Friday, January 26, 2007

Bush-Cheney versus a timorous cacophony of voices

President Bush and Vice President Cheney can be excused for thinking that the U.S. Congress is as consequential as a fly that hovers and buzzes before zipping away. Because they are basically right.

Ex-congressman Cheney, in particular, understands that the legislative branch, hampered by both its rules and the divergent political interests of its members, is notoriously incapable of acting in unison or speaking with one voice. And its deference to the White House has grown far more pronounced in the half century since World War II and the onset of the Cold War. So when Cheney confidently tells CNN that Congress won't stop the escalation of the war in Iraq, he is (finally) uttering something true.

Let’s just take stock of where things stand at the moment, as Congress continues its struggle to find some words, or maybe some actions, to express its opposition to, or skepticism about, Bush’s decision to ramp up U.S. involvement in the Iraqi civil war. (Cheney thinks that any congressional gesture “would simply validate the terrorists’ strategy,” but let’s go wild and assume, for the purposes of this blog entry, that our elected lawmakers do have the right, as members of a democracy, to offer an opinion about a war that also appears to be troubling roughly 75 percent of the American electorate.)

Even with respect to the option that senators most prefer – empty talk, in the form of a non-binding resolution – the Democrats are fractured as usual.

There are red-state senators who don’t want to be perceived as picking on Bush too harshly, for fear of alienating centrist voters back home; this camp includes Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who is discomfited by the Biden-Levin-Hagel resolution, which declares that Bush’s escalation “is not in the national interest.” Moderate Democrats, wary of empty tough talk, prefer empty mild talk – as exemplified by Virginia Republican John Warner’s proposed resolution. This camp also includes Ken Salazar of Colorado and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, although they might actually go for the empty tough talk, if it can somehow be merged with Warner’s empty mild talk. Even though Warner doesn't want to merge.

Then there’s another Democratic camp, comprised of ’08 presidential candidates who are mindful that liberal antiwar voters wield considerable clout in early primary states. Hillary Clinton and Christopher Dodd (both of whom enabled Bush in 2003 by voting to authorize the war, and now seek to make amends wherever possible) not only support Biden-Levin-Hagel, but want to go further, by capping the number of troops via legislation or amendment. They are joined by another ’08 hopeful, Barack Obama.

Then there’s another Democratic camp, comprised of liberals who don’t have to worry about facing a national electorate – for instance, Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, who doesn’t think that even capping the troop tally goes far enough. He’s planning a hearing next Tuesday that will explore whether Congress has the right to sever funding for the war itself. Congress does have that right, actually. Cheney and his dwindling band of Capitol Hill loyalists are happy to point this out. They have been goading the majority Democrats to take that route, so that the GOP can brand the Democrats as being “against the troops.”

But the congressional Republicans are all over the place, too:

There are the bitter-enders, such as Texas Senator John Cornyn, who is readying his own empty-talk resolution, which declares that the Decider’s escalation plan “should be given a reasonable chance” to work. There are the political calculators, notably ’08 candidate John McCain, who is trying to balance his Bush-friendly hawkishness with his own proposed resolution, which would put the burden on the Iraqis to demonstrate progress via benchmarks. There are the escalation skeptics who are nevertheless too timid to sign on to Biden-Levin-Hagel, because (in the words of Minnesota senator Norm Coleman) they don’t want to be seen as “taking a shot at the president." After all, rank and file Republican voters are not known for their antiwar fervor; the White House is reportedly trying to remind GOP senators of this fact.

In other words, we have a deeply unpopular president, who’s sitting somewhere around 30 percent in the polls, and the purportedly co-equal branch of government is not only incapable of taking any real action, it’s essentially tongue-tied as well. The polls also show that, by roughly 30-point margins, most Americans want Congress – not Bush – to take the lead on Iraq policy. But the Bush war team knows full well that this will never happen.

One big reason is that Congress has been complicit in this war all along. Most of the people currently serving have voted to authorize the war money from the very beginning, with virtually no strings attached. I have read a number of pieces by legal scholars who argue that Bush’s legal authority to wage this war has been repeatedly validated by those congressional actions, and would thus be very difficult to reverse. (And political analyst Walter Shapiro, who points out that Congress in 1971 repealed its 1964 Vietnam war authorization vote, to no avail.)

