Friday, June 30, 2006

And don't forget that sunblock

My column below, on President Bush and The New York Times, will suffice for awhile. Five leisure days lie ahead, in a locale without wi-fi; therefore, blogging will resume next Thursday. Have a great holiday, and see you all on the flipside.

Times-bashing as a political tool

The Bush administration's war against the evildoers who are out to endanger America -- I am referring, of course, to The New York Times -- is proceeding according to plan.

The conservative Republican base, which badly needed to be fired up, is now suitably galvanized against its perceived common enemy. The conservative commentariat is also playing its accustomed role, ratcheting up the president's rhetoric about five notches. And the Republicans in Congress, many of them nervous about the '06 elections, are back on the attack, challenging the Democrats to accept the GOP's narrow framing of the issue and either stand up for The Times, or stand up for national security.

Because this is really about politics.

This war on The Times was ostensibly triggered by the newspaper's decision a week ago to run its story about the secret Bush program that sifts international bank data in order to pinpoint terrorist money. The story detailed some of the relations between U.S. security officials and the banking consortium known as SWIFT (the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications) , but the main point was that the scrutiny of people's financial records is proceeding without specific congressional approval, or formal authorization, or court warrants, or subpoenas targeting specific transactions -- or any indication whether this one-time emergency plan has in fact become permanent.

Bush assailed The Times' decision to publish as a "disgrace," and the conservative commentariat piled on, with first prize for vitriol arguably being awarded to San Francisco talk show host Melanie Morgan, who said that Times editor Bill Keller should "be sent to the gas chamber" for treason. Second prize -- and the competition is stiff -- arguably goes to blogger Scott Johnson (a Minneapolis attorney, no less) who warned that The Times might well continue to "betray the national security of the United States" unless "an enraged citizenry" decides "to take the law into its own hands," a remark that can be read as an incitement to violence.

Surely, some of The Times' critics are sincerely enraged about the SWIFT story. But it's also a fact that, for the Bush administration, The Times is a perfect political pinata. The conservative base hates The Times because it's eastern, it's "New York" (and all that implies), it runs liberal editorials, it has a lot of Ivy Leaguers. The Bush team knows this, which is why it has been slamming The Times for years. Bush specifically skewered The Times in the midst of his 2004 convention speech. Dick Cheney booted The Times off his campaign plane that year. Bush and Cheney, standing at an open mike in 2000, singled out a Times reporter by calling him "a major league (orifice)."

So, whacking The Times is good politics in an election year. What better way to galvanize a conservative base that has been disaffected by (among other things) Iraq, the Dubai ports deal, and runaway federal spending? What better way to calm the nerves of vulnerable Republican incumbents than to unite them in the cause of Times-bashing (as GOP operative Joe Gaylord told The Washington Post the other day, "the guys who are up this fall are scared as hell”) ?

This is not conjecture on my part; Bush's followers talk openly about Times-bashing as a tactic. Commentator Jack Kelly thinks it'd be great for the base if Bush prosecuted The Times for publishing the SWIFT story: "In picking a fight with journalists over leaks, President Bush would be picking on one of the few groups in America less popular than he is, on the issue where he is on the firmest ground with the public. Media uproar over prosecution of the Times would drown out other issues where the president is on shakier ground. This is a fight to be welcomed, not avoided."

The press is less popular than the president? Actually, Gallup did a poll this month, asking Americans how they currently feel about their institutions. 70 percent said they favorably viewed newspapers "a great deal," "quite a lot" or "some." Fifty-eight percent felt that way about the presidency. But never mind all that. Here's the main problem with the Times-bashing strategy: The core argument -- that the SWIFT story undercut national security by telling terrorists that we're trying to track their money -- is not nearly as airtight as the conservatives think it is. Consider...

1. The Bush administration has tipped off the terrorists, almost since day one, that we were going to track their money. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, less than a month after 9/11, said, "The Treasury Department will use every tool we have at our disposal to shut down terrorist fundraising and dismantle their organizations one dollar at a time." Bush, campaigning for re-election on April 19, 2004, said, "See, part of the way to make sure that we catch terrorists is we chase money trails."

2. Press secretary Tony Snow said the other day that "I am absolutely sure (the terrorists) didn't know about SWIFT" prior to The Times' story, but it's hard to see how he can be so certain, given the fact that (as The Washington Posts Dan Froomkin discovered) SWIFT already has its own website -- with information about how it works with law enforcement "to combat abuse of the financial system for illegal activities."

