Saturday, April 15, 2006

Saturday mailbag: the corruption issue, the anti-Rummy revolt

Two items today:

1. Some eagle-eyed blog readers detected a contradiction in several of my posts this week.
Previewing a special congressional election in California on Tuesday, I had written that the Democrats would be sending a potent national message if their candidate, Francine Busby, managed to pull at least 40 percent of the vote in California-50, the heavily Republican district on the north side of San Diego.

Yet, after the results were finally tabulated, I wrote on Wednesday that the Democrats had failed to send a potent national message because Busby had managed to pull only 44 percent of the vote.

You ask, Huh?
I reply, mea culpa.

After my first post, I received two calls from Democrats whom I have long respected for their honesty, even when it hurts their side. They persuaded me (it didn't take much persuading) that I had the race all wrong, that Busby's failure to clear 50 percent plus one will probably doom her bid for office. If she'd cleared the majority mark, in the crowded field of candidates, she would have won outright. But by failing to do so, she must now face Brian Bilbray, the second-place Republican, in a June runoff. And it's likely that most Republican voters in this Republican district will coalesce behind the GOP candidate; by contrast, they split their votes among 14 Republicans on this week's open ballot.

All this thinking, and more, was reflected in my Wednesday post. I would have been smarter, however, if I had mentioned the interim impact of those persuasive Democrats. Meanwhile, a non-partisan analyst in Washington, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, underscored their point in remarks on Thursday: "Did voters send a message? The answer is no."

My thinking has further evolved this week, not to the Democrats' benefit. The Democrats want to push a "culture of corruption" theme during their '06 bid to retake the House, and certainly Duke Cunningham, the now-jailed Republican congressman who represented California-50, is Exhibit A. But there is also growing evidence that the corruption theme is hardly a clear winner for the Democrats -- because they apparently have knaves in their ranks, as well.

Case in point, West Virginia Congressman Alan Mollohan. Here's a mere sampling of his suspected sleaze: Using the special-interest loopholes known as "earmarks," he parlayed his stint on the House Appropriations Committee to steer $250 million to five nonprofits that he played a role in establishing. The groups in turn paid big salaries to various associates and ex-employes. He has also worked some suspiciously lucrative real estate deals with one of those ex-aides (who runs one of the nonprofits), and then initially failed to pay real estate taxes.

And this guy is the top Democrat on the House Ethics Committee.

Today, the Washington Post editorialized that Mollohan should quit the committee until he is fully scrutinized. My point is that Mollohan is lucrative fodder for the Republicans, who can now demonstrate that they hardly have a monopoly on the "culture of corruption." Yes, it's true that the Republicans run everything on Capitol Hill, thus they are arguably more culpable - but the GOP now has ammo that can allow them to play to those many voters who simply say, "Both sides do it, they're all a bunch of crook."

And remember, in June Duke Cunningham won't be on the California-50 ballot.

2. Now, on the other matter: The revolt against Rummy by high-ranking retired military officers. I believe the latest number is seven.

This week I received some emails from thoughtful people who are troubled by the notion that military leaders are now so willing to speak out publicly against their civilian superiors. These emailers have no love for Donald Rumsfeld or President Bush. They just worry that a bad precedent is being established which -- down the road, and in other circumstances -- could imperil the important constitutional tradition of civilian control.

It's an interesting point, and it demonstrates why the anti-Rummy revolt may well become (as we say in the news business) a story with legs. And, sure enough, today I ran across a guest column that makes the same point. Authored by former military officer Andrew Bacevich, who's now a Boston University international relations professor (and an occasional source of mine), it posits the argument this way:

"...But in their eagerness to settle scores, Rumsfeld's pursuers are flirting with ideas that can only be regarded as subversive. (One military critic) has resurrected the notion that a senior officer's primary obligation lies not to those atop the chain of command but to the Constitution....To grant even the most narrowly drawn exceptions to the principle of civilian control is to open up a Pandora's box of complications.
In the short term, instigating Rumsfeld's ouster might secure him top billing in the list of bunglers who screwed up the Iraq war. In the long term, it would only exacerbate the underlying problem. Unless and until we can restore some semblance of civilian-military effectiveness, defective policies will be the norm rather than the exception. This — not the sins of Donald Rumsfeld — is the nub of the matter."

