years ago, Orwell wrote that government bureaucrats and political idealogues had grown fond of "gumming together long strips of words...and making the results presentable by sheer humbug....It is easier - even quicker, once you have the habit - to say, In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption than to say I think." He complained that the typical euphemism "falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." Orwell likened it to "a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow."

Well, it was sure snowing yesterday when Petraeus broke out his aspirin bottle. After completing the modest U.S. troop drawdown that's already scheduled for July, he foresees "a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment, to examine the conditions on the ground, and over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions."

English translation: The place is a mess. We have no idea when things might get better. We're not pulling out any more troops. We're running out the clock on 2008.

Actually, I feel bad for the guy. Crocker, too. They're basically tasked with the thankless job of mopping up after George W. Bush and his discredited neocons, and one of the requisite chores is to trudge to Capitol Hill and gum together long strips of words. Nobody is going to shine in that role, waxing Orwellian on a war without end.

In a sense it was Crocker who had the worst moment, during a Senate Armed Services Committee exchange with Hillary Clinton (in her best moment), on a potentially far-reaching development that has been largely overlooked, thanks to the relentless media focus on the '08 Democratic primaries. Put on the spot by Clinton, Crocker responded predictably: He blurred the outline.

Some quick background. The Bush administration since November has been negotiating a sweeping long-term defense pact with its client regime in Iraq - a pact that, in the draft wording, would require the U.S. to provide open-ended "security assurances and commitments" to the embattled government. Bush and Prime Minister Maliki are aiming to wrap up negotiations this summer. It doesn't take a foreign policy genius to ferret out the implications of such a deal; America would be duty bound to respond, in some military fashion, when the Iraqi government was thought to be imperiled by foreign invaders or "outlaw groups" (again, the draft wording) operating inside the country. It's a blueprint for war without end, although it's couched in classic Orwellian language as a "long-term relationship of cooperation and friendship."

Given the fact that such a pact could bind us to Iraq for generations, at further expenditure of taxpayer money and American lives, and foist the Bush legacy on future presidents, one might assume that the American people (more than 60 percent of whom favor a withdrawal timetable) would at least get the chance to have their voices heard - through their representatives in the U.S. Senate. Because, as many legal experts have already pointed out, this deal has all the characteristics of a treaty, the kind that constitutionally requires the approval of 67 senators. After all, when Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower gave security assurances to Japan, South Korea, and the Phillippines after World War II, those pacts were treated as treaties and submitted for Senate ratification.

But the Bush regime doesn't intend to go that route.

Clinton has complained about this several times during the Democratic debates; she has been far more vocal on the issue than Barack Obama. And when Crocker brought up the "cooperation and friendship" pact yesterday - explaining that America must exhibit "continued resolve and commitment," that this pact would provide the necessary "authorizations and protections," and that, rest assured, "Congress will remain fully informed as these negotiations proceed" - Clinton threw out a simple question:

"Does the administration plan to submit this agreement to our Congress?"

Here was Crocker in response, with Orwell turning in his grave: "At this point, senator, we do not anticipate that the agreements will have within them any elements that would require the advise and consent procedure, we intend to negotiate this as an executive agreement."

English translation: Buzz off.

(By the way, Clinton has long been sponsoring a bill that would deny federal money for the implementation of such a pact, unless that pact was sent to the Senate for approval. As she said yesterday, after Crocker uttered his Orwellism, she finds it "odd" that Bush wants to submit the pact to the Iraqi Parliament for ratification, but not to the U.S. Senate. And yes, you read that correctly, that is Bush's intention.)

But at least one member of the Bush team isn't swaddling his words. It was Dick Cheney, three weeks ago, who best summed up the administration mindset; when asked whether he was cognizant of the national polls showing that two-thirds of Americans viewed the war as a mistake, he dismissively replied: "So?" Orwell would have been grateful that, for once, somebody had not sought to dull the pain of candor by reaching for the aspirin.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Ten questions for Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus is back on Capitol Hill, talking about "progress" and pleading for more "patience." We all know the drill by now. Perhaps some lawmaker will ask him questions like these:

1. General Petraeus, four years ago you were in charge of training the Iraqi troops to stand up so that American soldiers could stand down. You insisted at the time that the training was going well. In fact, you wrote in The Washington Post: "I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up...Training is on track and increasing in capacity....Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq’s security forces...Iraq’s security forces are developing steadily and they are in the fight." That's what you said in 2004. Yet, today, Iraqi troops are still unable to take the lead in any significant battle, and when they tried to take on the Shiite militias in Basra late last month, more than 1000 soldiers deserted - along with some top Iraqi commanders. How do these realities square with your 2004 claims of "significant progress" in the training of the Iraqi troops?

