Saturday, April 01, 2006

The cult of victimhood

One of the fascinations about politicians is the way they try never to take the blame for their own failings.
This habit didn't start with Hillary Clinton's insistence that philandering Bill was merely the victim of "a vast right-wing conspiracy," or with Richard "Watergate" Nixon's insistence that the Jews were out to get him (he ordered an aide to "count the Jews" in the federal bureaucracy). In fact, you can go all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who responded to reports about his affair with slave Sally Hemings by insisting that Federalist gossips were out to get him (the affair is now established as true).
But, in our current era, the blame-shifting is often even more pronounced, because we have such a strong cult of victimhood. Which brings us to the winners of this week's Woe is Me Awards. In the spirit of bipartisanship, I bestow one to a Republican and another to a Democrat.
My Republican winner is Tom DeLay.
He's the guy who lost his post as House GOP leader because he was indicted by a Texas grand jury on charges of money laundering and conspiracy, and because he remains under a cloud due to his extensive ties to his former dear friend, the felon-lobbyist Jack Abramoff (who was sentenced to six years in prison early last week). DeLay has fallen so far that he's fighting now to hang on to his congressional seat, and the fact that a second former DeLay aide has now pleaded guilty to taking illegal gifts from Abramoff probably won't help his status among swing voters.
But are these really the reasons why DeLay is down for the count? No way. Not according to DeLay and his loyalists.
They say that DeLay is being persecuted because he is a Christian.
DeLay showed up in Washington the other day at a conservative conference that was convened to discuss "The War on Christians." The host, Texas pastor Rick Scarborough, introduced DeLay with these words (none of which DeLay took issue with): "I believe the most damaging thing that Tom DeLay has done in his life is take his faith seriously into public office, which made him a target for all those who despise the cause of Christ...This is a man that I believe God has appointed!"
DeLay then spoke, casting himself on the side of virtue: "Sides are being chosen, and the future of man hangs in the balance! The enemies of virtue may be on the march, but they have not won, and if we put our trust in Christ, they never will."
Now, I did find this enlightening. I had never realized there was a war on Christians, certainly not when I hang out at holiday time in my favorite coffee shop and routinely hear 90 minutes of thunderous Christmas music pumped through the PA system; or when I see people in my neighborhood filing peacefully into church every Sunday without anyone firing at them; or when I visit my favorite southern town and, while shopping for hiking gear in a public store, find that I'm being serenaded by a Christian conservative radio show; or when I read polls which say that 85 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian.
Seems to me that, suggestions of a "war" notwithstanding, Christians have things well in hand in America, which is fine - and that DeLay's problems seem far more attributable to the secular world, namely the Texas election laws, the Texas courts, and the U.S. Justice Department.

The Woe is Me Award-winning Democrat is Cynthia McKinney.
She's the Georgia congressman who allegedly struck a Capitol Hill police officer the other day, apparently hitting him with her cellphone during a scuffle - when the officer sought to bar her entry. She had circumvented a metal detector staffed by the cops, but was stopped because she was not wearing the requisite lapel pin that would have identified her as a congresswoman.
That's when the physical encounter apparently ensured. The officer involved in the incident might file assault charges as early as next week, according to one reliable report; he also drew support from his colleagues, who said he was merely fulfilling his "duties and responsibilities" at a checkpoint where security has been beefed up since 9/11.
Yesterday, McKinney held a press conference. She said it was the cop's fault. She said she had been harassed because she is black.
Now, at this point, it's important to bring up some of McKinney's history; she has a penchant for provocative statements and behavior. Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, she contended that President Bush had received, in advance, "numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11," and that he had decided to do nothing; in that way, she charged, he and his cronies could "make huge profits off America's new war."
These charges were judged to be a tad too inflammatory for the voters of her Georgia district, who tossed her out of office in 2002. (She won the seat back two years later.) In the wake of that 2002 defeat, the most noteworthy reaction came from her father, who shared with an Atlanta TV station his theory of why she lost:
"Jews have bought everybody. J-E-W-S."
There is no information about whether the officer in the Capitol scuffle is Jewish. He is, however, white. And that was enough for her lawyer to contend yesterday that "Ms. McKinney is just a victim of being in Congress while black.”
McKinney then tried a new tack, arguing that the cop simply should have known who she was. "The issue," she said, "is face recognition."
No, congresswoman. The issue is, just wear the lapel pin.