Bacevich, at least, is offering a high-road rebuttal to those dissenting military guys. By contrast, however, Rumsfeld's defenders seem to be trafficking the lower roads. The other day I cited an attack on the dissenters for being self-promoters in time of war. But now I find a new one; the same attack is here as well. And the gist is:
It's Bill Clinton's fault.
Or, in one attacker's words, "these generals appear to be mostly from the Clinton era."

No further comment is necessary.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Those failed Democratic courtiers

Due to the holidays, and the urgent need to write a weekend newspaper column (about John McCain) on an early deadline, I'll keep my blog observations brief today. I'll return tomorrow with lots to say from the Saturday mailbag. Anyway:

Joe Klein, the Time magazine columnist, has an interesting piece this week about the strong - and perhaps burdensome - influence of big-shot consultants inside the Democratic party. His basic argument, which he will apparently address as well in a forthcoming book, is that these Beltway strategists deserve considerable blame for the failures of Al Gore and John Kerry during the last two presidential elections.

Klein writes that these consultants "have become specialists in caution," captives of their focus groups, and that they drained whatever spontaneity Gore and Kerry might have otherwise displayed on the stump. (I have heard that Bob Shrum, a top consultant to both men, is disputing some of the details in Klein's account, but let us not give his complaints too much weight. Bob Shrum retired from politics last year with a record of 0-8 in presidential races.)

It's fair to say that Gore and Kerry share some of the blame as well; perhaps, if they had been more instinctive candidates, they would not have elevated the consultants to guru status. Gore and Kerry ended up paying big bucks for bad advice - notably, the traditional (and wrongheaded) Democratic argument that voters are looking at issues, rather than character.

Klein's key passage:
"'We're going to meet the voters where they are,' Shrum had told me early in the Kerry campaign, which sounded innocent enough—but what he really meant was, We're going to follow our polling numbers and focus groups. We're going to emphasize the things that voters think are important. In fact, Shrum had it completely wrong. Presidential campaigns are not about 'meeting the voters where they are.' They are about leadership and character. Mark Mellman, Kerry's lead pollster, figured that out too late. 'If you asked people what they were most interested in, they would say jobs, education and health care,' he later said. 'But they thought the President should be interested in national security'."

I concur with Klein.
I can't recount the number of meals I have shared with Democratic consultants who have told me, "We're right on the issues, the voters are exactly where we are on the issues." I would inevitably counter with, "Yeah, but you guys were saying that all through the '80s, when the voters were always with the Democrats on the issues - but Ronald Reagan got elected twice anyway." Their answer would be, "Yeah, but Reagan was Reagan, that was different."

They never learn. In 2004, most voters sided with the Democrats on federal spending for social programs, the environment, Social Security, on down the line. Yet they chose to re-elect Bush, because the Republicans had framed the campaign on character, and on their terms (Bush said at his convention that you'd always know where he stood, even if you disagreed; Kerry was painted as the flip-flopper).

And, to underscore what Klein writes, I have dredged up my notes from Sept. 2, 2004. That was the day when I knew Kerry would lose.

The scene was a New York City conference room, during the waning hours of the Republican national convention. The Kerry campaign had decided to fly all their top consultants into town, to reassure the national press that everything was going great for them. (If things had really been going great, they wouldn't have bothered to fly in.)

So we met at a breakfast, sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. The talk quickly turned to the anti-Kerry ads, sponsored by those famed Swift Boat veterans. As the Swift Boat attacks mounted during August, the Kerry people had said nothing. Days and even weeks had passed, with little or no response. We asked the consultants, why didn't you hit back right away?

Mary Beth Cahill, the campaign manager, replied that the Swift Boat attacks were "beside the point, in terms of what most voters want to hear."

And what was that?

Tad Devine said that voters wanted to hear about economic issues, not "an exchange of insults."

But why couldn't you do both?

Devine: "We could see that (the Swift Boat attack) was resonating immediately. But we (decided) to engage it in the serious media when the time was engage it on our timetable, not theirs."

To me, that was the key remark. By "serious media," what he also called "the credible media," Devine was specifically referring to The New York Times. The Swift Boat attacks had circulated for many days, coursing through the conservative/cable/online media, before The Times finally took notice. Yet it was a testament to the elitism of the Democratic consultants that the story didn't count until it landed in the Times. It was the old way of thinking, baldly revealed.

