Friday, October 20, 2006

If it's October, it must be Osama

The crush of competing responsibilities, combined with some traveling, has disrupted my writing regimen. The goal is to resume normal scheduling early next week. In the meantime, new columns will sporadically appear, as time permits. Right now, for instance:

Nobody can fault the Bush team and the GOP for consistency. They worked hard to spook the voters in 2002, and it worked. They worked hard to spook the voters again in 2004, and it worked. And presently, with their backs to the wall and with all indications that their public support may be crashing on ’06 election eve, they have predictably decided to push all their remaining chips across the table, invoke Osama bin Laden yet again, and rattle the voters’ nerves one more time – banking on the (arguably misguided) belief that most Americans still view the GOP as the party that can best shield us from terrorism.

National GOP headquarters announced this morning that it plans to feature bin Laden and some of his henchmen in an ad slated for national cable TV this weekend. Choice excerpts include a bin Laden quote from 1998 (“With God’s permission we call on everyone who believes in God…to comply with His will to kill the Americans”), and a 2004 quote from Ayman Al-Zawahiri, threatening suitcase bombs. The ad concludes with the GOP warning the viewer, “These are the stakes.”

So with just 18 days remaining on the electoral clock, the most fundamental question – on which control of the House and Senate may well hinge - is whether most voting Americans will still buy this pitch. All the available evidence suggests that they will not, largely because the war in Iraq has seriously undermined the GOP’s meta-fear message.

Nobody – in either party – would dispute the argument that al Qaeda and its offshoots want to kill Americans and will continue to plot; nobody would dispute the argument that they should be fought with all available tools. But, as evidenced by all the pollsters, from Galllup to Fox News, it has now become clear that most Americans view the Iraq war as a testament the governing party’s demonstrable inability to fight global terrorism effectively.

In essence, President Bush set the terms on which he is now being harshly judged. He asked that Americans view Iraq as the central front in the war on terror – but if that’s the measure, it is therefore clear that the central front is going badly. And what generally happens, in a democracy, is that the people in charge of running such a war tend to suffer at election time; in Bush’s words, after all, an election is “an accountability moment.”

Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan Washington analyst who until recently was openly skeptical that the Republicans would cough up either congressional chamber in the ’06 election, has since recalibrated his thinking, thanks to the Iraq/security issue. He wrote yesterday, “Consider what we all have been witnessing in Iraq: a growing number of U.S. casualties and fatalities; increased reports of violence and anti-Americanism; ineffectiveness on the part of the U.S.-backed Iraqi government; and little or no progress toward the establishment of a stable Iraqi government that can overcome sectarian loyalties and make progress toward a sustainable democracy. It's no wonder Americans give the president increasingly poor grades on his handling of the war on terror.”

And Rothenberg quotes one Republican as telling him, “They have destroyed their great numbers on the war against terror by linking it to Iraq.”

I hear the same lament from my own Washington Republican contacts, although they don’t want to say this for attribution, because the sentiment runs counter to the official White House and Republican National Committee message. Yet they are merely responding to the weight of the polling evidence. The latest numbers come from the NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, which is jointly conducted by Republican pollster Bill McInturff and Democratic pollster Peter Hart. They report that, while the GOP retains a slight, and diminished, edge as the party most trusted on national security, nevertheless the Iraq war has seriously eroded that trust:

Bush’s prosecution of war is supported today by just 33 percent of Americans. (He is also personally less popular today than Bill Clinton was on the eve of the ’94 congressional elections that proved disastrous for the Democrats.) Moreover, 68 percent of likely voters say they are pessimistic about the future in Iraq, 57 percent say that Bush hasn’t provided good reasons for keeping our troops in Iraq, and, by an eight-point margin, a plurality of likely voters say that Democrats would be more effective at dealing with Iraq (reversing a pro-GOP margin of five points just one month ago).

But the real stunner is that, by a nine-point margin, a plurality now believes that Iraq has devolved into a civil war – and, according to Republican McInturff, this belief is strong across the political spectrum, held even by those who backed Bush’s re-election in 2004.

Further complicating the GOP’s scare message is the mounting pressure on Bush to essentially admit that his administration’s Iraq policy is in dire need of a major course correction. How can the Bush political team expect to get serious political mileage from its latest Osama bin Laden TV ad, when even their own Republican allies are saying – with only a minimum of diplomatic politesse – that Bush is screwing up the central front in the war on terror and that he needs to face that fundamental fact? Just decode this quote from Republican senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, and the rebuke to Bush is abundantly clear: “I would hope that members of the administration are willing to learn from past mistakes . . . and choose a different path that would allow us to meet our objectives."

