Thursday, July 27, 2006

The '06 election and the failure of Pax Americana

The lead photo today on page one of The New York Times says it all: Condoleezza Rice looking weary, her eyelids at low mast, the palm of her left hand pressed against her brow, seemingly in dire need of a couple extra-strength Advils. What better visual symbol of a Bush administration overmatched by international events -- precisely at a time (the runup to the '06 congressional elections) when President Bush badly needs to rack up some diplomatic or military triumphs?

Right now, there seem to be two schools of thought about whether the turmoil abroad -- Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Iran, North Korea -- will further damage Bush's domestic standing and thus hurt his Capitol Hill followers who are running for re-election. The optimistic GOP scenario posits that Bush and the Republicans can actually benefit because voters are often wary of switching horses (in this case, handing congressional power to the Democrats) in midstream when the international waters are especially turbulent.

As Republican consultant Lance Tarrance told The Washington Post today, these crises give Bush an opportunity "to demonstrate presidential leadership," and the latest Times-CBS poll does show strong plurality approval for the way Bush is responding to the Israel-Hezbollah hostitilies. In other words, the optimistic GOP scenario relies heavily on the traditional rally-round-the-commander-in-chief behavioral model, coupled with fresh Wall Street Journal-NBC polling evidence that, for all the president's woes, the Democrats still can't seem to inspire public confidence (32 percent favorably, 39 percent unfavorable).

The countervailing scenario, however, is at least equally persuasive. Bush has apparently taxed the public's patience to the point where he has very little room to manuever. The two new polls cited above report that most Americans are witheringly critial of Bush's performance in Iraq, and recognize that at this point he garners little respect around the world. And he inspires little confidence at home, as evidenced by the pessimism measured in the Times-CBS survey: only 35 percent approve of the way Bush is generally handling foreign policy, and 61 percent believe that the Israel-Hezbollah fighting is likely to trigger a larger regional war (a finding which suggests that few Americans expect The Decider to be decisively effective in this crisis).

Worse yet, even prominent conservatives are now openly pessimistic about Bush's stewardship in Iraq; consider this argument, voiced yesterday: "Hands up, everybody who believes that the 'hundreds' of troops that the Pentagon plans to move from the rest of Iraq into Baghdad will suffice to secure the capital against the sectarian militias now waging war upon the civilian populations of the city. Anybody? No, I didn't think so....The present plan -- 'as the Iraqis stand up, we stand down' -- has not worked to date, as the president admitted (Tuesday), and there seems little reason to hope it will work better over the next months than it has in the recent past."

If a Democrat had uttered those words, he or she would be labeled as "defeatist" or worse by Bush's defenders. But those are the words of David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who helped coin the phrase axis of evil. If someone like Frum is so gloomy, it's not hard to imagine that the average voter is any less. Especially given the fact that (as the Times-CBS poll reports) a whopping 56 percent of Americans now support a withdrawal timetable, which puts public sentiment at odds with the Bush team and far ahead of the Washington Democratic establishment.

And there's also a broader context that arguably bodes ill for Bush and his congressional enablers on election day: The current crises in the Middle East -- particularly the fact that America is now too bogged down in the Iraqi religious (civil) war to respond effectively -- provides stark evidence that Bush and the neoconservatives' grand design for a broadly democratic Middle East appears to be going up in flames.

The original plan was to topple the Iraqi evil-doer in a cakewalk, install peace and democracy with minimal troops, and then watch the flowers bloom in the region's heretofore inhospitable soil. This ambitious Pax Americana was widely applauded, and a lot of us in the press occasionally got suckered by it (including me, here), prior to the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections this past January.

Most Americans aren't foreign policy experts, and don't live their lives debating neoconservative theory, but they do know instinctively when there's a mess that their president seems ill-positioned to clean up, and they do seem to know when Congress seems inattentive to what's really important (especially since the GOP lawmakers have spent their time lately passing flag-waving bills, such as the one designed to keep the word "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance). Perhaps this is why conservative columnist Robert Novak is now reporting that one of his top GOP congressional sources, somebody "who publicly exudes optimism," is privately predicting "a loss of 30 House seats," and thus a Democratic takeover.

And conservative strategist Kellyanne Conway also sees trouble ahead for the GOP; as she writes today, "All of the conventional (polling) indices...portend disaster for the party in power, in this case, the GOP. The right direction/wrong track figures, congressional and presidential approval ratings, and confidence measures, are all 'upside-down,' which is pollster parlance for crappy."

