Friday, July 20, 2007

Why Hillary should thank Elizabeth

Hillary Clinton should drop a note in the mail to Elizabeth Edwards. The note should be effusive (something along the lines of “thank you, thank you, thank you”), because it’s clear that Elizabeth did Hillary a big favor the other day. She certainly didn’t intend it as a favor, but that’s what it was.

Elizabeth was really intending to help her spouse when she dissed Hillary as weak on women’s issues during an interview this week with the online magazine Salon. She was trying to address a political problem in her own camp. Husband John, the self-declared populist who’s running third in the ’08 Democratic race, badly needs to gain ground among unmarried, modest-income working women if he is to have a reasonable shot at the party nomination – but right now those likely primary voters are solidly behind Hillary. The latest New York Times-CBS poll, for instance, cites those women as Hillary’s strongest supporters, and, more generally, it reports that Hillary is viewed favorably by 69 percent of all female Democratic primary voters.

So Elizabeth sought to redress the imbalance. She argued that her husband is more sensitive to women’s issues, in part because Hillary is trying to campaign as a man. She said, for instance, that “keeping that (career) door open for women is actually more a policy of John’s than Hillary’s…(Hillary) is not really talking about poverty, when the face of poverty is a woman’s face, often a single mother…Look, I’m sympathetic, because when I worked as a lawyer, I was the only woman in these rooms, too, and you want to reassure them you’re as good as a man. And sometimes you feel you have to behave as a man and not talk about women’s issues. I’m sympathetic – she wants to be commander-in-chief. But she’s just not as vocal a women’s advocate as I want to see. John is.” (italics mine)

Elizabeth’s first mistake is that she leveled a charge that most women will never believe. She claimed that Hillary is not a sufficient advocate for women, but that line won’t sell, basically because it isn’t true. Here’s the best summation of Hillary’s track record:

“Attacking Hillary Clinton on women's issues is a tough sell. There's no possible way she can get any traction out of this…She has consistently sponsored key pieces of legislation that take direct aim at women's issues. She has sponsored The Paycheck Fairness Act to battle wage discrimination; The Prevention First Act, which expands family planning services; and just recently she picked a fight with the FDA over Plan B to get the ‘morning after’ pill available over the counter. In Democratic politics, these issues matter and you would think Elizabeth Edwards would have known that. Additionally, Hillary Clinton has been very outspoken about her pro-choice position; also, as First Lady she helped introduce the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage Pregnancies. And of course one of her most famous statements as First Lady was when she said ‘women's rights are human rights.’”

And that’s not a rebuttal from Hillary’s camp. That’s from David Brody, the Capitol Hill correspondent for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.

Elizabeth’s second mistake is the favor she did for Hillary. The flip side of Hillary’s abiding strength with women is her weakness with men; in the Times-CBS survey, only 35 percent of swing-voting independent men view her favorably, while 42 percent view her unfavorably. Hillary badly needs to make gains with that crucial slice of the electorate.

And what better way to advertise herself to a skeptical man, than to have a rival complain that she is campaigning “as a man”?

That’s exactly how Hillary wants to be perceived by male voters. As Georgia Duerst-Lahti, an expert in gender politics, recently told Salon: “The first woman absolutely has to out-masculine the man, kind of like Margaret Thatcher did.” Fairly or not, swing-voting men want to be reassured that a female president would not hesitate to act assertively as commander-in-chief. Elizabeth’s complaint – that Hillary is emphasizing her commander creds at the expense of her women’s creds – can only help Hillary among the guys.

And, yesterday, Bill Clinton spotted the opening; in his rebuttal to Elizabeth's charge, he signaled to men that his wife does not intend to be bound by gender stereotypes: "I don’t think it’s inconsistent with being a woman that you can also be knowledgeable on military and security affairs and be strong when the occasion demands it. That’s — I don’t consider that being manly. I consider that being a leader."

Lest we forget, Hillary is aided by the fact that her spouse is still the best verbal tactician in the Democratic party.


The quote of the week goes to White House spinmeister Tony Snow.