So the question is, will the next Democratic candidate be weighed down by the consultant class? Or, at the very least, can the next round of consultants be as nimble as President Bush's tight-knit team?

A final question: Didn't I promise a brief posting? Sorry about that.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Those unethical self-promoting blatherers

Four days ago, I wrote this: "Three retired and highly decorated military leaders, including a three-star Marine Corps general yesterday, have publicly assailed the administration's handling of the Iraq war, and have publicly called for the removal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I await the inevitable attacks on their motivations and characters."

Well, that didn't take long. The wait is over.

In the wake of the news today that a fourth military leader -- retired Army Maj. Gen. John Batiste, who led the 1st Infantry Division in Iraq in 2004-05 -- has now gone public to assail the administration's war strategy and to demand Rumsfeld's ouster, a prominent conservative commentator has stepped forward to attack their motivations and characters.

Victor Davis Hanson argues today that nobody should listen to these "frenetic" guys, because they are "self-appointed ethicists" and "talking heads" who "blather" on television, and because they may be trying to "hype" a book.

The hype remark is a jab at retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who has authored a new book on Iraq (the other three are not book authors). Hanson basically argues that the act of authorship should be considered a character flaw -- and possibly unpatriotic as well.
In Hanson's words, there are "ethical questions involved in promoting a book or showcasing a media appearance during a time of war."

Unethical, unpatriotic, self-promoting...let's see... what else is wrong with these guys?
Oh, yes: They are "pensioned."

I was always under the impression that it's appropriate for retired officers to collect government pay after serving their country. I never realized that the word was a pejorative, or that it was meant to suggest that such officers should keep their mouths shut in exchange for their stipends.

Assailing the officer corps might not be the greatest strategy, if only because, as this article reports, the ranks of the dissenters may well continue to swell:

"(W)e are witnessing the rumblings of an officers' revolt, and things could get ugly if it were to take hold and roar....It is startling to hear, in private conversations, how widely and deeply the U.S. officer corps despises this secretary of defense. The joke in some Pentagon circles is that if Rumsfeld were meeting with the service chiefs and commanders and a group of terrorists barged into the room and kidnapped him, not a single general would lift a finger to help him."

There is one conservative voice, George Conway, who is sticking up today for those four officers, here. But Hanson's putdown prompts me to wonder:

Since even military guys are apparently grist for attack, is it possible for any American to ask hard questions about this war and this administration without having one's character impugned?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Here we go again

It's another day of damage control for the Bush administration, as it seeks yet again to shore up its shaky credibility. And the issue, as usual, is Iraq.
Let's start with something the president said back on May 29, 2003: "We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories." He made this statement two months into the war, when skeptical Americans were already asking questions about those elusive WMDs. On this particular day, Bush was discussing the discovery of some suspicious mobile trailers.
We've known ever since that Bush's claim didn't pan out. But, in the wake of a new report today, we have now learned something new: That on the day when Bush made his WMD claim, the administration already had strong reason to believe that such a claim was factually incorrect.
I'll let the Post story speak for itself: "A secret fact-finding mission to Iraq -- not made public until now -- had already concluded (at the time Bush spoke) that the trailers had nothing to do with biological weapons. Leaders of the Pentagon-sponsored mission transmitted their unanimous findings to Washington in a field report on May 27, 2003, two days before the president's statement. The three-page field report and a 122-page final report three weeks later were stamped 'secret' and shelved."
So while the fact-finders, dispatched to Iraq by the Defense Intelligence Agency, were privately referring to those trailers as "the biggest sand toilets in the world," a parade of administration officials, led by Bush, continued to describe those trailers in dire terms. I found a few such statements. A sampling:
Secretary of State Colin Powell, on June 2, 2003, said, "We have already discovered mobile biological factories of the kind that I described to the Security Council on the 5th of February. We have now found them. There is no question in our mind that that’s what their purpose was."
National security advisor Condolleezza Rice, a day later, said, "This is a weapons laboratory trailer capable of making a lot of...dry agent, dry biological agent, that can kill a lot of people."
Bush again, on June 5: "We recently found two mobile biological weapons facilities which were capable of producing biological agents."
Vice President Cheney, on Sept. 14: "They’re in our possession today, mobile biological facilities that can be used to produce anthrax or smallpox or whatever else you wanted to use during the course of developing the capacity for an attack."
Questions abound, as usual:
Did nobody in power read that field report? Or did they read it and opt to ignore it, because (as the Post also reported) there were other field teams that suspected that those trailers might have been nefarious? If the latter is the case, however, why did the administration pretend in public that the WMD finding was beyond dispute (Powell: "There's no question in our mind") ?
And none of those administration officials offered to subsequently retract the WMD claim, even though weapons inspector David Kay told Congress, in the autumn of 2003, that he had found nothing that tied those trailers to WMDs.
Which brings us to White House press secretary Scott McClellan. His defense today was to take the offensive.
In a press briefing, he said that the media should apologize for reporting the trailer story: "You know, I saw some reporting talking about how this latest revelation — which is not something that is new; this is all old information that’s being rehashed — was an embarrassment for the White House. No, it’s an embarrassment for the media that is out there reporting this...I hope they will go and publicly apologize..."
What's most interesting here is not the demand for an apology (that's just a predictable attempt to blame the messenger), but, rather, his contention that the trailer story is old news, "old information that's being rehashed."
Word for word, that's exactly what Bill Clinton's spin doctors used to say whenever he was hit with scandal allegations. Republicans used to laugh when the Clinton flaks tried that dodge.
And that behavior was one reason why Bush ran for president on a pledge to "restore honor and integrity to the White House."