Nevertheless, as one Democrat said to me the other day, after itemizing Bush's woes, "How do you think we'll screw this one up?" I'll consider that question further tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Freedom is fear, democracy is tyranny, up is down

The George Orwell Award for the Debasement of Political Language is hereby presented to Nuru Kamal al-Maliki, the latest prime minister of Iraq, who addressed a joint session of Congress today, and who was honored with the requisite multiple standing ovations as he recited various Orwellian talking points cadged from the tattered Bush administration playbook.

How he and his White House patron think they can sway the American public with this kind of rhetoric -- at this late stage of the tragic game, with Iraqi bloodletting again on the upswing -- is anybody's guess. The latest Gallup poll shows that 62 percent of the public is turned off to President Bush's handling of Iraq, and it's implausible that Maliki's remarks today will spark joy in the streets.

In domestic political terms, Bush should be downright grateful that the press coverage these days is being dominated by the Israel-Hezbollah fighting, which has pushed Iraq off page one. I would bet that relatively few Americans are aware that far more Iraqi civilians have been killed (roughly 1400) during the past two weeks in their increasingly sectarian war than in the hostilities further west. As veteran political analyst Larry Sabato emailed today, "The near black-out of news on Iraq can only help the White House. Were it not for the bombs falling on Beirut and the rockets raining down on Haifa, the nearly unprecedented carnage throughout the blood-soaked nation of Iraq would surely be leading the news. Bush owns Iraq, and GOP (congressional '06) candidates would surely suffer from the chaos, just as they have been doing for a year or more."

But over the long haul, the Iraq story will reassert itself. And it will be hard for the administration to mask the fact that Maliki -- ballyhooed by the Bush team as a symbol of the new democracy, and viewed by the team as perhaps our last, best hope -- has already failed in his initial mission to tame the rampant sectarian violence around Baghdad.

The so-called Operation Enduring Freedom is out, to be replaced by some sort of Plan B, which we can probably call Operation Unending Crisis. And this plan, naturally, requires the participation of more U.S. troops, to buttress the overmatched and inadequately prepared Iraqi forces. Translation: we can probably shelve those Pentagon scenarios about U.S. troop reductions this autumn; it doesn't sound like the beleagured GOP congressional candidates will get a political gift out of Iraq on election eve after all.

But here's how Maliki, in his congressional address, nailed down the Orwellian award:

1. He declared that "Iraq is free." I guess that's true, if you define freedom as fear. Life around Baghdad has become steadily more oppressive, since the supposedly glorious June day when the terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed. All reports indicate that 100 civilians a day are being killed by sectarian gangs, Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly segregating themselves into respective ethnic enclaves, and some death-squad militias are gaining strength because they are protected and aided by the Interior Ministry of the new "democratic" government.

2. Which brings us to Maliki's declaration that Iraq now has "a fully-fledged democratic government," with "multiple political parties." I guess that's true, if you define democracy as tyranny. Sunni citizens are being terrorized by the militias allied with the Shiite-run Interior Ministry. That ministry supposedly reports to Maliki, who informed the congressmen today that "it is your duty" to help him pacify Iraq. But pacifiying Iraq is a bit of challenge, because the "fully-fledged democratic government" now includes freely-elected armed Shiite fundamentalists -- people such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who heads the most powerful (and freely-elected) Shiite party, and who intends to set up armed vigilante squads to protect Shiiite residential enclaves.

3. Which brings us to Maliki himself. He came to power largely because he had the support of his ethnic "base" -- which includes the aforementioned armed Shiite fundamentalists. In his speech today, he repeatedly assailed "the terrorists" and the "extremists who value no life," and recited the old Bush theme about how"Iraq is free, and the terrorists cannot stand this." His implication, of course, was that "free" Iraqis are battling murderous insurgent outsiders, but not even the Bush administration seems to buy that one anymore; as Bush national security adviser Stephen Hadley said yesterday, "This isn't about terror. This is about sectarian violence." In essence -- although Hadley didn't say it -- Maliki's Iraqi allies are actually feeding the ranks of "the terrorists."

4. In George Orwell's 1984, the government of Oceania was adept at empty sloganeering, conjuring images of a bright -- albeit distant -- future. Maliki threw out a few lines of his own ("peace, prosperity, and hope...liberty, hope, and equality"), as he insisted that the first steps toward that future are already being taken. For instance, "we are making great economic strides." I guess that's true, if "great strides" in the economy and quality of life are defined as striding backward. The latest economic statistics, available in Washington, show that the unemployment rate -- pegged at between 25 and 40 percent -- has barely budged since late 2004; that domestic oil production remains lower than the prewar peak; that Baghdad residents have less potable water and less daily electricity than they had, prewar.