3. The United Nations published a report four years ago that discussed SWIFT. Former State Department official Victor Comraes, on his Counterterrorism blog, talks about how terrorism financing experts have known about SWIFT since 2002, part because of that report -- which is still available on the UN website for anyone to read. One key passage: "The United States has begun to apply new monitoring techniques to spot and verify suspicious transactions."

4. Stuart Levey, undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, spoke at length and in public nearly two years ago about government efforts to track terrorist money through the international banking system. He did this in open testimony on Sept. 22, 2004, before the House Financial Service Committee, chaired by Michael Oxley of Ohio.

What's noteworthy, this week, is that Oxley sponsored the resolution condemning the SWIFT story for supposedly making it tougher to track terrorist money -- yet, in 2004, Oxley was told by Levey that the terrorists weren't much interested anymore in moving money through the legal financial sector, because of all the heightened scrutiny. Levey testified: "The movement of money via cash couriers is now one of the principle methods that terrorists use to move funds."

5. Some House Republicans, during a floor debate yesterday, pointed out that 9/11 Commission co-chairman Tom Kean had urged that The Times not publish the SWIFT story. That is absolutely true. But Kean's position is more nuanced than that. The other day, in an interview with liberal blogger Greg Sargent, the ex-Republican New Jersey governor stated that SWIFT "gave us a chance to disrupt terrorist plots. But I would not go as far as to say (that The Times' story) put American lives at risk." He also said that The Times didn't commit a criminal act, that it therefore should not be prosecuted, and that the Bush administration's rhetoric has been "over the top."

6. Roger Cressey, a counterterrorism official who worked in Bush's National Security Council until 2003, has been telling reporters all week that the SWIFT story didn't tell terrorists anything they didn't already know or assume. On today's Times op-ed page, he wrote, "They (Bush officials) want the public to believe that it had not already occurred to every terrorist on the planet that his telephone was probably monitored and his international bank transfers (were) subject to scrutiny. How gullible does the administration take the American citizenry to be?"

Indeed, will most Americans view this Times-bashing as a defensible response to a substantive issue -- or as a political strategy aimed at ginning up the GOP base? On the House floor yesterday, Oxley denied that it was the latter, saying, "This is serious business, this isn't politics."

Oh really? Then why did I receive an email today from the Republican National Committee -- the party's political arm, financed by political contributions -- declaring that "House Democrats Put The New York Times First, National Security Second"?

And this argument, which appeared the other day in the Washington Times, serves to rebut the Bush administration strategy: "Government of the people, by the people, for the people would soon wither if the press were deterred from publishing information that the president claimed might weaken national security. Perpetually secret government and democracy are incompatible." So spoke conservative Bruce Fein, a deputy attorney general under Ronald Reagan.

Not even Smallville values are safe anymore

Just in time for the summer holiday movie season, it appears that those Hollywood lefty moonbats have really done it this time. The alarmed headline today on the right-leaning Drudge Report says it all: "Even Superman is Not American Anymore?"

Turns out that the screenwriter and director of the new Superman flick have indeed revised the old slogan (popularized by the '50s TV show) about how our hero represents "truth, justice and the American way." Those last three words are missing now. As the scribe explained to The Hollywood Reporter, "The world has changed. The world is a different place. The truth is he's an alien. He was sent from another planet. He has landed on the planet Earth, and he is here for everybody. He's an international super-hero."

But fear not, say the pollsters at Fox News, who report that such assaults on tradition may be having only a limited impact. Amid suggestions lately from gay activists that the updated internationalist Superman is really one of their own (note how he closets his true identity), Fox took the time to add a crucial question to their latest survey: "Do you think the Superman character in the new movie is gay or straight?" And the people have spoken: Only six percent say he's gay. The hitch, however: 69 percent say they don't know.

So even Superman may be at risk. This is a job...for a constitutional amendment.

Outing a keyboard warrior

Here's a priceless nugget from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that rebuked President Bush for violating American law and the Geneva Conventions (see my post yesterday). Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent defending both Bush and the notion of an unfettered wartime executive, took a swipe at colleague John Paul Stevens, who had voted with the majority. Thomas huffed that Stevens' reasoning was hampered by "unfamiliarity with the realities of warfare."

Check out the official Supreme Court biographies:
Stevens served four years in the Navy during World War II.
Thomas never served.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

An historic decision in the case of "Bush vs. Checks and Balances"

In plain English, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially told President Bush today that our democratic system prevents him from doing whatever he wants. No wonder his conservative followers are furious.

The high court, in an historic ruling that affects the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, basically decreed in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that even in a time of open-ended war, there shall be constitutional constraints on those who aspire to an imperial presidency.