Friday, March 31, 2006

Is it over, Grover?

Last night I popped over to the National Constitution Center to hear Grover Norquist, one of America's most influential conservative leaders, and a key comrade to everyone on the right, from Karl Rove to his old pal, the convicted felon-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
I was curious about whether Norquist, who has spent his career working for a permanent Republican majority, would be downbeat about the GOP's prospects in the 2006 congressional elections, given the fact that a restive electorate is generally likely to focus its ire on the party in power.
I was also curious, because of Norquist's combative nature, and famed reluctance to cede any ground. This is a guy, after all, who once said that "bipartisanship is another name for date rape," and said, at another point, "It is not good enough to win; it has to be a painful and devastating defeat....It is like when the king would take his opponent’s head and stick it on a pike for everyone to see.”
So, what about these '06 elections? Could the Republicans lose control of either the House or Senate?
With someone like Norquist, it pays to listen between the lines. His short answer was that, no, such a disaster will not happen, in part because the economic indicators are strong, and in part because the Democrats have not recuited enough top-notch House candidates this year.
Grover is right on the recruitment; according to non-partisan analyst Charlie Cook, "Democrats have missed a number of opportunities....Of the 86 Republican-held districts that we consider to be the most potentially vulnerable...there are 37 where Democrats have a candidate who meets at least a minimum standard of credibility. Still, we consider just 17 to be top-caliber challengers." On the other hand, citing the prevailing voter mood, Cook last weekend told NBC that "the Republicans will be lucky to hold onto anything."
Indeed, Norquist did hint that a voter revolt is possible, because of what he also called "a perfect storm" of recent events: the Katrina debacle, the Harriet Miers court nomination that angered so many conservatives ("a self-inflicted wierd wound that I still don't begin to understand"), and the milestone of the 2000th American soldier killed in Iraq.
Iraq is much on his mind: "If Iraq is in the rear-view mirror in October, then Republicans will be fine (on election day). If Iraq is in the windshield, right in front of you, then there are more challenges."
Challenges...That's the kind of word that CEOs use when they talk about the prospects of falling profit margins.
In the National Review today, conservative analyst Rich Lowry is far blunter: "The GOP still has a few things on its side — time (the public mood could shift before the fall); gerrymandering (so few congressional districts are competitive that it will be difficult for Democrats to find enough to pick off); and events (maybe, just maybe, Bush does get lucky somewhere). But none of this goes to the White House’s real vulnerability: Intellectually, it is running on empty..."
Anyway, Grover also had some thoughts on 2008. He thinks, for instance, that Hillary Clinton has the Democratic nomination sewed up already. He painted a tableau of the primary season debates, in his inimitable way. Hillary aside, he envisions "six or seven munchkins all sitting around, kicking each other under the table...They'll throw things at each other, while sucking up to Hillary, because they're all running for vice president."
He thinks a Hillary nomination is good news for the GOP, but he can't predict who'd oppose her. He likes George Allen, the Virginia senator, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, because they're competing for "the center of the Reagan coalition." But he doesn't like John McCain (the feeling there is mutual; there's still bad blood from 2000, because Grover assailed McCain as a tax-hiker).
But let's finish with more on the '06 races. It can be argued that the sour public mood is also influenced by the cash-for-access sweetheart deals that have beset the governing party over the past few years. Norquist has not been charged with any wrong-doing, but he has played a pivotal role in augmenting Jack Abramoff's insider influence.
He and Grover have been political comrades since the '80s, and over the past decade the lobbyist got his Indian casino clients to steer at least $1.5 million to Grover's tax-exempt Washington organization, in exchange for Grover-facilitated access to powerful GOP politicians (as detailed here). Two weeks ago, in fact, the New York Times reported that the chief of an Indian tribe represented by Abramoff got access to President Bush in 2001, just days after the tribe paid Grover's group $25,000 at Abramoff's direction.
What about that, Grover?
"We have hundreds of significant donors. We have brought hundreds to the White House. It's possible there was overlap of one or two."