Maliki did say, at one point, that "the journey has been perilous, and the future is not guaranteed." That sounds about right. And perhaps it is unfair to focus too much on Maliki; he is merely the latest byproduct of the troubled American mission in Iraq. Indeed, I'd give the candor award to a U.S. military colonel who is quoted in Fiasco, Thomas Ricks' new book on the war. This colonel, assessing his own government's handling of Iraq since 2003, described it as "pasting feathers together, hoping for a duck."

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Goodbye "Deep Throat," Hello "French Cuffs"

Washingtonians are suckers for political intrigue, and there was a new mystery today:

Which Republican Senate candidate was dissing his president, complaining to reporters under a cloak of anonymity that George W. Bush is a big drag on his '06 candidacy?

Only in Washington could this kind of mystery even happen. Only in Washington, with its bizarre and fungible rules about the permitted use of anonymous sources, would a Senate candidate -- somebody running in the open for high public office -- sit down for a very public meal with nine (yes, nine) political reporters, and gripe about his president on the condition that he not be named. And then he persisted with that proviso even after Senate GOP leader Bill Frist dropped by and saw him sitting there, holding court with the nine reporters -- all of whom agreed to the deal, perhaps figuring that this insight into his real thoughts would help them write with more knowledgeable nuance about his public rhetoric.

Still, perhaps Anonymous' voters in his Anonymous state might have wanted to know what their Republican candidate really thought...

About the Bush administration's performance during Katrina: "A monumental failure...In Katrina, the president is at 30,000 feet in an airplane looking down at people dying, living on a bridge. And that disconnect, I think, sums up, for me at least, the frustration that Americans feel."

Or about Bush administration failures in Iraq, which he calls "the single thread that is weaving through every issue....People want an honest assessment from the administration, and they want to hear the administration admit we thought this, and it didn't happen that way, and -- guess what -- it didn't work, so we're going to try a Plan B. Let's call it what it is. We thought this was going to be a different kind of engagement."

Or about whether he wants Bush to come to his state and stump for him: "To be honest with you, probably not."

Or about the high-spending, low-achieving, polarized Republican Congress: "We've lost our way... the spending, the finger-pointing, not getting the bills passed. Just shut up and get something done."

So who was this mystery man who lamented wearing the Republican label ("It's an impediment. It's a hurdle I have to overcome. I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter")?" This had the political world in a tizzy today, with the bloggers naturally on board. Wonkette was even running a poll.

The nominees started with incumbent Jim Talent of Missouri, who's getting roasted in his state because centrist voters there support federal stem-cell research, which Bush vetoed last week. But Missouri is a red state (or it was, anyway, in '00 and '04), and Anonymous seemed to imply that he's laboring in a blue state.

Another nominee was candidate Thomas Kean Jr. of New Jersey, who recently insisted that a traffic jam was the reason why he didn't show up at a fundraiser that featured Dick Cheney. But Anonymous said at one point that he agreed with Bush's stem-cell veto. Kean does not agree.

Another was candidate Mark Kennedy of blue-state Minnesota, who is five points down in the latest state poll, and who managed, in his latest campaign ad, to skip the fact that he's a three-term member of the GOP Congress. But Kennedy is not considered a clothing dandy, as opposed to Anonymous, who was depicted by the Washington Post as having "his French cuffs sprouting cuff links coordinated with his necktie."

Another nominee was incumbent Mike DeWine of Ohio, who always manages to be busy when Bush drops into his state. That has already happened four times. But, again, Ohio has not been a blue state.

So what about Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele, the current lieutenant governor? He dresses sharp. He's struggling to win in a very blue state. He lives near Washington D.C., hence he can pop in for lunch. And best of all, Anonymous' gripe about Bush and Katrina was similar even in phrasing to a remark that columnist Robert Novak attributed to Steele last May.

And if it is Michael Steele (can this really stay a secret? and should it?), there is also one other factor well worth noting: He is African-American. If indeed his candidacy is in trouble -- he's trailing the two most viable Democrats in the polls -- that would be further proof that this year's oft-repeated story line about "the rise of the black Republicans" is a crock.

I have been repeatedly tempted this year to write "the rise of" story, but whenever I gear up, I ultimately shut down, having digested the latest evidence -- that Lynn Swann's gubernatorial candidacy in Pennsylvania peaked the day he announced; that Ken Blackwell's gubernatorial candidacy in Ohio is threatening to tank (he's now down by 20 points); and, now again, that Michael Steele might be lamenting his fate as a carrier of Bush baggage....OK, I'll emphasize might. Here's a pic of Steele. Are those French cuffs I see?

UPDATE: The envelope, please...And the winner is Steele. His office confirmed late in the day that he is indeed the mystery malcontent.

