Friday, August 03, 2007

America's bridge to nowhere

The Minneapolis bridge collapse is a metaphor for our twisted national priorities.

While divers continue their search for the bodies of people who until the moment of death had assumed they were merely commuters, let’s consider these facts:

In 2005, the Minneapolis legislature enacted a hike in the gas tax, with the money earmarked for much-needed road and bridge repairs. But Tim Pawlenty - the Republican governor who has long been billed as a rising star in the conservative firmament, and who has sought to reign on a pledge of No New Taxes – decided that a gas tax hike would violate his principles. So he vetoed the bill. The lawmakers squawked, pointing out that the gas tax at the pump had last been raised in 1988, failed to override the veto.

Then, earlier this year, the lawmakers tried again. Mindful of the fact that Minnesota’s annual shortfall for road and bridge repairs had soared to $1.8 billion, they enacted another hike in the gas tax. But Pawlenty, deciding that the payment of an additional five cents per gallon constituted an undue tax burden, vetoed this bill as well. And again the lawmakers lacked the votes to override.

I’m not suggesting that this no-new-taxes governor is personally responsible for the I-35 bridge collapse; the span may well have fallen anyway, even if there had been new state money for repairs. (The states provide money for interstate repairs, but most of the tab is supposed to be paid by the feds.) But Pawlenty’s vetoes are symptomatic of a society that thinks it can survive on the cheap.

Americans have a general aversion to taxes of any kind – unlike their counterparts in the western European social democracies, where sacrificing for the common good is a given - and American politicians play to that sentiment. Few pay attention to the constant warnings about a deteriorating infrastructure. The 40-year-old Minneapolis bridge was rated as "structurally deficient" in a 2005 federal inventory, but it was hardly unique.

Not surprisingly, the 18.4-cent federal tax on a gallon of gas (a tax designed to raise money for interstate transportation repairs) hasn’t been raised in 14 years. It last happened in '93, during a Democratic Congress. But, in the years since, the drill has been that Republicans don’t want to raise taxes, and Democrats fear being tarred as tax-raisers. Indeed, John Kerry spoke up for a gas tax hike back in the early ‘90s, and the Republicans pounded him for that in TV ads during the 2004 presidential campaign.

In fairness, however, Congress in 2004 did propose to raise the federal gas tax by 4 cents a gallon…but the measure died when President Bush threatened to veto any highway spending bill that included a tax increase. On the campaign trail that year, he complained about the Democrats, saying "there are some in the other party in Washington who would like to raise gas taxes. I think it would be wrong. I think it would be damaging to the economy," while omitting the fact that many Republicans were also backing a gas tax hike.

Bush's stance was unfortunate, because the federal Highway Trust Fund, which depends on the federal gas tax for its revenue, is now projected to go into the red in 2009, for the very first time.

But now that bodies are floating somewhere in the Mississippi River, the mood in Washington has shifted. One Republican congressman, Tom Petri of Wisconsin, a longtime fiscal conservative who did back a gas tax hike in 2004, said yesterday: “People think they're saving money by not investing in infrastructure, and the result is you have catastrophes like this.” And Bush is suddenly talking about sending financial aid to Minnesota, along with his prayers.

Yet even though Bush is pledging to help the state by sending emergency money, his press secretary is suggesting that the state is to blame for the emergency. Tony Snow argued yesterday, "if an inspection report identifies deficiencies, the state is responsible for taking corrective actions."

Expect in the days ahead to hear a surge of rhetoric about the need for long-term thinking (before the Minnesota incident is largely forgotten, at least outside of Minnesota). The American Society of Civil Engineers believes that we're spending only 60 percent of the money that would be required to safeguard our roads and bridges. Put another way, the ASCE says that we need to spend $9.4 billion a year over the next 20 years to make things right.

Sounds like a daunting annual tab. On the other hand, we’re currently spending around $9 billion in Iraq every month, just so the terrorists won’t follow us home and blow up our bridges during our evening commute.

Speaking of Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gets the quote of the week. On his plane yesterday, he said he was disappointed that the dispatch of 30,000 additional U.S. troops has not inspired the Sunni and Shiite politicians to make nice to each other:

“I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging on the national level…We probably all underestimated the depth of mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let’s face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.”

