Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Party on!

Barring some unexpected, earthshaking news (President Bush declares, "It's all my fault that Iraq is a disaster of historic proportions," or Hillary Clinton declares, "The American people are sick to death of Bill and me, so therefore I will not run in 2008"), I don't plan to post again until next Tuesday, Jan. 2. Hey, it's the holidays.

Meanwhile... in my final '07 Sunday print column, I did explore what I consider to be the Democrats' prime political challenge of 2008: the need to demonstrate to swing voters that the party is serious about defeating global terrorism. Indeed, many Democrats are talking about this, as evidenced here, here, and here.

Meanwhile II...an emailer argued this morning that Hillary will be thwarted in '08 because the American people are tired of voting all the time for Bushes and Clintons. Which brings to mind a great trivia question: When was the last time that neither national ticket featured a Bush or a Clinton? Answer: It was so long ago, disco music was hip. We're talking 1976.

Anyway, see you in the new year. Party on!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Hillary's electability: conventional wisdom trumps an inconvenient poll

As I mentioned in a print column not long ago, the conventional wisdom persists that prospective presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is not electable in 2008. Since I consider that assumption to be highly flawed, I was therefore eager to read the current edition of Newsweek, which features a cover story on the same topic.

I finally made time to read it last night. The article was quite skeptical about Clinton’s chances, citing the considerable “anti-Hillary sentiment in the country. The key passage: “A recent Marist Poll showed that 47 percent of respondents nationwide ‘definitely will not consider’ voting for her, a percentage that alarms some former aides to President Clinton. Those numbers will need to change for Democratic primary voters -- now comfortable with assessing electability -- to move her way.”

But there’s a big problem with the Newsweek story: The magazine had, in its possession, the results of its own new national poll…showing that, when Clinton is matched against John McCain, she currently beats him by seven points; and that, when she is matched against Rudy Giuliani, she beats him by one point; and that, when she is matched against Mitt Romney, she slaughters him by 26 points.

And yet Newsweek decided not to include this information in its skeptical take on Clinton’s electability.

I know about these poll results only because Newsweek shared its poll results in a separate press release ballyhooing the cover story. Check out the release here. You will need to scroll 60 percent of the way down the page to the fine print.

Hence, my question: Why would Newsweek run a Clinton electability story without including its own latest poll numbers?

It turns out that others were wondering as well. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gave media watchdog Greg Sargent an explanation a few days ago: “(The Newsweek poll) numbers were eight, nine, 10 days old. This poll was in the field on Wednesday and Thursday (Dec. 6 and 7). The numbers informed our reporting; we routinely poll on questions that we may not end up specifically citing in the issue.”

That defense doesn’t hold water. If he was so concerned that his own Hillary-favorable poll numbers were “old,” then why did the story cite Hillary-averse poll numbers that were even older? The Marist survey, described in the story s “recent,” was actually conducted in late November.

Meacham also said suggested that “horse race” polls, pitting candidates against each other, are essentially meaningless at this point, and hence not necessarily worth citing. True enough, they do need to be viewed skeptically. But it nevertheless seems worth noting that Hillary Clinton’s horse race numbers have markedly improved. She trailed McCain throughout 2006 in the early match-up surveys – yet now, according to Newsweek, she is ahead. (And another new poll, this one by CNN, now shows her dead even with McCain and two points up on Giuliani.)

I’d suggest two reasons for this potential trend that Newsweek did not find relevent to its story: Starting with the elections on Nov. 7, the overall political landscape has shifted in favor of the Democrats, and as a result a sizeable share of voters now seem willing to view Clinton more favorably. Secondly, McCain in particular appears to have lost some ground with independent voters, which should be no surprise, given his strong rightward tilt and his support for a U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq that draws support from roughly 12 percent of Americans.

The point is, political moods are fluid and changeable (obviously, they could change again), and for those reasons it would appear that Newsweek missed an opportunity to add necessary nuance to its own work. Especially since it had paid for those poll numbers. But its glaring omission will only feed the flawed convention wisdom about Clinton’s purportedly high hurdle.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

He was for deferring to the military, before he was against it

In my Tuesday post, I revisited an ’05 speech by President Bush, to demonstrate the perishable quality of his Iraq rhetoric. And today, in the wake of the latest news about his contemplated troop “surge,” I will demonstrate again that what he said in the past apparently means little today.

Remember how he has always said that, on the issue of troop levels in Iraq, he defers to the wisdom of his military commanders in the field? Here’s just a recent sampling:

Dec. 4, 2006: “The force size will depend on conditions on the ground, and upon the recommendations of our commanders on the ground, absolutely.”

April 6, 2006: “I remember coming up in the Vietnam War and it seemed like that there was a -- during the Vietnam War, there was a lot of politicization (in Washington) of the military decisions. That's not going to be the case under my administration.” And if the military tells him that it can live with more troops or fewer troops, “that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Jan. 1, 2006: “I'm going to continue to rely upon those commanders, such as General Casey…(to) determine the number of troops we have on the ground in Iraq.”

June 28, 2005: “Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are, in fact, working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave. As we determine the right force level, our troops can know that I will continue to be guided by the advice that matters: the sober judgment of our military leaders.”

April 22, 2004, via flak Scott McClellan: “He looks to our commanders in the theater to make (troop) determinations, in terms of what is needed.”

Well, apparently Bush was in favor of deferring to his military leaders before he was against it. Because in his year-end press conference yesterday, while discussing the potential for a troop “surge” (one that is reportedly opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the soon-to-be-retiring Gen. John Abizaid, and perhaps by other commanders in the field), Bush declined to repeat what he has always said before, about deferring to military opinion.

This time, all he said was this: “The opinion of my commanders is very important. They are bright, capable, smart people whose opinion matters to me a lot."

But the killer quote came from this anonymous Bush official, speaking to The Washington Post: “He (Bush) has never left the decision to commanders. He is the commander in chief. But he has said he will listen to those commanders when making these decisions. That hasn't changed.” (In other words, drop all previous Bush statements into the Orwellian memory hole. The new talking point is: He doesn’t “continue to rely” on the commanders to determine troop levels at all…in fact, he has never continued to rely on the commanders.)

Anyway, in political terms, Bush’s problem isn’t with the commanders. If he overrules their counsel, they’ll zip it and obey. No, his problem will be keeping his restive fellow Republicans in line. Unlike Bush, they still have to run for re-election, and they don’t want his Iraq debacle to be hung around their necks while he goes home to plan his presidential library.

A couple Fridays ago, for instance, I mentioned that GOP Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, who has to run again in ’08, had eviscerated Bush in a Senate floor speech, contending that the president’s war strategy in Iraq “may even be criminal.” I suggested that Smith probably would be joined by other Republicans down the road. Now he has, at least on the “surge” issue.

Yesterday, GOP Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota – you guessed it, he also has to run again in ’08 – announced that he would "stand against" a troop increase, because “I think it would create more targets. I think we would put more life at risk.”

When these kinds of Republicans go public in this manner, it’s a true sign that the wheels have come off. Ditto Rich Lowry, the conservative commentator. He just wrote a piece (hat tip to Howie Kurtz on this one) basically acknowledging that the mainstream media…drum roll…has accurately reported on the dire state of affairs in Iraq, and that his conservative brethren, who have “lost touch with reality in Iraq,” should learn how to deal with it. The last three grafs go to Lowry:

“Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right — that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war….

“The ‘good news’ that conservatives have accused the media of not reporting has generally been pretty weak. The Iraqi elections were indeed major accomplishments. But the opening of schools and hospitals is not particularly newsworthy, at least not compared with American casualties and with sectarian attacks meant to bring Iraq down around everyone’s heads in a full-scale civil war….

“(R)ealism is essential in any war, and it is impossible without an ability to assimilate bad news, even bad news that comes from distasteful sources. Conservatives need to realize that something is not dubious just because it’s reported by the New York Times, and that the media ultimately will be wrong about Iraq only if - fully acknowledging how bad it is there- the Bush administration takes bold steps to reverse the tide.”


Meanwhile, is there any room on the next Saturday Night Live for a Sandy Berger skit?

It seems that Bill Clinton’s former national security advisor did some creative subterfuge back in 2003, when he swiped some classified material from the National Archives. According to a report released yesterday by the Archives’ inspector general, Berger (who pled guilty to a misdemeanor last year) hid the documents under a trailer at a nearby construction site, then returned a few days later to retrieve them and destroy a few.

But the real fascination is with his socks; specifically, the unresolved debate over whether Berger was seen at the Archives trying to slip some classified material into his socks (as a witness contends), or whether (as Berger contends), he was merely trying to adjust the hosiery because (as the report put it) “his shoes frequently come untied and his socks frequently fall down.”

I suppose this might prompt a sober debate over what is the best type of undergarment for document theft – Sandy Berger’s socks, or Fawn Hall’s bra? (As Oliver North’s secretary, she allegedly spirited away some of his materials back in ’87.) But when thinking only of the physical comedy possibilities involving a guy screwing up with his socks falling down, I am left to ask only this:

Where’s Chevy Chase when we need him most?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Remember that "Plan for Victory" in November '05?....Oh. You don't?

Much ink and air time has been expended lately on the fact that President Bush chose to postpone, until after the holidays, his long-awaited speech on “the way forward” in Iraq.

For instance, the White House press corps has been peppering spokesman Tony Snow about the delay, and Snow has assured everybody that the Decider is just being deliberative: “This is not not knowing what he wants to do; this is out of an absolute determination to do this right, making sure that he is absolutely convinced that the pieces have been put together, he's gotten the best advice, he's gotten the best facts, and that he now has the policy that he thinks will be the best to move forward.”