Calendar story a yawn, but not Hillary and John

I tend not to write much about how the political parties are always tinkering with the presidential primary calendar, because I sense that only the most hardcore junkies are fascinated by the debate over what state should go first, or whether Iowa and New Hampshire should be joined at the starting gate by more populous states, or whether the whole system should be "front loaded" with small states and "back loaded" with big states, or some form of vice versa. I used to shlepp myself to national party confabs in places like Indianapolis, listen to endless internecine debates about this stuff, take a lot of notes -- and then the whole story would quietly die several months later when party leaders put the kibosh on an overhaul.

So I have largely ignored the doings this past weekend in Washington, where a Democratic National Committee panel decided to crowd Iowa and New Hampshire at the top of the '08 primary calendar by adding early contests in South Carolina and Nevada; all four will take place prior to Feb. 5 of that year. The Democrats clearly are aiming for a more diverse early electorate. Nevada has burgeoning suburbs, a big union presence around Las Vegas, and a growing Hispanic population; South Carolina would presumably offer the prospective nominees a chance to test their early appeal in an Old Confederacy red state.

Whatever. I am blase about these tinkerings, maybe because of what happened in 1988, when the Democrats, hoping to tilt the playing field for a candidate with southern appeal, bunched most of their southern primaries on one day and called it Super Tuesday -- and wound up nominating Michael Dukakis from Massachusetts, who subsequently lost every southern state on election day.

However, one incident at the weekend DNC meeting is truly worth recounting, because it provides fresh evidence of the ongoing rivalry between Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. That alone is worth watching during the long runup to 2008.

The tipoff came when Harold Ickes, a former senior staffer in the Bill Clinton White House and a certified Friend of Hillary, spoke at the meeting in his capacity as a DNC member. He argued strongly against giving South Carolina an early slot, because that would be an automatic win for John Edwards (who was born there, and represented neighboring North Carolina while in the Senate). He lost his argument, but repeated it again for CNN: "The fact is that if he runs, and I think he is running, that South Carolina will be considered almost his home state and...I just don't think it is going to be taken seriously (by other candidates). The purpose of moving these states up is that they will be taken seriously."

He said that his objections to South Carolina "have nothing to do with Hillary or anti-Hillary," but that strains credulity.

The polls of Democratic voters show that Edwards, the '04 vice presidential nominee, is arguably Hillary Clinton's toughest rival. (Al Gore finishes second to Hillary in the latest horse-race surveys, but he has given no indication that he'll run; John Kerry is roughly at parity with Edwards in third place, but nobody except Kerry thinks he has a shot.) Edwards is a more galvanizing speaker. In a June Gallup poll of Democratic voters, he was ranked the most acceptable candidate (71 percent rated him as acceptable, 25 percent said he was unacceptable. Hillary came next, at 69-25.)

And, most importantly, Edwards has that southern pedigree. One of the biggest threats to the Clinton candidacy is the widely held perception within the party that she would get shut out below the Mason Dixon line, dismissed as yet another northern Democratic liberal. Ickes may be right about the South Carolina primary: If Hillary competes with Edwards there and loses big, the press will write that she can't win in the South. If she cedes that primary to Edwards by staying away, the press will write that she has acknowledged she can't win in the South.

The rivalry talk surfaced at the 2004 convention, when Edwards was tapped for the ticket, and Hillary's people issued the usual denials. So it was amusing to learn of an incident that took place this past spring. When Hillary's people learned that Edwards was slated to address the National Press Club in June, they demanded that the organization give Hillary a speech gig in May.

But for those of you who want to track the rivalry during the next 18 months, it's best to start with the best anecdote of all.

Where: The floor of the U. S. Senate. When: During the prelude to the Iraq war.

Clinton wanted a speaking slot in prime time, so she could explain at length why she was voting for President Bush's war authorization resolution. Her request was granted. Then Edwards rushed to the floor and asked for a speaking slot. Democratic leaders said no, because all the time was alotted. Whereupon Clinton said to him (in a voice loud enough for the galleries to hear), "Just stand there and look pretty, John."

Monday, July 24, 2006

Bush and the rule of law, next chapter

Writer's note: Blogspot server hassles prevented me from posting this earlier today. Apologies. However, I have finally expanded my blogroll, here on the home page. Feel free to partake, on the condition that you return.

It has been clear for a long time that President Bush doesn’t like lawyers – unless they’re on his payroll, crafting arguments for the unfettered exercise of executive power. He has often said, with a touch of pride, that he’s not a lawyer, and in campaigns he has generally dismissed “trial lawyers” as greedy vultures who game the system for big paydays.

