Saturday, May 13, 2006

Saturday potpurri

I suggested here on Thursday that most Americans might not take kindly to the idea of the National Security Agency scrutinizing their phone records, with the blessing of the phone companies who bill us every month. So when the Washington Post released a quickie poll on Friday morning, showing that 63 percent of Americans were giving the surveillance program a thumbs-up, I was quickly informed by triumphalist emailers that not only do I hate America, but I am also obviously not in touch with the average person's fear of terrorism.

And Friday was also a good day for the pro-Bush conservatives, who reveled in that poll; witness Mark Levin, a legal activist who wrote on his blog, "Once again the American people prove they are smarter than the media and political elites. They understand that we are at war, that the enemy had infiltrated our country successfully and unleashed devastating attacks against their fellow citizens, and that all this talk about an imperial presidency and violations of privacy rights is ACLU pabulum."

I advised my emailers not to get too giddy. I suggested that the first poll was probably akin to the early polls on the Iraq war, that the first reaction of most people was to assume that the government was doing the right thing, and that support for the phone-data program could wane over time as more information about its workings came to light, or as the ramifications for privacy became clearer.

Well, that didn't take long.

Newsweek has a new poll out today, after surveying twice as many people as the Post did, and it reports that 53 percent of Americans think the NSA program “goes too far in invading people’s privacy,” while 41 percent feel otherwise. (Among the independent swing voters, it's 56 percent to 41 percent.)

Moreover, the Newsweek poll posed a far more specific question. Whereas the Post only asked whether the NSA program was "acceptable" or "unacceptable," Newsweek's pollsters asked Americans to choose between "goes too far" or "it is a necessary tool to combat terrorism."

In other words, the pro-Bush conservatives are premature in thinking that the President won the PR battle at the starting gate. In his parlance, he faces "hard work" on this issue, especially with ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden facing Senate scrutiny next week on his CIA nomination.


By the way, you think there's any chance that Qwest will be flooded with prospective new customers who will beg them to come East?


I also noted the other day that Democratic chairman Howard Dean is at loggerheads with other party leaders over tactics, money, and the proper use of precious resources. And vice versa. He has already spent most of the money he has raised, spreading it around to states where Democrats are not well poised to win anything in November. That practice -- blowing all his money -- is better known in a politics as a "high burn rate," and he did the same thing when he ran for president. By the time he staggered screaming out of Iowa, in round one of the '04 primaries, most of his money was already gone.

On CNN late Thursday, I heard this shot across Dean's bow, courtesy of ex-Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who is still close to Hillary and Bill Clinton:
"He's in trouble, in that campaign managers, candidates, are really angry with him. He raised $74 million and spent $64 million. He says it's a long-term strategy. But what he has spent it on, apparently, is just hiring a bunch of people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose. That's now how you build a party. You win elections. That's how you build a party."

Translation: If Hillary Clinton wins the '08 nomination, say, by clinching it in the early primaries, Howard Dean would be well advised to start scrawling "Burlington, Vermont" with magic marker on his packing boxes at the Democratic National Committee, because he will be going home.

Bush is slated to give a televised speech Monday night on the immigration issue. That fact alone is a testament to the administration's growing concern about its disaffected conservative base. Many of his followers -- or ex-followers, as the case may be -- think that he's a wimp on the immigration issue because he wants to let a lot of the illegals stay here. The base calls that "amnesty." So, in his speech, expect him to float a lot of get-tough border enforcement ideas. Then it's off to the border for a photo-op. This paean to the conservative base could be a big story early next week, unless Karl Rove gets indicted. The rumors persist.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Bush base bailout

I’m on the road today – I’m slated to be on a panel that will debate whether the media has been too hard or too soft on President Bush – so forgive me if this blog entry is a bit undernourished. In fact, let’s just turn it over to Peggy Noonan.

In yesterday’s Inquirer, I wrote a column about Bush’s sliding poll numbers. I don’t normally do poll-driven stories, but the current situation is particularly newsworthy, because of the solid evidence that followers in his conservative/Republican base are starting to bail in significant numbers. (This morning, in fact, the Wall Street Journal reports that a new Harris survey pegs Bush’s overall approval rating at his lowest ever, 29 percent.)