Bush was slapped down for creating special military tribunals that, in the view of the judicial majority, plainly violated both U.S. law and the 1949 Geneva Conventions; he was told that the terrorist suspects must be accorded the same legal rights as all prisoners of war, as defined by those Geneva Conventions; he was informed, by the judicial majority, that he does not have a "blank check" to act as he sees fit, unfettered by constitutional checks and balances.

And, perhaps most importantly, the court -- simply by issuing this ruling -- made it clear that the judicial branch won't easily abdicate its traditional role as arbiter of the Constitution; and that it doesn't necessarily buy the argument that, when it comes to fighting terrorists, the robed brethren should simply butt out of Bush's business.

That's why legal analysts with longstanding concerns about Bush's expansive view of presidential power are all smiles today. First Amendment lawyer Glenn Greenwald said on his blog: "The decision is an important step towards re-establishing the principle that there are three co-equal branches of government and that the threat of terrorism does not justify radical departures from the principles of government on which our country was founded."

The court's decision -- in a 5-3 majority, with Chief Justice John Roberts abstaining (because he'd ruled on this case as an appeals judge) -- also dealt a big blow to the Bush doctrine of "inherent" executive powers.

The president's legal team had argued that when Congress enacted its post-9/11 authorization of military force in Afghanistan and against al Qaeda, the lawmakers had implicitly allowed Bush to set up whatever kinds of courts he wanted to handle terrorist suspects; as a result, Bush established special tribunals that did not comply with the rules of law (and the rights of the accused) required by the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

But the high court majority said no to all that. It ruled that Bush was acting outside the law, that Congress had never given him such latitude, even implicitly. Therefore, said the majority, "the Executive is bound to comply with the Rule of Law that prevails in this jurisdiction."

The court basically said that if Bush wants to set up tribunals that limit the rights of the accused, he needs to go to Congress for specific permission. Here's the money quote: "Where, as here, no emergency prevents consultation with Congress, judicial insistence upon that consultation does not weaken our Nation’s ability to deal with danger. To the contrary, that insistence strengthens the Nation’s ability to determine -- through democratic means -- how best to do so. The Constitution places its faith in those democratic means. Our Court today simply does the same."

Translation: For the sake of our democratic way of life, Bush needs to learn how to play well with others.

Bush's conservative followers are apoplectic today about this ruling, and it's easy to see why. The court's rejection of "inherent" presidential powers could hurt Bush on other issues. Case in point: His domestic surveillance program. Last winter, his legal team similarly said that Congress' post-9/11 authorization of military action was an implicit OK for their warrantless wiretaps -- notwithstanding a 1978 law that specifically required warrants.

Hence the outrage. It looks like Bush conservatives have a new target today, joining the New York Times in the docket as an enemy of America.

One conservative blogger, whose pen name is Oak Leaf, put it this way: "This morning, the United States of America signed the instrument of surrender with al Qaeda and all affiliated terror organizations. The signatories representing the United States were Anthony Kennedy, Steven Bryer, John Paul Stevens, Ruth Ginsburg and David Souter." (Anger may have prevented the accurate spelling of Stephen Breyer.)

Matthew Franck, a regular blogger at the National Review, assailed this "latest chapter of judicial tyranny over the United States." Others predictably fulminated about "unelected judges" (despite the fact that, as I said yesterday, unelected judges put their man in the White House). And still others trained their ire on Stevens, the 86-year-old Republican appointee who may or may not be winding up his tenure on the court. They certainly hope so. As one conservative at said, "I just wish he didn't feel the need to give away the country on his way out the door."

Indeed, now that Stevens has given the country away, what happens now? Plenty, in all likelihood. Don't think that this is the final word on Bush's conception of wartime power. It's not inconceivable that the White House and the Republican Congress will come up with new legislation designed to specifically legalize those tribunals, skirt the Geneva rules, or even strip the judiciary of any right to rule on these cases. Then the Democratic politicians would be challenged to say (in the GOP's framing) whether they side with America or with the rights of terrorists.

And, as for Stevens, he could indeed retire one of these days. If Roberts had not recused himself in Hamdan, the ruling would have been 5-4. This means that, if Stevens leaves, Bush could tip the court with one new judge who embraces his concept of an unfettered wartime president. Bush's detractors might be wise to keep the champagne on ice.

Bounce? What bounce?

I was puzzled last week by all the stories out of Washington -- during the congressional debate over Irag -- declaring that President Bush was politically on a roll, that the Republicans were recouping lost ground on the war, that the public was more turned off by "Democratic disarray" than by the GOP's stay-the-course mantra. Newsweek takes first prize, in its upcoming July 3 issue, with its decree that "Democrats lost the week in the war over the war."