What puzzles me, however, is why anyone at this point would assume that anything Bush says is going to (a) break new strategic ground, or (b) quell the sectarian chaos, or (c) lodge in the American memory. On the contrary, we seem to have forgotten that he has delivered dozens of speeches on Iraq over the past few years, most of them instantly forgotten, with nary a phrase that can be invoked years from now as testaments to either his eloquence or prescience.

So as we all brace for the next one, the post-holiday address that may well unveil “the surge,” perhaps it is best to dampen expectations by revisiting one of his earlier, much-awaited rhetorical forays, and taking note of its remarkably short shelf life, its yawning chasm between assertion and fact.

It was just over a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2005, when Bush outlined what he called his “strategy for victory” (not to be confused with the January 2007 strategy for victory), during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. He said, for instance, “we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy in Iraq….On the security side, coalition and Iraqi security forces are on the offensive against the enemy.” He said that “Iraqi forces have made real progress,” and that “they’re helping to turn the tide of this struggle in freedom’s favor.”

That was good for one news cycle. The problem is, those words are worthless today; not even his own military leaders bother to endorse any talk about turning the tide. As Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday, during a briefing on the Pentagon’s latest quarterly report on Iraq, “The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace. We have to get ahead of that violent cycle, break that continuous chain of sectarian violence.”

Flash back again to that speech one year ago. At another point, Bush lauded the training of Iraqi police officers: “Iraq has now six basic police academies, and one in Jordan, that together produce over 3500 new police officers every ten weeks…As the training has improved, so has the quality of the recruits being trained. Even though the terrorists are targeting Iraqi police and army recruits, there is no shortage of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to secure the future of a free Iraq.”

But again, today’s factual reality has rendered those words inoperative. The new Pentagon report frankly points out that many of those ballyhooed police officers are helping the sectarian killers roam at will: “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Services and the National Police, who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of (security) operations. This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions.”

Here, too, is Bush one year ago: “Iraqi (military) units are growing more independent and more capable; they are defending their new democracy with courage and determination….their confidence is growing…”

But yesterday, Sattler said that even though the number of trained Iraqi forces was expected this month to reach 325,000, the number of available troops – after factoring in all the Iraqis who are “on leave” or who have quit – is actually only 196,000. And as for those aforementioned well-trained police units, the number of battalions deemed ready for “lead responsibility” fell during the autumn season from six to two.

One year ago, Bush also declared that “people are expressing their opinions freely on the streets of Baghdad,” a remark that today might well puzzle the people of Baghdad, who seem to be mostly preoccupied with staying alive. The Pentagon report notes that, last January, there were 180 sectarian “executions,” mostly in Baghdad; during the month of October, the number was 1028.

Bush also said, in that ’05 speech, that “we’re also helping (the Iraqi troops) build a democracy that is worthy of their sacrifice…the Iraqi people have made incredible progress on the road to lasting freedom.” Contrast that assertion with today’s factual reality; yesterday, Peter Rodman, an assistant Defense Secretary, told reporters that the ever-escalating violence is now “shaking the institutions” of our client government.

But perhaps the striking aspect of the Naval Academy speech is the material that isn’t there at all.

That day, Bush blamed the violence in Iraq on what he called three distinct groups: the Sunni Arabs who had lost the “privileged status” they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein; the Hussein loyalists who had held power under Hussein; and al Qaeda fighters. Yet there was no mention of the growing presence of the violent Shiite militias (major players in the sectarian civil war of 2006). In particular, Bush said nothing about the Mahdi Army (controlled by a cleric who is close to the Iraqi prime minister), even though that militia was already a prominent force in the streets. It is cited by the Pentagon today as perhaps the greatest threat to security in Iraq.

In other words, no speech at this point can be expected to “turn the tide,” not when the facts on the ground are clearly beyond his control. Most Americans sense this as well; in the latest CNN poll, 70 percent oppose his handling of Iraq, a record high.

Nor can we assume that Bush’s potential “surge” of additional troops will fundamentally change those facts; Pentagon official Sattler didn’t seem to think so yesterday: “I don’t know how many forces you could push into a country, either U.S. or coalition or Iraqi forces, that could cover the whole country, where these death squads couldn’t find somebody.”

And now, in the wake of reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are skeptical about the workability of a “surge,” Bush has actually reached a fascinating juncture. Would he deliver a speech that overrules the military? Back in that ’05 speech, he said: “If our military leaders tell me we need more troops, I will send them” – but what happens if they tell him NOT to send more troops?

Maybe in January he will simply declare, “I will settle for nothing less than complete victory.” That’s what he said at the Naval Academy. If he uses it again, we will know that none of the evidence from the reality-based community has made a dent.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Our democratic ideals at work

Regrettably, blog posts will be brief and sporadic this week. Other pressing work duties require me to take this temporary measure.

So, two quick items today:

1. Here’s a fresh take on President Bush’s freedom agenda, courtesy of a Navy vet who went to Iraq two years ago as a security contractor. After blowing the whistle on yet another corruption case – his company was apparently selling weapons to Iraqi officials with ties to the death squads – Donald Vance wound up in a military brig for 97 days, without access to a defense attorney or to the evidence that the U.S. had compiled against him. (It turned out there was no such evidence.)

Here’s what Vance says today: “Even Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had. While we were detained, we wrote a letter to the camp commandant stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”

When a Navy vet/security contractor starts talking like a board member of the ACLU, you know that something must be amiss. Vance is also intending to sue Donald Rumsfeld, who would probably respond by saying that you go to war with the protections we provide you, not the ones you might want or wish to have at a later time.

2. The quote of the day, on the Sunday shows, was uttered by Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. Referring to Iraq, and his possible support for a temporary "surge" of additional troops, Reid stated: “The American people will not allow this war to go on as it has.”

The American people won’t “allow” it? What a quaint sentiment. Since when do they have a say?

Even though the ’06 elections were a decisive rebuke of Bush’s war policies, even though most people support a drawdown of U.S. troops, and even though only 12 percent want to send more troops, Bush is nevertheless preparing to send more anyway, as part of his “way forward” to “victory.”

The American people sent Bush a clear message – Bush in the past has defined an election as “an accountability moment” – but thus far it hasn’t mattered a whit. What does this say about the “democratic ideals” that Donald Vance was talking about?

Saturday, December 16, 2006

'08 dropout watch: Why Evan Bayh is taking a bye

There’s apparently no need for Democratic voters to actually go to the polls during the 2008 presidential primary season and winnow the field of candidates – because the candidates are already winnowing themselves.

The first volunteer casualty was Mark Warner, the ex-Virginia governor who was assumed to be positioning himself as a centrist alternative to Hillary Clinton. And now, this morning, we have another casualty – Evan Bayh, the senator from red-state Indiana who was also expected to be position himself as a centrist alternative to Hillary Clinton.

This may be the shortest toe-dipping candidacy in history; just two weeks ago, Bayh announced that he was setting up his "exploratory" committee. But apparently he decided to take a bye on ’08 after realizing that he would not be able to compete for money and media buzz - not just with Hillary, but with the rapidly ascendant Barack Obama.

No doubt Bayh realized this last weekend, when he found himself stumping in New Hampshire at the same time as Obama, and drew roughly as much attention as a panhandler in midtown Manhattan.

He could probably have dealt with one rock star celebrity rival. But two? Forget about it.

From his statement today: “The odds were always going to be very long for a relatively unknown candidate like myself, a little bit like David and Goliath.” Try two Goliaths.

It has actually become common for aspiring candidates to deal themselves out long before the actual voting commences. One reason why perceived frontrunners like to amass money and resources is because their daunting assets might scare away potential competitors. Hillary Clinton is doing that now. Al Gore did that in 1999, as did George W. Bush. And Obama told the Chicago Tribune the other day that he can probably raise $60 million if he takes the plunge.

Bayh would have a hard time matching that kind of money – which is arguably unfair, because he, unlike Obama, has a long track record in elected politics, having served two terms as Indiana governor before moving to the Senate, and thereby having demonstrated great success at selling Democratic values to red state voters. But Bayh is a bland guy with a serious passion deficit, hardly the kind of persona that would fire up primary voters. That was a concern even before Obama became the flavor of the month.

And there was another big impediment, the same one that may have given Warner pause: Democratic primary voters are disproportionately liberal, whereas Bayh is a moderate who has frequently jousted in the past with the liberal wing. He voted to authorize the war in Iraq. He has also cast a lot of votes that liberals would interpret as being sops to the corporate sector (like his fealty to the credit card companies, for instance). For these reasons alone, it was hard to see how he could navigate the crucial early primaries successfully.

Which brings us to Iowa caucuses, the first pit stop on the primary trail, and another rival that has been widely overlooked amidst the media focus on Clinton and Obama. A poll in Iowa earlier this fall suggested that the favorite there right now is…John Edwards. Under the radar, he has been assiduously working the state. He, unlike Bayh, does not have a day job in the Senate, which means he is freed up to work the grassroots 24/7. He, unlike Bayh, has been moving to the left, wooing the labor groups that are crucial to the caucus process in that state. And he, unlike Bayh, is an instinctive performance artist who knows how to turn on his audience.

So maybe it was three Goliaths.

