Saturday, February 18, 2006

The politics of coincidence

In recent days, the people of Minnesota have been the targets of a potentially significant political experiment. A non-profit group called the Progress for America Voter Fund has been bombarding the airwaves with TV ads featuring Iraq war vets who view that conflict as the crucial front line in the global struggle against al Qaeda. Nothing illegal about that; all kinds of "independent" groups on all sides of the spectrum put their views on the air. Call it the right of free expression. But, at the same time, the PFA Voter Fund spokeman has been a tad disingenuous when he insists that the group takes no sides in politics, and that it merely has "a big desire to give greater voice to returning veterans in the debate over the war on terror."
Yeah, sure.
By law, the group does have to maintain a neutral stance in public; as a non-profit, it is barred from coordinating or affiliating with any political party or candidate. Having said that, however, here's the whole back story, and here's why it may have national importance down the road:
1. The original Progress for America group was founded in 2001 by Tony Feather, a political director for the 2000 Bush-Cheney campaign. Its key figures have included Chris LaCivita (who advised the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) and Ken Adleman (a former federal official who predicted that the Iraq war would be "a cakewalk"). PFA subsequently set up its Voter Fund, which later put $28 million into the 2004 Bush campaign.
2. President Bush is still getting hammered by a clear majority of Americans for his handling of the Iraq war, despite months of sustained speechifying. The new Pew poll, released this month, says that 38 percent of the public likes his performance, and 57 percent don't. Most Republican strategists openly acknowledge that the party's fortunes in the 2006 congressional elections may well hinge on how people feel about Bush and the war. Therefore, he and the GOP might need some early help trying to boost people's confidence in the mission. By sheer coincidence, the PFA Voter Fund is providing help.
3. One key battleground in these 2006 elections is Minnesota. There's an open Senate seat in November, because Democrat Mark Dayton has decided to leave. The Republicans would love to win this race; it's virtually impossible to see how the Democrats can win enough seats nationwide to take over the Senate if they can't manage to hang on to Minnesota. However, as political analyst Stuart Rothenberg contends, GOP Senate candidate Mark Kennedy "is likely to be hurt by national dynamics" this year. That's a reference to the Bush war baggage. Therefore - again, by sheer coincidence - the PFA Voter Fund has decided to target Minnesota for an ad campaign that reportedly might go nationwide at some later date.
4. It has been soberly noted in conservative circles - the subject came up at a conservative conference that I attended last week - that more than a dozen Iraq war vets are running for Congress this year as Democrats, and only one is running as a Republican. It's obviously smart politics for the GOP to find war vets who can talk up Bush and Iraq in TV ads at the earliest possible date, lest voters start to believe that Democrats can be macho too. Hence, a PFA Voter Fund spinoff group has even posted the ads online.
I'm not suggesting that this is something new and dastardly; non-profit liberal-leaning groups put hundreds of "independent" ads on the air in 2004, and will do so again this year. What's significant about Minnesota is that it demonstrates Bush allies' concern about the restive public mood, and the prospects for losing ground at the '06 ballot box.
Still, I can't resist one bit of fact-checking. Perhaps this is yet another sheer coincidence, but the ads have been promoting the same quasi-truth that turns up in every Bush war speech. One vet says, "Our enemy in Iraq is al Qaeda, the same terrorists who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11." That statement is true only in the sense that that there are al Qaeda fighters in Iraq today. But the ad implies (or, by its imprecision, allows TV viewers to believe) that al Qaeda was in Iraq when it plotted 9/11 (maybe the ad footage of the smoking World Trade Center towers might help make that connection).
But the connection is demonstrably specious. The non-partisan 9/11 Commission concluded long ago that there had been "no operational relationship" between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, and, even today, the vast majority of the insurgents are native Iraqis with no ties to al Qaeda -- as Bush himself occasionally has acknowledged.

Friday, February 17, 2006

What's this guy up to, anyway?

All you campaign '08 junkies - that election is only two and a half years away, after all - might want to keep an eye on Chuck Hagel, the senior Republican senator from Nebraska, and frequent habitue of Sunday morning news shows (at least on those Sundays when the bookers can't snag his pal John McCain). Hagel seems to be entertaining two contradictory impulses: he is possibly interested in seeking the '08 GOP presidential nomination; yet he keeps saying stuff that would appear to make him persona non grata among the GOP foot-soldiers who revere George W. Bush. Take, for instance, his frequent attacks on Bush's handling of the Iraq war ("the White House is completely disconnected from reality"). He got cover boy treatment last weekend, here.

Now comes another zinger. Just as the Dick Cheney affair appears to be winding down, here's Hagel, speaking to a paper back home: "If he'd been in the military, he would have learned gun safety." Not only is he suggesting that the vice president of his party was negligent or reckless, he is also mocking Cheney's multiple draft deferments.