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Vote for a government of our choosing

The historical record has now established that President Bush and his war planners viewed the toppling of Saddam Hussein as a strategic opportunity to introduce democracy in the heart of the Middle East, with the expectation that western-style values would take root and spread peace throughout the region. The flaw in that bold thinking, however, was to assume that voters would comply by electing the people with whom the Bush administration would feel most comfortable.
And now we're seeing the consequences. Bush right now is stuck with a prime minister he doesn't like, a prime minister who is allied with the forces that could trigger full-blown civil war, a prime minister who got the job in accordance with the rules established in the same Constitution that Bush has touted as a symbol of democratic progress.
No wonder we're in a pickle over there.
The Iraqi voters last December basically divided starkly along sectarian and ethnic lines, and wound up awarding the largest number of Parliament seats to the religious Shiites, and, under the rules of the new game, they had the right to nominate a prime minister. Result: The job went to Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who is tight with the leader of a violent and populous Shiite militia.
What can Bush do when the "wrong" guy gets chosen in a free process? He sends word that the wrong guy should consider himself gone, no matter what the voters essentially decided.
As Bush said earlier this week, through his ambassador to Iraq, the president "doesn't want, doesn't support, and doesn't accept" Jaafari as the long-term choice for that post. And sure enough, as we see today, Jaafari is digging in, by throwing Bush's democratic rhetoric back in his face: "(S)ome American figures have made statements that interfere with the results of the democratic process."
Such are the pitfalls of exporting democracy. Bush now has the choice of bowing to the free process and accepting Jaafari (who is also tight with Iran) - or interfering further in Iraqi politics and risk undercutting America's credibility in Iraq even more. Because, on the issue of credibility, we have this Bush remark, uttered on March 10, addressing the importance of Iraqi voters choosing the government that they want:
"We want the Iraqis to make that selection, of course. They are the ones who got elected by the people. They’re the ones who must form the government."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Democrats' security blanket