In a USA Today guest column, he wrote this astounding sentence about Saddam Hussein: “We never argued that he played a role in 9/11; political opponents manufactured the claim to question the president's integrity.”

On the one hand, I wonder at this point whether it’s worth rebutting fact-defying and blame-shifting assertions from the Orwellian Ministry of Truth; on the other hand, it’s worth sticking up for empirical reality.

For nearly a year, starting in October 2001, the Bush regime floated the story (officially debunked in 2004 by the 9/11 Commission) that 9/11 ringleader Mohamed Atta had met secretly in Prague with one of Hussein’s intelligence officers. Naturally, some reporters ran with it; columnist William Safire cited the Atta-Hussein link as an “undisputed fact.” But by September of 2002, the story had unraveled. U.S. officials, including CIA and FBI sources, were telling reporters that there was no proof of any such meeting, and that the tip had come from a dubious informant. The Czech president even told the Bush team at the time that the story was a crock. Yet none of this deterred the Bush team; Dick Cheney went on Meet the Press that autumn and repeated the Atta story anyway (“we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center”).

And then the Bush team proceeded to draft language, for their Iraq war authorization, that strongly implied a Hussein-9/11 link without explicitly saying so: “Members of al Qaeda, an organization bearing responsibility for attacks on the United States, its citizens, its interests, including the attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, are known to be in Iraq.”

So, with reference to Snow’s aforementioned claim of innocence, suffice it to say that not only has the Bush team repeatedly uttered falsehoods, but now it is telling falsehoods about its falsehoods.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Pyrrhic Republican victory

So, in political terms, which side “won” the latest inconclusive Senate battle over Iraq?

It can certainly be argued that Harry Reid’s Democrats look like losers, because they have failed yet again to find a way to put the brakes on President Bush’s war strategy. Stuck with their slim majority, the Democrats were able to coax only a handful of Republicans to side with them on the key procedural issue; in plain English, the Democrats couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to cut off the Republican filibuster and thus bring the Reid-Levin troop withdrawal bill to the floor for an up-or-down vote on the merits. (A majority of 52 senators did vote to let the pullout bill come to the floor, but that wasn't enough.) So, certainly in the parliamentary sense, the Republicans and their beleaguered president have won another round.

But the political shorthand is damaging for the GOP. In essence, Bush’s enablers have again defied the will of the American landslide majority. The latest CBS News-New York Times poll, released yesterday, reports that 61 percent are willing to continue financing the war – but only on the condition that lawmakers enact a timetable for troop withdrawal. A mere 28 percent support continued financing without a pullout timetable, a percentage that roughly parallels Bush’s popularity rating. On a separate question, even half of all surveyed Republicans say the war is going badly.

The upshot is that, given the ever-souring national mood, many Senate Republicans are in virtually no position to stick with Bush on Iraq beyond the September firewall. They stayed firm in July by floating the fig-leaf argument that lawmakers should wait for Gen. Petraeus’ September report before trying anything new. Which means that, roughly eight weeks from now, they’re going to faced with a difficult decision – whether to remain loyal Bushies, or take steps to save their political hides.

Certainly, despite their fondest hopes, they will get little guidance from Petreaus. There’s no way that he is going to show up on Capitol Hill with an announcement that he sees bright light at the end of the tunnel. He will hem and haw, he will talk about progress here and setbacks there, and he will ask for more time. He signaled as much yesterday, during his guest appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show.

Hewitt, the conservative host, trying as always to lob softballs, asked: “Now you’re due to make a report back in September, I don’t know if it’s early, mid or late September, General Petraeus, is that enough time to really get a fix on how the surge is progressing?” And Petraeus replied, “Well, I have always said that we will have a sense by that time of basically, of how things are going, have we been able to achieve progress on the ground, where have there been shortfalls, and so forth. And I think that is a reasonable amount of time to have had all the forces on the ground, again, for about three months, to have that kind of sense. But that’s all it is going to be.”