The result is that Bayh has opted for the next best thing: Waiting by the phone, during the summer of 2008, in the hopes that he wins the nod for running mate. He’ll have plenty of company.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Now begins the process of denting the Obama halo

Picture the scene: a heroic Democratic celebrity senator from a big Midwestern state ventures out on the campaign trail to test the presidential waters, far in advance of the actual campaign, and is besieged by the fawning multitudes. As one press report puts it, “residents in one town hosed down their housefronts in preparation for his arrival…he was greeted with extraordinary warmth…Voters lined up for autographs and snapshots…his folk stature gives him tremendous believability with his audiences…”

I am referring, of course, not to Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, but to the man who in 1983 was deemed to have the right stuff for the White House – Senator John Glenn of Ohio, the former gung-ho, can-do astronaut/folk hero who was immortalized on celluloid in The Right Stuff. The quotes above are drawn from a Time magazine article which appeared on June 20 of that year. The movie, starring Ed Harris as Glenn, also appeared that year.

Yet, in the winter of the following year, it was Glenn who disappeared. The purportedly perfect candidate wilted quickly once he was exposed for the first time to the hothouse climate of an actual presidential primary campaign. Which is just my way of saying that all this breathless 24/7 talk about Obama might prove to be a waste of time.

I could be wrong, obviously. But, for the moment, it’s interesting to note that the inevitable dynamics are beginning to take hold. The more Obama inches toward an actual candidacy, the greater the public scrutiny, and the greater the risks of denting that halo on his head. It’s all happening already. When Maureen Dowd is writing about your big ears, and Rush Limbaugh is laughing about how Maureen Dowd is writing about your big ears, it's clear that the honeymoon is over.

Memo to Obama: Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

Policywise, he is already being attacked from both the left and the right. David Sirota, a liberal Democratic activist and blogger, says that Obama may well turn out to be a willing stooge of the corporate special interests that routinely corrupt Washington. And, just a couple days ago, conservative commentator Larry Kudlow wrote that Obama is “an extremely liberal-left politician” who stands against those selfsame corporate interests. Obama may have been in the Senate for only two years, but already he has enough of a voting record to provide ammunition to both sides of the ideological divide.

And for those Americans who profess to care about policy but who, in their heart of hearts, find that stuff to be tad dry, there is already a scandal to latch onto. Or maybe it’s just a perceived scandal. No matter; in politics, perception is akin to reality.

It turns out that the Up With Hope celebrity got down in the muck with a shady dude. As the press back home in Chicago has been reporting lately, Obama swung a lucrative real estate deal with a longtime friendly fund-raiser – one Antoin “Tony” Rezko – who, at the time of the deal, also happened to be the target of a wide-ranging federal investigation. Today, Rezko is in worse shape, having been indicted two months ago on charges of seeking to extort campaign donations and kickbacks from firms that wanted to do business with the state of Illinois.

Rezko says he is innocent. A court of law will determine that. But, for Obama, the court of public opinion has more flexible rules of evidence. A tainted image can be enough to pull a politician down off his pedestal; it doesn’t take much these days, in the presidential campaign realm, to go from hero to zero. From Obama’s perspective, it can’t be a good thing for voters to find out that, in financing his deal with Rezko, he drew on the book advance from his stirring ’04 tome, The Audacity of Hope.

The Rezko deal itself, which appeared to be a cleverly contrived plan to get Obama a sweet purchase on a home for his family, is hardly a fatal political embarrassment. Even though Obama himself acknowledges that Rezko was probably trying to strengthen their “relationship” by doing the senator a favor, this was no taxpayer-financed boondoggle. And Obama has reacted smartly to the press reports; rather than sounding defensive, he has been cranking out mea culpas to anyone who will listen. For instance, he told the Chicago Tribune that it was “stupid” and “boneheaded” to business with a guy who “was already under a cloud of concern.” Indeed, the best way for a politician to defuse a story is to ‘fess up to it.

Nevertheless, for Obama, this episode is a likely portent of what is to come. He has already sought to sell himself as a potentially transformative leader, a rare beacon of hope at a time when most Americans see their country heading in the wrong direction. Any candidate who aspires to that image is setting the bar pretty high for himself. All the more reason why his inevitable policy compromises in the Senate will be placed under the microscope - and why all his past dealings in the bare-knuckled world of Chicago politics will be closely scrutinized.

After all, in many American environs, Chicago politics is hardly a term of endearment.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A history of Tim Johnson, the Bush team's '02 test target

I’m following up on Tim Johnson, the Democratic senator who is currently listed in critical condition after “successful” brain surgery – and whose illness could imperil the fragile ’07 Democratic Senate majority, as I wrote here late yesterday.

Undoubtedly, a lot of people are reacting to this story by asking, “Who’s Tim Johnson?” So while everyone is scrambling to understand the laws and precedents relating to senatorial incapacity, let’s also focus a bit on Johnson – and the important role that he played in national politics, back in 2002.

Early that year, Tim Johnson of South Dakota was the canary in the coal mine. He was arguably the first Democratic senator to be targeted for electoral defeat by the Bush administration on the charge that he was insufficiently patriotic.

I know this well, because I spent a week in South Dakota, in February of 2002. Actually, what I remember most was that you could drive in South Dakota for two straight hours without seeing a tree. What I next remember is that Johnson, a freshman Democrat, was slated to be up for re-election in November – and yet, even at the start of the year, the White House was already trying to take him apart.

Bush, at this particular time, was at the apogee of his popularity. The 9/11 attacks had just happened only a few months earlier, the retaliatory war in Afghanistan was front and center, and the Iraq sales job had barely begun. Moreover, Bush in the 2000 election had won South Dakota by 22 percentage points. Hence, the early decision to go after Johnson, assailing him as a weak obstructionist of the unassailable commander-in-chief. That winter, the White House knew that if they could eject Johnson from his job, the Democrats would lose their one-seat Senate majority (sound familiar?).

So the Bush strategists dispatched Bush emissaries to South Dakota, to deify the Decider; I recall being at a banquet where Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans said of his Texas buddy, “This is a man who has a great mind, a big heart, an extraordinary leader, judgment you can trust.” And the Bush strategists followed up by running a slew of TV ads, sponsored by the national GOP, depicting Johnson as a national security softy whose judgment should not be trusted. (Locals told me that they had never seen such an early barrage of ads, nine months before an election.)

Johnson was a bit of a challenge for the Bush strategists, because he did have a son in the military; in fact, the kid was stationed with the 101st Airborne in Kandahar, Afghanistan. And Johnson himself was an Army vet. But these trifling details didn’t deter the strategists (just as they were not deterred later that year, when they questioned the patriotism of Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, a triple-amputee war vet).

Nor were they deterred by the fact that so many South Dakotans seemed to be ignoring the ads. People complained that the ads were a big waste of money, and that folks were more fixated on their local worries, such as the fact that pine beetles were chewing up the mountain forests on the western border, and prairie dogs were ravaging the land. One rancher named Bill Hutchinson told me, "Maybe if you could believe the ads, you'd pay attention. But you know there's always a shady area, or some exaggeration, or something left out. These [candidates] are good men, but the people writing those ads? I wouldn't want them working for me, because they're not honest."

No matter. South Dakota was a test market for the TV messages that would ultimately help Bush recapture the Senate that November, and Tim Johnson was a test target. Most vividly, there was this TV ad: “Al Qaeda terrorists, Saddam Hussein, enemies of America, working to obtain nuclear weapons. Now, more than ever, our nation must have a missile defense system to shoot down missiles fired at America. Yet Tim Johnson has voted against a missile defense system 29 different times.”

Note the facile linking of al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein; we would hear a lot more of that during the prelude to war in Iraq. More importantly, the ad attacked Johnson for voting against a system that America didn’t have, that America probably won’t have, and that would have been ineffective against the 9/11 attacks anyway. But this was probably a smart ad to run in South Dakota, where the Cold War missile silos had been emptied only a decade earlier.

Nevertheless, Tim Johnson survived on election night – by 524 votes. Yet another squeaker in this era of squeakers. Republicans cried foul, charging fraud at the polls; the Republican state attorney general dismissed the outcry, calling it “shoddy and irresponsible and sensationalistic and garbage.”

So here we are today, fixed again on South Dakota. Will the ’07 Senate stay in Democratic hands, even if an ailing Johnson remains horizontal for the foreseeable future? Quite possibly, because the rules do not require that convalescent senators give up their jobs – which is why Strom Thurmond was able to hang onto his, despite the fact that he was virtually bedridden in his final years.

And we also have the case of Clair Engel, a California senator who was rendered mute by a brain tumor – yet stayed in his seat, and showed up to vote for the historic 1964 Civil Rights Act. Since he could not speak, he indicated “aye” by pointing to his eye.

He died a month and a half later, with no attendant political speculation about his seat. This was, after all, the era of strong Democratic majorities.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Democrats win Senate...wait, not so fast

As I have often observed, Democrats are a lot like Phillies fans - always dreading the worst, usually for good reason. It did appear, however, that their habitual gloom was dispelled on Nov. 9, when the U.S. Senate officially went Democratic, 51-49.

But not so fast. As the late great Gilda Radner used to say, it's always something.

There is news tonight that Democratic Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota has been hospitalized with a possible strike. We all wish him a speedy recovery, and that's what matters most. The political stakes, however, are obvious. Let's play this one out:

If Johnson is somehow unable to serve, he might have to step down.

If he steps down, the governor of South Dakota is empowered to appoint a replacement (who, as I read the state law, would be allowed to serve until a special election is held - on the same day as the next general election...in 2008).

The governor of South Dakota is a Republican. The odds that he would appoint a Republican are approximately 200 percent.