Tough and smart. Tough and smart.
Did I mention that Democratic leaders want you to think they are tough and smart?
Today, that buzz phrase permeated their rhetoric as they unveiled their long-awaited national security agenda -- Senator Evan Bayh, an '08 presidential hopeful, has also invoked tough-and-smart umpteen times in recent speeches -- and it's a signal that the minority party, in preparation for the '06 congressional elections, is intent on overhauling the soft-on-defense image that has dogged it for decades.
The goal is: No more jokes about John Kerry's 2004 flipflop gaffe, "I voted for it before I voted against it." No more laughing about how puny Michael Dukakis looked riding around in a tank (1988). No more references to Jimmy Carter's botched attempt to rescue the Iranian hostages, complete with photos of the charred choppers in the desert (1980). No more footage of George McGovern and his peace movement pals (1972). The goal is to get skeptical Americans to skip the past 30 years, and think of today's Democrats as heirs to the tough-guy Democratic traditions of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK.
By releasing today's somewhat sketchy agenda, "Real Security: Protecting America and Restoring Our Leadership in the World," Senate and House Democratic leaders are clearly trying to avoid the party's fatal errors of 2002 - when, in the midst of congressional elections being staged in the shadow of 9/11, and with President Bush prepping the case for war in Iraq, Democrats basically tried to change the subject and run instead on domestic issues. They paid dearly on election day.
Democrats know that such a strategy won't wash this year; besides, with Bush and the GOP Congress down in the polls, the mood seems right for Democrats to challenge the governing party on the latter's issue turf.
As recently as 2003, a bipartisan poll showed that, by a margin of 30 percentage points, Americans favored the GOP as the party best capable of fighting the war on terror; currently, according to a new Time poll, the GOP is favored by only 10 points. Democrats know they need to close that gap even further, in order to lure back wary independents, particularly (in the words of Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg) "a large chunk of white non-college voters."
So, will the new Democratic security agenda do the trick? Depends on what you're looking for.
If you're hungering for great specificity, particularly with regard to the future status of U.S. troops in Iraq, the agenda will disappoint. The party is basically AWOL on that issue. It calls only for "the responsible redeployment of U.S. forces," without spelling out the terms (or timetable) under which that would be deemed advisable. Meanwhile, the agenda says that Democrats would "insist" that Iraqis make the necessary compromises for unity - which is basically what Bush is trying to do, with scant success today.
The liberal wing of the party might not be satisified with the Iraq provisions, because it would prefer a blunt vow to withdraw large numbers of troops, as a way to get the Iraqis to shape up.
The document also says that Democrats will "eliminate Osama bin Laden," hopefully by doubling the size of the Special Forces, but that's the extent of the information on how that task would be accomplished. That line seems to be intended more as a political slogan for the campaign, as a simple reminder that Bush hasn't done the job.
Democrats are arguably on more substantive ground with their homeland-security ideas. Their agenda says that Democrats would "immediately implement the recommendations of the independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission, including securing national borders, ports, airports, and mass transit systems...Screen 100 percent of containers and cargo bound for the U.S. in ships or airplanes at the point of origin..." There is also a reference to the Dubai deal debacle: "Prevent outsourcing of critical components of our national security foreign interests that put America at risk."
There were signs today that Republicans are taking this Democratic effort quite seriously -- if only because they began to attack the agenda long before it came out. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi unveiled it at one p.m. today, yet Texas Senator John Cornyn was online with a pre-rebuttal at 7:18 a.m.
Cornyn cited the provisions, including securing the nation's ports, then scoffed: "These are all efforts that the administration and Republican Congress have implemented..."
But that statement is factually incorrect.
Thomas Kean, the 9/11 Commission co-chairman, said last autumn that homeland security was "not a priority for the government...A lot of things we need to do really to prevent another 9/11 just simply arent being done by the President or by the Congress." And according to a congressional study, only $560 million has been spent to help secure ports (as opposed to $18 billion for aviation safety). And only seven percent of cargo is reportedly screened for security purposes.
So Democrats might gain some traction from inaccurate GOP attacks, if only because a growing number of Americans seem so weary of the Republican message.
On the other hand, skeptics could read this agenda and conclude that the Democrats view Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown and Root, and other U.S. contractors abroad as a pernicious threat equal in magnitude to Iran and North Korea. The latter two nations receive exactly one boilerplate sentence: "Redouble efforts to stop nuclear weapons development.." (How? In what way would the Dems' approach differ from the Bush approach? No answer here.)
No wonder some of the Democrats' natural allies seem cool to this agenda. Here's the instant analysis from Rolling Stone magazine: "(I)f this is supposed to be the document that assures national-security minded voters that the Democrats are the more trustworthy party, it falls flat. This plan is the product of the Democrats' least-common-denominator thinking. Instead of bold vision it stinks of timidity -- and that's just not going to cut it."
If ultimately that's the verdict, who needs flak from John Cornyn?