I'm not a member of the Inside-the-Beltway commentariat, which perhaps affords me a little more perspective. The fact is, those stories are a crock. An examination of the latest Gallup poll, conducted last weekend after the congressional Democrats supposedly suffered ignonomous defeats on two resolutions urging the start of troop withdrawals, indicate that there has been virtually no change in public sentiment. Most people were reportedly ticked off about Bush and the Republicans prior to the Democrats' supposedly lost week, and most people still feel that way.

Here are the numbers from Gallup, in its poll co-sponsored by USA Today: Back on June 11, registered voters were asked about the '06 election, and said that they favored a Democratic Congress over a Republican Congress by a margin of 12 percentage points. In the new survey, completed last Sunday, that margin has actually widened -- to 16 points (the biggest Democratic lead all year). And Democrats, notwithstanding their internal divisions, are still perceived as the better party to handle Iraq, by a 10-point margin.

Gallup's June 11 survey reported that 38 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance; the June 25 survey reports that 37 percent approve. The June 11 survey reported that 49 percent of Americans want the troops withdrawn either immediately or within a year; the June 25 survey puts that share at 50 percent.

And here's a new Gallup question, asked this past weekend, after the congressional GOP defeated the two Democratic withdrawal resolutions: "Which comes closer to your view? Congress should pass a resolution that outlines a plan for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, (or) decisions about withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq should be left to the president and his advisers?"

The response: 57 percent said that Congress should outline such a plan; 39 percent said the decision should be left up to Bush.

That's not exactly a vote of confidence in the imperial presidency; rather, it refutes the widely reported perception that Bush is enjoying some kind of public opinion "bounce." Rather, it appears to indicate that the Republican message of "stay the course" strikes restive Americans as being synonymous with "more of the same."

So maybe conservative Joe Scarborough, the ex-Republican congressman, has a better reading on the situation than the so-called "liberal press." As he suggested the other night on his cable TV show, after reviewing the polls, "This (Iraq issue) sounds like a complete loser for Republicans, come this fall."


And speaking of the Republicans and Iraq, Pennsylvania's own Curt Weldon appears to be one step away from winning the Dan Burton Award.

As my colleague Tom Ferrick noted yesterday, congressman Weldon was hot to trot on a plan whereby, acting on an alleged tip, he would personally travel to Iraq and dig down 25 feet until he discovered what nobody else has been able to discover: Saddam Hussein WMDs. Apparently he was all excited about an ex-investigator based in Texas who suspected that four caches were buried near a stretch of the Euphrates River - and was set to go over the Memorial Day weekend until the investigator squelched the idea.

At first, Weldon brought to mind Geraldo Rivera, the TV shlockmeister who arranged to open Al Capone's vault on camera in 1986, and found only dirt. But no, I think Weldon is flirting with the Dan Burton Award -- so named for the Clinton-hating Republican congressman who, after adamantly refusing to accept the 1993 police report which determined that Clinton aide Vince Foster committed suicide, went about trying to prove that Foster was murdered by Clinton confederates. At one point, he invited the press to his backyard, pulled out a gun, and pumped bullets into a pumpkin (the pumpkin standing in for Foster's head), in some kind of attempt to dispute the police ballistics.

You get the point. If Weldon gets a plane ticket and a shovel, the Burton Award is his.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Until you win, it's all hot air

So much for the purported clout of the anti-immigrant conservatives. They lost a big race in Utah last night.

Their mantra, for many months, is that President Bush (a proponent of a guest-worker plan for illegal immigrants) is out of touch with his conservative base (which supposedly wants the illegals to go home), and that these base voters will punish Bush Republicans at the ballot box.

I'm still waiting.

As I previewed here yesterday, a House Republican primary in Utah last night pitted incumbent congressman Chris Cannon -- a staunch Bush supporter sympathetic to the guest-worker plan -- against businessman John Jacob, a hardliner on the illegals. The primary eve polls suggested that Jacob could well win. The tally this morning shows that Cannon crushed him by 12 percentage points.

No doubt the anti-immigrant forces will cite some mitigating excuses: Cannon had a lot more money and higher name ID, yetta yetta. But the fact is that they have long been threatening a grassroots revolt, based on the proposition that Bush and his Republican allies are soft on illegals, and they have yet to deliver.