These empty-talk resolutions are slated for full debate during in early February, with the possibility of horse-trading on language that will do nothing to arrest Bush’s escalation strategy. (A test vote on Biden-Levin-Hagel is slated for this Tuesday.) Thus far, in other words, I have seen nothing that would shake me from the opinion I expressed in a print column last Nov. 2, on the eve of the midterm balloting: “In terms of forcing our elected leaders to roll up their sleeves and find a feasible way forward, this election might have no more impact than a speed bump at a demolition derby.”

I don’t want to suggest that empty talk serves no purpose, however. Congressional restiveness over Vietnam, which played out over a period of about seven years, helped shape public opinion against the war (or, at the least, it helped validate antiwar sentiment in what Richard Nixon liked to call “middle America”). But today, antiwar sentiment is already the mainstream opinion; it’s Congress which is struggling in fits and starts to catch up.

It remains to be seen whether Congress can tame its cacophony of voices and find its footing. That may require a measure of courage that the institution has long been reluctant to display, especially in wartime. But Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, seeking support for the stronger anti-escalation resolution, has been pleading with his timorous colleagues to put themselves on the line, for a change.

Let’s call it the quote of the week: “If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes.”

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Greasing the skids for the richest candidates

Any presidential candidate who lacks star power and celebrity cachet will not be happy about the momentous changes soon to be wrought upon the ’08 primary season.

For those hopefuls without deep pockets or high name ID (Democrats Tom Vilsack and Christopher Dodd, for instance), it’s not good news that four big, delegate-rich states – New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, and California – now seem poised to move their primaries to the earliest possible date on the calendar, Feb. 5, hard on the heels of the opening contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Which means that the nominees may well be known by the first week in February. (Memo to any of my Pennsylvania readers who might wish to play a role in the primary season: Your votes will be rendered more meaningless than ever.)

This latest manifestation of the phenomenon known as “front-loading” means that all White House aspirants will be forced to run a punishing gauntlet that seems guaranteed to kill off virtually everyone who is not prodigiously financed and universally known.

Imagine the task that apparently lies ahead: Candidates will have to spend a small fortune just to do well in the crucial opening round, because a poor showing in those small states will spell certain doom – and then, without respite or time to raise new money, they will have to switch gears and immediately compete in some of the most expensive media markets in the nation. (Take New Jersey, for example. There are no network affiliates in New Jersey. To run TV ads there, candidates have to book time on the stations located in New York City and Philadelphia.) And that doesn’t even include all the travel, as candidates and their entourages hurl their weary bodies from tarmac to tarmac, coast to coast.

This “front-loading” problem – in which late-calendar states feel compelled to move up their dates in order to gain some clout and attention, not to mention economic benefit – has been around for nearly a quarter century, and it keeps getting worse. Political experts keep lamenting the problem at symposia, and the political parties keep insisting that they will bring order to the calendar by spreading out the contests. To no avail. Indeed, the situation right now is so fluid (the less charitable word is chaotic) that some of those big states might even try to go earlier than Feb. 5.

It seems downright quaint to talk about 1992, when political observers were lamenting the fact that Bill Clinton had virtually clinched the Democratic nomination at such an early point in the calendar....April 7. That was considered outrageous, a betrayal of the traditional weeding-out process that once stretched from late winter to early June. (One of the big reasons why upstart Ronald Reagan nearly derailed President Gerald Ford during the '76 primaries was because there were as many as three weeks between each major primary, thereby allowing Reagan to reload and raise more money in order to keep going.)

The calendar was further compressed in 1996, and the parties were widely blamed for not doing enough to stop the front-loading. In truth, however, they didn't want to stop it. As Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, explained to me in January of that year, "The national parties like the idea. They've had an increasing desire to get behind a single candidate earlier in the game, to come to a conclusion earlier, to try and prevent the eventual winner from suffering a protracted death-by-a-thousand-cuts. The parties don't want long, fratricidal seasons that leave people embittered. So the idea is, foreclose the possibility of last-minute candidacies, limit the field."

So it goes for 2008. And no wonder the public financing of presidential campaigns is in its last throes (as I wrote here two days ago). Given the fact that accelerated front-loading requires candidates to spend as much money as possible in a large number of states at the earliest point in the calendar, there’s little incentive to accept public money for the primary season – because such acceptance requires the candidates to obey a spending ceiling. How is it possible to compete effectively in eight states between mid-January and early February, when hampered by a spending ceiling?