If a Republican takes Johnson's seat, the '07 Senate party breakdown would be 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

If it's a 50-50 breakdown, Vice President Cheney is empowered to break the tie.

Which means that the Republicans would probably get to run the Senate after all...although, as explained here, it's not necessarily that simple. Is there ever a dull moment in national politics anymore?

And speaking of political power swings, am I the only person who remembers that Al Gore conceded his presidential candidacy six years ago tonight?

Rahm Emanuel gets Clintonesque about Mark Foley

To update a line uttered by Captain Renault in Casablanca, I am shocked, shocked to learn that the House Ethics Committee has recommended that no action be taken against the Republican leaders who allowed a sexual predator in their ranks to roam free.

Yes, the leaders were “willfully ignorant,” and, yes, they failed “to exhaust all reasonable efforts to call attention” to Mark Foley’s behavior, but the Ethics Committee report said nonetheless that nobody broke any rules and therefore nobody should be punished in any way. Pretty toothless stuff. I finally got around to reading the report on Sunday night – it was released last Friday, which was no surprise, because Washington politicians always release embarrassing information on Fridays – and its general thrust was fairly predictable.

…Except for all the juicy info about the Democrats.

And the material is even juicier now, in the wake of the NEWS that Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel, the party’s chief hardball strategist for the ’06 House campaign, actually knew about Foley’s predilections back in ’05 – even though he insisted, in an ABC interview this autumn, that he had known nothing about Foley until the network broke the news on Sept. 28.

I started to wonder about Emanuel when I reached page 45 of the report, and read that some of Foley’s emails had been forwarded, in autumn 2005, to a staffer on the House Democratic Caucus, who in turn shared them with Matt Miller, the communications director of the House Democratic Caucus, who in turn shared them with the communications director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. As Miller testified, “I gave them to him…with the understanding that [the DCCC communications director] is someone that talks to reporters all day….maybe there's a way that he could get the - you know, that he could give them to a reporter.”

Rahm Emanuel was the DCCC flak’s boss. Emanuel’s name does not appear in the Ethics Committee Report, but it strained credulity to believe that the DCCC flak would not give a heads-up to the top DCCC honcho. Which, it turns out, is exactly what happened – as evidenced by this report the other day on the CNN website:

“The head of the House Democrats' campaign committee, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, had heard of former Rep. Mark Foley's inappropriate e-mails to a former male page a year before they became public, a campaign committee aide told CNN. . . .the Illinois Democrat was informed in 2005, but never saw the correspondence and did not have enough information to raise concerns. The aide said Emanuel took ‘no action’ because his knowledge was ‘cursory’ and little more than ‘rumor.’”

That defense doesn't score well on the Washington spin meter. The entire Democratic argument, in the Foley scandal, rested on the proposition that House Speaker Dennis Hastert and his fellow Republicans took no action because they conveniently chose not to probe deeply into the information they already had in their possession about their predatory colleague. Indeed, Emanuel told ABC on October 8 that the Republicans should pay a price simply for being so incurious. He offered this analogy: “If a high school teacher was found doing this with a child, and the principal knew . . . the community and parents would have that principal and teacher out."

He wasn’t wrong to characterize the Republican leaders in that fashion; and the Ethics Committee report rebukes the Republican leaders for their convenient incuriosity. But the point is, Emanuel covered up the fact that he – for his own political reasons – had been conveniently incurious as well.

And here he is, in cover-up mode (video link, here), leaving the clear impression that he had no advance knowledge of the Foley emails:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: “I just want to ask you plainly -- did you or your staff know anything about these emails or instant messages before they came out?"

EMANUEL: “No…George, never saw ‘em.”

STEPHANOPOULOUS: “So you were not aware of them? Had no involvement?”

EMANUEL: “No. Never saw ‘em.”

REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN ADAM PUTNAM (interjecting): “Was there an awareness?”

EMANUEL: “No. Never saw ‘em. The first time I ever saw these things…was when (ABC reporter) Brian Ross broke the (story).”

Well. One can see how Emanuel, the former Bill Clinton aide, left himself a bit of Clintonesque wiggle room. He kept insisting that he never “saw” the emails in 2005, and maybe that’s literally true. But that’s not what he was asked. Stephanopoulos asked, “Did you or your staff know anything”? Putnam asked, “Was there an awareness?”

So maybe it just comes down to what the meaning of the word “saw” is.

To recap, nothing in the House Ethics Committee report disputes the meta-narrative of the Foley affair, which is that the ruling Republicans acted in their political self-interest when they turned a blind eye to Foley’s behavior. Nor does the report dispute statements made earlier this autumn by ABC’s Brian Ross, who said that he ultimately got wind of the Foley story from Republican contacts.

But now, in the wake of the news about Rahm Emanuel, we have a fuller picture: the House Democrats turned a blind eye as well, clearly hoping – in their own political self-interest – that the Foley info would somehow surface in the press and thus hurt the GOP in campaign ’06.

All told, Americans who believe that politicians should strictly police their ranks were not well served by either party in the Foley affair.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Give that clueless Democrat an "F"!

As the Democrats prepare to share power in 2007, one of their top priorities is to demonstrate that they can be trusted on matters of national security. They have been handed a golden opportunity – thanks to White House bungling and GOP congressional complicity – and their ’08 presidential prospects may well hinge on whether they can convince independent swing voters that they are worthy of that trust.

Too bad they have flunked their first test.

Consider the case of Democratic congressman Silvestre Reyes. He’s the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Nancy Pelosi’s compromise choice. She didn’t want to pick the hawkish Jane Harman (they have personal issues). Nor did she want to pick the next Democrat on the panel, Alcee Hastings (he’s a former federal judge who was once impeached by the House and ousted from his job by the Senate). So she went to the next Democrat on the panel, Reyes. He’s considered a decent guy, and he’s a Vietnam vet as well.

The only problem is that, despite his service on the panel, Reyes apparently doesn’t know all that much about the global war on terror.

As Jeff Stein, the national security editor of the nonpartisan Congressional Quarterly magazine put it the other day, “Reyes can’t answer some fundamental questions about the powerful forces arrayed against us in the Middle East….How can the Intelligence Committee do effective oversight of U.S. spy agencies when its leaders don’t know basics about the battlefield?... Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.”

Stein has a reputation for giving pop quizzes to national security officials, just to see what they know. He has embarrassed some FBI people this way. He has also embarrassed some House Republicans in the past. Maybe he’d even embarrass President Bush, who, as I recall, stumbled during his first campaign when a TV reporter gave him a pop quiz. (Politicians hate pop quizzes. I remember a snowy day in New Hamsphire, in 1996, when GOP candidate Lamar Alexander was asked whether he knew the price of a gallon of milk and the price of a loaf of bread. He flunked both.)

Anyway, now that the Democrats have a chance to show some national security expertise and project an image of strength, it’s fair enough to put Reyes on the hot seat. And it turns out that Reyes couldn’t answer the most basic question about al Qaeda. Here’s how it went, according to Stein:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong. Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics. Al Qaeda’s Sunni roots account for its very existence. Osama bin Laden and his followers believe the Saudi Royal family besmirched the true faith through their corruption and alliance with the United States, particularly allowing U.S. troops on Saudi soil.

It’s been five years since these Muslim extremists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center. Is it too much to ask that our intelligence overseers know who they are?

As Stein also demonstrated, Reyes didn't know all that much about Hezbollah, either. In the end, Stein asks the reader facetiously, “If President Bush and some of his closest associates, not to mention top counterterrorism officials, have demonstrated their own ignorance about who the players are in the Middle East, why should we expect the leaders of the House Intelligence Committee to get it right?”

I can answer that, at least in political terms. If the Democrats expect to win back the White House in 2008, they need to seriously demonstrate during 2007 that they can get it right.


Indeed, they have rarely had such an opportunity. The latest CBS News poll, released last night, shows that just 21 percent of the American people support Bush’s handling of the Iraq war – a record low. Yet the White House is still trying to shrug off its critics, even though the ever-expanding pool of critics now includes rank-and-file Republican senators like Gordon Smith of Oregon.

As I mentioned here last Friday, Smith delivered a long Senate floor speech that upbraided Bush for his failed prosecution of the war. But when Bush spokesman Tony Snow was asked yesterday about Smith’s defection, he dismissed any suggestion that Smith had made any substantive arguments. Rather, Snow simply said that “politics are emotional in the wake of an election.”

In other words, the White House is not prepared to take even its Republican critics seriously. The circling of the wagons continues.


There's a prominent new blogger at work this week - Tom DeLay. No word yet on whether he'll be tapping the keyboard in his bathrobe down in his Sugarland basement (seriously, it appears the blog will be ghost-written), although it does appear that The Hammer means business. He says he is hoping to use his blog as a rallying point for conservatives.

As a blogger, however, he doesn't seem very comfortable with the notion that he will attract comments from people who don't like him. For instance, on his very first day, this message was posted for his perusal: "You corrupt hypocrite, crawl back to the hole you came out of."

Well, DeLay's blog team reportedly got rid of that message - maybe 100 in all. It appears that the indicted ex-congressmen who once threatened federal judges ("judges need to be intimidated") just can't take the heat when it comes his way.

Monday, December 11, 2006

In decorous language, the wise men expose the Bush credibility gap

Appearing yesterday on Meet the Press, Bush family consigliere James Baker was in the midst of discussing his Iraq Study Group report when he flatly stated: “We don’t spend any time wringing our hands about what happened or might not have happened in the past…Everything in our report is forward-looking.”