The White House is also spending valuable time on defense, seeking to explain away some of its own remarks. A few days ago, Bush told ABC that, yes, he saw a parallel between the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam (which ultimately sunk President Lyndon Johnson) and the current violence in Iraq. Then, yesterday, Bush spokesman Tony Snow declared that, no, Bush wasn’t trying to equate Vietnam with Iraq at all.

Snow said that Bush was merely trying to say (although Bush didn’t say this to ABC) that the enemy in 1968 was trying to influence the ’68 elections, just as the enemy in 2006 is trying to influence the ’06 elections. In Snow’s words, “The president was making a point that he's made before, which is that terrorists try to exploit pictures and try to use the media as conduits for influencing public opinion in the United States.”

Well, that’s an interesting complaint...when one considers that the Bush political team is putting Osama bin Laden into a TV ad this weekend, exploiting his picture and trying to use the media as a conduit for influencing public opinion in the United States.

The clear message is that Americans should be worried about Osama and thus vote GOP. Yet, way back on Jan. 22, 2002, Bush said of Osama, "I'm not too worried about him," and on March 13, 2002, Bush said, "I truly am not that concerned about him."

Apparently the worry meter can be recalibrated according to the dictates of the election calendar.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Curt Weldon and the conspiracy theory as campaign tactic

Curt Weldon, the embattled suburban Philadelphia Republican congressman, is already well into the predictable cycle of responses employed by politicians who labor under the cloud of scandal: I haven’t been informed of any investigation; if there is an investigation, I didn’t do anything wrong; the timing of this investigation is suspicious, given the impending election, but I will look forward to cooperating fully with those who are unfairly coming after me; this is just a conspiracy concocted by my political enemies; even if it’s just a conspiracy, I am moving on.

It’s worth revisiting Weldon’s claim that he is the victim of a conspiracy. At last check, he is attributing the FBI’s raid on his lobbyist-daughter’s house to, among other people: public interest activist Melanie Sloan (who used to work for a Democrat, and who filed a complaint against Weldon with the FBI two years ago), former President Bill Clinton, a former senior Justice Department official and 9-11 Commission member named Jamie Gorelick, former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But here’s the part that I don’t get:

1. Do all those people, acting separately or in concert, have the clout to tell the FBI what to do?

2. Isn’t the FBI a part of the Justice Department, which, last I checked, is run by a Bush Republican loyalist named Alberto Gonzalez?

3. In fact, last I checked, isn’t the government (White House, executive agencies, Congress) basically run by Weldon’s fellow Republicans?

4. Are these put-of-power Democrats somehow responsible for impaneling the federal grand jury that, since last May, has sifted wiretap evidence which suggests – although no charges have been filed - that Weldon may have illegally traded on his congressional clout to help his daughter land juicy lobbying contracts with Russian companies and a Serbian foundation?

The likely answers to those questions, of course, are: no, yes, yes, and no. But because Weldon is trying to save his political skin on the eve of his first competitive race in decades, in a district that has been slowly trending Democratic, at a time when the national GOP dearly needs him to hang on, we can hardly expect him to craft a defense grounded in empirical fact. Rather, his defense can best be understood in raw political terms. He is trying to rally his base, by arguing to potentially waffling supporters that he is a victim of his enemies and the bureaucrats and government overreach. (After all, this strategy worked for Democratic Philadelphia mayor John Street, when an FBI bug was found in his office during his re-election drive.)

Nevertheless, it’s never helpful for a politician in a tight race to be back on his heels as voting day draws near. It’s tough to stay on offense and when you’re being asked to explain yourself. And while Weldon might have easily shrugged this off during a normal election year, he now has to contend with the broader, inhospitable, atmospherics.

As the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly put it late yesterday, “the suggestion of a possible scandal comes at a time when most of the voting public already has a dim view of the Republican-controlled Congress, and when public corruption has emerged as an issue in the national campaign for control of the House.” The CQ website, which has been tracking all House races this year, now believes – for the first time - that Weldon’s challenger, retired Navy vice admiral Joe Sestak, should be given the edge.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that if a well-ensconced incumbent like Weldon is ousted, it’s a sign that Republican control of the House is imperiled. But not everyone in the GOP camp is worried about losing control. Karl Rove, for instance, sat down with the friendly Washington Times yesterday and said, “I’m confident we’re going to keep the House.” And typically paranoid Democrats are no doubt wondering, “Does he know something that we don’t?”