Bolten is quite a Card

In my print column today, I noted that the White House personnel shuffle - chief of staff Andrew Card, a veteran Bush loyalist/insider, is being replaced by budget chief Josh Bolten, a veteran Bush loyalist/insider - does not exactly signal an influx of new blood and fresh thinking within the beleaguered administration. After all, Karl Rove has long conferred his blessing on Bolten, saying, "I love him in an entirely appropriate way."
It's arguably charming that Bolten rides a motorcycle and likes rock music - the inevitable humanizing factoids that show up in first-day profile pieces. (Maybe he should play that '71 song by The Who: "Meet the new boss/same as the old boss...") Far more important is the evidence that top Republicans - some of them are even on the record - agree that the Bolten ascent doesn't begin to address the woes inside the White House bubble.
For instance, Mississippi Senator Trent Lott tells CNN, "I think they need people with greater stature and gravitas to come in and work all over the place in the White House." (Lott doesn't mind saying these things out loud, because he has been steamed at the White House ever since 2002, when he uttered some insensitive remarks about segregation and Bush refused to stand by him, thereby triggering Lott's downfall as Majority Leader.)
Most Republicans prefer anonymity, however. Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper that is kept behind a subscription wall, had this passage today:
". . .One senior GOP Senate staffer said more shakeups are a must to ensure the political health of the administration and the party, saying, 'I think they've hit rock bottom.' This aide said Card's departure is a mixed blessing: 'The good thing is new ideas and a burst of energy is really needed. The bad is that it's more of the same. It's not someone new coming in. . . Let's just hope there will be more [changes], for all our sake.'"
I also mentioned in my newspaper column today that Bush will never get widespread credit for a serious housecleaning unless or until he moves Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld out of his job. The conservative Weekly Standard magazine has been pounding at Rumsfeld for years, blaming him for bad execution in Iraq. But perhaps the most stinging assault on Rumsfeld comes this month from conservative columnist David Brooks, who had just read the devastating and bestselling book on the early days of the war, Cobra II. Since Brooks' stuff is behind the New York Times subscription wall, you might have missed this nugget:
"Rumsfeld and (General Tommy) Franks stifled the free exchange of ideas, and shut out the National Security Council. They dismissed concerns about the insurgents and threatened to fire the one general, William Wallace, who dared to state the obvious in public...''Cobra II'' makes Rumsfeld and Franks each seem like Barry Bonds: a formerly intimidating figure who now just seems pathetic."
But there's a big reason why most rank-and-file Republicans have not been openly assailing the Bush bubble, nor the minimal changes announced yesterday. It's because they have been told by Republican operatives that criticism of their leader will ultimately reflect badly on them. I have heard that this advice was offered in a memo, and now, finally, I see that the memo has surfaced. The key passage:
"The President is seen universally as the face of the Republican Party. We are now brand W. Republicans....President Bush drives our image and will do so until we have real national front-runners for the '08 nomination. Attacking the President is counter productive for all Republicans, not just the candidates launching the attacks. If he drops, we all drop."
If he drops? Have these guys checked out the polls, from Gallup to Fox News?

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Card shuffling

The resignation this morning of White House chief of staff Andrew Card does not strike me as being one of those events that galvanizes the nation. It fails to pass what I call the Hey Honey Test, as administered by the average John Q. Citizen, watching the TV news in his kitchen.
To wit: "Hey, honey, drop that sponge and get over here -- didja know that Andrew Card is leaving his job?!"
See what I mean?
On the other hand, there are things that can be said about this ostensibly inside-the-Beltway development. But I will say them in print tomorrow morning.

Newt Gingrich, Democratic strategist

That venerable mid-'90s political superstar, Newt Gingrich, is on a relentless quest to keep himself in the news. He's auditioning for the role of GOP savior, just in case the Republicans get so panicked about their future prospects that they decide to pick up the phone and summon him back to the limelight.
He's been doing this for quite awhile - I interviewed him in Philadelphia over a year ago - and now, apparently, he is branching out, offering advice even to the other side. In a new chat with Time magazine, he catalogued what he sees as a succession of Republican screwups and warned his allies that if they can't get themselves straightened out, "the country will decide to take a flyer on the Democrats, because (voters) just get tired of it. That's how American politics work."
So what, sage Newt, should the Democrats do? Should they (as many observers insist) come up with a detailed platform for the 2006 congressional elections?
Newt says no. Instead Newt advises that "what they should do is say nothing, except 'Had Enough?'"
Had Enough?...Well, as slogans go, that's better than anything the Democrats seem to have come up with so far, such as "Together, We Can do Better" and "Together, American Can Do Better," and "American Can Do Better," without the "together."
(One might wonder why Newt seems so willing to be helpful. Veteran Newt-watcher Marshall Wittmann contended on his blog today that Newt "has a vested interest in seeing to it that the donkey prevails in November. On the ashes of the GOP defeat, Newt will begin his resurrection from the political graveyard...")
Interestingly enough, what Newt didn't say - and I can't believe he doesn't know this, since he's a student of history - is that "Had Enough?" was the winning slogan for Republicans in the 1946 congressional elections.
The GOP that year had only a national slogan, not a platform. They basically tapped into the public's postwar weariness about inflation (20 percent), housing shortages, meat rationing, and labor strife - all of which became identified with the Democrats, who had ruled Congress and the White House for the past 13 years. The Republicans didn't ever say how they would cure any of those ills (except for a vague promise to root out communism) - but they picked up 13 Senate seats and 56 House seats that November, giving them majorities in both chambers, simply by making the race a referendum on the "in" party.
Newt's suggestion that a mere slogan can win it for the Democrats might seem surprising - since, after all, he's widely credited as the mastermind of 1994, when (history claims) the Republicans swept to power in Congress thanks to a specific Newt platform known as the Contract with America. But, in reality, this is a myth that has gained retrospective credence. One week before that 1994 election, fully 71 percent of Americans had never heard of the Contract. That election turned on two factors: Republican voters' strong disaste for Bill Clinton and his Democratic allies; and an underwhelming Democractic turnout.
I'd bet that the Democrats in 2006 will try not to go overboard on specifity. It's quite possible they'll decide that a slogan akin to "Had enough?" might be enough.