Well, Baker is a seasoned political poker player, and that surely explains why he was able to utter those remarks with a straight face. Because, in reality, one of the prime strengths of the bipartisan report is its willingness to revisit the past and boldly chart the Bush administration incompetence that has brought the American mission in Iraq to the brink of ruin.

The Bush team and its defenders have frequently sought to blame “the media” for the woes in Iraq, essentially by arguing that domestic morale has been sapped by journalists who report the bad news while ignoring the good. Bush himself has complained about this since the autumn of 2003, when he said: “we’re making good progress in Iraq. Sometimes it’s hard to tell it when you listen to the filter.” He complained again this past March, saying, “People resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion,” and, as always, the Fox News team seconded the sentiment. Sean Hannity said there has been "a total and almost complete focus on all the negative aspects of the war."

But Baker and his ISG colleagues demonstrate in their report that blaming the media is a fraudulent exercise. They take no issue with the journalists’ reporting of the violence in Iraq; their beef is with the Bush war team – which, as a matter of official statistical policy, has consistently sought to minimize the violence in Iraq…and has done so in order to protect the Bush administration’s ideological agenda.

It’s right there, in passages buried deep in the report:

“(T)here is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq. The standard for recording attacks acts as a filter to keep events out of reports and databases.

“A murder of an Iraqi is not necessarily counted as an attack. If we cannot determine the source of a sectarian attack, that assault does not make it into the database. A roadside bomb or a rocket or mortar attack that doesn’t hurt U.S. personnel doesn’t count.

“For example, on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks of significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence.”

93 acts of violence reported, as opposed to 1,100 acts of violence committed…Baker and his colleagues are too decorous to state the obvious, but what they are essentially saying here is that the Bush administration, in its official capacity, falsely skews its information.

The next line in the ISG report is particularly damning, even though its bureaucratese may require you to read it twice: “Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” That’s dry stuff, intentionally so. But, as an attack on the Bush administration, it has real power. Baker and his colleagues are saying that the war team has “systematically” sought to hide the true extent of the Iraq violence so as not to expose the flaws in the neoconservative mission.

(Read that italicized sentence again. Now read what British officials wrote in their now-famous Downing Street memo, about the Bush team's prewar sales pitch: "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." Sound familiar?)

All told, the ISG report demonstrates that there has been a serious disconnect between the facts on the ground, and what Americans were being told by the Bush administration (in the president’s words in December 2005, there is “quiet steady progress”). And by exposing the in-house informational coverup, the ISG report probably makes it far less likely that the administration will try in the future to blame the downward spiral in Iraq on the journalists who are reporting it. (Although, on CNN this weekend, Bush spokesman Tony Snow made one drive-by remark, accusing the Iraq correspondents of peddling "a failure narrative.")

But journalists well know that the release of the ISG report will not prevent the war’s staunchest defenders from seeking to blame them anyway. Four decades after Vietnam, it’s a virtual axiom in some circles that “the media” “lost” that war, by reporting so much of the bad news. And as Iraq continues to deteriorate, the same line is being floated again; as Michael Novak argues on Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard website, “What we have discovered in Iraq is the weakest link in the ability of the United States to sustain military operations overseas. That link is the U.S. media. They are Islamists' best friends.”

The people who now consider Baker to be a “surrender monkey” are not likely to endorse his contention that it’s the Bush administration, not the media, that should be blamed for destructively shoddy reporting.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A Republican senator says: Mr. President, you're no Churchill

I contended here the other day that President Bush is likely to suffer further political damage because of his Iraq debacle - and that the wounds would be inflicted by Republicans who are “fearful of an ’08 defeat."

Well, this is exactly what I was talking about: Republican Gordon Smith, who is up for re-election in 2008, spoke yesterday on the U.S. Senate floor, signaling that he could no longer stand with a Decider who, among other things, doesn't understand the Middle East and doesn't have a clue about history. Other Republicans are bound to follow.

To give you an idea of how fed up the GOP rank and file has become, I yield the balance of my time today to the junior senator from the blue state of Oregon:

“I have tried to be a good soldier in this Chamber. I have tried to support our President, believing at the time of the vote on the war in Iraq that we had been given good intelligence and knowing that Saddam Hussein was a menace to the world, a brutal dictator, a tyrant by any standard, and one who threatened our country in many different ways, through the financing and fomenting of terrorism. For those reasons and believing that we would find weapons of mass destruction, I voted aye....

“But since that time, there have been 2,899 American casualties. There have been over 22,000 American men and women wounded. There has been an expenditure of $290 billion, a figure that approaches the expenditure we have every year on an issue as important as Medicare. We have paid a price in blood and treasure that is beyond calculation, by my estimation.

“Now, as I witness the slow undoing of our efforts there, I rise to speak from my heart. I was greatly disturbed recently to read a comment by a man I admire in history, one Winston Churchill, who after the British mandate extended to the peoples of Iraq for five years, wrote to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England: ‘At present we are paying 8 millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano.’ When I read that, I thought ‘not much has changed.’ We have to learn the lessons of history and sometimes they are painful because we have made mistakes….

“Many things have been attributed to George Bush. I have heard him on this floor blamed for every ill, even the weather. But I do not believe him to be a liar. I do not believe him to be a traitor, nor do I believe all the bravado and the statements and the accusations made against him. I believe him to be a very idealistic man. I believe him to have a stubborn backbone.

“He is not guilty of perfidy, but I do believe he is guilty of believing bad intelligence and giving us the same.

“I can't tell you how devastated I was to learn that in fact we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction….I believe the President is guilty of trying to win a short war and not understanding fully the nature of the ancient hatreds of the Middle East. Iraq is a European creation. At the Treaty of Versailles (in 1919), the victorious powers put together Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia tribes that had been killing each other for time immemorial. I would like to think there is an Iraqi identity. I would like to remember the purple fingers raised high. But we cannot want democracy for Iraq more than they want it for themselves. And what I find now is that our tactics there have failed….

“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore. I believe we need to figure out how to fight the war on terror and to do it right. So either we clear and hold and build, or let's go home.

“There are no good options, as the Iraq Study Group has mentioned in their report. I am not sure cutting and walking is any better. I have little confidence that the Syrians and the Iranians are going to be serious about helping us to build a stable and democratic Iraq….

“Iraq is a battlefield in that larger (global struggle against terrorism)…But we have no business being a policeman in someone else's civil war.

“I welcome the Iraq Study Group's report, but if we are ultimately going to retreat, I would rather do it sooner than later. I am looking for answers, but the current course is unacceptable to this Senator. I suppose if the President is guilty of one other thing, I find it also in the words of Winston Churchill. He said: ‘After the First World War, let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy or that anyone who embarks on this strange voyage can measure the tides and the hurricanes. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.’ That is a lesson we are learning again….

“I believe now that we must either determine to (fight more aggressively), or we must redeploy in a way that allows us to continue to prosecute the larger war on terror. It will not be pretty. We will pay a price in world opinion. But I, for one, am tired of paying the price of 10 or more of our troops dying a day. So let's cut and run, or cut and walk, or let us fight the war on terror more intelligently than we have, because we have fought this war in a very lamentable way.

“Those are my feelings. I regret them. I would have never voted for this conflict had I reason to believe that the intelligence we had was not accurate. It was not accurate, but that is history. Now we must find a way to make the best of a terrible situation, at a minimum of loss of life for our brave fighting men and women. So I will be looking for every opportunity to clear, build, hold, and win - or how to bring our troops home.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why McCain's "maverick" label no longer applies

At an event last month in New York City, I got into an interesting conversation with some notable journalists. The topic was John McCain. More specifically, the topic was why so many notable journalists give such a free ride to John McCain. And, of course, it only took about 30 seconds before we came up with a consensus answer:

McCain is at ease around journalists, he gives them access, he’s not afraid to think out loud – all of which is so unlike so many contemporary pols, who treat the press like dirt unless they are armed in advance with robotic talking points that are bound to make them look good.

It’s a simple formula, really: Give access, get good press….And it continues to pay off. Even though ’08 GOP candidate McCain continues to curry favor with the religious conservatives leaders whom he once condemned as “the forces of evil,” he is still widely described as a “maverick.” Even though McCain was ranked in 2005 (by voteview.com) as the third most conservative U.S. senator, he is he is still widely described as “independent.” Even though he has flip-flopped lately on a number of issues (he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, but voted to extend them last winter), he is still widely described as a “straight-talker.”

One of his effective selling points, during his failed ’00 presidential bid, was his image as a boat rocker, an insurgent in full cry against the Republican establishment. But now, today, we have further factual evidence that the old labels should not apply. Reports indicate that he has hired, as his 2008 campaign manager, one of the most notorious hardball specialists of the Republican establishment.

Here’s the abridged book on Terry Nelson:

1. Two months ago, Nelson was one of the key GOP consultants who produced the now-famous Tennessee TV ad attacking Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford. Ford is black; at the ad’s conclusion, a white actress playing a semi-naked bimbo winked at the camera and said, “Harold. Call me.” The heat over this ad was so intense that Wal-Mart, another of Nelson’s clients, subsequently decided it would be “the right course of action” not to work with him anymore.

2. Three months ago, when the Republicans decided they could not retain the House or Senate unless they dug up personal information against their opponents and launched a massive negative ad blitz, they hired Nelson to run the effort.