Swing and a miss

The Democrats are beginning to resemble the Philadelphia Phillies. They're always retooling, always in search of a winning formula, and when they finally take the field, they always seem to wind up a tad short on the scoreboard.
It happened again last night, in an affluent congressional district on the north side of San Diego.
All the elements of a stunning victory seemed to be in place: A special election was being conducted, to fill the seat vacated by a Republican congressman, Duke Cunningham, who had just been hauled to the slammer for taking $2 million in bribes. Cunningham seemed like the ideal poster child for the Democrats' national "culture of corruption" message - the argument that the ruling Republicans on Capitol Hill deserve to be ousted from power because they have been egregiously abusing it.
The Democrats seemed primed to exploit Republican voter disenchantment, not just toward Cunningham, but toward the Bush administration and the GOP Congress in general (for the missteps in Iraq, and the failure to hold the line on federal spending). Moreover, in this special election, the Democrats were unifying around one well-financed candidate, Francine Busby - while the Republicans were fielding 14 candidates, most of whom were busy beating each other up.
In short, Busby seemed poised to win more than 50 percent of the vote - in a heavily Republican district, no less - and thereby send a national message that the GOP was indeed facing big trouble in the November elections.
It didn't happen. And until the Democrats actually win something big some place, their promises of a big Democratic year amounts to nothing but hype.
Busby got 44 percent of the vote. She finished first, but, under California rules, she now has to face the number-two finisher, former Republican congressman Brian Bilbray, in a June runoff. When that happens, Bilbray won't have to share the Republican voters with the 13 GOP rivals who crowded the special election "open" ballot.
Clearly, the Democrats best shot at swiping a Republican seat was last night. So what went wrong for the Democrats, this time?
Above all, they needed a big turnout in that district from their own voters, and they didn't get it. The Democrats can't claim that 2006 will be a "change election" until it can demonstrate that angry voters are rising up in large numbers to demand change.
Supposedly, grassroots Democrats are outraged at Bush, and anxious to send a message by punishing his party. Yet they didn't show up en masse in the 50th congressional district. Granted, it's springtime in southern California, a place where voting takes a back seat to surfing, and this week is spring break for many California families, but wasn't this election billed as a big chance to bloody the Republicans, right after the district's congressman was sent to jail?
Markos Moulitsas Zuniga is in despair today. The proprietor of Daily Kos, the popular liberal website, assails the party leadership for failing to whip up those supposedly outraged voters. The party's leaders, he complains, "do nothing to motivate the Democratic base to turn out and vote. My sense of pessimism for November's elections only gets deeper the more elections show lower and lower turnout. Our supporters have stopped giving a (darn)."
Here's one way to measure the underwhelming result: In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won 43 percent of the district's voters. In 2004, John Kerry won 44 percent of the district's voters. Last night, Busby hit the same ceiling - and this is with 14 Republicans divvying up the GOP vote on the open ballot.
A sunnier interpretation for Democrats can be found here, but even the author, grassroots Democratic activist Chris Bowers, adds this proviso:
"We still haven't put together the pieces for a landslide election in the House....Our basic problem seems to be that turnout is low....It is entirely possible that running on Republican corruption could be a double-edged sword that depresses Republican turnout, but also depresses all turnout, as people grow disgusted with politicians in general. There probably needs to be more work from good field people to really determine if we are facing a turnout problem, but there also needs to be more work done to motivate Democratic voters."
The official Democratic line, naturally, is that everything is great. Consider this statement today from Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, who heads the '06 effort to retake the House: "In a Republican district, Busby showed that Democratic candidates for change can and will make status quo, politics-as-usual Republicans fight for their political lives in every corner of this country.”
But until the Democrats actually win something, words are mere bluster.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The GOP's immigration inertia