There it is, your bridge repair money at work.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

From Bambi to Rambo

As a political document, Barack Obama’s war-on-terror policy speech was a shrewd repair job.

After being dogged for weeks by perception – nurtured in two Democratic debates - that he, as president, would shy away from the swift application of military force, Obama responded in his high-profile speech yesterday by essentially positioning himself to the right of President Bush. Goodbye Bambi, hello Rambo.

Whereas Bush has made little headway in combating the al Qaeda leaders and followers who are hiding in Pakistan, in part because he respects President Pervez Musharraf’s delicate political position, Obama is declaring that he’s fed up with the U.S.A. playing Mr. Nice Guy. The money quote in the speech:

“I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005 (a reference to a report that the Bush team pulled the plug on a planned raid). If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”

That’s quite a dose of testosterone. He’s essentially saying that, in order to protect the homeland, he would dispatch U.S troops to breach the sovereignty of a shaky ally, even at the risk of destabilizing Musharraf and perhaps inflaming the Muslim world. Politically speaking, this is Obama saying, “No way you’re gonna paint ME as a wimp.” To underscore his machismo, he even borrowed from Bush’s 2000 convention acceptance speech; the cocksure GOP candidate’s constant refrain was “They have not led. We will.”

Clearly, he was aiming to demonstrate to future swing voters that he would be tough enough to lead America in the post-9/11 world – and that it’s not a contradiction to simultaneously sound hawkish on al Qaeda and dovish on the war in Iraq. His arguably best line was about “getting out of Iraq and onto the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Some of his Democratic rivals are carping at his speech – Chris Dodd says that Obama’s warning about Pakistan is “dangerous and irresponsible” – and there is ire among many on the left that their main guy seems so primed for battle. But Obama had a response for that as well, in the test of the speech, when he managed to sound both hawkish and anti-Bush: “Just because the president misrepresents our enemies does not mean that we don’t have them.”

If the wimp image was a hairline crack in his candidacy, Obama has sought to caulk it. Politically, he has probably done well. Substantively, however, it’s debatable whether his Pakistan remarks have any real merit. Candidates generally say a lot of things that are primarily designed to enhance their electoral prospects; then if they win, they often discover that what works on the soapbox is worthless on the job.

In 1960, candidate John F. Kennedy positioned himself to the right of opponent Richard Nixon, claiming that the GOP hadn’t been tough enough on the Soviets, that the Eisenhower-Nixon administration had allowed the Soviets to outpace America in the arms race (a false charge) , and that, as president, he’d be tougher at fighting the communists. Yet within months of being sworn in, he presided over the Bay of Pigs disaster and turned in a bad performance in his summit meeting with the Soviet premier. Kennedy later said, “he beat the hell out of me.”

And in 1992, candidate Bill Clinton sought to establish some rhetorical toughness by rebuking the senior President Bush for not launching air strikes against Serbia, which at the time was fomenting hostilities in the former Yugoslavia. Then when he got into office, he didn’t launch air strikes either, due largely to the complexities of the crisis.

So it would not be a surprise if Obama, if nominated and elected, felt compelled to heed advice that he refrain from sending troops into Pakistan. He may have done himself some good on the stump yesterday, but smart statecraft is another matter entirely.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Dick Cheney and his bunker doormat

Generally speaking, a vice president’s best job perk is that he gets the inside track to run for president when the boss steps down. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, George H.W. Bush, Al Gore…they all served as understudies before becoming presidential nominees.

But contemporary Republicans can breathe a collective sigh of relief that Dick Cheney has no interest in perpetuating that tradition in 2008.

His appearance last night on Larry King’s CNN show was characteristically cringe-worthy. It’s probably a given at this point that most Americans pay little attention to what he says, particularly when a doormat like Larry King is asking the questions, but I’ll recount the interview anyway, if only to assess the fact-challenged mentality, and willful state of denial, that persists inside the Bush administration bunker.