3. Last year, when Nelson launched a new firm, Crosslink Strategy Group, he enlisted the aid of Chris LaCivita, one of the ’04 principals behind the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (whose ads were condemned at the time by John McCain).

4. Nelson’s name surfaces repeatedly in the Texas indictment against former House Republican leader Tom DeLay. Nelson has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, but the indictment indicates that Nelson, in his capacity as a national Republican official back in September 2002, played a key role in helping DeLay and his money men allegedly evade a Texas law that bans the use of corporate money in Texas campaigns.

5. Nelson’s name also surfaces in the New Hampshire “phone-jamming” case. Late last year, James Tobin, the national GOP’s New England political director, was convicted and jailed for his criminal role in a successful effort to jam Democratic party phone lines and thus impede Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts on election day 2002. Nelson, as the GOP political director, was Tobin’s superior. (A New Hampshire GOP official was also convicted and jailed.) At trial, Nelson was on the prosecutor’s witness list, but he was never called.

McCain first hired Nelson as an advisor last winter, apparently unaware of Nelson’s track record. He said at the time he was unaware, anyway. While appearing last March on a Seattle radio show, a caller quizzed McCain about Nelson, citing some of the examples listed above. McCain’s first response: “None of those charges are true.” Then moments later: “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Which to me prompts the question, how can he know the charges are untrue, if he’d never heard them before? In any event, assuming that he has learned more about Nelson in the subsequent months, he is clearly not concerned. Today, he said: “I am honored to have Terry’s leadership.”

I’ll stress again: Nelson has not been criminally charged with anything. But, in view of his hardball track record, his presence at McCain’s side is sufficient proof that the “maverick” label no longer applies.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see why the McCain camp has taken Nelson aboard. McCain wants to win; Nelson plays to win. And, to paraphrase a line from the film Apocalypse Now, charging a politico with shady dealings is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Will Bush listen to inconvenient truths?

Everybody seems to be blasting feathers off the lame duck.

For starters, the American electorate, infuriated by the debacle in Iraq, took aim at President Bush four weeks ago today and delivered a decisive no-confidence verdict. Then Robert Gates, the next Defense secretary, auditioned for his new job yesterday on Capitol Hill by (a) flatly contradicting Bush’s Pollyanna spin on the war, and (b) frankly acknowledging the long string of Bush war team blunders.

And now, today, we have the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (full text found here), which is really an attempt by some grown-ups in the Washington establishment to pierce the Decider’s protective bubble and offer some reality-based advice - even at the risk of telling him some inconvenient truths that, even now, he may not not want to hear. Indeed, the big story in the days and weeks ahead is whether Bush will welcome new thinking, or simply take refuge in his old certitudes.

He was talking a new game at the White House this morning; one line was particularly amusing: “The country, in my judgment, is tired of pure political bickering that happens in Washington, and they understand that on this important issue of war and peace, it is best for our country to work together.” It’s good that he feels that way, since so much of the “pure political bickering” on the issue of war and peace was fostered by the Bush administration, which, this past summer, was still suggesting that those who opposed the White House approach to Iraq were defeatists and appeasers.

Anyway, this morning he lauded the Iraq Study Group for floating “some really very interesting proposals,” which, in translation, means that he of course reserves the right to reject whatever he doesn’t like. And there is plenty of stuff that he won’t like, starting with the recommendation that he bulk up on the diplomatic front by initiating “new and enhanced” efforts to negotiate with the evil-doers in Iran and Syria; and that he establish a goal of phasing out most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, barely a year from now.

Regarding the latter recommendation, it sounds a lot like cut-and-walk; in the words of the Study Group’s executive summary, we need “a change in the primary mission…that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly.” This sounds suspiciously like a prescription for a graceful exit; the problem, however, is that the man who constitutionally remains commander-in-chief until January 2009 signaled last week that he rejects the idea of any graceful exit.

Politicians in Washington have long hoped that the Study Group, headed by ex-Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and ex-Secretary of State James Baker (a senior George Bush insider who is trying to clean up the son’s mess), would somehow conjure some magical solutions for Iraq. Clearly that hasn’t happened, largely because the White House’s neoconservative dream has devolved into such a nightmare. At this point in the spreading civil war, it is fanciful to believe that any magic can be conjured by anyone in Washington, because Washington is not in control of events on the ground in Iraq.

Hence the humble tone in the Study Group’s executive summary; referring to its own recommendations, it says: “All have flaws…There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq.” Hence the carefully hedged remarks in the report, which says, for example, that combat troops should be phased out, but not in accordance with any timeline. In the words of Andrew Bacevich, a national security expert and retired Army lieutenant colonel, almost any recommendations at this point would be “laughably inadequate….One might as well spit on a bonfire.”

The Study Group recommendations, most of which have been leaked in recent weeks, have already drawn fire from both the left and right. Antiwar liberals are attacking the report for recommending a long-term (albeit reduced) U.S. military presence in Iraq, while the unrepentant hawks on the right are ridiculing Baker and Hamilton for suggesting that, in the interests of stabilizing Iraq, Bush should negotiate with Iran and Syria, both of which are members of the “axis of evil.”

Nevertheless, most Americans are hungry for new thinking; in the latest Harris poll, only 26 percent (a record low) support Bush’s handling of the war. This suggests that Baker and Hamilton have the upper hand, politically speaking, in their efforts to talk sense to the president. Basically, these Washington establishment figures see wisdom in phasing out the U.S. combat role and stressing diplomatic initiatives - and those stances are endorsed by most Americans and by most congressional Democrats. The risk for Bush is that, if he rejects these ideas and retreats to his bubble, many of his fellow Republicans, fearful of an ’08 defeat, might bail out as well, leaving him increasingly isolated – and with his international credibility further diminished.

Baker and Hamilton, despite their hedged prose, have thrown down the gauntlet to Bush. There is a clear warning in the executive summary that he should not simply cherry pick the recommendations that he likes while spurning the stuff he doesn’t want to hear. Baker and Hamilton flatly contend that we can’t salvage the Iraq disaster unless Bush accepts their advice on all fronts: “(These) recommendations….are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation.”

One wonders how Robert Gates, the next Pentagon chief, will react if Bush defies the Baker-Hamilton suggestions and sinks further into the desert sands. As evidenced by Gates’ statements yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he now officially on record as an open critic of Bush’s war stewardship and his rhetorical spin.

Asked whether we are winning in Iraq, Gates said, “No, sir,” which is a far cry from Bush’s October declaration that “absolutely, we are winning.” (Gates and the Study Group are in sync; Baker and Hamilton say the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating.") Asked whether invading Iraq was a good idea in hindsight, Gates said, “That’s a judgment the historians are going to have to make,” which is a far cry from the Bush-Cheney contention that they made the right call in 2003 and still think so today.

He also said that we sent insufficient troops to stabilize the country after the invasion (a direct slap at his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld), and he said it was the wrong call to disband the Iraqi Army, a move that fueled the ranks of the Sunni insurgents. And he rebuked the neoconservative hawks who today think it might be a good idea to invade Iran, by deftly dumping on the prewar optimists of 2003: “I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable.”

Back in the distant days when Bush was riding high, when cowed critics were deemed to be lacking in patriotism, this kind of candor by an aspiring Bush official would have been inconceivable. But we are in a different era now. The political test for Bush, as autumn turns to winter, is whether he recognizes that fundamental fact.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Florida again: the mysterious case of the vanishing votes

The widening civil war in Iraq (or, as President Bush prefers to calls it, “the young democracy”) will continue to dominate the news this week, as we await the official release of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. In the meantime, however, a fascinating – albeit underreported – story is unfolding right here in the old democracy, one of those high-tech nightmares that voting experts have long been warning us about.

In a print column last month, after noting that nine separate reports have found fundamental flaws in the new-fangled electronic touch screen machines, I concluded that “a festering problem could well become a future crisis.” Well, it turns out the crisis is at hand right now, on a blessedly small scale, in the southern Florida congressional district that includes Sarasota. We can at least be grateful that, on Nov. 7, control of the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t hinge on the results of a single seat, because, if it had, Sarasota right now would be ground zero in a national psychodrama.

Just do the math: Back on Nov. 20, Florida state election officials decreed that Republican congressional candidate Vern Buchanan was the winner in the 13th congressional district, topping Democrat Christine Jennings by 369 votes. The problem – the enduring mystery, actually – is that nearly 18,000 touch screen voters in Sarasota County went to the polls, and chose their favorite candidates in all the major races…except in the hotly-contested, high-publicized congressional race. According to the touch screen machines, 18,000 people somehow skipped the Buchanan-Jennings contest.

All told, about 15 percent of the voters in Sarasota decided not to choose between Buchanan and Jennings – according to the machines, anyway. Yet elsewhere in the congressional district, the percentage of people who skipped that race was much lower, anywhere from two to five percent. Nobody has yet explained this stark discrepancy, but it’s clear that Jennings, the Democrat, has a major stake in finding out what happened – because, as the Orlando Sentinel has already reported, those 18,000 voters were predominantly Democratic, strongly backing virtually all the other Democratic candidates, up and down the ballot.

Many voters have come forward in recent days to complain that they tried to vote for Jennings, but discovered that their preference was not recorded when the machine displayed a review screen. Jennings is suing for a new election, and she is suing the touch screen manufacturer, Electronic Systems & Software, alleging “evidence of machine malfunction.” The state’s initial probes have not uncovered any malfunctions, but the authors of those aforementioned nine reports (at Stanford and Princeton and Johns Hopkins, among other esteemed locales) have all warned that these machines are prone to either lose votes or simply fail to register votes.