It's no surprise that the Republican Senate failed last week to figure out a way to deal with illegal immigrants. The whole issue is a political nightmare for the governing party.
If the Republicans had cracked down too much on the illegals - as suggested by the House GOP - then they would have risked alienating the fastest-growing electorate in American politics, one that Karl Rove has been coveting for years. Illegals can't vote, of course, but legal Hispanic voters have already demonstrated, most notably in California, that they view GOP attacks on illegals as a blanket insult on their ethnicity.
Yet if the Senate Republicans had managed to pass a program that would've paved a road to citizenship, they would have risked infuriating their core conservative followers - who have been agitating for the GOP to show some guts on border enforcement. In terms of short-term politics, it's probably just as well that the Senate's compromise bill collapsed last Friday, because any plan that looks remotely like "amnesty" would be an invitation for the GOP conservative base to boycott the 2006 congressional elections.
In other words, Republicans risked alienating either the voters they want to have in the future, or the voters they have right now. Hence their paralysis.
But the problem now is that, by doing nothing, they risk alienating both groups. This is why Matt Lewis, a grassroots Republican strategist, wrote yesterday: "There is no doubt (that immigration) is a wedge issue that puts Republicans in a very unfavorable position." And political analyst John McIntyre, co-founder of, warns that Republicans face "a growing disaster" on this issue.
McIntyre, who is often tough on Democrats, is blunt about the pending House GOP bill (which would essentially reclassify illegals as criminals). McIntyre says this bill "is killing Republicans in the Hispanic community." Yet he says that an illegal-friendly law is also perilous:
"For a conservative base already demoralized by a Republican-led Congress incapable of cutting spending and frustrated by a war that is either portrayed as floundering (or actually is floundering), abdication of responsibility on the illegal immigration mess may be the last straw that compels many conservatives to sit on their hands this November."
By the way, the congressional Democrats aren't totally unified on the issue. Most favor some kind of path to citizenship, which puts them in bed with the big business interests that want labor at the lowest possible wages. That doesn't necessarily sit well with working-class Democrats who worry about wage depression - or with the party's African-Americans, many of whom are low-skill workers.
But the Democratic schisms aren't nearly as wide, and, more importantly, they're not running Washington. They don't have majority at stake. And nd, unlike the GOP, they don't have a president who seems "rudderless" (in McIntyre's word) on this issue.
Bush has long prided himself as a leader on immigration, somebody who wanted to ease the way for illegals to become "guest workers." Now he's rather see the lawmakers take the lead and take the hits. His current laxity is a testament to his waning political capital.

A California earthquake?

Amid all the press speculation about whether the Republicans are really in danger of losing control of Congress this fall, it is a wondrous thing that, on occasion, there is an actual election which can help us gauge that danger with hard numbers.
Such an election will be held today, in the swanky congressional district that encompasses northern San Diego and La Jolla.
I wish I could be there today, if only for the weather and the fish restaurants that are perched on cliffs high above the ocean. But there is still plenty of chew over, from a distance. This is the district, California-50, that was represented by Republican Duke Cunningham until he was recently forced to exchange his congressman's threads for prison garb. Now it's up for grabs, and a special election today might produce his successor.
Here's the important part: This is a solid Republican district (44 percent GOP registration, 30 percent Democratic) -- yet the frontrunner for the seat, according to all polls, is the Democratic candidate, Francine Busby.
That can probably be attributed to Cunningham's downfall -- he took $2 million in bribes - and the fact that Democrats seem energized by their argument that the GOP majority has engaged in a "culture of corruption."
If Busby was to win this seat tonight - she'd need 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff with the number two finisher - or if Busby simply finishes with the biggest vote share, this news would be rightly interpreted as a serious predictor of GOP trauma in November. Republican pollsters are saying this already; Bill McInturff told the Wall Street Journal's John Fund yesterday that a Busby win "would set off political shock waves."
It's not helping the GOP that it's running multiple candidates (who could then divide the Republican vote) -- and that most of them are avoiding all mention of President Bush, who is now posting a 32 percent approval rating in the Golden State.
The Republicans do have the raw numbers to keep that Republican seat, however. It's just a question of whether they are motivated to show up to vote at a time when many seem disillusioned. In any case, easterners like me won't know what happens until tomorrow.