There is no mention, in that Rove story, about Christian conservative voters, and whether they are sufficiently energized to help save the GOP congressional majority. Clues to their mood are abundant elsewhere. It’s clear that, in the wake of the Mark Foley scandal, they remain furious with what they perceive as “homosexual infiltration” of the Republican party. And now they’re upset that Condoleezza Rice was recently photographed swearing in a State Department AIDS official who (a) is gay and (b) has a gay partner. And, worse yet, Rice was outwardly friendly to both.

Here’s the text of an email that I received the other day from the Family Research Council, a prominent religious right group. It’s self-explanatory:

“The U.S. State Department is in the business of diplomacy and avoiding faux pas, so the turns of phrase recently used by Secretary of State Condi Rice can be assumed to be intentional. Flanked by First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary Rice recently administered the oath of office for new Global AIDS Coordinator Dr. Mark S. Dybul. Dr. Dybul placed his hand on a Bible held by his homosexual partner Jason Claire. First the State Department's Deputy Chief of Protocol, Raymond Martinez, and then Secretary Rice herself referred to Mr. Claire's mother as Dr. Dybul's ‘mother in law.’ Both Martinez and Rice referred to Dr. Dybul's "family," which, under the circumstances (Dr. Dybul's parents were also present), contained enough truth to be generically proper."

The email continues: "A photograph of the swearing-in, on October 10, appears on the State Department's web site. In the world of protocol, verbal miscues are anathema. The question arises, what guidelines do the State Department and White House follow? Neither federal law (the Defense of Marriage Act) nor District of Columbia law recognizes a marriage between Dr. Dybul and his partner, and "mother in law" is therefore both linguistically (and possibly legally) improper and morally provocative. Why did Secretary Rice deploy the term in the presence of the First Lady? We've written to ask her, and we'll let you know.”

Don’t be fooled by that civil, polite language. The Christian conservatives are ticked off. As another religious right leader, Louis Sheldon, put it yesterday, the Dybul incident "was totally a damper to the base that we need to turn out” on election day.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Is Santorum speaking his mind to deaf ears?

The final senatorial debate between Sammy Glick and Perry Como – excuse me, Rick Santorum and Bob Casey Jr. – was conducted early last evening, which means that TV viewers in Pennsylvania can now return to their regular programming, no doubt needing no further reminders that they will be compelled to choose on Nov. 8 between the hyper and the soporific.

I’ll spare you a reenactment of the various charges and countercharges; nor will I dwell on the dueling attack lines (Casey says that Santorum is a stay-the-course, rubber-stamping toady for President Bush; Santorum says that Casey is an empty suit with an empty mind, cruising on his father’s name). Most people are probably tuning out that stuff already. All that will really matter, on election day, is whether the Republican incumbent will be judged by most voters to be out of sync with the prevailing statewide mood.

And I suspect that this will happen.

It’s true that the Democratic challenger, whenever given the choice between sounding decisive and vaporous, continues to opt for the latter; last night, for instance, when Casey was twice asked to spell out the conditions under which he would endorse military action against a recalcitrant North Korea, he said there’s “no line I can identify” and “we can’t sit here tonight and draw a line on this.”

But this Senate race - which the national Democrats must win, if they have any chance of taking back the Senate chamber - is not about Casey, notwithstanding Santorum’s increasingly frenetic efforts to make it so. At this point, Santorum looks like he’s trying to drive a nail into a vat of Jell-o. His exertions are almost palpable, and probably in vain, because this race is ultimately about the number three Senate Republican, in an election year that has shaped up to be a referendum on the governing Republican party. The man knows how to hustle, in Glick fashion, but it’s debatable whether he can hustle successfully in such an inhospitable climate.

Santorum’s ongoing problem, evidenced again last night, is that he can’t help saying exactly what he really thinks – despite the fact that his commendably unvarnished candor is probably turning off the suburban Republican moderates whose votes he desperately needs in order to survive. Assuming they haven’t tuned him out already.

Take Iraq, for example. Most Pennsylvanians, echoing most fellow citizens elsewhere, by this point have judged the war to be a failure, either in terms of its underlying mission or for its incompetent execution, or both; nor do they believe that the Iraq war has made Americans safer at home. But Santorum is still insisting that the voters have got it all wrong; as he put it last night:

“The fact that we have been out there, aggressively going after (the Iraq terrorists), has kept this country safe for five years. It’s one of the things seemingly overlooked every now and then, with respect to our success. We have not been attacked in five years. That’s because we’ve been taking it to them.”