Monday, March 27, 2006

That pesky historical record

It's fact-checking time again.
At a press conference last week, President Bush stated: "I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong.... No president wants war....I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the (U.N.) Security Council."
But he was not stating the facts. He did want war.
And the evidence comes from his own allies, the British, in yet another revealing document from the files in London. This document has been paraphrased in recent months, notably in a January book authored by a British legal expert, but a new report today quotes it directly.
The five-page memo, written several months before the start of the Iraq war, makes it clear that Bush was determined to commence hostilities regardless of whether he was successful in obtaining U.N. approval - and regardless of whether the international arms inspectors found any dangerous weaponry inside Iraq during the final months of peace.
The memo, written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's chief foreign policy advisor in the aftermath of a Blair-Bush meeting in Washington on Jan. 31, 2003, and intended as a summary of Bush's thinking, states that "our diplomatic strategy had to be arranged around the military planning" for war, because "(t)he start date for the military campaign was now penciled in for 10 March. This was when the bombing would begin."
Bush was pushing for U.N. approval, in the form of a second resolution condemning Iraq, the memo stated, but if he failed to get that approval, "military action would follow anyway." (In the end, Bush didn't get that approval.)
Blair's advisor also wrote that, given the possibility that the arms inspectors came up empty (which, ultimately, is what happened), Bush was looking for other ways to provoke a war. In the memo's own words, again intended as a summary of Bush's thinking: "The U.S. was thinking of flying U2 reconaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach."
Contrast this memo with Bush's claim, on March 6, 2003, that "I've not made up our mind about military action." And his claim two days later that "we are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan reacted to this memo today by contending that Bush's public and private comments "are fully consistent with one another." But given the current public mood about the war, I wonder whether a majority of Americans would agree.
Oh, wait...Here's one other line from the memo, a reference to the post-invasion conditions in Iraq. According to the memo, Bush predicted that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups."
How's that forecast working out these days?
Here's an answer, from the Associated Press today: "The latest violence came a day after 69 people were reported killed in one of the bloodiest 24-hour periods in weeks. Most of the dead appeared to be victims of the shadowy Sunni-Shiite score-settling that has torn at the fabric of Iraq since Feb. 22 when a Shiite shrine was blown apart in Samarra, north of Baghdad. Thirty victims of the continuing sectarian slaughter most of them beheaded were found dumped on a village road north of Baghdad."
(No doubt the White House would also argue that the press is just reporting the downbeat news, rather than looking for upbeat news. But that search for the upbeat can backfire. Here's a little item today from media writer Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post: "While in Baghdad, ABC's Jake Tapper was working on a light feature about an Iraqi station's sitcom. While his cameras were rolling, word came that the manager of the entertainment division had been assassinated.)

Which reminds me: Remember Vice President Cheney's asssurance last spring that the Iraqi insurgency was in its "last throes"?
Here's some fact-checking on that remark -- from none other than Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Yesterday on NBC, she appeared to be contradicting Cheney: "Well, the insurgency is still able to pull off violence and kill innocent children or kill an innocent school teacher, yes, they’re able to do that, and they might be able to do that for some time."
Then again, perhaps the administration would say that the remarks are fully consistent, in the sense that "last throes" could be flexible in calendar terms; hence, "for some time."
Certainly that's what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld seemed to be arguing on Fox News last June 26: "Last throes could be a violent last throe, just as well as a placid or calm last throe. Look it up in the dictionary."
Maybe the best place to look is in the history books. Because, unless this war turns around, "last throes" might become linked in history with another memorable phrase from an earlier war: "the light at the end of the tunnel."