The ongoing legal proceeding

I've written a lot in recent days (here, here and here) about Scooter Libby's sworn testimony, which fingers President Bush as leaker-in-chief. And I'd love to give it a rest.
But yesterday, we finally heard from the president himself, when a Johns Hopkins University student asked him whether it was true - as alleged by Libby's prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald - that the White House had been leaking in order to discredit ex-ambassador and war critic Joseph Wilson. (Republican appointee Fitzgerald put it this way last week, in court filings: "It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish Wilson.'")
Here's how Bush began his answer: "Yes, no, I, this is, there's an ongoing legal proceeding..."
Translation: I'm in trouble on this one.
Taking refuge behind an "ongoing legal proceeding" is a time-honored Washington stonewalling tactic. And Bush is using it selectively anyway, because the White House didn't hesitate to declare that Tom DeLay was innocent even after he had been indicted in an ongoing legal proceeding.
But, all that aside, Bush did ultimately respond to the student's question. Sort of.
He said that he had declassified a prewar intelligence document in July of 2003 because "it was important for people to get a sense for why I was saying what I was saying in my speeches." (He had given speeches contending that Saddam Hussein was gathering the materials for nuclear weapons. Wilson, on July 6, 2003, said publicy that Hussein was not doing that.)
But more important, yesterday, was what Bush did not say.
He didn't mention the revelation, in the Fitzgerald court filings, that he had authorized Libby to undercut Wilson by selectively leaking to the press only those portions of the intelligence document that supported the notion that Hussein was going nuclear - and that this action was taken several weeks before the entire document was declassified.
As I noted the other day, the material that Libby shared with the press conveniently omitted any reference to the intelligence skeptics (at the State and Energy departments) who essentially agreed with Wilson.
Bush didn't volunteer any of that, even though he said yesterday that "I wanted people to see the truth."
This whole saga won't be going away any time soon. Not with Fitzgerald dropping new court filings along the way. Not with the Libby trial slated to begin this winter (after the midterm election). These developments might do further damage to the president's 60 percent disapproval rating.

Monday, April 10, 2006

A breath of fresh air -- or the kiss of death?

The nascent presidential candidacy of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has gotten a lot more interesting in recent days. Here's a Republican governor, working with an overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature, who just cleared passage for a law that will require statewide universal health care.
Imagine the political possibilities of that.
Candidate Romney will be able to tout himself as a pragmatic problem-solver who can work with the opposition - a potential character asset, at least with those independent swing voters who are generally fed up with the politicians in both parties who are dividers rather than uniters. Voters are fond of electing governors (four of our last five presidents had been governors), because executives often have to make pragmatic decisions for the greater good.
But the potential downside is with the conservative voters who matter greatly during the Republican primaries. They might view Romney's universal health care plan as a big-government boondoggle that could end up raising taxes. They may not like the fact that Hillary Clinton and John Kerry are already praising the plan (actually, conservative dismay is being heard already).
In truth, the Romney health plan, which he is expected to sign into law this week, does contain some conservative features. Take, for example, the credo of personal responsibility: Romney will require that everyone in Massachusetts, except the most impoverished citizens, put some of their own money into the coverage. And the coverage will come from the private sector, not a government program.
Whether these details can survive in a bruising primary season is another matter. Romney's conservative rivals migth reduce his plan to "big government" shorthand.
The biggest potential conservative concern, however, is that Romney's endorsement of universal health care might make the whole concept (which they assailed during the Clinton years) seem more appealing to a broader segment of the electorate. And that might benefit the Democrats most of all, since they have pushing the concept for years.
Would GOP primary voters forgive him for that? Even if he tries to make it up to them by touting his opposition to gay family adoptions?