In 2004, roughly half a dozen anti-immigrant conservatives tried to use the issue, mostly against Republican incumbents in various congressional primaries. They all lost. In 2005, a candidate from the border-patrol Minuteman group ran as a candidate in a southern California congressional election. He lost. Also last fall, Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore assailed illegal immigrants as one of his most prominent issues. He lost too.

So until the enemies of illegals break through somewhere, Chris Cannon is probably right when he says that the message of his Utah victory, for fellow Bush Republicans, is that "you don't have to worry about xenophobes."

One vote shy of wrapping themselves in Old Glory

Last night, the Republican Senate failed in its effort to narrow the First Amendment for the first time in 214 years. Probably until the next election year, it will therefore be safe for a few vagrants to exercise their freedom to offend by damaging a few American flags.

The GOP bid to outlaw flag desecration by amending the Bill of Rights failed by only one vote -- the closest Senate margin since this symbolic issue first reached the floor in 1990 -- but, despite the cliffhanger, some naysaying Democrats clearly made the determination that they won't pay a political price at the polls, that they will not be tarred by their voters as unAmerican.

Some of the Democrats who successfully resisted the GOP's patriotic litmus test are senators who face re-election races this year: Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tom Carper of Delaware, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, and Kent Conrad of North Dakota. First-termer Cantwell's race is considered particularly tight; Bingaman and Conrad hail from states that voted for President Bush in 2004.

Nevertheless, a few Democratic senators facing tough '06 election races did side with the GOP: interim appointee Robert Menendez, who's seeking a full term in New Jersey; and Debbie Stabenow in Michigan. Another '06 candidate, Ben Nelson of red-state Nebraska, also voted Yes. They might have deemed it risky to stand in opposition to the Republicans' Old Glory rhetoric.

Speaking of that rhetoric, some of it is worth noting here. I assumed by now that the GOP had exhausted all possible uses for the 9/11 tragedy, but clearly I was wrong. On the Senate floor, Republicans made it abundantly clear that the need to amend the Bill of Rights has become more urgent because of what happened on 9/11.

Thus, we had John Cornyn of Texas displaying a picture of the flag-waving 9/11 firefighters and saying, "After 9/11, you could hardly buy a flag, because it was such a symbol of patriotism and resolve." We had Craig Thomas of Wyoming arguing that because the flag was raised in the rubble at Ground Zero and at the Pentagon, a constitutional amendment was necessary so that Americans would hold the flag "in the highest regard." We had John Thune of South Dakota recalling how the flag was "draped over the Pentagon on September 11."

The implication was clear: If you don't vote to amend the Bill of Rights, you sully the memories of those who died on 9/11.

But there was more. Republicans used the flag debate to further polish their general argument that "unelected" federal judges are wrecking the country. We heard this a lot last year during the Terri Schiavo flap, and we hear it a lot during the gay marriage flap. The Senate Republicans made it clear that they will keep pushing for a flag amendment because they refuse to honor the two Supreme Court rulings which decreed that flag-burning, while odious, is still protected free expression. Cornyn, for instance, complained about this "judicial decree." Thune assailed the "five unelected judges" who made those rulings (four of whom were Republican appointees, but never mind).

Well, guys, all I can say is, take it up with the Founding Fathers. They're the ones who established the judiciary, and they didn't decree in the Constitution that federal judges shall be elected, either. And I don't recall any Republicans getting upset in December of 2000 when five unelected judges put George W. Bush in the White House. (Meanwhile, today I am waiting for Republicans to condemn the ruling this morning by the unelected judges who have upheld Tom DeLay's gerrymandered Texas congressional map. The Phillies will win the pennant before that happens.)

Anyway, Old Glory season is still not over on Capitol Hill. Later this summer, the GOP will be back with the proposed Pledge Protection Act, barring all unelected judges from hearing any cases that might involve the removal of the words "under God." Will Democrats up for re-election opt to buck that tide?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Name the last time that political junkies paid attention to Utah

Anybody interested in gauging the clout of anti-immigrant conservative voters should pay attention to what happens tonight in Utah.

There's a potentially bellwether Republican primary in the congressional district that encompasses a hefty chunk of the state's western side. A five-term GOP congressman, who is allied with President Bush on immigration, could be ejected by conservative voters who believe that he and Bush are soft on illegals.

Congressman Chris Cannon, who generally supports Bush's "guest-worker" plan for illegal immigrants, is being challenged in a House Republican primary by businessman John Jacobs, a political neophyte, who thinks that the Bush guest-worker plan is basically a "mass pardon for lawbreakers," because it doesn't require that the illegals go home first before applying.