Actually, let me amend that last paragraph: There’s little incentive for celebrity candidates with universal name ID to play by the public-financing rules.

Those who have the requisite fund-raising prowess to opt out of the reform process – notably Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John McCain, and perhaps John Edwards – seem best positioned to survive the front-loaded calendar. Those lesser-known candidates who have no choice but to accept the public money are not nearly as well positioned to compete and survive. In politics, as in society as a whole, the gap between rich and poor appears to be widening.

Which brings me to John Kerry, awkward segue notwithstanding.

All the tea leaves were telling him to forego another bid: Kerry is still being blamed by the Democratic rank and file for losing a winnable election (indeed, Democrats are not known for giving their losers a second chance; that hasn’t happened since Adlai Stevenson got the party nod in 1956). Kerry can’t compete for money with the Clinton juggernaut. Kerry can’t bond with a crowd as well as Obama. And the accelerated front-loading of the calendar would have aggravated all these deficiencies. (Kerry's people insisted yesterday that his decision was not motivated by his miserable poll ranking. Yeah, right.)

But, for me, what really seals Kerry’s fate as yesterday’s guy is the rise of Jim Webb. The new Virginia senator has swiped Kerry’s market niche, as the Democrat who can best combine war vet credentials and effective political rhetoric. As he demonstrated in his televised rebuttal to the State of the Union speech, Webb (who, unlike Kerry, opposed the Iraq war from the outset) can state his point of view in simple declarative language, devoid of any Kerryesque qualifiers:

“The president took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the chief of staff of the Army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command....we are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable – and predicted - disarray that has followed."

If Kerry can’t even win the Senate competition for the title of “macho Democrat,” then it’s tough to see how he would fare any better in a presidential race.

Jay Leno last night alluded to the fact that Kerry had correctly detected the lack of a public groundswell for his return. He joked, “Finally – a politician who listens to the American people!” Indeed, it can at least be argued that, unlike the man who beat him in 2004, Kerry does seem capable of recognizing and processing factual reality.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

This is not a botched joke

Bulletin: John Kerry opts out of the '08 presidential race. More on this later.

The State of the Union, from top to bottom

Wow, where to begin? Let’s start at the very beginning, and proceed chronologically.

President Bush’s political predicament was best illustrated by the tableau behind him. As he got ready to deliver his subdued State of the Union address, he was flanked, over his right shoulder, by Dick Cheney, perhaps the only elected leader at the moment who is more unpopular than Bush is; not to mention the fact that Cheney had his name bandied about all day during the Scooter Libby perjury trial, which threatens to turn into a circular firing squad. And Bush was flanked, over his left shoulder, by Nancy Pelosi, whose rise to the House speakership can be directly attributed to Bush’s ruinous war of choice in Iraq.

Most State of the Union speeches (a purely 20th-century contrivance, mandated nowhere in the Constitution) are pretty worthless, no matter which party occupies the White House, and this one was no exception. Every president pledges to work in a bipartisan manner, and it’s only a matter of time before the pledge is breached.

Bush managed to do this – perhaps inadvertently – within the first 30 seconds. He talked up the “wisdom of working together,” and then (according to the written transcript) he proceeded to “congratulate the Democratic majority.” The problem was that when he spoke the sentence, he extended congrats to “the Democrat majority” – the standard GOP pejorative that ticks off Democratic lawmakers every time. And, as Bush would soon make clear while talking about Iraq (the dark cloud that hung over the chamber), he doesn't really believe in the "wisdom" of working with people who view his war as a disaster and insist that he change course.

(During the ’06 State of the Union speech, he also pledged to work with Democrats “in a spirit of goodwill and respect” – yet, by October, he was out on the campaign trail contending that the congressional Democrats were soft on al Qaeda.)

Back to the ’07 speech. Moments after uttering his pejorative, and still on the bipartisan theme, Bush said that “our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done.” An interesting line, given the fact that, during the GOP majority reign, he was perfectly comfortable with the strategy of never crossing the aisle. The Republicans reigned by maximizing votes among their own people and stiffing the opposition. They often refused to let the powerless Democrats see proposed legislation until the final moments prior to passage, and they often refused to allow Democrats to offer amendments. But now that the Democrats are in control, Bush wanted to make it clear that he expects them to cross the aisle and engage the GOP.