And the post-election probe is hindered by the fact that these machines lack any kind of backup paper trail. Well, what a surprise. Congress has spent the last three years sitting on a bill that would require paper trails on the new touch screens, and now here we are. In addition, we now have a new federal draft report, issued last Thursday, which concludes that paperless electronic voting machines “cannot be made secure.” In the words of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency, the absence of a paper trail “is one of the main reasons behind continued questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections.”

ES&S, the touch screen manufacturer, issued this statement the other day, absolving themselves of blame for the mystery results in Sarasota: "Testing and recounts conducted by Sarasota County and the state have both shown that the touch-screen voting system used in Sarasota County accurately records and tabulates voter selections. Specifically, Sarasota County has conducted a recount - as required by state law. That recount confirmed election day results from the touch screen machines.”

The problem, however, is that this recount was essentially worthless. All it means is that the elections officials recounted the actual votes that the Sarasota machines had already recorded, as opposed to all those they may have failed to record. These are precisely the kinds of “software dependent” machines that NIST, the federal agency, wants to abolish – because they provide no paper trail that could help auditors determine what really happened.

The Republicans and their supporters, meanwhile, have come up with a number of curious arguments that seek to explain away the mystery of the “undervotes”. Buchanan, the certified winner of the election, suggested to the Associated Press that 18,000 Sarasota voters chose to skip the race out of protest, simply because they were “turned off by negative campaigning.” The flaw in that explanation is obvious. Why would predominantly Democratic voters in one county be three to six times more likely to be “turned off by negative campaigning” than the voters in the congressional district’s other three counties?

Charles Stewart III, a voting technology expert and political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has filed a brief on Jennings’ behalf. He summarily rejects the negative-campaign argument: “Evidence that such alternative explanations were causing high undervote rates would have shown up throughout the district, not just in a single county, and not just in one type of voting machine in one county.”

Then we have the Wall Street Journal editorial page, an outpost of the conservative media that has long been known for coming up short on fundamental factual homework. Here’s what the editorialists said last Friday: “if anyone ought to be complaining about undervotes, it’s the GOP. Sarasota is the largest and most Republican country in the district…which makes it more likely that it was Republicans who declined to vote in the congressional race, not Democrats.”

Somehow the editorialists missed the Orlando Sentinel’s report, eight days earlier, which documented that the undervoters were predominantly Democratic. And the Journal neglected to mention that, among all the recorded votes, Democrat Jennings defeated Republican Buchanan in Sarasota County by 52 to 47 percent -- thereby feeding Jennings’ argument that she might have won the election if all votes had been properly counted. Stewart, the MIT expert, agrees; if not for “factors related to machine malfunction,” he contends that Jennings would have won the election, albeit narrowly.

The general public may not be watching this story closely, but the political community certainly is. The topic came up last Thursday at a Washington confab, while I was in attendance. Larry Sabato, the noted University of Virginia pundit, was incensed at the prospect that so many votes had been lost: "It's really outrageous....Imagine how you would feel if that happened in your state or congressional district."

And one of his panelists, former Republican National Committee attorney Michael Toner, while not necessarily endorsing the machine-glitch scenario, said that the United States lags far behind other western democracies "in the professionalization of its elections." Most of the people manning the polling places, he said, are basically "70-year-old volunteers who are making maybe $6 an hour," and are therefore ill-qualified to master and oversee these patently flawed touch screen machines. (Actually, it's worse than that. The feds have yet to put in place a certification procedure that would vet - or question - the reliability of these machines.)

So what happens next in Florida? A state audit of the machines is in the works, Buchanan is setting up his Washington office, while Jennings (who refuses to concede) is demanding that ES&S give up its “source codes,” the proprietary information that would allow independent investigators to probe inside the actual machines. What a mess. Let’s just hope that the latest Florida flap is not just a gruesome dry run for the 2008 presidential election.

And we have been warned enough already; as the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress concluded one year ago, “problems with the security and reliability of electronic voting systems (are) potentially affecting the reliability of future elections, and voter confidence in the accuracy of the vote count.”

Let’s hope the Iraqis with the purple fingers don’t hear about this one.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The envelope, please...Heckuva job, Rummy!

Last night, the venerable Union League of Philadelphia awarded its prestigious Gold Medal to an American whose track record of public service has been deemed by the cream of the city’s tuxedoed establishment to be an inspiration to us all.

That would be Donald Rumsfeld.

I can understand the Union League’s reasoning. If President Bush can award the Medal of Freedom to CIA director George Tenet (the guy who declared that the evidence of Iraq WMDs was a “slam dunk”), and if Bush can award the Medal of Freedom to Paul Bremer (who quickly disbanded the Iraqi army, thereby sowing the seeds for the ensuing insurgent chaos that afflicts us still), then why should Philadelphia’s elite insist on stronger award criteria?

Indeed, why should merit be considered the prime qualification for a Gold Medal, much less any other kind of prize? As a concept, that is so old school. Hang out with any losing Little League team these days, and you quickly discover that every kid gets a trophy, even the one who batted .100 and let every ball squirt between his legs.

So let us join the Union League applause for Donald Rumsfeld, and celebrate some of the various whiffs and errors that apparently won the hearts of the city’s besotted swells. They could've rolled this video at the black-tie soiree:

Here’s the Gold Medal winner on Feb. 7, 2003, predicting that the impending Iraq war “could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months."

Here he is on Feb. 20, 2003, predicting that the American troops "would be welcomed," as happened in Afghanistan, where people in the streets were "playing music, cheering, flying kites."

Here he is a few months later, declaring that we had found Hussein’s WMDs: "We know where they are. They're in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat."

Here he is, even before the war began: “…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

Here he is, on June 27, 2005, seeking to defend Vice President Cheney’s claim that the anti-American insurgency was in its last throes: "Last throes could be a violent last throes, or a placid and calm last throes.”

Here he is on NBC News, that same day, talking about how, during the prewar phase, he had drawn up a list of "15 things that could go terribly wrong," including oil fields set afire and a mass exodus of refugees. When asked whether he had also listed the dangers of a robust insurgency, he replied: “I don’t remember if that was on there.”

And here's a rave review of Rumsfeld, from the editors at the conservative National Review magazine. Put these words in the video: "Rumsfeld has made serious - perhaps catastrophic - mistakes...(Insufficient) troops on the ground, this was a terrible mistake...(He) showed very little interest in planning for post-combat stability operations in Iraq. This was an error too, one for which we are still paying and from which we may never recover...All of this has brought us to a perilous position in which defeat seems more likely than victory."

In fact, let's put Philip Carter - former Army officer and adviser to the Iraqi police - into the video, too: "Iraq dominates the list of Rumsfeld errors because of the sheer enormity of his strategic mistakes. Indeed, his Iraq blunders should have cost him his job long before the 2006 midterm elections....Rumsfeld's failures transformed the Iraq war from a difficult enterprise into an unwinnable one.....These were not tactical failures, made by subordinate military officers. Rather, these were strategic errors of epic proportions that no amount of good soldiering could undo."

Hence his prizeworthy qualifications. So bravo to the Union League, which is merely embracing the elastic contemporary definition of merit. Or, as Rummy himself would put it:

You go to the podium with the winner you have, not the winner you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Friday, December 01, 2006

An annual Washington ritual: spinning the unknowable

One venerable Washington ritual is the post-election confab, in which various strategists and spin doctors sit on a stage with their bottled water and ponder the lessons of the latest vote tallies, while opining about future events that are essentially unknowable. It’s fair to say that, within 48 hours, virtually everybody will have forgotten what was said, which is a blessing in a way, at least for the speakers, because it insulates them from embarrassment when subsequent events prove them wrong.

For instance, I spent much of yesterday at one such annual ritual, the American Democracy Conference, co-sponsored by the University of Virginia (specifically, political swami Larry Sabato) and The Hotline (an online newsletter that is catnip for those political junkies who can afford the steep subscription tab). And I kept reminding myself that, since most of the folks on stage were spinning for one prospective ’08 presidential candidate or another, it means that almost all of them would turn out to be wrong.

As Steve Murphy sees things, for example, the ’06 midterm results prove that Bill Richardson – the ex-Clinton UN ambassador, now the governor of New Mexico – would be the perfect Democratic presidential candidate in 2008.

Murphy, a Richardson consultant, argued that since the Democrats made some serious gains in the interior western states (Colorado, Arizona, Montana), it behooves them to nominate a westerner – someone, like westerner Richardson, who doesn’t “look down” on blue-collar voters, the way that eastern Democrats typically do. Plus, Richardson has cut taxes in New Mexico, he’s “pro-growth,” and he’s “pro-gun.” Plus, because of his Clinton era foreign policy creds, Richardson “has dealt with the bad guys” and wouldn’t hesitate to go face down Kim Jung Il and threaten “to cut off his toes.”

Murphy omitted some interesting material, but, since good cheer abounds at these kinds of events, his rival flaks didn’t bring it up. Such as the fact that Richardson, while serving as Clinton’s last chief of the Department of Energy, was slammed by Democratic senators for security breaches in the nuclear program at Los Alamos (a scandal that may have persuaded Al Gore not to tap him as the 2000 running-mate). And the fact that, in 1995, Richardson, during a stop in Iraq, had his picture taken with Saddam Hussein (and reportedly said, “This picture is going to cost me votes”).