Moreover, he contended that if the war on terror is ultimately lost, he is prepared to blame it on Americans at home, for failing to lose their nerve. (We will lose, he said, “if Americans don’t understand what we’re facing.”) This argument might well strike many Pennsylvania voters as a bit of an insult. In other words, why blame the folks at home, without saying nary a word during the debate about the increasingly well-documented mistakes committed in Iraq by the administration that he has long supported – such as (among other things) sending too few troops to this so-called central front in the war on terror, and failing to provide sufficient body armor, and failing to anticipate the possibility of an anti-American insurgency?

Many war analysts, as well as many voters, have long believed that Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld deserves some of the blame for those mistakes. John McCain has said that he has “no confidence” in Rumsfeld, and some moderate Republicans, as well as Senate Democratic hawk Joe Lieberman, have called for his resignation. Bob Casey, the cautious centrist, has echoed that call. But last night, Santorum – again risking the perception that he refuses to hold the administration accountable for errors – staunchly defended Rumsfeld, with this puzzling line:

“Don Rumsfeld doesn’t make policy, he follows policy.”

In other words, Santorum was saying that Rumsfeld should not be held accountable for anything, because he’s not really in charge of anything. No doubt this would be news to Rumsfeld, because the fact is that Santorum’s argument was not accurate.

It has long been established, in reports and books and congressional studies, that Rumsfeld essentially controlled the war planning; he reportedly micromanaged the invasion plans “down to the last tank.” As a self-described military reformer, he’s the person who contended that a smaller, quicker strike force could get the job done. And when Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff in 2003, argued that winter that we would need at least several hundred thousand troops in Iraq, he was shown the door on an accelerate schedule – and everybody in the Pentagon knew where that decision was made.

Nor is it clear that, on Iraq, Santorum can win over swing voters and moderate Republicans by portraying himself as an independent politician who occasionally disagrees with Bush. Especially when his disagreements are grounded in the argument that Bush isn't hawkish enough.

Last night, for instance, Santorum again insisted that we define the enemy as “Islamo-fascists.” When it was pointed out to him that even Bush has stopped using that terminology – because his aides persuaded him that it turns off moderate Muslims and therefore does more harm than good – Santorum implied that Bush has made the wrong call: “I’m sure that we offended a lot of Germans and Japanese and Italians when we called a spade a spade in World War II.”

For the most part, however, Santorum is stuck with the fact (which Casey recites almost as a mantra) that he has long been one of the Bush team's most faithful soldiers. This is a troublesome label, especially when a top gun on the Bush team says something that might not sit well with most Pennsylvania voters. Witness Dick Cheney, for example. Today, while talking with Rush Limbaugh, Cheney said this about the current government in Iraq (where October is shaping up to be the third worst month of the war for U.S. military deaths): "If you look at the general overall situation, they're doing remarkably well."

But since moderates and independents might not be persuadable on Iraq, one can sense that Santorum is stacking his sandbags around the immigration issue, as catnip for his conservative base. That, in the end, might be where he makes his final stand – seeking to maximize conservative turnout by putting heavy stress on his call for strong border security. The problem here, however, is that anti-immigration sentiment is not nearly as strong in Pennsylvania as it is elsewhere (in part because the state reportedly ranks 31st in the percentage of foreign-born residents). One statewide poll shows that only around eight percent of Pennsylvania voters rank immigration as their top issue concern, and most of them are probably with Santorum already.

So it would not appear that the debates shifted the dynamic in Santorum’s favor. He risks being swept into early retirement ( at least from elective office) by the prevailing national mood, and that’s noteworthy, given the fact that he rode a pro-Republican mood into the Senate 12 years ago. If he loses on Nov. 7, it could be written that, sometimes in politics, you live by the wave, you die by the wave.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bush family dynamics and other tidbits

Let’s welcome the new week with some short hits:

Is it any wonder that so many Americans seem to be suffering from “Bush fatigue,” given all the intramural sniping within the Bush family dynasty? The keepers of the father’s legacy think that the son is messing up, especially with his war in Iraq, thereby tarring the dad with his misdeeds.

So the courtiers of Bush 41 are dumping on Bush 43, leaking their disdain to the media in the time-honored Washington tradition. They've been ticked off for years, ever since Bush 41 national security adviser Brent Scowcroft wrote a 2002 column warning that a war in Iraq would devolve into a disaster, and the 43 courtiers blew him off.

The sentiments of the 41 camp permeate Bob Woodward’s new book; in fact, Scowcroft is virtually speaking through Woodward in this pungent passage: "In his younger years, Scowcroft thought, George W. couldn't decide whether he was going to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game. Now, he had tried at the game, and it was a disaster."

In other words, the 41ers basically think that the kid is way over his head. And this weekend they unloaded on him with a vengeance in the New York Daily News.