So the Republicans, while winning the parliamentary battle yesterday, are slowly and incrementally losing the political war.


Following up on the Fred Thompson story I mentioned a week ago:

Remember how the ostensible GOP savior and great conservative hope was pleading amnesia in the wake of reports that, as a Washington lobbyist in 1991 and 1992, he had done some backroom lobbying for an abortion-rights group? Remember how his press secretary declared that Thompson had never done any such lobbying at all, while Thompson himself was saying he had no “recollection” of taking money from the kind of people who are viewed by conservatives as baby-killers?

Well, now it turns out that, according to a fresh report on the billing records, Thompson conferred with the president of the abortion rights group on 22 separate occasions, put in roughly 20 hours of work overall, and lobbied officials of the senior George Bush administration over a total span of 3.3 hours.

By the way, this story is good news for Mitt Romney, who will be fighting Thompson for conservative primary voters if or when Thompson finally decides to officially take the plunge. Romney already has a long history of flip-flops, as he has sought to tweak his track record for pandering purposes, and no doubt he will welcome the company – since some conservatives might look amiss at a candidate who worked as a lobbyist gun for hire, sometimes at variance with conservative principles.

Thompson’s mission, on behalf of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association, was to persuade senior George Bush officials to overturn a federal “gag rule” that banned tax-financed clinics from giving out abortion information. He got $5000 for his persuasion efforts. Somehow he omitted mention of that payday when, as a Senate candidate in 1994, he promised conservative Tennesseans that he would not support tax-financed clinics that recommend “abortion as a method of birth control.”

Or maybe he didn’t consciously omit anything. Maybe, a mere two years removed from his 20 hours of work and 22 conversations, he had already managed to purge the episode from his mind.

Or maybe the question is: What did he know, and when did he stop knowing it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The hypocrites go to the mattresses

It’s time, once again, to dine out at the U.S. Senate’s hypocrisy smorgasbord.

What a veritable feast of double-talk. The senators are currently engaged in a marathon spin war over Iraq – they were in session all last night, complete with sleeping cots – and not much of substance was accomplished. But they did manage to show how adept they are at bending their so-called principles to the exigencies of the moment. This is a bipartisan talent, by the way.

The minority Republicans have been working hard to prevent the majority Democrats from bringing their various antiwar bills to a vote in the chamber. Their chief tactic has been that time-honored Senate parliamentary maneuver, the filibuster. The Republicans have been saying, in effect, “You Democrats can’t cut off debate and force us to vote on these bills unless you first round up 60 votes. And since you’ll never get 60 votes, there ain’t no way you can cut off debate and force us to vote. Sorry, guys, but under Senate rules, we are within our rights to play it that way.” In response, the Democrats, led by Harry Reid, have been saying, in effect, “These antiwar bills deserve an up-and-down vote. You Republicans are obstructionists who are thwarting the will of the American people.”

But what’s noteworthy is that the Democrats were saying exactly the opposite back in 2003 and 2005, when, as members of the Senate minority, they were filibustering President Bush’s conservative judicial nominees, and insisting that they were in their rights to gum up the chamber machinery. And the majority Republicans were talking the other way, claiming at the time that the filibuster was an unforgivable act of obstruction.

In recent days, as the GOP has stymied the antiwar bills, Senate Republicans have been talking about the honorable traditions of the filibuster, about how it has long been a device designed to safeguard the rights of the chamber’s minority party. Virginia Sen. John Warner (one of the growing number of Republicans who merely talks big about opposing Bush on the war) said the other day, with reference to the filibuster, that “these are old rules that date back, I might say with some sense of pride, to Thomas Jefferson.”

But, just two years ago, when the minority Democrats sought to wax Jeffersonian in their bid to stymie Bush’s judicial picks, the ruling Republicans sputtered in outrage. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (did you doubt it?) insisted that the Democrats’ filibuster tactic was “an infection that has entered the bloodstream.” His colleague from Louisana, David Vitter, complained that the use of a filibuster was “not fair, in the minds of ordinary Americans.” Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch complained that Democratic filibusters were “unprecedented, unfair, and partisan.”