But first, here’s the abridged version: Cheney said we are making “significant progress” in Iraq, and called the war “a very significant achievement.” He lauded attorney general Alberto Gonzales as “a good man, a good friend,” and said repeatedly that he doesn’t “recall” whether in 2004 he had dispatched then-White House lawyer Gonzales to John Ashcroft’s hospital bed, in a bid to save the warrantless surveillance program that Justice had deemed illegal. And when asked whether he is pleased that the Iraqi parliament is taking August off, he replied, “It’s better than taking two months off.” (As for his claim of "significant progress" in Iraq, it should be noted that the largest Sunni Arab political bloc decided today to pull out of the "national unity" government. That translates into the imminent departure of six Cabinet ministers. Isn't the Surge supposed to be creating the conditions for political reconciliation?)

Now let’s go to the videotape, with italicized annotations.

KING: “How do you deal with it when public opinion polls are stridently against the policy we have?”

CHENEY: “The polls are notoriously unreliable, in the sense that they change all the time, they bounce around all over the place.”

Actually, the polls have been very reliable, as gauges of public sentiment; during the runup to the ’06 congressional elections, they registered growing anti-GOP sentiment, and that sentiment was borne out in November, when Cheney’s party was thrown out of power on Capitol Hill. And the polls don’t “bounce around all over the place.” Over the past three years, every poll, from Gallup to Fox News, has reported a consistent downward slide in the Bush regime’s popularity.

KING: Regarding Iraq, “don’t you ever say, ‘maybe I’m wrong’?”

CHENEY: "No, I think what we do is…weigh the evidence. And there’s a lot of debate and discussion. We went through the exercise at the beginning of the year. (Regarding the troop surge) we talked to a wide number of people with a variety of viewpoints, met with the Joint Chief of Staffs, talked to outside military experts…”

Actually, they limited the range of opinions by reshuffling the players. Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was eased into an earlier retirement last winter after he expressed insufficient enthusiasm about the wisdom of a troop hike (“whether more U.S. troops for a sustained period will get us where we're going faster is an open question”). Nor did Cheney and his people listen to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command, when he warned in testimony last November that “ It is easy for the Iraqis to rely upon to us do this work. I believe that more American forces prevent the Iraqis from doing more, from taking more responsibility for their own future.” Two months after stating that view, Abizaid was no longer in his job. As for Cheney’s reference to consulting “outside military experts,” it’s a matter of record that the Surge plans were drawn up by an “outside” experts housed at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

CHENEY: “There are always things in war that happen that nobody anticipated, surprises, things that don’t go exactly as planned. That’s the nature of warfare.”

Actually, the disasters that have befallen us in Iraq were widely anticipated. The problem was, Cheney and his neoconservative war team at the Pentagon simply chose to ignore those who were waving red flags. Larry King, naturally, failed to point this out. He could have cited the easy examples: Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army’s Chief of Staff, warned that a successful occupation would require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers,” a remark that effectively cost him his job; or Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, who said that the war and reconstruction could cost upwards of $200 billion, and lost his job shortly thereafter. (The price tag is already at $500 billion and climbing.) But this is perhaps the best example: In the runup to war, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs spoke with Iraqi exiles and wrote thousands of pages about the potential problems in postwar Iraq, covering everything from electricity to sectarian violence – but Cheney and his people ignored it. As a disenchanted administration official told author George Packer in 2003, the war team’s mindset “isn’t pragmatism, it isn’t Realpolitik, it isn’t conservatism, it isn’t liberalism. It’s theology.”

CHENEY: “The real test is whether nor not the (Surge) strategy that was put in place for this year will in fact produce the desired results.”

KING: “Will those results be in place on that day in ’09 when you leave?”

CHENEY: “I believe so. I think we’re seeing already – from others, don’t take it from me, look at the (New York Times) piece that appeared yesterday…by Mr. O’Hanlon and Mr. Pollack on the situation in Iraq. They’re just back from visiting over there. They both have been strong critics of the war, both worked in the prior administration, but now saying that they think there’s a possibility, indeed, that we could be successful.”