It is Noonan, the former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, who provides the best insights into why so many conservatives and Republicans are bailing on the current president. Writing yesterday in the Journal, here are the key excerpts:

“(T)he administration and the Congress are losing their base, but it isn’t because of the media….The Republicans talk about cutting spending, but (instead) they increase it – a lot. They stand for making government smaller, but they keep making it bigger. They say they’re concerned about our borders, but they’re not securing them. And they seem to think we’re slobs for worrying. Republicans used to be sober and tough about foreign policy, but now they’re sort of romantic and full of emotionalism. They talk about cutting taxes, and they have, but the cuts are provisional, temporary. Beyond that, there’s something creepy about increasing spending so much, and not paying the price right away but instead rolling it over and onto our kids, and their kids....What’s a voter to do? Maybe stay home….One gets the impression that party leaders, deep in their hearts believe that the base is…unsophisticated. Primitive….But if history is a guide, the base is about to teach them a lesson instead.”

Sounds like a great political opportunity for the Democrats, but there are no guarantees that they won’t screw it up. Note, for example, that party chairman Howard Dean is heatedly at odds with the party leaders on Capitol Hill who didn’t want him to be chairman in the first place. Dean wants to spend money on organization in all 50 states, but his many party establishment detractors think he is wasting precious bucks in a lot of red states where Democrats don’t have a prayer of gaining ground in the November congressional elections.

And nobody should overlook the track record of Bush maestro Karl Rove, notably his longstanding ability to turn the tables and paint the Democrats as weak, wimpy, wobbly, feckless, and frightening. With emphasis on the frightening. In fact,, the key strategy for re-energizing Peggy Noonan’s grousers will boil down to this message:

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I hope to write about that, in detail, this weekend.

And if anything insightful happens on that aforementioned press panel, I’ll pass it along here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

All past statements are inoperative

Once again, we are witnessing a presidential credibility gap.

In the wake of today's revelation that the National Security Agency since 2001 has been secretly amassing the home and business phone records of tens of millions of ordinary Americans, most of whom aren't suspected of any crime -- in other words, a purely domestic surveillance program -- it becomes necessary to revisit certain Bush administration statements, and to reclassify them as untrue.

1. President Bush, August 2004: "Now, by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires--a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so....because we value the Constitution."

That turned out to be untrue, in the wake of the news last December that the NSA was monitoring international calls between people here and people abroad. The NSA was doing it without a court order, even though warrants are apparently required by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which states that it is "the exclusive means by which electronic surveillance...may be conducted," even ""during time of war."

2. After that program was revealed by the New York Times, thereby rendering Bush's 2004 statement inoperative, Bush stated anew on Jan. 25 of this year that Americans at home need not be concerned, because "the program applies only to international communications. In other words, one end of the communication must be outside the United States."

3. A White House spokeman also said NSA spying was not domestic in nature: "This is a limited program. This is not about monitoring phone calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a potluck dinner."

4. A strong assurance came from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 6: "First, only international communications are authorized for protect the privacy of Americans still further, the NSA employs safeguards to minimize the unnecessary collection and dissemination of information about U.S. persons."

5. A stronger assurance came from Gonzalez, during an exchange on April 6 with the House Judiciary Committee. Check this out.
Q: "Can you assure us that there is no warrantless surveillance of calls between two Americans within the United States?"
GONZALES: "That is not what the president has authorized."
Q: "Can you assure us that it's not being done?"
GONZALES: "As I indicated in response to an earlier question, no technology is perfect (but) we do have minimization procedures in place..."
Q: "But you're not doing that deliberately?"
GONZALES: "That is correct."

All those statements now appear inoperative, in the wake of today's report that the NSA successfully leaned on all the phone companies (except QWest) to cooperate in its purely domestic program to collect "external" data on millions of citizens, and ultimately, in the words of one inside source, "to create a database of every call ever made" in America. And, just as adherence to FISA was deemed unnecessary for the international program, adherence to Section 222 of the federal Communications Act was deemed unnecessary for the domestic program. (Under that law, phone companies are barred from releasing information on customer calling habits - such as who gets called, or how often. And the law also covers incoming calls.)

So now we have new operative statement from the president, issued earlier today. Considering the administration's record, it probably requires some parsing. He stated: "We're not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans." That can be classified as a non-denial denial. Bush never specifically denied the news that the NSA has indeed been running a purely domestic program. He was merely insisting that the collection, analysis, and storage of people's phone call records should not equated with "trolling" through their personal lives.