Senate Democrat Harry Reid, back when he was in the minority, thought that the filibuster tactic was fair indeed. On Sept. 18, 2002, he argued that no issue of major importance should voted upon in the Senate chamber unless the majority party could first muster 60 votes to cut off debate. In his words, “Matters that are in controversy take 60 votes.” One year later, as Senate minority leader, he personally filibustered Bush’s judicial nominees for nine hours, in a bid to deny those nominees an up-or-down vote on the floor. Reid also spoke up for minority rights: “Don’t think we can be pushed around…We have a say in here.” And two years later, in 2005, Reid was still big on minority rights; when the majority Republicans threatened to change Senate rules and erase the 60-vote hurdle, Reid warned that such a move would be “a dark day in the history of the American constitutional form of government.”

Yesterday, however, majority leader Reid complained on the Senate floor that “Republicans are using a filibuster to block us…They are denying us an up-or-down, yes-or-no, vote.” He also sent out an email to supporters, assailing the Republicans for using “technical maneuvers,” and calling on the Republicans to “stop obstructing.”

The Republicans, extolling the filibuster principle, said yesterday that they would not stop. (Late this morning, they succeeded in thwarting an up-or-down vote on the main Democratic troop withdrawal bill.) The Republicans also thought it was outrageous that Reid staged an all-night session, complete with sleeping cots, just to highlight the GOP’s filibuster intransigence. Minority leader Mitch McConnell assailed the Democratic move as “bad theatre” and a “publicity stunt” – which is somewhat amusing, since it was just two years ago when the Republicans staged an all-night session, complete with sleeping cots, just to highlight the Democrats’ filibuster intransigence.

It’s a pity that senatorial hot air cannot be harnessed as a fuel source. We would be well on the road to energy independence.


Heckuva job, Jimmy...

I have to cop to a glaring omission. Last week, I attempted to list all the federal departments and agencies that have suffered serious performance failures, thanks to partisan meddling from the Bush administration: The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Justice Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense…

Yet somehow, I forgot the Department of Veterans Affairs, headed by GOP apparatchik Jim Nicholson – yet another Bush appointee with no previous substantive experience for the task at hand. My memory was jolted yesterday, by the news that Nicholson, the ex-GOP national chairman, was leaving his job and returning to the more lucrative private sector. All the more reason to quickly note some of his contributions to the Bush track record of incompetence:

In the spring of 2005, Nicholson publicly admitted that the VA had underestimated the number of Iraq war vets who were expected to seek medical treatment that year – by nearly 80,000, because somehow his agency hadn't taken the growing Iraq caseload into account. Records show that the VA was slow to react when casualties mounted far beyond their initial expectations; the disability claims backlog reportedly exceeds 400,000. Meanwhile, for fiscal 2006, Nicholson approved bonuses to top VA executives, totaling $3.8 million. This spring, he dismissed reports of widespread vet treatment shortfalls, calling them “anecdotal.” In his words, “when you are treating so many people there is always going to be a linen towel left somewhere.”

Nicholson, a former real estate developer, said yesterday that “my yearn to get back into the business world is strong.”

Ya think?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A rare Republican free for all

Now that erstwhile GOP frontrunner John McCain has become the political equivalent of Chinese toothpaste – yesterday, most of his top Iowa staffers joined the general exodus – it is worth pausing to reassess the ’08 Republican presidential campaign, and to ponder its ahistorical elements.

Those of you fortunate enough to be younger than I may not fully realize that this contest – especially now, with McCain clearly in eclipse – is quite unique in the annals of postwar GOP politics. It is exceedingly rare for Republicans to find themselves in the midst of a presidential election cycle without a virtually anointed nominee. The general rule, ever since 1948, is that the nomination should go to the guy who has worked his way up the party ladder, who has paid his dues by running for president in the past. Republicans, more than Democrats, prefer an orderly process; they respect the notion of hierarchy.