Cheney was referring to Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack, scholars at the Brookings Institution. But the description of those guys as “strong critics of this war” is accurate only in the fabulist recesses of Cheney’s mind. I can’t fathom where he came up with that one. O’Hanlon was writing pro-war commentaries in the conservative Washington Times even before Bush invaded Iraq ("Saddam Hussein may be poised to bring the battle to American cities via terrorism,” he warned in December 2002; two months later, in the wake of a Bush speech, he wrote, “the president was still convincing on his central point that the time for war is near…It is now time for multilateralists to support the president”), and in October 2003 he even testified on Capitol Hill in support of Bush: “In my judgment the administration is basically correct that the overall effort in Iraq is succeeding.” As for Pollack, he is well known in foreign policy circles as a stalwart supporter of the decision to invade Iraq; in fact, he called for an invasion one year before it happened. Larry King didn’t mention these basic facts, either because he wasn’t suitably briefed, or because he was inattentive.

KING: “A member of the Department of Defense sent Hillary Clinton a letter, saying she should not criticize, because it helps the enemy. Do you agree with that letter?”

CHENEY: “Didn't say she should not criticize. She was demanding the plans for withdrawal from Iraq.”

KING: “Do you agree with that letter?”

CHENEY: “I agreed with the letter Eric Edelman wrote. I thought it was a good letter.”

KING: “So (she) should not call for the plans for withdrawal?”

CHENEY: “No, there's an important principle here, Larry, and that is -- and a debate over what our policy ought to be is perfectly legitimate. What we don't do is we don't get into the business of sharing operational plans -- we never have -- with the Congress…to respond to the political charges, such as those that Senator Clinton made, I think would be unwise.”

KING: “Two other things…”

Oops, Larry missed another great followup opportunity. He could have framed it this way: “How do you square your refusal to brief the Senate on war contingency plans with the fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates considers it important to brief the Senate on war contingency plans? And isn’t that a mixed message by this administration?” Just last week, Gates told Clinton in a letter that “I have long been and continue to be an advocate of congressional oversight…I would be pleased to work with you and the Senate Armed Services Committee to establish a process to keep you apprised of the conceptual thinking, factors, considerations, questions, and objectives associated with drawdown planning.” But Larry had more pressing business, such as asking Cheney about his new heart deibrillator.

KING: “Does it pain you” that you are so often criticized?

CHENEY: “Not especially…When (Bush) is finished, I’m finished. We walk out of here on January 20th of ’09, and I think we’ll be able to hold our heads high…”

No annotation required.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The perils of being in charge

At the moment, the odds of the GOP taking back the House and Senate in 2008 are roughly equivalent to Lindsay Lohan's job prospects at a driver’s ed school.

Nevertheless, the Republicans in Washington will try their best to rally their base voters, and sway swing voters, by painting the majority Democrats as stewards of a “do-nothing Congress.” The Republicans are also testing the phrase “post office Congress,” which suggests that the ruling congressional party has done little except pass a dozen bills to rename various post offices. And loyal grassroots Republicans are heartened by the latest polls, which report that the Democratic Congress is nearly as unpopular as the GOP’s albatross in the White House; for instance, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that, on the eve of Congress’ August recess, only 37 percent of Americans applaud its job performance. Other polls have pegged that number lower.

The record certainly shows that the Democrats have failed to force President Bush to change course in Iraq; and, at this writing, the Democrats have only been able to enact two of the six priorities they announced last winter (a minimum wage hike, and 9/11 domestic security reforms), with the others stuck in the Senate machinery. Moreover, a Democratic survey firm having recently conducted focus groups in two swing congressional districts, announced yesterday in a report that voters there are disappointed with the Democrats on Capitol Hill: “Optimism for the new Congress is quickly waning. Many voters still express a wait-and-see attitude, but most have now returned to the same concerns we heard last year,” prior to the ’06 elections, when the Republicans were in charge.

The Democratic firm, led by pollster Stan Greenberg, sketched the voter complaints about the Democratic Congress: “accomplishing nothing, career politicians just trying to get re-elected, do nothing but argue with each other, lobbyists, wasteful, paid too much money, and, most of all, out of touch.”

All told, “Democrats in Congress are given credit for wanting change and most especially for ensuring that Bush no longer has a blank check from Congress. But in most voters’ minds, it boils down to results; good intentions and legitimate finger-pointing aside, things simply haven’t changed under Democratic control,” which explains “the rapid return of record low approval marks for Congress.”

So it would appear that, for the Democratic politicians who long yearned to be back in charge, this is a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.” And it would seem to suggest that the congressional GOP is poised for an ’08 comeback.