2. Following up on that question, when do you realistically believe that the Iraqis will finally be able to defend themselves by fighting their own battles? And what realistic metrics are you using? The date originally envisioned by Iraqi officials was late 2006, but our Defense Department was repeatedly revised that timetable. Now it's supposed to be July of this year, but we all know that is fiction. Given the fact that your 2004 optimism has not been borne out by events, can you now provide more credible forecast criteria?

3. General, it's already clear that, at the end of 2008, we will have more troops in Iraq than we did when the "surge" was launched. Yet there is abundant evidence that our commitment is seriously impacting our combat troops. An official Army survey of soldiers' mental health now shows that more than 25 percent are suffering from clinical anxiety, depression, or acute stress - much of it triggered by the repeated redeployments. And the Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Bush last month that they are deeply concerned about these stresses on the soldiers. How long can we realistically be expected to bail out the Iraqis before our own military is broken?

4. General, when Prime Minister Maliki sent his government troops into battle late last month against the Shiite militias that are loyal to the cleric Moktada al-Sadr, President Bush hailed Maliki's move as "a defining moment" in the evolution of "a free Iraq." Given the failure of Maliki's military venture, would you agree with your president that this was a "defining moment"? And would you agree with Senator John McCain, who said at the outset of battle that Maliki's move was "a sign of the strength of his governnment"?

5. Let's see if we have this right: We're arming the minority Sunnis, and, even though we routinely denounce Iranian influence, we're nevertheless arming the Iranian-backed Shiite Maliki government, which in turn is fighting al-Sadr as well as other Iranian-backed Shiite warlords. Given all these complexities, general, what constitutes "victory" in Iraq?

6. General, when you appeared on Capitol Hill last September, you were asked whether the surge strategy would succeed in making America safer. You replied, "I don't know, actually." Do you feel today that the war, as waged during the last seven months, has made America safer? Failing that, have you at least made Americans in the Green Zone safer - or, as we have now learned, is it too risky to even go to the fitness center?

7. General, on the issue of incremental U.S. troop withdrawals, there appears to be a Catch-22 in the Bush administration's position. If the situation in Iraq is "fragile," to use the word of one official, then it's deemed foolish to send troops home, because that would make the situation worse. Yet even when Bush officials speak of "progress" in Iraq, it's still deemed foolish to send troops home, lest the progress be jeopardized. In other words, apparently we can't draw down when things are bad, and we can't draw down when things are good. Is there a third scenario that has escaped us, that would allow for gradual withdrawals?

8. General, one of your staunchest supporters is Senator John McCain. After he returned from his most recent trip to Iraq, McCain said, "We're succeeding. I don't care what anybody says." Could you please provide a more nuanced assessment? For instance, the State Department has determined that Iraq this month is providing less electricity to its citizens (58 percent of demand) that it did during the same month one year ago (66 percent of demand). President Bush originally intended to make Iraq safe more democracy. Would it be more realistic, as a measurement of success, to strive to at least make Iraq safe for electricity?

9. General, the experts who advised the original Iraq Study Group have now issued a new report. This report concludes that Iraqi political reconciliation - the ultimate goal of the surge - has been "slow, halting and superficial," and that the political divisions are "so pronounced" that we are no closer to leaving Iraq than we were one year ago, in the early phase of the surge. Do you have any evidence that further American military deaths, and further American expenditures (at the current rate of $3 billion a week), will somehow convince the warring Iraqi factions to reconcile?

10. Last September, President Bush told the deputy prime minister of Australia that, with respect to the American surge in Iraq, "we're kicking ass." Seven months have passed. General, are we kicking ass?


UPDATE: We have an answer to question #6...well, sort of an answer. Asked again today whether the war is making America safer, Petraeus replied: "It can only be answered by history, once the outcome in Iraq has been determined."


UPDATE: Not even Petraeus feels comfortable joining McCain in the waving of pom poms.

Here was McCain on Iraq this morning, the "maverick" in full Bush mode: "We can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."

Here was Petraeus, a few hours later: "We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator."

Monday, April 07, 2008

Blame the Clintons, not Mark Penn

The Clintons were reportedly shocked, shocked to learn this weekend that chief strategist Mark Penn had recently donned his other hat - as CEO of a global consulting firm - and sought to lobby on behalf of a client for a trade treaty that Hillary opposes on the campaign trail. The Clintons let it be known that they were "angry" with Penn, and last night they made it clear that Penn will no longer pilot Hillary's lurching ship.