Bush soon moved on to budgetary matters, noting that “what we need to do is impose spending discipline in Washington, D.C.,” another interesting line, given the fact that he and his GOP Congress jacked up spending to heights not seen since the glory days of LBJ. Then he added, “Together, we can restrain the spending appetite of the federal government,” again trying to hold the Democrats to a standard that he didn’t insist upon when his side had the power.

This pattern held as he took up the issue of earmarks, those special interest goodies slipped into bills under the cloak of secrecy at the eleventh hour. The GOP Congress ran roughshod with this practice, and he never said a word. Yet now he declares, “The time has come to end this practice…and cut the number and cost of earmarks at least in half by the end of this session.” One wonders whether he would be setting such a goal if the GOP Congress had managed to weather the November elections.

He then turned his attention, briefly, to the need for Social Security reform. He did it in one paragraph, sticking to generalities. It’s a sign of his waning political fortunes that he said nothing whatsoever about his onetime crusade to partially privatize Social Security. Last year he at least mentioned that he wanted to set up a “commission” to study the idea further. This year, not even a word about that.

(Nor, by the way, did he say a single word about post-Katrina New Orleans. In last year’s speech, he lauded his reconstruction program and declared that “a hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens. But Katrina is a sore subject. A House Republican investigation has assailed the White House for “a failure of leadership.”)

Shortly after the passing reference to Social Security, Bush moved on to health care. He stated: “A future of hope and opportunity requires that all our citizens have affordable and available health care.” Do those words have the ring of déjà vu? Here’s what he said last year: “We must confront the rising cost of care…and help people afford the insurance coverage they need.” And here’s what he said in 2004: “We must work together to help control those costs and extend the benefits of modern medicine throughout the country.”

How he expects to achieve this year what has eluded him when his own party ran the Congress in previous years is surely a mystery. And the proposals he suggested are dead on arrival anyway. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the Democrats will back his idea of taking away federal Medicaid money intended for public hospitals and other safety-net providers, and using that money to help people buy private health insurance.

Immigration reform – specifically, a guest worker program aimed at putting illegals on a path to citizenship – is probably his best shot at working well with Democrats. After mentioning health care, he moved to immigration and said, “We need to uphold the great tradition of the melting pot that welcomes and assimilates new arrivals.” The Democrats liked that line. This time, most of the Republicans sat on their hands. On this issue, Bush remains in trouble with his security-first conservative base.

(Nor will his religious conservative followers be happy with the speech, which said nothing about protecting the family from gay marriage, or protecting the culture of life. As they should know by now, the Bush team merely views that stuff as red meat for the election season.)

Then Bush moved on to the energy issue – and got in trouble again, at least with anyone who is not afflicted by amnesia. He lamented the fact that “for too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil.” The problem is, he utters a variation of this line, and calls for ambitious solutions, in almost every State of the Union address. In 2002 he said, “This Congress must act to encourage conservation.” In 2004 he urged Congress to “promote conservation.” In 2005, he urged “affordable, environmental responsible energy.” In 2006, he said we need to “dramatically improve our environment, move beyond a petroleum-based economy.” In 2006, he also talked about the wonders of using “switchgrass” to make clean fuel; this year, he shortened it to “grass.”

The words are always nice, but, meanwhile, our foreign oil dependency keeps getting worse. In Bill Clinton’s final year in office, 58 percent of our oil came from foreign sources; last year, it was 70 percent.

A few minutes later, after referring in passing to “the serious challenge of global climate change,” a line that dismayed a number of Republicans who still believe global warming is a hoax, Bush moved into the more treacherous realm of foreign policy. He took care to speak about the threat of global terrorism in terms that all could agree with. Indeed, when he said that “we owe a debt of gratitude to the brave public servants who devote their lives to finding terrorists and stopping them,” Nancy Pelosi sprang to her feet so fast (signaling her fellow Democrats to do likewise and thus demonstrate their toughness credentials), that one could have sworn that Cheney had placed a tack on her seat.

But soon came the familiar Iraq escalation arguments. He said again that Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and his people have “promised” to get tough with sectarian violence in Baghdad, that they have “pledged” to confront the bad guys, even those who are politically allied with them. But he again said nothing about a Plan B, in the highly likely event that Maliki doesn’t make good on his promises and pledges. And, fighting from his own political bunker, Bush still sought to draw a line in the sand. He suggested that the failure to support his view of the mission “is to ignore the lessons of September 11.”