But not so fast. Remember the Lindsay Lohan rule.

The public is ticked at the Democrats, but they’re more ticked at Bush and his supine Capitol Hill enablers. The polling evidence suggests that voters are disenchanted with the Democratic Congress primarily because it has not done enough to thwart a president who is widely perceived as a failure. Unlike in 1980 or 1994, when congressional Democrats were punished at the polls because the electorate was more in sync with the GOP, this time congressional Democrats have the electorate on their side. They are mainly being faulted for failing to take the fight to the party that was already rebuked in 2006 and seems poised to be rebuked again in 2008.

The “internals” of the Post-ABC poll sketch the prevailing mood. Congress’ overall approval rating is 37 percent, but the Republicans (who have been filibustering Senate bills at a record rate) seem to get more of the blame. When asked to assess the congressional GOP’s performance, 34 percent say thumbs up, and 64 percent say thumbs down. The Democrats’ numbers are 46 percent positive, and 51 percent negative.

In past decades, congressional Democrats have often suffered politically because, especially on foreign policy, they were widely viewed as “out of the mainstream,” a synonym for “too far to the left.” That’s not the case today. The mainstream position in America is antiwar, and the congressional Democrats are being faulted for not servicing that view. In the Post-ABC poll, 62 percent of Americans said that Congress should have the “final say” in deciding when to withdraw troops from Iraq; only 31 percent said that Bush should have final say. More broadly, 55 percent said they trusted the congressional Democrats to do a better job in Iraq; only 32 percent cited Bush. Lastly, a 49 percent plurality said that the Democrats had done “too little” to prod Bush on Iraq.

But perhaps the Democratic firm’s focus groups are most instructive. Greenberg chose two congressional districts - in upstate New York, and Illinois – where Republican moderates won close House elections in 2006. All the participants were swing voters; they aired their aforementioned gripes about the congressional Democrats. And when they were shown a positive TV ad that boasted about the Democrats’ success in passing a minimum wage hike, they were unimpressed, viewing that achievement as insufficient.

But then the Democratic firm tested a negative, anti-Bush message – and the participants loved it. This was the message: “President Bush has vetoed bills to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq and to allow greater stem cell research. He has also promised to veto Democratic bills already passed by the House and Senate to lower student loan rates, implement homeland security recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, expand health coverage for uninsured children, and allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.”

The reaction, according to the firm’s report: “This message fundamentally shifted the debate in the groups, with voters wondering why Democrats weren’t including those facts in their advertising, and expressing shock that (congressional) Republicans are continuing to support President Bush and to defend his vetoes. In their eyes, Bush is a failure whose term can’t end soon enough and there is no explanation for why Republicans in Congress would continue to support him and his failed policies, whether in Iraq or here at home. As one woman in Illinois asked rhetorically after hearing this message, ‘Are you going to stay with Bush, or are you going to get with the people?’”

Naturally, some GOP partisans will simply dismiss this report out of hand, citing Greenberg’s political leanings. But they ignore these warnings at their peril, because they are evident elsewhere as well.

For instance, it tells us plenty, about the current political mood, that incumbent Senate Republican Norm Coleman, who is up for re-election in Minnesota, raised less money in the second quarter of 2007 than his potential Democratic challenger…Al Franken. When a seasoned politician and Bush loyalist like Norm Coleman is leading an untested TV comedian by only seven points in a Survey USA poll (a drop from 22 points last winter), the GOP might want to interpret that as a general sign of trouble.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Cash for cleavage

Let us quickly stipulate that Cleavage-gate (in which Hillary Clinton is alleged to have worn a low-cut blouse on the Senate floor, thus prompting a fashion critique in The Washington Post) does not rank with Iraq or health care as an issue crucial to the future of the republic. But the fallout from this incident has been instructive – not just about the glass-house nature of contemporary politics, but about the way the Clinton campaign operates. Even an ephemeral fracas over cleavage can be tapped for its money-raising potential.

In a July 20 column, Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion writer at The Post, voiced mild astonishment that Hillary had decided to appear in the Senate chamber wearing a black top with a low V-shaped neckline. She wrote: “The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was undeniable. It was startling to see that small acknowledgement of sexuality and femininity peeking out of the conservative – aesthetically speaking – environment of Congress.”