No doubt, there will be another debate about the legalities of all this -- I see that Bush's defenders are already online saying that this newly-revealed program is constitutional -- but, for now, I am more interested in its political dimension.

Last winter, the polls reported that a slight majority of Americans were OK with the idea that Bush was monitoring international calls, and it was clear earlier this week that he was relishing the opportunity of defending that program when ex-NSA chief Michael Hayden comes up for scrutiny as the new nominee to run CIA. But what about now? It will be instructive to watch the polls, and gauge the reaction of Americans to this domestic program, because this is now the factual shorthand:

The Bush administration got the telecommunication firms to fork over data that will enable it to track every call made by every American. It's likely that conservatives who are concerned about privacy rights will sound off about this. It's arguably less likely that many Democrats, still fearing to appear "weak on terrorism," will do the same.

Nevertheless, expect to hear the lawmakers make noise about conducting (yet another) probe of the administration's conduct. After all, the Bush administration has already demonstrated that it won't probe itself. For instance:

Recently, the Justice Department's ethics office launched a probe that was intended to scrutinize the actions of the government lawyers who had signed off in secret on the international surveillance program (the one that was revealed last December). But today we learn that the ethics office investigators hit a brick wall -- because they were denied the requisite security clearances.

Guy from HUD walks into a room...

I began today with another pleasurable visit to my "reader line," the voicemail service that keeps me in touch with the dissatisfied customer. The first fella in the queue said: "I've never read anything that you've ever said positive about our president or about our country or about anything. Everything has been extremely negative...I feel sorry for you."

Well, what can I say? I suppose I could burst into song, like Maria in The Sound of Music, and croon about "My Favorite Things," all of which can be found on my blog profile, anyway. But this job is about watching the folks in power and exercising due vigiliance. And today, for instance, it would be hard to wax positive about President Bush's man at HUD, Alphonso Jackson.

You ask, who's Alphonso Jackson? He's secretary of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. And even though much of the media (including my own newspaper) has either overlooked or ignored the Jackson saga that has unfolded in recent days, it's worth recounting if only for its entertainment value.

Jackson has been caught in a messy and embarrassing situation, and here is his best defense:
I am a liar.

This is no exaggeration. But let's start from the beginning:
On April 28, Jackson delivered a speech in Dallas to the Real Estate Executive Council, a national consortium of minority-owned real estate agencies. During that speech, he said that he didn't want to award federal money to anyone who didn't like President Bush.

And - as reported in the Dallas Business Journal - he related this detailed, specific anecdote about one prospective minority contractor:

"(This contractor) had made every effort to get a contract with HUD for 10 years. He made a heck of a proposal and was on the list, so we selected him. He came to see me and thank me for selecting him. Then he said something ... he said, 'I have a problem with your president.' I said, 'What do you mean?' He said, 'I don't like President Bush.' I thought to myself, 'Brother, you have a disconnect - the president is elected, I was selected. You wouldn't be getting the contract unless I was sitting here. If you have a problem with the president, don't tell (me).'"

Jackson then told his Dallas audience, "He didn't get the contract. Why should I reward someone who doesn't like the president, so they can use funds to try to campaign against the president? Logic says they don't get the contract. That's the way I believe."

Well, first of all, such conduct on Jackson's part -- denying a contract because the contractor lacked political loyalty to the leader -- would appear to be a violation of the impartiality requirements in federal law, specifically 48 CFR 3.101-1:
"Government business shall be conducted in a manner above reproach and, except as authorized by statute or regulation, with complete impartiality and with preferential treatment for none. Transactions relating to the expenditure of public funds require the highest degree of public trust and an impeccable standard of conduct."

But naturally, the saga got wierder once the spinners got to work.

Jackson's speech sparked an uproar on Capitol Hill, among Democrats who were concerned that the federal procurement process was being skewed by a GOP appointee on the basis of political loyalty. This in turn prompted a defiant defense of Jackson by a HUD flak, Dustee Tucker. She supplied fresh details to the Dallas journal on May 3, saying that the dispute concerned "an advertising contract with a minority publication," but that the rejected contractor had persisted in "trashing, in a very aggressive way" the president.

Again, that explanation raised questions about violations of federal law.
But then the explanation changed.

The new explanation, offered a couple days ago, goes like this: Jackson made the whole thing up.