Translation: He still thinks he commands the 9/11 high ground, and that if Democrats – and renegade Republicans – pass a resolution condemning his escalation, they will be guilty of dishonoring the memory of that day. That’s quite a gutsy presumption on his part, considering the fact that, at this point, support for his war strategy may soon consist of his wife, his dog, and Joe Lieberman.

One other line about the war, and about the bygone days of his political prowess, is worth a mention. He said near the end of his speech that “we went into this largely united in our assumptions…” Note that he didn’t say “united in our view of the evidence.” As we now know, all too well, there was no consensus evidence of WMDs. But there were certainly “assumptions” by the administration that WMDs did exist, and it was those mistaken assumptions that were sold to the Congress and general public.

It is the memory of those assumptions that has put the Democrats in charge, and left Bush in a plaintive state (on his troop plan, “I ask you to give it a chance to work”). He is not likely to be indulged in the way he would like. Democratic Senator James Webb, delivering his party’s rebuttal last night, said that if Bush doesn’t agree to a new Iraq strategy, the Democrats "will be showing him the way." Which is akin to warning Bush to get out of the way. Such is the mood in Washington that no mere State of the Union address can hope to dispel.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The decline and fall of campaign reform...and Republican unity

In less than 12 hours, President Bush will deliver a State of the Union address to an increasingly hostile nation. Most of his proposals will be dead on arrival (because his opponents now control both chambers, and because even many of his ostensible GOP allies are moving toward open revolt on Iraq); and most of what he says will be quickly forgotten (because State of the Union speeches typically have the staying power of tissue paper). But while we await this less than momentous event, here are a couple noteworthy items:

Stories about campaign finance reform tend to bore most people. Americans typically decry the rising costs of campaigns, and the influence of big money in politics, but they rarely want to read up on the details, probably because it’s pretty dry stuff. I am speaking from experience here; having written countless campaign finance stories over the past 17 years, I rarely receive so much as a single email (or, in the old days, a single letter) in response.

But what’s happening today is surely worth a mention. There’s no sexy way to say this, because it’s not a sexy topic: The post-Watergate campaign finance reforms are dying a slow and inexorable death. And Hillary Clinton is the latest candidate to mess with the oxygen supply.

These reforms, enacted in the mid-1970s, were designed to cleanse presidential campaigns by ensuring that private donors and big-money interests would not hijack the process. The idea, which has governed every election since 1976, was to bankroll the presidential race through public financing. Candidates have been able to raise private donations in order to establish their initial viability, but, during the primary season, they have typically opted to accept money from the federal treasury (“matching funds”), and to accept a federally-mandated ceiling on spending. And for the general election in November, the deal has been that the major party nominees forego all private donations, and instead finance their entire autumn campaigns with federal money (equal amounts to each nominee, in order to theoretically level the playing field).

That’s how the game has generally worked. The first big crack in the structure, however, occurred in July of 1999, when GOP hopeful George W. Bush announced that he would not abide by the primary season rules in 2000. He refused federal funds – and the spending ceiling that went with it – and instead opted to privatize his primary campaign. He was raising so much private donor money that he figured it would cramp his style to accept public financing.

This was a major event at the time – as campaign reform watchdog Larry Makinson told me that July, “Bush’s decision is the equivalent of Russia exploding the hydrogen bomb” – and it has since become common for candidates to refuse public money during the primary season, in favor of raising private dough and spending as much of it as possible. Both John Kerry and Howard Dean stiffed the reform route in early 2004.

Bush, at least, did adhere to the reform rules during his two general election campaigns, accepting public money and obeying the public spending ceiling in the autumns of 2000 and 2004. Kerry did the same for his autumn ‘04 bid.

But now we have the next major crack in the structure, the second and larger hydrogen bomb explosion: a candidate who is signaling long in advance that she will not abide by the reform rules in an autumn election.

Hillary Clinton, in her candidacy announcement over the weekend, made it clear that if she does win the ’08 Democratic nomination, she will privatize her autumn campaign, leaving her free to raise as much private money as she wants, and to spend as much as she wants. The math is easy to grasp: The federal money for an ’08 autumn campaign will be capped at about $83 million for each candidate, but she figures that she easily raise more than that amount in private donations. No doubt she won’t be the only major candidate to figure this out.