And, if the primary eve polls are correct, Jacobs might topple Cannon on that issue alone; the Salt Lake Tribune's latest survey shows Jacobs ahead by a percentage point among voters who are "definite" about showing up. That makes sense, in a way, because low-turnout summer primaries are generally dominated by the most motivated voters, and passions are high right now among immigrant hardliners - even in a state far from the Mexican border.

A lot of congressional Republicans will be watching this primary closely, to also determine whether Bush could be a political drag on their '06 fortunes. (Bush has recorded a Cannon endorsement, relayed to GOP voters via their phones.) Put simply: If the conservative base rejects a pro-Bush congressman in a "red" enclave like Utah -- one of only three states* nationwide, according to Survey USA, where Bush's perfomance favorables are higher than his unfavorables -- then where else, they may conclude, is it safe to openly stand with the president during the autumn election season?

One might argue that Jacobs, a devout Mormon, will lose a few votes because of his recent complaint that "Satan" had prevented him from raising adequate campaign funds. But some GOP operatives think that, in Utah, his remark might be an asset.

* The others are Idaho and Wyoming.

Bulletin from the complicit media: A denial of factual reality isn't worth a headline

What I have noticed most about the de facto state media is its gift for spinning on behalf of the leader.

Yesterday, for instance, President Bush was asked again about global warming, and in reply he acknowledged to reporters that global warming is indeed "a serious problem." He then insisted, however, that "there is a debate over whether it's manmade or naturally caused." The Drudge Report came to his rescue, but more on that in a minute.

This "debate" line is one of the president's most fascinating talking points, especially considering the fact that the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meterological Society, the National Climactic Data Center, 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and Bush's own Climate Change Science Program have all concluded that man's role is irrefutable and that no such "debate" exists any longer. And now we have word that even Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster/strategist who used to counsel Republicans on how to play up the "debate" angle, has officially defected to the other side. He told Canadian television last night: "It’s now 2006. Now I think most people would conclude that there is global warming taking place, and that the behavior of humans are affecting the climate."

Anyway, back to Bush's statement that global warming is serious, but that a "debate" about man's role continues: The first part of his remark, viewed in isolation, suggests that Bush is sensitive to the environment; the second part of his remark suggests that he sides with the alternative universe financed by the oil and energy industries. So today the right-leaning Drudge Report stresses part one, and scrubs part two.

The headline today on its home page:
"Bush: Climate Change is Serious Problem."

No doubt you awoke today thinking about stare decisis

I won't linger long on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling yesterday that, among other things, upheld the opinion that it's constitutional to bar candidates from collecting unlimited amounts of campaign money. I know, your eyes are already getting heavy. That's why I won't linger. Not even Ambien can compete with the campaign-finance issue as a sleep inducer.

So I'll get to the point, which I think is pertinent: This ruling, in a Vermont campaign-finance case, suggests that the "Roberts Court" is not likely to be radically conservative, as feared by Bush administration critics. At least not on the basis of its behavior in this particular case.

The Bush critics' concern, last autumn, was that the new chief justice, John Roberts, would seek to sweep away durable court precedents (the principle of stare decisis) that stood in the way of a sweeping conservative ideology. One such precedent, of course, is Roe v. Wade. But another is Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 high court ruling which established the aforementioned principle that a ceiling can be imposed on campaign contributions without violating the First Amendment rights of candidates and parties to exercise their free expression.

Reformers have long viewed Buckley as a bulwark against runaway campaign largesse -- while libertarian conservatives have long viewed it as a bar to unfettered expression, an obstacle that has prevented candidates and parties from raising as much money as they like. These conservatives (Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas are in this camp) don't think there should be any limits.

But another strain of conservatism is all about respecting precedent. That's what Roberts did yesterday. He signed on to an opinion written by Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer, who wrote that respect for precedent "avoids the instability and unfairness that accompany disruption of settled legal expectations," and that "iteration and reiteration over a long period of time" strengthen a particular precedent -- a reference to the fact that Buckley was upheld in a seperate case a few years ago.

Reformers in Washington were happy yesterday (or purporting to be). One of the most prominent, Fred Wertheimer, told the Washington Post that the court "has not disturbed the constitutional doctrine under which we've been winning cases for years. It's a status quo opinion. It preserves the decision upholding...prohibitions on corporate and labor union contributions...."

On the other hand (and, with high court rulings, there's always the other hand), the supremes made it clear that Buckley was probably wrong to impose any limits on campaign spending. And while Bush's other appointee, Samuel Alito, said the Vermont case didn't directly challenge Buckley, which therefore meant that the court had no need to sweep it away or even address it, some court-watchers suspect that Alito might have been inviting a direct challenge. And there were actually three separate opinions that seemed to constitute a majority. It's rulings like this that help keep the court-watchdog groups in business.