As reported here and here, spokeswoman Tucker now says that the HUD secretary's story was "hypothetical," that, in reality, Jackson "did not actually meet with someone and turn down a contract. He's not part of the contracting process."
And yesterday, in the wake of a report that the HUD inspector general was examining the incident, Jackson stepped forward to say this: "I deeply regret the anecdotal remarks I made at a recent Texas small business forum and would like to reassure the public that all HUD contracts are awarded solely on a stringent merit-based process. During my tenure, no contract has ever been awarded, rejected, or rescinded due to the personal or political beliefs of the recipient."

How negative of me to ask these questions:
Can we believe with confidence that explanation number two -- that the story is untrue -- is really true?
Would Jackson have come forward to assert that he had lied to his audience if a furor had not ensued on Capitol Hill and in the HUD inspector general's office?
And if he really did make the whole thing up, why would he want to volunteer the notion --again, apparently illegal -- that Bush opponents are turned away if they ask for federal contracts?

Maybe, to quote Porter Goss, it's just "one of those mysteries."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Battling for the 'burbs

Check out these proposals, currently being readied for the legislative mill on Capitol Hill:

A bill that would help preserve open space.
A bill that would promote tax-free college savings plans.
A bill that would help local officials conduct background checks on teachers and coaches.
A bill that would create a better database to track sex offenders.

These ideas, and five others, all slated to be formally unveiled today, have been cooked up by 50 House Republicans who call themselves the Suburban Agenda Caucus. It doesn't take a genius to see what's going on:

1. These 50 GOP lawmakers know that success or failure in the 2006 congressional elections will hinge on their performance in the suburbs, where most of the electorate now lives.

2. Many of their suburban districts, once reliably Republican in sentiment, have now become more competitive (many moderate Republican voters have been turned off by the GOP's social conservatism; and there has been an influx of Democratic voters, relocating from nearby cities).

3. Eighteen of these 50 lawmakers have been specifically targeted for defeat by national Democratic strategists, and a number of non-partisan analysts consider those Republicans to be vulnerable. The overall Democratic list includes Deborah Pryce (suburbs near Columbus, Ohio), Michael Fitzpatrick and Jim Gerlach (both in suburbs near Philadelphia), and Christopher Shays and Nancy Johnson (both in the Connecticut suburbs).

4. All are generally fearful that the 2006 congressional elections will be a disaster if they are forced to run on the legacy of their leader in the White House. So naturally they are anxious to distance themselves from President Bush, by steering the subject away from the national issues that appear to be working against them (Iraq, gas prices, Iraq, Katrina/competence, Iraq, Jack Abramoff, and Iraq).

Which brings us to these very Clintonesque suburban proposals, all designed to show that Republicans care, that they feel a real connection with their constituents' everyday concerns. Why do I call their approach Clintonesque? Because the president whom they impeached is the same guy who pioneered modest, bite-sized, poll-driven policy ideas back in 1996 (remember his ideas -- or maybe they were pollster Dick Morris' ideas -- about school uniforms and mandatory school curfews?). And now the Republicans find his approach to be useful, to save their own skins.

As Robert Lang, who studies the suburbs at the Metropolitan Institute, tells the Chicago Tribune today, "The outlook for the Republicans is grim, unless they are able to connect directly to local constituent concerns, quality-of-life issues and solving problems that seem apolitical."

The problem, however, is that these nine suburb-friendly bills might not be enough to cancel out the national trends that seem to be breaking against the GOP. It is noteworthy, for instance, that this suburban agenda doesn't even mention cultural issues. There's nothing here about abortion, or stem cells, or gays.

And it's easy to see why: the national party keeps taking conservative stances on those issues, and those stances turn off a lot of suburban voters, particularly those who live in the socially tolerant inner suburbs near big cities. (In my own backyard, I am thinking of Bucks and Montgomery counties, outside of Philadelphia). Yet, sure enough, the Republican leadership has scheduled an early-June vote on a federal amendment to ban gay marriage. From, the perspective of the Suburban Agenda Caucus, that might not be the ideal focus.

By the way, on the topic of President Bush today, is America ready for this?


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The kossing of Hillary Clinton

Over the weekend, the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton took a hit off the port bow from uber blogger Markos Moulitsas, proprietor of the left-leaning Daily Kos and a spokesman for the liberal netroots activists who see themselves as the future of the Democratic party. Writing a guest column in The Washington Post, he kossed the '08 frontrunner as "a heartless, passionless machine," establishment puppet, and heir to the Bill Clinton legacy "that decimated the national Democratic party" during the '90s.