It’s not hard to see why all this is happening. For starters, the Internet has made it far easier than ever for a candidate to raise a lot of money in private donations virtually overnight. More importantly, the amount of money offered by the feds can’t begin to keep pace with the ever-ballooning costs of campaigning. By law, the public money is pegged to the rate of inflation – but campaign costs far exceed the rate of inflation. Hence, the growing candidate aversion to the reform rules. If both major candidates “opt out” during the ’08 autumn season, the reforms are effectively dead and the concept of the level playing field will die with it.

One solution, of course, would be for the feds to tinker with the rules and offer considerably more public money. But here is where human nature comes into play:

Taxpayers provide the public money for presidential elections. Taxpayers do this by checking a box on their income tax returns, earmarking $3 for the federal presidential campaign kitty. The problem is, hardly any taxpayers volunteer to do this anymore. In other words, even though most Americans say that they want campaign reform, they don’t want to help pay for it.

A quarter of a century ago, nearly 30 percent of taxpayers checked the box and put campaign money into the federal treasury. The percentage today? About nine percent.

I first noticed the declining participation rate back in 1990, when it had fallen to about 20 percent. I spent some time in Washington, asking people about this downtick, and the answers I heard back then are probably equally relevant today. For instance, Fred Wertheimer, a veteran reformer, said: “The day you pay your taxes is not the day you’ll think most highly about financing your political leaders.” One Capitol Hill aide said that most people don’t like the idea of financing the negative ads that wind up on their TV screens. And Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin summed it up this way: “People feel like they’re victims of the process, that politics isn’t something to participate in. It’s something that is done to them.”

These feelings persist, which is why Hillary Clinton and any other candidate who stiffs the general election rules isn’t likely to pay any serious political price. As a Democratic strategist named Michael Meehan told me in the winter of 2003, “Most voters don’t care about this stuff. Just the editorial page readers.”

True enough. But when the reform rules die, and the money arms race spirals totally out of control, and we wind up some day with one nominee seriously outspending the other nominee during the autumn campaign, voters will have arguably forfeited the right to complain.


The decline and fall of the Bush administration continues apace, now that bellwether Republican senator John Warner has announced his opposition to Bush’s Iraq troop escalation. Yesterday afternoon, while introducing his own non-binding resolution condemning the Bush plan, Warner said this:

“The American G.I. was not trained, not sent over there — certainly not by resolution of this institution — to be placed in the middle of a fight between the Sunni and the Shia and the wanton and just incomprehensible killing that’s going on at this time.”

Not so long ago, if this kind of remark had come from the mouth of a Democrat, the Bush team would have been busy condemning that person as a wimpy defeatist who was intent on giving aid and comfort to Osama bin Laden. But that’s tough to do at the moment, with Bush sinking in the polls to Jimmy Carter levels. It’s also tough to do when the speaker is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, somebody who did yeoman duty for the Bush team back in 2003, willingly echoing their prewar talking points on cable television night after night.

Some of the best liberal bloggers are uncomfortable with Warner’s condemnation resolution, precisely because he was such a Bush water-carrier back in the day. Glenn Greenwald, for instance, has unearthed a prewar gem, in which Warner went on CNN and (in response to the usual tepid questioning by Larry King) announced that the absence of any solid WMD evidence, during the prelude to war, should be considered proof that Saddam Hussein was actually hiding his arsenal somewhere:

“(Our inspectors) have not uncovered anything…(Hussein) has become very skillful to keep these manufacturing base of weapons of mass destructions active, mobile and beyond the ability of any inspections to really catch it. And this is proof of it.”

Also, some in the antiwar community aren’t happy that Warner’s resolution language isn’t as strong as the language in the other resolution, the one offered by Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Chuck Hagel. The latter declares that Bush’s “escalating” of the conflict “is not in the national interest.” The former states that “the Senate disagrees with the plan to augment our forces.” (Augmentation is Condoleezza Rice’s preferred word.)

But these distinctions aren’t what matters most. The bottom line is that, regardless of what words are employed, the rank and file Republicans are moving toward open revolt. Warner’s journey from loyalist to dissident is proof of this. And even the normally compliant House Republicans, having read the election results and pondered the polls, are suddenly rediscovering the concept of accountability; GOP leader John Boehner suggested yesterday that Bush report back on the situation in Iraq every 30 days.

So don’t expect many verbal hurrahs this evening, even from within Republican ranks, when Bush invokes Iraq during the State of the Union. At a time when Republicans are focused on saving their political hides, and about being branded as the Iraq war party, paying homage to an unpopular lame duck is not a prudent strategy.