Are you mesmerized yet? If not, try one of these:
1. The Mets come to Fenway tonight for a three-game showdown with the Red Sox, with Pedro toeing the slab tomorrow.
2. The buzz on the new Superman movie is great.
3. Neil Young's aging-baby-boomer concert video is out on DVD.
4. Senate Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska has a new re-election campaign ad, featuring fulsome praise for his job performance from...President Bush.

Yeah, the real eye-opener is #4.

The blogger primaries

A classic example of how national politics has changed in a few short years:

Back in 2002 and 2003, Democrats and journalists were talking about "the Shrum primary," which referred to the likely competition among White House aspirants to sign up Washington consultant Robert Shrum as their chief campaign guru. But today, with Shrum in retirement (after racking up, during his long career, exactly zero presidential election triumphs), and with DC Democratic consultants widely viewed as part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution, the '06 Democratic chatter is all about signing up bloggers who can connect a candidate to the grassroots keyboard warriors.

For instance, likely presidential candidate Mark Warner, of course, has landed Jerome Armstrong; and in Connecticut, antiwar candidate Ned Lamont (who's challenging Joe Lieberman in a Senate Democratic primary on Aug. 8) has landed Tim Tagaris. And now we have word that Hillary Clinton -- who is persona non grata in the liberal blogosphere because of her centrist stance on the Iraq war -- has just hired her own blogger consultant: Peter Daou, the news commentator at "War Room," on, and best known to political insiders as John Kerry's blog outreach guy.

Daou told The Times that the "nascent power base" of liberal bloggers "is only beginning to make its presence felt," and will "reach fuller potential with the participation of Democratic leaders." That's probably true.

But what this trend also suggests is that, increasingly, online news consumers might have problems trying to determine whether a prominent blogger is critiquing events as an independent voice -- or whether he or she is spinning the critiques in order to aid a certain candidate, for reasons not fully disclosed or apparent. To some extent, this is already happening; as many online mavens already know, Mark Warner has gotten a pretty nice ride on, the most popular liberal site, and the widely-held perception is that Armstrong's close alliance with Kos himself, Markous Moulitsas, has something to do with that. It's true that we denizens of the mainstream media are often derided these days as quaint and archaic, but, in our world, which is typically guided by ethics rules contained in three-ring notebooks, the boundary that separates reporting from candidate-spinning is far more impervious.

Monday, June 26, 2006

More evidence that the war planners whiffed on Curveball

Back in April, I wondered why so little press attention was being paid to Tyler Drumheller, the newly retired CIA chief of European operations, who had tried to warn the White House (in vain, naturally) that prewar reports about Saddam Hussein WMDs were greatly exaggerated. I suggested that because the Bush administration's refusal to process factual reality was already so well established, Drumheller's eyewitness account was not even considered "news" anymore.

Allow me to amend that observation; a lengthy take on Drumheller finally appeared over the weekend, in the Washington Post, building on what he told CBS' 60 Minutes in April. The gist is that he knew the administration was relying on a discredited Iraqi source (a mentally unstable taxi driver nicknamed "Curveball") to push its claim that Hussein was supposedly readying plans for germ warfare, and supposedly cooking up the ingredients in his supposedly existing mobile biological labs.

Drumheller is now on record saying that he specifically told deputy CIA chief John McLaughlin that "Curveball" was a fantasist; German intelligence (which was hosting "Curveball") knew this, and had passed him the word. But the warnings were ignored. Shortly thereafter, Secretary of State Colin Powell still made the accusation in his United Nations speech. Drumheller also says he warned CIA chief George "Slam Dunk" Tenet that the germ-warfare mobile lab story was bogus, but President Bush uttered this falsity anyway during his Jan. 28, 2003 State of the Union speech (the same speech that included his more famous Hussein-is-buying-uranium falsity). Today, McLaughlin and Tenet are essentially telling the Post that they remember no such warnings.

It wouldn't be surprising if the Drumheller saga comes up today in Washington, where Senate Democrats are holding their own hearing on prewar intelligence bungling (because the GOP-led Senate Intelligence Committee, despite past promises, still declines to explore the issue of whether the info was spun in order to aid the case for war).

Meanwhile, the right is trying to find ways to undercut Drumheller, of course. The blog at The Weekly Standard thinks it has found a way: Drumheller --- get ready, this should blow him out of the water forever -- is seeking attention and "will soon have a book out."