So he undoubtedly will dislike the blue-ribbon report released today by the American Bar Association, which assails him as a threat to democracy, “a threat to the rule of law,” and as a president who disrespects “our constitutional system of separation of powers.” Most likely he’ll just ignore it, but I happen to think this report will be of interest to millions of his fellow citizens.

It’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, it arrives just two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court (more lawyers) decreed that Bush can’t simply do whatever he wants in violation of international law and the separation of powers.

Second, it has been authored by a bipartisan ABA task force that includes a number of notables from the conservative camp, such as Bruce Fein (who held two high-ranking Justice Department posts under Ronald Reagan), Mickey Edwards (former House Republican leader from 1977 to 1992, and a founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation), not to mention former FBI director William Sessions, who served under the first George Bush.

And third, it targets one of the most compelling – yet unsexy and therefore largely overlooked – issues in the growing debate over whether Bush is engaged in a dangerous power grab. It deals with Bush’s frequent use of “signing statements,” which often assert, in so many dry words, that the president really isn’t required to obey the bills that he is signing into law.

I mentioned this issue in passing the other day. Bush has now issued more than 800 signing statements – 200 more than all other presidents combined (and most of those were benign). The ABA task force, which was convened in June after the Boston Globe and now-defunct Knight Ridder exposed the practice, critiques Bush in detail and basically concludes that Congress needs to fight back by passing a law that would allow lawmakers to sue Bush in court for his behavior.

In other words, these pillars of the legal establishment are arguing that this particular president is potentially wreaking havoc with the Constitution, and that the only way to thwart him is for Congress to take drastic action that could put it on a collision course with the White House. I haven’t heard talk like this from the legal establishment since Richard Nixon's executive excesses during Watergate.

“This report,” says ABA president Michael Greco, “raises serious concerns crucial to the survival of our democracy. If left unchecked, the president’s practice does grave harm to the separation of powers doctrine, and the system of checks and balances, that have sustained our democracy for more than two centuries. Immediate action is required to address this threat to the Constitution and to the rule of law in our country.”

Basically, Bush has been arguing in his signing statements that, as leader of the “unitary executive branch,” he can pick and choose the laws he wishes to obey and enforce, and reserves the right to decide when, how, or if he will report to Congress on what he is doing.

This issue came up last December when he signed a bill curbing his administration’s right to torture terrorist suspects, but stated that he would obey “in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the president to supervise the unitary executive branch.” But he has repeatedly taken this stance – defying (among many others) a Patriot Act requirement that he report to Congress about possible search and seizure abuses; a law designed to ban the use of illegally collected intelligence; and a law designed to protect whistleblowers.

The ABA report doesn’t think highly of this “unitary executive” argument. It says the Bush signing statements “generally carry no citation of authority or detailed explanation.” And that’s one reason why task force chairman and former federal prosecutor Neal Sonnett (who is now Jack Abramoff's defense attorney in Florida) contends that Bush’s behavior “poses a threat to the rule of law.”

So what happens next? The ABA report has to be formally adopted by the group’s policy arm, the House of Delegates, on August 7, but it’s doubtful that this will humble the Republican Congress into to taking any action. Bush’s allies on the Hill can always shrug off the whole issue by saying that it’s an irresolvable legal quagmire. The high court has said, as recently as 1997, that Congress has only a very limited right to sue the president in separation of powers cases – so how could Congress write a meaningful law that would expand that right? And wouldn’t Bush have to sign it? Nevertheless, Bruce Fein reportedly is drafting a bill for Arlen Specter’s Senate Judiciary Committee.

Most likely, Bush’s defenders will respond in the usual fashion, by attacking the source of the criticism rather than the criticism itself. They have long dismissed the ABA as unacceptably liberal (Clarence Thomas assailed the ABA back in the '90s), and they dislike the ABA’s longstanding role as a vetter of judicial nominees. Conservative legal groups, notably the Federalist Society, have flourished in recent years as counterweights to the ABA. (For a critical perspective of the ABA's report, see this critique today by think tanker Edward Whalen, a former Justice Department official during Bush's first term. He calls the ABA report "shoddy and irresponsible, and says that the participants "ought to be ashamed of themselves.")

And let’s not forget that Bush did not invent the idea of using the signing statement as a muscle-flexing presidential tactic. Young conservative legal eagles in the Reagan administration were among the first to recognize its possibilities. As one wrote in a 1986 memo, this use of the signing statement would “increase the power of the executive to shape the law.” Today, the author of that memo, Samuel Alito, sits on the U.S. Supreme Court. His presence could prove significant in the years ahead, as legal challenges to Bush's concept of executive power wend their way to the top.