But Murphy wasn’t alone as a spinner. Anita Dunn, a consultant for Senator Evan Bayh of red-state Indiana, said that the ’06 results – which showed some big gains for Democrats in the Midwest - vividly demonstrate why a midwesterner (specifically, Bayh) would be the perfect Democratic nominee. She noted that 10 of the 29 new Democratic seats are located in the Midwest, three of them in Indiana. What she wouldn’t say, of course, and what others on the panel were to polite to point out, is that there are many Democrats who privately say that if Evan Bayh was a Baskin Robbins flavor, it would be vanilla.

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, I heard consultant David Kensinger hint strongly that one of his clients, Kansas senator and religious-right favorite Sam Brownback, is exactly what Republican voters are looking for – “a consistent, principled, Reaganite conservative.” He also said that, ’06 results notwithstanding, most Americans still view the GOP as “a natural governing party at the presidential level.” But he didn’t bother to explain how an outspoken social conservative who opposes legal abortion and embryonic stem-cell research would play well in the Northeast and Midwestern suburbs, where the party suffered heavy losses in the ’06 election and badly needs to recoup.

Then there was Jan van Lohuizen, a pollster for Mitt Romney, who scoffs at the notion that any voters have a problem with the fact that his client is a Mormon: “(People) will hear questions about the Mormon thing until it’s ridiculous…The question will wear itself out. There’s no answer to it, because the question is a weapon.” While he clearly sees America as a tolerant land, he omitted the fact that, last June, a Los Angeles Times-Bloomberg poll found that 37 percent of Americans wouldn’t vote for a Mormon; and that, in a Rasmussen poll two weeks ago, 53 percent of Christian evangelicals - a key group in the GOP primaries - said they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon.

And, lastly, there was longtime strategist Rich Galen, making the case for why the post-’06 landscape is fertile turf for Newt Gingrich – maybe as a presidential candidate, maybe as backstage policy maestro. In Galen’s words, “Newt will go just go out and do what he does….He wants to be in a position not so much to be President of the United States per se, but to frame the debate for the nomination process.”

The Gingrich pitch these days is that congressional Republicans tanked in the ’06 elections because they have fatally strayed from their core values, notably clean government and conservative reform. Yet I have been waiting for somebody somewhere to note the fact that Newt is probably ill-suited to lead the charge for this message – because, after all, he was one of the first to violate those core values.

In 1997, just two years after leading the conservatives to power, he became the first sitting House speaker in history to be reprimanded by the chamber for an ethics breach. Nailed by the House Ethics Committee for financial improprieties and for twice providing the panel with false information, he finally admitted, “my actions did not reflect creditably on the House.” And not long after, a band of House conservatives tried to stage a coup to remove Gingrich from his post – on the grounds that he was betraying the conservative faith. One of the ringleaders: Tom DeLay.

Given the restive national mood, the wide-open nature of the ’08 race, and the flaws that nag virtually all the major party candidates, perhaps the day’s most intriguing remark was uttered in passing by Doug Sosnik, a former Clinton White House aide who has signed up with ’08 Democratic hopeful Christopher Dodd. He said that “there’s a reasonably high chance of a third-party candidate.” Later, he elaborated: “Take a look at any of the polls. Neither party is held in particularly high esteem. Most voters at this point aren’t emotionally attached to either of them.”

Indeed, there is persistent backstage buzz about New York mayor Michael Bloomberg perhaps spending half a billion from his personal fortune on an independent bid, selling himself as a bipartisan technocrat who can repair the broken political process. Much ink has already been expended on this scenario. But is America ready for a divorced billionaire urban Jew? Frankly, I’d give a Mormon better odds.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Pelosi nixes Alcee, Bush leaks on Maliki, Webb disses W, Frist pulls plug

A quartet:

No doubt the Republicans were disappointed to learn last night that ‘07 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi won’t be tapping the scandal-marred congressman Alcee Hastings to head the Intelligence Committee. No doubt the GOP message machine was revving its engines for the joyful task of tagging Pelosi as a sleazebag and national security wimp.

And if Pelosi had indeed bypassed hawkish congresswoman Jane Harman and instead chosen a guy who had once been impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate for sleazy doings as a federal judge (including seven counts of making false statements), the GOP would have had a lot of potent ammo to work with.

Clearly, Pelosi became convinced the political downside of naming Hastings trumped the upside of naming the designated favorite of the Congressional Black Caucus. After losing her first big battle – she wanted John Murtha as her chief deputy, but the House Democratic rank and file said no – she could ill afford another political embarrassment, particularly since she hasn’t even picked up the gavel yet.

But even though Pelosi foes were denied the gift of Hastings yesterday, some are still trying to salvage some useful spin. On one popular conservative website early this morning, for instance, a blogger basically says that, OK, Pelosi did right by denying the post to Hastings…but she didn’t act fast enough: “it should have been an easy call from the outset to say that Hastings would not be allowed to chair the Intelligence Committee.

And yet, we were actually kept in suspense regarding the issue. Astonishing…In a better world, the Hastings candidacy would have been dead in the water from the moment that it was announced as a possibility.”

Pelosi can live with that kind of fallout. On the umbrage meter, that’s 2 on a scale of 10.

Probably more noteworthy is Hastings’ reaction to this whole affair. Here’s a guy who, as a federal judge in 1988, was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House on a vote of 413-3, because he took a $150,000 bribe; who was convicted by the Senate on eight articles, and thus tossed off the federal bench; whose removal was supported by the likes of Ted Kennedy., John Kerry, and Harry Reid; and who, as a result, would not pass the simplest background check that is required of low-level CIA job applicants…and yet his reaction in recent days has been to paint himself as a victim of an unfair political conspiracy.

Last week, he circulated a letter blaming his woes on “Newt Gingrich, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin, Michael Barone, Drudge, anonymous bloggers, and other assorted misinformed fools,” as well as “faceless and nameless people at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, the L.A. Times, the Dallas Morning News.” He somehow omitted all the Democrats who ran the impeachment process, most notably fellow black congressman John Conyers. His parting shot yesterday: “Sorry haters, God has not finished with me yet.”

Bottom line: Curt Weldon, meet Alcee Hastings. When pols find themselves in a fix, their gut instinct is to blame others. Human nature transcends political affiliation.


Remember how the Bush administration always takes great umbrage whenever somebody leaks a classified document to the New York Times, to the point where both the leakers and leakees are threatened with prosecution and tagged as enemies of the state?

Well, this morning I glanced at the front page, found yet another story based on the leak of a classified document – and then I saw this: “An administration official made a copy of the document available to a New York Times reporter seeking information of the administration’s (Iraq) policy review. The Times read and transcribed the memo.”

So there it is: If somebody outside the inner circle leaks a document, it’s treasonous. When somebody inside the inner circle leaks a document, it’s statecraft.

In this particular case, the White House clearly seems intent on blaming the Iraqi prime minister for the mess in Iraq, in advance of President Bush’s meeting today with the prime minister; as the document puts it, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki “is either ignorant of what’s going on, misrepresenting his intentions, or…his capabilities are not yet sufficient to turn his good intentions into action.”

Ignorant of what’s going on, misrepresenting his intentions…One is tempted to invoke the old saw about the pot calling the kettle black, but let’s move on:

The main problem with this administration-sanctioned leak is that it exposes a core contradiction in the current White House stance toward Iraq. On the one hand, Bush yesterday referred to Iraq as “a sovereign country,” yet the leaked memo makes it clear that the White House at this point views Iraq as barely a country at all, and that propping it up might require thousands more U.S. troops in Baghdad, as well as greater U.S. involvement in the Iraqi political process, starting with “monetary support to moderate groups.”

And while the Bush team is leaking a memo warning that it’s Maliki who better shape up, the Republican establishment back home continues to broadcast warnings that it’s Bush who better shape up. The latest salvo comes from Senator John Warner, chair of the Armed Services Committee (underscoring his earlier warnings). Yesterday, he said: “We’re going to try and devise some new strategies, hopefully with the president’s concurrence…Our soldiers, sailors and airmen should not be in there, risking their lives, losing their lives to stop a civil war.”

Hopefully with the president’s concurrence....Translation: Either Bush goes along with us, or he should just get out of the way. And take note of Warner’s closing words; his endorsement of the term civil war is another shot across the bow.


Dialogue of the day, a harbinger of the ill feeling that will permeate Washington as the next election season draws closer:

At a recent White House reception, incoming Virginia Democratic senator Jim Webb, the feisty soul and potential loose cannon whose son is a Marine serving in Iraq, had a close encounter with the president.

BUSH: “How’s your boy?”
WEBB: “I’d like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President.”
BUSH: “That’s not what I asked you. How’s your boy?”
WEBB: “That’s between me and my boy, Mr. President.”


Bill Frist, the lame duck Senate Republican leader, won’t be running for president in 2008. His statement today: “In the Bible, God tells us for everything there is a season, and for me, for now, this season of being an elected official has come to a close. I do not intend to run for president in 2008.”

It’s easy to understand why Frist made this decision. Considering the results of the 2006 elections, one can conclude that a Beltway insider from the discredited GOP Senate leadership would be toast in Iowa and New Hampshire. The conservative faithful would have slapped him silly, for failing to sufficiently advance their agenda; and, even if he had successfully run that gauntlet, independent swing voters would have spurned him for, among other things, his role in the Terri Schiavo affair, in which he politicized his medical bona fides by insisting, on the basis of a video, that the comatose woman was not in a vegetative state.

All told, he appears to be facing reality. There are many Democrats who undoubtedly wish he would now reach across the aisle and convince John Kerry to do the same.