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The GOP and the huddled masses

The Republican schism on the immigration issue was on stark display this morning.
On ABC, Senator Arlen Specter took the basic President Bush position and extolled the 11 million illegal immigrants as folks "who are doing jobs no else wants to do." But he was challenged by a spokesman for the party's right wing, Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, who said it should be a crime for anyone to provide even humanitarian assistance to the illegals.
With conservatives like Tancredo assailing these immigrants - he calls them "a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation" - it's no wonder that the GOP risks alienating the Hispanic electorate.
That wouldn't be politically wise, since Hispanics are the fastest-growing voter cohort in America. The business wing of the GOP wants to keep the illegals here because it values their labor - and the business wing's top ally in Washington, President Bush, would love to set up a path to citizenship in part because he and strategist Karl Rove believe that the steady growth of the GOP requires a steady influx of Hispanic voters.
But Bush is having trouble with his right flank. In the recent words of conservative columnist David Brooks, the Republican right seem poised "to walk off a cliff on the subject of immigration." Indeed, half a million people took to the streets in California yesterday, to protest GOP crackdown proposals, and new mass protests are in the works for April 10.
Watching Tancredo yesterday, I was reminded of a conversation that I had in California, back in 1997, with an Hispanic guy who worked for a plumbing contractor in Santa Ana. His name was John Raya. He had watched as California Republicans sought to demonize immigrants in that state, during the '94 and '96 election seasons, and he was fed up.
He said (I am quoting here from my old notes): "Talk to me about lower taxes and safe streets. Don't talk to me about immigrant bashing. I tell Republicans I know, 'You guys have been giving Democrats the best recruiting tool since the Kennedys were alive.'...I used to try to talk up the Republicans to other Latinos, but I can't handle it now. I'm a proud guy. I don't want to be cannon fodder anymore."
Thanks to their mid-'90s bashing of immigrants, the California Republicans suffered huge electoral losses from which they have never recovered. That's the same risk that the GOP is taking nationwide, if its conservative wing succeeds in making itself the face of the party. But Republicans risk alienating not just Hispanics, but members of the broader Catholic community as well. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops don't believe it should be a federal crime to help illegal immigrants. But that's the essence of a bill currently on tap in the House.
You know that the GOP is in trouble on an issue when it affords Hillary Clinton the opportunity to jump in and take the high road on God; witness what she said the other day. The proposed ban on humanitarian assistance, she contended, "is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scripture..."
On ABC today, Tancredo was delighted to take a swipe at Hillary: "I'm not really surprised that Hillary Clinton doesn't know the first thing about the Bible." But, in fact, the Bible is full of passages that urge mercy for the unrooted; as Isiah 49:10 says, "He who has compassion on them will guide them and lead them besides springs of water."
So what will Bush do? Does he have enough political capital at this point to face down the anti-immigrant wing of his own party and insist (as Specter did today) that illegals need some kind of path to citizenship? Or, given the current disenchantment among conservative voters on a whole range of issues, does he not want to risk provoking them to stay home on election day 2006?

But let us not assume that the GOP is the only party with internal strains these days on hot-button issues.
In today's Inquirer, I wrote a print column about the GOP's current discomforts on abortion, in the wake of the new South Dakota law that bans all abortions unless the woman is dying. But Democratic leaders have their own problems; for more than a year, they have been trying to distance themselves from the "choice" banner, in order to woo culturally conservative voters. For instance, they have recruited anti-abortion stalwart Bob Casey Jr. to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania. But the strains are obvious, because abortion-rights women are threatening to sit the race out, and others contend that the distancing from the choice stance will make it tougher for Democrats to fight the repercussions of South Dakota.
So, in the interests of fairness, here's what I wrote last year about the Democrats and abortion.