Tom Dewey, who ran against FDR and lost in 1944, got the nod again in 1948. Richard Nixon, who ran against JFK and lost in 1960, got the nod again in 1968. Ronald Reagan, who unsuccessfully sought the 1968 nomination at the eleventh hour, and tried again in 1976, got the nod in 1980. George H. W. Bush, who failed to get the nomination in 1980 and subsequently served as vice president, got the nod in 1988. Bob Dole, who tried and failed to win the 1988 nomination, got the nod in 1996.

(Rookie politician Dwight Eisenhower, the 1952 nominee, was arguably an exception, but the World War II hero was nevertheless the anointed frontrunner; and national newcomer George W. Bush was arguably an exception in 2000, but, in part because of his family pedigree and connections, he was nevertheless the anointed frontrunner long before the primaries began. The sole true exception, perhaps, was conservative insurgent Barry Goldwater in 1964 – but after he was clobbered in a landslide, the GOP learned not to take big risks.)

Anyway, McCain seemed (at first glance, anyway) to fit the traditional pattern, since he paid his dues during the 2000 campaign and had emerged as a popular senior figure with crossover appeal and 100 percent name ID. But his summer plummet has opened up the race and left grassroots Republicans feeling somewhat disoriented, as if they have somehow stumbled into an alternative universe. This is best evidenced by a new (and stunning) AP-Ipsos poll, released today. Its July survey of likely GOP primary voters reveals that the current frontrunner on the Republican side is a guy named Nota. If you haven’t heard of Nota, perhaps you know him by his full name:

None of the Above.

That’s right. The top choice for the ’08 nomination – and this poll was conducted before McCain’s top lieutenants quit the race, and before it was revealed that McCain was essentially broke – is None of the Above, with 23 percent. Rudy Giuliani finished second, with 21 percent (down from a leading 35 percent in March). The perpetually teasing Fred Thompson finished third, at 19 percent. The pre-meltdown McCain was fourth, at 15 percent. Mitt Romney checked in fifth, with 11 percent.

In recent decades, GOP voters have been generally happy with their choices and stable in their habits, while their Democratic counterparts have been dissatisfied with their choices and restive in their behavior. But in the alternative universe of 2007, the reverse appears to be true. The embrace of Nota was foreshadowed back in the spring, when a CBS poll reported that only 35 percent of GOP voters liked their candidates (whereas 59 percent of Democratic voters liked theirs). And, as I noted here yesterday, Republican disenchantment is also evidenced by the fact that the Democratic candidates are raising far more money.

The Republicans appear to have been struck by a perfect storm. This time, unlike in 1960 and 1988, the Republican vice president (who would normally be considered the anointed frontrunner) is taking a pass – which is probably just as well for the party, given the fact that Dick Cheney might win his native Wyoming but little else. Also this time, there is nobody else with anointed frontrunner bona fides – someone who can excite the conservative base and satisfy the party establishment. Arguably, that might have been Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but his bumbling brother has clearly damaged the family brand (at least until the voter amnesia of 2012 or 2016). Or it might even have been Condoleezza Rice, who could have trumped Hillary Clinton and Barack Obamas with a race/gender two-fer, but her complicity in one of America’s signature foreign policy disasters has dealt her out.

And that same disaster is weighing down the current GOP candidates. Aside from all their other fundamental shortcomings (Romney’s transparent flip-flops, Giuliani’s liberal track record on social issues, Thompson’s shaky conservative creds and Beltway lobbyist pedigree), their ongoing fealty to Bush’s war policy is a general election albatross. It’s true that most grassroots Republicans still support Bush on the war, and that any candidate who breaks with the president might well suffer the consequences during the primary season. But Republican voters also care a lot about finding a candidate who is electable, and many of them are well aware that any ’08 nominee perceived to be a Bush loyalist runs the risk of being slaughtered in November. I agree with the much-quoted uber-pundit Larry Sabato, who now says that “any Republican candidate is going to be held accountable for Bush’s policies, no matter how much the presidential hopeful tries to distance himself,” much the way Democrat Hubert Humphrey paid the price for LBJ’s Vietnam failures in 1968.