Givhan, who frequently writes about how politicians choose to present themselves in public, and thus what images they choose to project, decided in this particular case that Hillary is feeling good about herself: “Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease…It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her own skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style.”

Maybe you consider this kind of stuff to be trivial, or maybe not. But candidate fashion, like every other facet of a candidate’s life, is fair game these days. A columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times recently asked Barack Obama where he buys his suits. Obviously, none of this stuff tells us anything about how a candidate might handle the crisis in Darfur. But many Americans - mindful of the fact that campaign promises come and go, that issues wax and wane – are constantly in the hunt for character clues, in the hopes of getting a bead on who these people really are.

Givhan has frequently critiqued men as well (Rudy Giuliani’s decision to stop combing over his baldness; Dick Cheney’s decision to wear a bulky parka to a memorial ceremony at Auschwitz, which prompted Givhan to write that the veep “was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower”). And, in the case of Hillary, Givhan was clearly intending to be complimentary.

But the Clinton campaign – adhering to its ethos that no perceived attack shall go unanswered – decided last week to conflate the Givhan column into a cause celebre for the allegedly aggrieved candidate. It quickly manufactured some outrage in the form of a fund-raising email, seeking to raise money by doing a little media-bashing.

Senior advisor Ann Lewis wrote: “Would you believe that The Washington Post wrote a 746-word article on Hillary’s cleavage? Apparently it was showing when she gave a speech in the Senate about the skyrocketing cost of higher education. Now, I’ve seen some off-topic press coverage – but talking about body parts? That is grossly inappropriate. Frankly, focusing on women’s bodies instead of their ideas is insulting. It’s insulting to every woman who has ever tried to be taken seriously in a business meeting. It’s insulting to our daughters…The media should know better. But they don’t…”

Up to a point, I sympathize. The Hillary camp is arguably right to be frustrated with all the contradictory gender assessments of the first serious female presidential candidate. One week, it’s Elizabeth Edwards claiming that Hillary is behaving too much like a man. Another week, it’s Robin Givhan saying that Hillary is dressing like a hot woman. Another week, it’s Tucker Carlson saying that Hillary is a castrating woman (July 16 on MSNBC: “When she comes on television, I involuntarily cross my legs”). Another week – actually, last week – it’s conservative commenator Lisa Schifferen at National Review Online, saying that Hillary, as a woman, is not hot (“Hillary Clinton does not have cleavage to display. Period”).

But if the Clinton campaign was really interested in letting this episode die, it merely needed to ignore it. Instead, it decided to exploit it – and magnify it - by sending out the fundraising email, and voicing general outrage about “the media.” Perhaps it would have been appropriate to complain about “the media” victimizing the candidate if The Post had placed the fashion story on page one, or if the story had been written by one of their national political writers. But it ran in the Style section, the “C” section on July 20 – an implicit statement by the paper that this was to be considered a feature commentary, not news. It’s the Clinton team, not The Post, that has literally kept the column alive.

As result, it became grist for conversation yesterday on Meet the Press, and Hillary didn't necessarily fare well. John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal said that "for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress, is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil, OK?"

Indeed, a lot of people became aware of the Post column only because of the Clinton team’s fundraising effort; as one woman emailed to The Post late last week, “I, too, was unaware of the article until I received the letter from Hillary’s campaign…Ms. Lewis made a mountain out of a valley. As a woman who has seen my fair share of discrimination in my 53 years, I found the article to be an interesting take on Mrs. Clinton and found nothing derogatory or demeaning. While this article should not be the lead news item on the front page of this paper, or on the nightly news, it was, as Ms. Givhan intended, a simple observation by a fashion writer of someone who is very much in the news. My advice to Ms. Lewis? When you find some really demeaning and very exploitative stories of women, then we can talk. Until then, give it a rest!”

Give it a rest says it best. But if the Clinton people can use this incident to further cement their bond with female voters, and raise enough money to keep pace with Barack Obama, then they will merely underscore their growing reputation as the canniest strategists in the race. As conservative commentator Rich Lowry now writes of Hillary, “she’s a talented politician who has a clear path to the Democratic presidential nomination and to the presidency.”