Well, I'm suitably floored. I wasn't aware that doing what Ann Coulter does virtually every year is supposed to be bad.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Those cut and run Republicans

Consider, for a moment, how the Bush White House and the Republican National Committee would have reacted late last week if a Democratic senator had delivered this floor speech during the Iraq war debate:

"My distinguished colleagues, I firmly believe it is time to start withdrawing our troops from Iraq, and, more importantly, it is time that we discussed specifics. For instance, we currently have 14 brave fighting brigades in that country. Each brigade has about 3500 troops. I propose that, in accordance with improving conditions on the ground -- and the President has assured us that steady progress is being made -- we can set a specific goal of pulling out our brigades until there are perhaps only five or six still in Iraq by the end of next year. Further, I believe that this phased withdrawal can begin as early as this September, by sending home two brigades. We could pull out two more by the end of this year. We could take out perhaps four more by next June. This would also mean that we could start reducing the number of U.S. military bases in Iraq, and that would also demonstrate to the Iraqis that we are not permanent occupiers. I firmly believe that, by the end of next year, we could cut the number of bases from the current 69 to roughly 11. But, under my plan, we would still have flexibility, because I propose redeploying one of the brigades to Kuwait, and another in some other location, where both would be available in a crisis. All told, I believe that this is a prudent plan that would work to shift responsibility to the Iraqis for their own future. And that is where the responsibility belongs."

It's easy to guess how such a speech would have been attacked by Karl Rove's message minions: "Defeatist...surrender...cut and run...raising the white flag...signaling al Qaeda about our intentions...proof that Democrats aren't serious about fighting the global war on terror...the party of retreat."

Well, I await those labels being applied to their own side, because guess what: Every single detail in that imaginary speech comes from the phased pullout plan currently being floated by President Bush's top commander in the field, Gen. George W. Casey Jr.

Perhaps it's absolutely total coincidence that Casey is suggesting that a phased troop withdrawal begin on the eve of the '06 congressional elections, at a time when Bush's poll numbers (and the congressional Republicans' numbers as well) are in the tank primarily because of Iraq. Even if this the coincidence is real, what it actually demonstrates is that the Democrats were right to raise the issue of withdrawal (with or without a timetable) in the first place. And if the timing is not totally coincidental, then it demonstrates that the Democrats have an accurate reading of the public's mood, and that they got there first.

As one Democratic strategist said to me today, "If we can't jump on this right away, and show that what the Bush administration is planning is basically a confirmation that we were right all along, then maybe we should just disband."

No game of "Capture the Flag" would be complete without the lawyers

My newspaper column today -- previewing the Senate debate this week over whether to approve a constitutional amendment banning flag desecration -- was necessarily focused on (a) the current plans by Republicans to vote Yes and thus presumably corner the mom-and-applie pie market, and (b) the current concern, shared by a dozen or more Democrats, that a No vote will somehow brand them as defilers of Old Glory.

But for all the emotion attached to this hot-button contretemps -- one congressional chamber or the other, at the GOP's urging, has brought it up at least six times since 1990 -- it is rarely pointed out that, even if the Senate and House both OK an amendment by the requisite two-third margin, the Bill of Rights won't suddenly be altered overnight. Yes, this would be the first time ever, in two centuries, that politicians in DC will have slapped caveats on the First Amendment right of free expression, but actually this would be beginning -- not the end -- of the battle.

Three-fourths of the states would have to approve the measure, and, even after that, the lawsuits would be filed and the courts would be compelled to get involved. The main point of dispute would be the language of the amendment itself: "Congress shall have the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States."

Well, what's "desecration"? Obviously, it's not just flag-burning, or else it would specify that. So since it's not just flag-burning -- would this curb on free expression extend to, say, sewing a little flag onto the butt of your jeans? Wearing the stars and stripes on your head, as a sweaty do-rag? Flying it upside down? Wearing one as an armband during a protest? What about commercial uses, such as putting the flag image on a bottle to sell beer? (Back in 1907, the state of Nebraska banned that very practice -- and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ban.) And how about those pictures of President Bush during the '04 campaign, pleasing his fans by autographing their flags?

As Robert Corn-Revere, a Washington attorney specializing in First Amendment law puts it, the language in the GOP-driven amendment would provoke "a true legal conundrum."

But that's all in the (potential) future. All that matters, for now, is the political narrative that Republicans are hoping to run on in '06: "We'll protect the flag, they won't."


A goof in my Sunday column: I wrote that GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell hails from North Carolina, but it's actually Kentucky.