So there it is, laid bare:
Even at a time when virtually all liberals and Democrats are united in their hunger to defeat President Bush's GOP in 2006 and win back the White House in 2008, there's still enough energy for some serious intramural animosity. The Moulitsas manifesto is clearly intended as a warning to what he calls the "D.C. insiders" that a Hillary Clinton candidacy will be resisted by "those of us in the netroots," whom he claims will soon be wielding major clout over the nomination process. In his words, "real power in the party has shifted."

I have several reactions.
1. His remarks are a signal that the '08 Democratic race will be turbulent (at least until the front-loaded primary calendar yields a quick winner), because the liberal netrooters seem intent on finding their own candidate -- someone who is either a blank slate on Iraq (perhaps ex-Virginia governor Mark Warner), or openly antiwar (perhaps Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold), and prompting their Internet donors to put up the bucks.

That, in itself, will be a test of whether the netrooters are truly capable of exercising "real power," or whether, as many suspect, their professed prowess is mostly hype. And it will be interesting to see, over the next 18 months, whether further attacks from the liberal netroots will tempt Clinton to tiptoe leftward, at the expense of her red-state centrist strategy (which I recently saw in action, during a visit to Kentucky).

2. Applying the same fact-checking techniques that prove so fruitful when gauging the claims of the Bush regime, it appears that many of Moulitsas' arguments lack forensic merit. For instance, to buttress his argument that the netroots are the new power brokers, he lauds "Howard Dean's transformation campaign" of 2004, which, as he sees it, sent the message that "no longer would D.C. insiders impose their candidates on us without our input."

Somehow he overlooked the fact that Dean was transformative only up until the moment when he had to face real voters. Then the real voters sent him packing. He lost 17 of 18 primaries. I was in Iowa when it all started, and I sat in many kitchens talking to average Democrats, mostly grassroots liberals, and very few of them cared a whit about Dean's netroots apparatus. On the contrary, they judged Dean as too inexperienced, particularly on foreign policy. They moved toward John Kerry not because he was "imposed" by "D.C. insiders," but because he seemed to have the strongest foreign policy experience of anyone in the Democratic field that winter.

3. Which brings me to another point. Moulitsas dismisses Hillary Clinton as "the establishment's choice," but, in reality, she is trouncing her Democratic '08 rivals in the early polls because she has a lot of support from rank-and-file Democrats who are far removed from the Washington Beltway.

In other words, the liberal netrooters are just one constituency within the broader ranks of party activists, including state and local elected officials, union members, volunteer canvassers, public employes -- all of whom may read the liberal blogs and even send money sometimes, but nevertheless are not guided by the blogthink.

4. It's also noteworthy that, in order to fuel his criticism of Hillary Clinton, he assailed her husband for failing to breach the 50 percent mark in either of his presidential races, somehow overlooking the fact that he was nevertheless the only Democrat to win two terms of office since Franklin D. Roosevelt... and that to this day, many African Americans in particular (another powerful bloc within the party base) wish that Clinton could have run for a third term. I personally saw that sentiment while talking to southern blacks during the 2004 primaries.

None of this means that I am making a brief for Hillary Clinton, and I have no idea at this point whether she is electable (not a single friend of mine believes that she is, although conservative commentator John Podhoretz seems to think so). Nor does this mean that I am dismissing the netrooters out of hand, or that I share centrist Democratic analyst Marshall Wittmann's view that they're all just "McGovernites with modems."

But they have yet to prove that their clout is as great as they claim it is, or that they can effectively sink Hillary's ship. I'll keep an open mind on that. Moulitsas is hosting a big conference next month in Las Vegas; it's intended in part to trumpet the netrooters' prowess, and I'm looking forward to showing up and taking their measure.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Goss, hookers, clueless constitutionalists...Who needs novelists?

Great novels about Washington have been exceedingly rare, and I suspect it's because (to paraphrase sportswriter Red Smith), reality is constantly strangling invention.
Which is a fancy way of saying, You just can't make this stuff up.

For instance, here is today's multi-faceted bemusement:

1. Porter Goss has abruptly quit his job at CIA director, and when asked by CNN to explain why, he responds that it's "just one of those mysteries." This can be interpreted in several ways: (a) He doesn't know why he's leaving his job; perhaps he has simply sleepwalked out of the post after borrowing some of Patrick Kennedy's Ambien. (b) He knows darn well why he's leaving, but he simply chooses not to tell the American taxpayers, who are paying the salaries of the people entrusted to keep the country safe.