So, just wondering: Is Hagel somehow betting that, by the time the presidential campaign season starts, the Republican base will be fed up with Bush and Cheney, and therefore receptive to his outspoken track record? Or has he basically chucked the idea of running for president entirely (his friend McCain arguably having the inside track on the maverick slot), therefore freeing him up to flame at will?. Or maybe there's a third possibility: maybe he is just (gasp) saying whatever he believes, without thinking four steps ahead and worrying about political consequences. Dare we think that such a person exists in Washington?

All the news that didn't fit

National journalists this past week have been bombarded with emails from Dick Cheney's defenders, and the message has gone something like this: You're overplaying the hunting story, cut it out, move on, there are are more important things to write about. But, actually, the Bush administration and its supporters should be happy that the hunting story got so much attention, given the tenor of some of the news that got knocked off the front page and off the top of the broadcasts.

For instance: while virtually every American now knows about the risks of being "peppered," far fewer are probably aware that an investigatory panel of House Republicans - that's the caucus which usually marches most faithfully to the White House's tune - released a withering report about the Bush administration's response to the Katrina crisis. A news story is here. From the report: "Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership." The bumbling Democrats of Louisiana took their lumps in the report, but most telling was the fact that Bush's initial statement after the crisis - that nobody could have foreseen the breaching of the levees - was demolished in the report: "This crisis was not only predictable, it was predicted...earlier presidential involvement might have resulted in a more effective response." Meanwhile, the House Republican sleuths made it clear that the White House had tried to cover up its shortcomings during the investigation, and complained that its negotiations for White House info had "proved frustrating and difficult."

Another story that took a backseat to the hunting imbroglio: Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA official, who had major intelligence responsibilities during the runup to the Iraq war, has penned a piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, contending that the Bush administration distorted and manipulated prewar intelligence in order to falsely claim that Saddam Hussein was a direct threat to U.S. security. His testimony, as an eyewitness to the process, comes at a time when the Bush administration's Senate allies have successfully fought to forestall an official investigation into whether the White House cherry-picked the evidence. (The key Republican senator, Pat Roberts, has said that such an investigation was on the "back burner.") Pillar's views - for instance, that the administration insisted there was a Saddam-al Qaeda alliance, even though "the intelligence community never offered any analysis that supported the notion" - might well have received more attention this past week if not for the mega-focus on the veep. Indeed, at last check, the paper I work for hasn't run any news stories about Pillar. (However, for those of you who would prefer to automatically dismiss Pillar as a biased disgruntled ex-employee, the conservative backlash has begun.)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

You're paying for it

Time and space constraints in a daily newspaper often make it difficult to address all pertinent matters. Such was the case in the piece that I wrote today. Here's something I didn't address:

Vice President Cheney suggested, during his visit to the friendly confines of Fox News, that the hunting accident was nobody's business because it happened on a private ranch during his private time in the presence of his private friends. Yet, at the same time, he commended his medical team for speedily dealing with the fallen Harry Whittington ("I've always got a medical team, in effect, covering me wherever I go"). The relevent fact is that his medical team - as well as his security team, communications team, and transportation - are financed by the American taxpayer. That would appear to define Cheney as a public official, whether he is sitting at a desk or wielding a shotgun.

Such an argument probably won't sit well with the vice president's defenders, many of whom are asking (me, at least) why the press hasn't sought to "balance" its coverage of the Cheney incident with retrospective coverage of the Ted Kennedy Chappaquiddik scandal 37 years ago. It is irrefutably true that Kennedy acted irresponsibly (he had to plead guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of the accident). But I would ask the Cheney defenders why they didn't complain in 1998 when the press failed to "balance" its coverage of Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions with retrospective coverage of Republican Warren G. Harding's jazz-age sexual indiscretions.

Maybe we should give the last word (for now, anyway) to Peggy Noonan, the Republican speechwriter, who thinks the Cheney incident is "a great story" worthy of mass coverage (no matter what Cheney's defenders may think), and who suspects that, in the deepest regions of the Bush administration, there is a private yearning to send Cheney packing. She writes:

It's not the shooting incident itself, it's that Dick Cheney has been the administration's hate magnet for five years now. Halliburton, energy meetings, Libby, Plamegate. This was not all bad for the White House: Mr. Cheney took the heat that would otherwise have been turned solely on George Bush. So he had utility, and he's experienced and talented and organized, and Mr. Bush admires and respects him. But, at a certain point a hate magnet can draw so much hate you don't want to hold it in your hand anymore, you want to drop it, and pick up something else. Is this fair? Nah. But fair has nothing to do with it.