A new enemy of the state

I've been waiting since last autumn for this to happen, and now the moment has arrived:
The inevitable attack on special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
Now even this Republican appointee, who was named to his sleuth job by the Bush Justice Department, has been denounced as an enemy of the state.
The denouncers left him alone while he investigated whether the Bush administration was responsible for outing a CIA employe who was married to Joseph Wilson, a critic of the war in Iraq. The denouncers left him alone even after he indicted vice-presidential aide Scooter Libby.
But they can't leave him alone now, because he is striking too close to the seat of power.
In court papers last week, Fitzgerald depicted a "concerted action" by "multiple people in the White House" to use classified information in an effort to "discredit, punish or seek revenge against" Wilson.
Right on cue, here's conservative analyst William Kristol, on Fox News yesterday:
"I now think the whole prosecution (of Libby) is absurd. And I have hesitated to say this, because I have friends who respect Fitzgerald, but I now think it’s a politically motivated attempt to wound the Bush administration...He is now out to discredit the Bush administration. He has bought the argument that there is something improper about the Bush administration responding to Joe Wilson’s charges, and that’s the real meaning of what’s happened these last few days, which is very dangerous for the Bush administration. They now have a special prosecutor out not to convict Scooter Libby, but out to discredit the administration."
Meanwhile, three retired and highly decorated military leaders, including a three-star Marine Corps general yesterday, have publicly assailed the administration's handling of the Iraq war, and have publicly called for the removal of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. I await the inevitable attacks on their motivations and characters.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Still looking for Mr. Goodnews

The key quote, in my newspaper piece today about media coverage of the Iraq war, was supplied by national security expert Anthony Cordesman, a former Pentagon intelligence aide who later worked for John McCain at the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Cordesman said the negative tenor of the coverage is an accurate reflection of conditions on the ground; more importantly, the latest assessments of those conditions by U.S. officials are equally grim. He said: "Their reports track very closely with the daily news reporting. In general, they're more negative than the media."
I wrote my piece on Friday. During the past 48 hours, Cordesman's argument has been confirmed two more times.
First came news on Saturday that the State Department has drafted a new planning document which is designed to salvage the U.S. reconstruction mess in Iraq. The draft plan states that much of the reconstruction effort (the "good news" that the media has purportedly ignored in Iraq) has been wasted, because, as one U.S. official said, "Doing massive reconstruction in the midst of an insurgency drives up costs and diverts funds."

By the way, why were the reconstruction people working "in the midst" of an insurgency in the first place? Because, according to retired Marine Lt. Gen. Greg Newbold, who served as the Pentagon's chief operations officer in the runup to the war, the war planners suffered a competence breakdown. He's writing today in the new issue of Time magazine:
"What we are living with now is the consequences of successive policy failures...(such as)micromanagement that kept our forces from having enough resources to do the job, the failure to retain and reconstitute the Iraqi military in time to help quell civil disorder, the initial denial that an insurgency was the heart of the opposition to occupation, alienation of allies who could have helped in a more robust way to rebuild Iraq...My sincere view is that the commitment of our forces to this fight was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions—or bury the results."

Anyway, back to Cordesman's point. The second new piece of evidence appeared today, in the form of a report co-written by the U.S. embassy in Iraq and the U.S. military command. It basically concluded - back in January, before the Shiite shrine bombing in Samarra, which tipped Iraq closer to open civil war - that one-third of Iraq's provinces are seriously unstable. And that figure is worse than it sounds, because the Baghdad region, which is pivotal to the entire country's stability, is included on that list.
Baghdad, as well as the oil-rich Basra province, are rated as "serious" problems. According to the report, "serious" is defined as having "a government that is not fully formed or cannot serve the needs of its residents; economic development that is stagnant with high unemployment, and a security situation marked by routine violence, assassinations and extremism."
Well, maybe the "good news" that the media is supposedly missing can be found in the nine southern provinces, which have been generally touted as peaceful by Bush administration officials. Nope. In the embassy/military report, none of those nine provinces are rated as stable.

By now you might be wondering what the Bush administration, which is so often upbeat about Iraq, is saying about this downbeat report by its own people. Can it possibly explain away a report that rates five provinces as "serious" and a sixth (Anbar province) as "critical?"
The explanation came this morning, from Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. He told Fox News: "I wouldn't worry about the question of terminology. I wouldn't focus on it."

In other words: Pay no attention to the bad news that we ourselves have documented.