2. A mystery leaves us all free to speculate, and even though "intelligence sources" tell us that it's just the result of a turf war with national intelligence director John Negroponte, we shouldn't necessarily ignore the Dusty Foggo factor. Dusty Foggo...isn't that a great name for a scandal figure? Dusty Foggo -- the CIA executive director (number three in the hierarchy), appointed to the post by Porter Goss -- has been linked (last week, by the Wall Street Journal) to a pair of defense contractors who are being officialy scrutinized in connection with bribing a member of Congress and Pentagon officials.

But that's not the seamy stuff. Goss' guy is also under investigation, by the FBI as well as the CIA inspector general, for his attendance, along with some unnamed congressmen, at a number of suspicious poker parties hosted by those defense contractors since the 1990s. It appears, as the Journal reported, that the businessmen (one of whom was a major Bush fundraiser in 2004) brought in prostitutes as part of their wining-and-dining pursuit of federal contracts. One congressmen in regular attendance was Republican Duke Cunningham, who recently gave up his California seat in exchange for spending time in the slammer after his conviction for taking bribes.

And -- here's one of the true-life plot points that strangles invention -- these fun parties took place at a famous Washington locale. The Watergate.

Could any of this possibly have anything to do with Goss' resignation? Even as a contributing factor? Nah, it's gotta be a "turf war"....but wait, here's one report out of Washington which indicates that members of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board wanted Goss ousted in part because of that party scene ("Alarms were set off at the advisory board by a widening FBI sex and cronyism investigation that's targeted Foggo, the No.3 official at the CIA, and also touched on Goss himself...").

3. And now President Bush wants to replace Goss with a guy who has already demonstrated that he doesn't understand the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure.

Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former head of the National Security Agency, has been one of the staunchest defenders of Bush's warrantless surveillance program. Clearly, by nominating Hayden to be the nation's top spook, Bush wants to pick a fresh fight with Congress over the surveillance program, in the hopes of giving strategist Karl Rove some fresh evidence that Democrats running for re-election are security softies just because they believe in court warrants.

Indeed, Senate Republicans sent a fundraising letter last week, warning that if Democrats took control of a congressional chamber, they would put the war on terrorism "on the back burner." True enough, polls last winter showed that a thin majority of Americans backed Bush's domestic spy program, when the issue was defined as a choice between the abstract and the visceral, i.e. a choice between civil liberties and personal safety. Bush doesn't enjoy an edge on much of anything else right now, so perhaps it makes political sense for him to bring up the spy program again (especially since most Democrats fled for the hills when liberal Senator Russ Feingold proposed censuring Bush over the program).

On the flip side, however, Bush is less popular today than he was even in January, so perhaps this issue won't give him the traction he seeks. The latest Gallup poll, released today, puts his approval rating at a record-low 31 percent; disapproval, 65 percent.

Anyway, I digress. The important point is, even some Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, are raising concerns about Hayden because of the spy program. And, regarding that topic, here's the part that's better than fiction:

Hayden doesn't know what's in the Fourth Amendment, which was crafted to guard Americans' privacy.

Last January, while defending the warrantless program, he tussled with Knight Ridder's Jonathan Landay, who is one of the sharpest pros in the Washington press corps. The transcript goes like this:

LANDAY: "...the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution specifies that you must have probable cause to violate an American's right against unreasonable searches and seizures..."
HAYDEN: "No, actually - the Fourth Amendment actually protects all of us against unreasonable search and seizure."
LANDAY: "But the --"
HAYDEN: "That's what it says."
LANDAY: "The legal measure is probable cause, it says."
HAYDEN: "The Amendment says: unreasonable search and seizure."
LANDAY: "But does it not say 'probable cause'?"
HAYDEN: "No! The Amendment says unreasonable search and seizure."
LANDAY: "The legal standard is probable cause, General -- "
HAYDEN: "Just to be very clear ... and believe me, if there's any Amendment to the Constitution that employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it's the Fourth. Alright? And it is a reasonableness standard in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional standard is 'reasonable.'"

Oh, really?
Read the Fourth Amendment for yourself:
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized." (Emphasis added.)