Bush fealty is one key factor in the John McCain meltdown. His staunch support for Bush’s war stewardship, his willingness to out-hawk Bush, and his rose-colored stroll through a war-torn Baghdad marketplace, canceled the “maverick” image that once endeared him to swing-voting independents. That, in turn, erased the argument that McCain was the most electable Republican. And he badly needed that electability asset, because he had scant sway with grassroot conservatives; they disliked his support for campaign finance reform and immigration reform, and never forgave him for voting against the Bush tax cuts back in 2001. (Given his inherent problems with the party base, McCain was never an ideal anointee anyway.)

So what we have is a uniquely unsettled Republican race, with candidates twisting in the wind. They will get no political guidance from their titular leader. Conversing last Friday with a hand-picked audience of conservative scribes, Bush said he remains convinced of his rightness; in his words, “it’s more of a theological perspective.”

Monday, July 16, 2007

Not too hot to fight and die

Back in May, a group of Republican lawmakers, understandably agitated by the very real possibility that President Bush is driving them over a cliff, met with their lame-duck leader at the White House. They voiced their strong concerns about the Iraq disaster, and warned Bush about the ’08 political repercussions. Then one GOP congressman lashed out at Bush over reports that members of the Iraqi Parliament were planning to exercise their new-won freedom by actually going on vacation for the entire month of August – despite the fact that a war was raging around them, and despite the fact that they had enacted none of the crucial “benchmark” legislation that Bush first asked for back in January.

The congressman reportedly asked, “How can our sons and daughters spill their blood, while the Iraqi government goes on vacation?” And Bush sought to reassure the congressman by declaring that Dick Cheney was on the case: “The vice president is over there to tell them, ‘do not go on vacation.’”

Well, sure enough, the Iraqi Parliament will be going on vacation for the entire month of August - which is really no surprise anyway, since those lawmakers don't really care about Bush's benchmark timetable. And the White House, ever protective of its disputatious clients, is insisting that the hiatus is no big deal.

Last Friday, Bush press secretary Tony Snow confirmed the news, and at first sought to minimize it by saying that the Iraqis are going on vacation “just like the U.S. Congress is.” That was a creative defense, to suggest that if the Democratic-run Congress opts to go on vacation, then the Iraqi Parliament should feel free to do the same. Somehow, that feels like a false equivalence; last I checked, the Iraqi Parliament was sitting on some bills that are crucial to the regime’s survival, while people are being blown up in the streets, and, last I checked, the Bush administration and its dwindling band of enablers were urging the Iraqis to make some real progress in time for Gen. Petraeus’ September report.

Therefore, one might have expected that Snow would tell the Iraqis to put those vacation plans on hold, to shake up and hunker down. After all, that’s precisely how Bush reacted back in April, when the Democratic Congress left town – merely for the Easter break – without completing some Iraq funding legislation. At the time, Bush went to the Rose Garden to grumble about the Democrats: “And now they have left Washington for spring recess without finishing the work.”

But apparently it’s OK if the Iraqi lawmakers blow off a whole month.

And Tony Snow came up with a second creative excuse: “You know, it's 130 degrees in Baghdad in August.”

In other words, according to Snow’s spin, it’s way too hot for an Iraqi lawmaker to walk down a hallway with a file folder under his arm – but not too hot for American soldiers to patrol the mean streets while clad in full body armor, risking life and limb so that the Iraqis can twiddle their thumbs at leisure. This is surely a new wrinkle on the old Bush admonition about "supporting the troops."

Which brings us back to the question that the GOP congressman asked Bush in May: “How can our sons and daughters spill their blood, while the Iraqi government goes on vacation?”

The answer is now clear: Because Bush says so.


As further evidence that the war is dampening GOP electoral spirits, consider the latest fund-raising stats filed by the '08 presidential candidates. During the second quarter of this year - from April 1 to June 30 - the eight Democratic hopefuls raised roughly $81.3 million...while the 10 Republicans raised $47.3 million.