I generally hesitate to recommend reports based in part on anonymous reports, but Tom DeFrank is a seasoned political writer with extensive sources, and the comments generally underscore what we already know about 41 camp sentiment. So this tidbit, from a “Bush 41” loyalist, is worth noting:

"Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts. Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi (Rice) wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing.”

And another 41er seethes: "Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word," a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. "Personally, I think he's dying inside."

They feel somewhat emboldened by the fact that 41 alumnus Jim Baker (as I mentioned last Friday) is co-helming an Iraq commission that is mandated by Congress to help the son find some light at the end of the tunnel. But all this intra-family tension will probably underscore most Americans’ traditional suspicion of family political dynasties. And as a measure of the public’s Bush fatigue, look no further than the recent Fox News poll which posited a hypothetical 2008 match-up between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. The president’s brother came up short, by 15 percentage points.

That’s how you know things are bad for the Bush family, when Hillary winds up looking good.


Speaking of disparaging remarks, David Kuo, a Christian conservative activist who once worked in the Bush White House, was on CBS’ Sixty Minutes last night, seeking to amplify the theme of his new book Tempting Faith (mentioned here the other day), which argues that Bush and the Republicans have long been playing Christian conservative voters for suckers by selling out their agenda and privately disparaging their leaders as (among other things) “the nuts.”

That’s not exactly the kind of message that the GOP would like to see on national TV at this time, especially since Republicans are facing a very tough election night unless Christian conservatives are sufficiently enthused to vote Republican in massive numbers.

In fact, Kuo, who resigned in 2003 as the deputy director of Bush’s Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, told CBS last night that Christian conservative voters would be wise to stay home: “The name of God is just being destroyed in the name of politics…Evangelical Christians need to take a step back and take a fast from politics…(The Bush administration) is taking the sacred and making it profane. You’re taking Jesus and making him into a precinct captain.”

The Bush team offered its initial defense last Friday, pointing out that Kuo’s resignation letter had praised Bush for his “unwavering support,” and insisting that Karl Rove (who was cited by Kuo as one of the disparagers) had never called the religious right leaders bad names behind their backs.

Bush spokesman Tony Snow said: “I know Karl Rove, we've asked Karl, ‘did you say the things attributed to you?’ He said, no.” (Perhaps. But Rove is also the guy who told Snow’s predecessor, Scott McClellan, that he, Rove, had played no role in the Valerie Plame leak case. That claim turned out to be, shall we say, at variance with the facts.)

Meanwhile, Jim Towey, who was Kuo’s boss in the faith-based initiatives office, last night told CBN, the Christian news network run by Pat Robertson, that Kuo was wrong to criticize the president: “Good Lord, he was (our) main advocate, it’s in his heart…Evangelicals have a friend in George W. Bush.”

CBN plans to air more about Kuo this week, which is exactly why it’s troublesome for the Republicans. Whatever time and energy the White House and the GOP have to spend knocking down the Kuo story is time and energy not spent on conveying a positive, consistent message about why Christian conservatives should vote heavily in 2006.


Speaking of the ’06 election, it’s fair to say that when Fred Barnes, of all people, is waxing pessimistic about the GOP, you know that the Republicans must be in major trouble.

Barnes, the conservative commentator who has enjoyed great access to Rove and Bush, generally puts the most upbeat GOP spin on the political zeitgeist. But a sunny forecast is difficult when black clouds are looming on the horizon, even in the red states. For instance, a Republican incumbent congressman in Indiana - repeat, Indiana - is now reportedly trailing his Democratic challenger by 23 points; and national Republican operatives are playing defense, by reportedly spending a disproportionate chunk of their campaign money on GOP incumbents who need appear to need extra help keeping their jobs.

Which is why Barnes' latest piece in the conservative Weekly Standard is a useful barometer of GOP angst:

“Republicans and conservatives, brace yourselves! Strategists and consultants of both parties now believe the House is lost and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will become speaker… (T)he Democratic crossover vote on which Republican candidates often rely has dried up. Democrats have gone home in droves…Rove is clever, but not that clever. Which is why Republicans and conservatives need to prepare themselves for bad news on Election Night.”

He thinks this situation is very unfair, of course, since he considers the Democrats to be “obstructionist, anti-tax-cut, soft on terrorism, and generally obnoxious.” Not to mention “wimpy.” Nevertheless, he doesn’t foresee any scenario that would help the GOP keep the House…although he does say this: “There's little time left for a major event to occur. The North Korean bomb test wasn't big enough to change the course of the campaign.”

He's hoping for a "major event?" What’s he rooting for, anyway - a bigger nuke? a horrific terrorist attack? Whether he intended to imply that or not, at the very least he was signaling the current state of conservative desperation.