I loved the Washington satirical novel Thank You For Smoking. But with apologies to Christopher Buckley, this stuff is better.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Lieberman, the Director's Cut

The fruits of my sojourn to Connecticut are available here, in a newspaper column about the liberal revolt against Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman. Thanks in part to his support for President Bush on the war in Iraq, he's facing a serious challenge from antiwar candidate Ned Lamont in an August party primary. This, in itself, is a very rare event, because Connecticut has long been a state where party discipline reigns and incumbents are generally revered.

Notwithstanding the length of my print dispatch, however, there is much more to be said on the subject. So today, in the parlance of our DVD culture, I'm going to restore some deleted scenes, and append some director's commentary:

Lieberman campaign manager Sean Smith, during a long conversation in his office, said: "The senator does feel a little wounded (by the personal nature of the liberal attacks on him). But once his competitive juices start flowing, it becomes a fight. And he also feels inspired by the past: the strong, idealistic foreign policy, as exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. That's the Democratic party that he joined. He has been consistent to those values his whole career.
"So it's a little discouraging to see that a group in your own party -- even if it is a minority -- somehow wants to push you out, for representing those three presidents."

Smith is saying, in a sense, that Lieberman's hawkishness on Iraq is consistent with the muscular foreign policy liberalism that characterized Democrats back in the era when they consistently won national elections.

This is an argument that also animates other Democrats today; I heard the same thing in North Carolina last weekend from Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, an '08 presidential hopeful, when he delivered a speech at a party fundraiser.

It was also articulated last weekend in a New York Times magazine piece by political commentator Peter Beinart, who wrote that Democrats right now "cannot tell a coherent story about the post-9/11 world...because they have not found their usable past, and they have not conquered "their ideological amnesia."

What Smith is saying is that Lieberman -- whether one agrees with him or not -- at least has a coherent post-9/11 foreign policy that harkens back to Democratic roots. That strikes me as the core message in Lieberman's battle with Lamont. Lieberman said on the radio recently that his liberal detractors are mostly fixated on hating Bush, and punishing anyone who agrees with Bush on anything -- but that such an attitude doesn't begin to address the realities of a dangerous world. And Lieberman's attempts to define himself in the tradition of JFK (more specifically, the Cold War liberal version of JFK) could sway some primary voters, because Kennedy remains an unassailable party icon -- especially in Connecticut, and especially among the older Democratic loyalists who remember the JFK era.

But here's a problem with the Lieberman pitch:
There was a fourth president who embodied that muscular foreign policy liberalism, Lyndon Johnson. Yet Lieberman is not invoking him. LBJ inherited Kennedy's commitment to rolling back the communists in Vietnam (which in itself was an application of the hawkish Democratic credo; see David Halberstam's book The Best and the Brightest); and then LBJ expanded on the credo until that war consumed his presidency, split his party, and divided America.

Is it possible to embrace those traditional Democratic values -- including the urge to police the globe and spread democracy abroad -- without acknowledging that the hubris inherent in those values helped produce the debacle in Vietnam?
This question might well surface in Connecticut in the weeks ahead....because, after all, it was Joe Lieberman, as a Yalie in 1970, who cut his teeth in Connecticut politics as an anti-Vietnam war activist.

And there's another wrinkle in the current Connecticut race: Since Lieberman is seeking to paint himself as the ultimate Democrat, why has he dropped hints that, if party voters reject him in an August primary, he might refuse to endorse Lamont and instead run as an independent this fall? Wouldn't that scenario guarantee a split among Democratic voters in November, and aid the Republicans at a time when the GOP seems so vulnerable? (As state Republican chairman George Gallo said not long ago, the Lieberman imbroglio "is music to my ears.")

Lieberman hinted at an independent candidacy a few weeks ago, and I asked Sean Smith if that scenario was possible.
Smith said, "The senator expects to win (a primary), and he will always be a Democrat."
Not exactly a Shermanesque renuniciation of the idea.
"So," I said, "that means you're not ruling out running as an independent."
Smith: "I don't want to speculate on that, to be honest. We're not dealing with contingencies."

No wonder Lieberman's Connecticut critics are upset. In the words of popular radio talk show host Colin McEnroe, "There's just something about Joe's smiling Buddha composure that drives so many Democrats insane. I wouldn't put it past Joe to run as an independent. He just wants to get back to Washington. For Joe right now, it's all about Joe."


Addendum: To hear Lieberman tangling recently with McEnroe on the air -- it got pretty nasty -- check out this. Scroll down to "Lieberman blames bloggers," then click audio.