Most voters don't really care when a campaign plays musical chairs with its personnel. As the CEO of Burson-Marsteller, Penn is clearly a prominent figure among his farflung corporate clients (including Countrywide Financial, our top mortgage lender; Blackwater Worldwide, the security mercenaries who have been blamed for reckless and deadly actions in Iraq, Shell Oil, Pfizer and many others), but he is hardly a household name to the American electorate. So I am less interested in Penn than what Penn's rise and fall tells us about Hillary Clinton herself, and about the boneheaded fundamentals of her campaign. Penn has not been the source of her woes, only a symptom.

Ever since her campaign was launched, she and Bill have condoned and tolerated Penn's dubious dual role. They appeared not to understand their own problem, that it might be difficult to sell Hillary as the candidate of "change" when their own chief strategist was so enmeshed in the special-interest world of Washington. Clearly, they never demanded that Penn, as a condition of his campaign employment, step down from his executive position and thus distance himself financially from clients whose business needs might clash with Hillary's political needs.

Heck, even Karl Rove did that; in fact, Rove did better than that. Back in 1999, at the dawn of George W. Bush's excellent adventure, Rove sold off his Texas consulting firm, and thus avoided all conflict of interest charges during the subsequent campaign. One might have assumed that a Democratic candidate - who bills herself as a fighter against the special interests - would insist that Penn work out a similar arrangement. But no.

So, not surprisingly, there was a report last Friday that Penn met with one of his clients, the government of Colombia, for the purpose of helping Colombia secure passage of a bilateral trade treaty that Hillary has publicly opposed because she believes it hurts American workers. Colombia signed up Penn last year; the contract was worth $300,000. There would have been no such contract last year if the Clintons had insisted in advance that Penn wear only his campaign hat, at least for the duration of the campaign.

And, lest we get caught up only in the present moment, it's important to remember that this Colombia episode is hardly the first Penn flap. Nearly a year ago, the news surfaced that Burson-Marsteller was fond of advertising its expertise in the art of union-busting. In other words, at a time when Hillary was trying to sell herself as a fighter on behalf of the average worker, her chief strategist's lobbying firm was helping corporations thwart the organizing efforts of unions that sought to help the average worker.

For instance, as reporter Ari Berman documented last spring, Penn's firm counseled Cintas, a leading laundry supply company, in its persistent efforts to block its workers from organizing. (The chief officer of Cintas, by the way, had long been a leading fundraiser for Bush.) Penn, in his defense, later said that, notwithstanding his position as CEO of the firm, he had never "personally participated" in offering any union-busting advice. Clearly, however, Burson-Marseller did not enjoy being outed; last year, the firm also erased, from its website, all references to its union-busting expertise.

The important point here is that even after these embarrassing stories surfaced, and even after a number of prominent national union leaders complained in writing to the Clintons about Penn's conflicts and the mixed campaign message that his conflicts implied, nothing changed. The Clintons didn't force Penn to make any changes. And Penn continued to wear his two hats, thereby laying the groundwork for the most recent political embarrassment. At a time when Hillary's campaign may well hinge on whether she can bond successfully on April 22 with Pennsylvania's downtrodden workers, it didn't help that her chief strategist was trying to feather his own nest by working a trade deal deemed hurtful to workers.

So the Clinton's purported fury with Penn is badly misplaced. They enabled Penn from the beginning, and thereby made it easier for Barack Obama to capture the "change" label and tie Hillary to the "status quo." They have only themselves to blame. (Meanwhile, they're still allowing Penn to keep polling for the campaign.)

And they certainly can't blame Penn for Hillary's latest credibility embarrassment. She managed this one all by herself.

For weeks on the campaign trail, Hillary has been repeating an anecdote ("I heard a story that just kinda haunted me...") about an uninsured Ohio woman, Trina Bachtel, who lost her baby and died because a hospital turned her away; according to Hillary, the woman was denied care because she failed to come up with a $100 fee. You can see the yarn in action on video.

Well, it turns out that Hillary's tear-jerker was wrong in most key respects: (a) the woman was actually insured, (b) the woman was not refused medical care, (c) the woman - who did die after her baby was stillborn - was under the care of an obstetrician affiliated with a hospital. And that purported $100 fee? That's as true as Hillary's snipers.

The fact is, Hillary did "hear a story." As an Ohio newspaper reported on Friday, and as the New York Times followed up on Saturday, some sheriff's deputy in Ohio first told Hillary a second-hand yarn about what he had heard about Bachtel. But he got most of the facts wrong...and Hillary didn't bother to have the facts checked out by her staff before doing a rhetorical polish on the stump.

On Saturday, the Clinton campaign promised to excise the Bachtel yarn from the standard stump speech. In all probability, this incident will now be trumped by the news of Mark Penn's departure as chief strategist. But both stories are essentially the same, in this respect: it is the candidate who is ultimately responsible for campaign quality control.