Saturday, June 10, 2006

Quick hits from Sin City

It's a busy time out here in Vegas - talking to lots of bloggers who think they're the future kingpins of Democratic politics, commiserating with bloggers who were cleaned out at the blackjack table...but I do have a few drive-by observations on various and sundry matters:

As I noted here yesterday about the Zarqawi killing, there seem to be a fair number of Americans who can't easily be labeled by the right as "defeatist," just because they fail to view the event as a turning point in the war. Here's another, David Brannan, who worked for the Bush administration back in 2003 and 2004, directing security policy in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority.

An excerpt from his Los Angeles Times op-ed piece yesterday: "But what will the death of Zarqawi mean to the hopes for peace in Iraq? Probably very little. An Al Qaeda website has already declared him a martyr. New leadership has likely stepped into place and is probably planning the next attacks on Iraqi Shiites and coalition forces. Zarqawi was credited with recruiting fighters from Jordan, the Palestinian territories and other lands previously unconcerned with Iraq, but his 'glorious' martyrdom at American hands will probably prove a potent recruitment tool for the fighters he trained. The overarching problem is that death and martyrdom are all that any Al Qaeda leader expects, so Zarqawi may be as effective in death at inspiring terrorist acts as he was in life."


Earlier this week, I analysed Democratic candidate Francine Busby's loss in a key congressional election in southern California, and, prior to the vote, I also wrote how a crucial verbal gaffe committed by Busby was quickly circulated by the well-oiled conservative communications empire. On that latter point, here's a piece that puts it all in a larger political perspective.

Robert Parry, the author, discusses the GOP apparatus that pounced on the Busby gaffe: "The conservatives keep building up their media infrastructure; the Republicans exploit this advantage with an instantaneous message machine that keeps them plugged into their backers and the broader electorate; the GOP then puts into play a powerful wedge issue in the weeks before the election; the missteps of the Democrats – no matter how minor – are blared out to voters."

But, as you see for yourself, he also contends that the Washington-based Democratic consultants are part of the problem. That's a widely-held view at the bloggers convention here in Vegas - there's major tension in the Democratic party between these outsiders and the DC insiders -- and I'll mention some of that Monday, in my print column on the blogosphere.


The quote of the week comes from Republican congressman Chris Shays, who is fighting for his job in Connecticut largely because of his early support for the Iraq war. He now says that he should have demanded more pre-war accountability when the Pentagon said the price tag wouldn't be high: "I fault myself. I was hearing voices in my own head that this was going to cost more, and I accepted the Pentagon numbers that were too low."

When a politician talks favorably about hearing voices in his head, you know he must be in trouble.


The New York Times ran a piece this morning on the bloggers convention, and flattered itself by mentioning that one of its visiting luminaries, Maureen Dowd, was getting mobbed by fans. So I'll balance that anecdote with this one:

At one point, the popular blog held a caucus meeting. The room was filled with bloggers, all toting their laptops. Since the room was wired for the Internet, they all went online, called up the MyDD website, and, as the meeting progressed, they blogged their reactions onto the website, in real time. A big screen was set up at the front of the room, beaming the website to one and all, presumably so that the bloggers could react to their blogged reactions in real time.

Anyway, Maureen Dowd came in and sat in the corner. Within seconds, this appeared on the big screen: "Oh (darn). New York Times in the corner." Rest assured that the scathing word was not darn.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Zarqawi bad, perspective good

Can a guy think straight and serious in Las Vegas, a place where it's 90 degrees at 8 in the morning and a hung-over Elvis impersonator with a tattered gauze bandage hanging loose off his ankle just staggered across the hotel parking lot? I'll try.

First, on the death of al-Qaeda reign-of-terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi: Obviously, nobody in America will mourn the passing of a murderous thug who beheaded westerners and sought to foment and exploit sectarian strife. But it's predictably striking to note how the war's defenders are mocking any attempts by skeptical Americans to put his death in perspective and to suggest that perhaps his passing will not make much of a difference.

Call it the Dixie Chickification of skeptical thought.

Dare we recall that when Saddam Hussein was captured in December of 2003, during the ninth month of the war, President Bush's loyalists assailed anyone who had the temerity to suggest that this event might not be a watershed turning point in the conflict? Remember how Howard Dean was pilloried for saying that Hussein's capture would not necessarily make America safer? Dean had many flaws as a candidate, but that particular view is now shared by a majority of Americans, as the polls have long reported.

And dare we attempt to put Zarqawi's death into perspective? Sure, why not:

1. As Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Pentagon aide under Republican administrations, pointed out this morning in USA Today, the al-Qaeda operation in Iraq is a relatively small facet of a sprawling and decentralized Sunni insurgency. And, insurgency aside, many terror experts now say that the biggest threats to peace in Iraq are the sectarian militias, both Sunni and Shiite, that have infiltrated the government security forces.

2. Zarqawi, who was betrayed by somebody inside his organization, was already on the way to being sidelined as a leader of the al-Qaeda operation. This suggests that those bad guys were already in the process of retooling when he was taken out. Where have I heard that Zarqawi was being sidelined? From the conservative press, which reported this on April 4. Headline in the Washington Times: "Zarqawi replaced as al Qaeda chief."

3. With regards to Zarqawi, public amnesia plays to the Bush administration's advantage. Historical perspective does not. Apparently, they could have taken out Zarqawi four years ago, before the war. In March 2004, NBC reported that the White House in 2002 had thrice rejected a Pentagon request to target Zarqawi, who then was believed to be running a weapons lab in territory not controlled by Saddam Hussein's government. Jim Miklaszewski's sources told him that the administration balked at attacking Zarqawi and his terrorist camp, out of concern that "destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam." Terrorism expert and ex-National Security Council member Robert Cressey told NBC that "People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president's policy of preemption against terrorists."

Some war skeptics have sought to provide this kind of perspective over the past 24 hours, but that is what the Republican National Committee is now calling "a commitment to defeatism."

One of the RNC's targets is Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, a Democrat who actually voted for war authorization and has not renounced that vote. He was labeled a defeatist for saying this yesterday on CNN: "I predict to you that two weeks from now you're going to be showing people being ripped off of buses, and beheaded still. I think you're going to be seeing every morning 10 to 50 people with their arms chained behind their back and shot in the head."

But somehow, in its eagerness to append its label, the Republican party omitted the fact that Biden actually defended Bush yesterday on NBC: "We get one president at a time....This election in November is not for President of the United States....I hope it (Zarqawi's death) does improve his standing and emboldens him to take bolder moves in terms of his policy in Iraq."

And it would be interesting to know whether the Republican party would label as "defeatists" those Marines on the ground in Iraq who are telling the media that Zarqawi's demise won't change the situation. Here's Maj. Tom Hobbs, executive officer for 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Rregiment in Ramadi, speaking this morning in USA Today: "Things will remain the same, or get worse as insurgent leaders conduct attacks to make a name for themselves and become the next top dog." He was seconded by Marine Capt. Andrew Del Gaudio, who said, referring to Zarqawi's death, that the insurgents "will get over it quickly and move on."

Nevertheless, having said all this, I can't help but note that sometimes the anti-Bush Democratic activists make it easy for the other side to mock them. Last night, here in Las Vegas, at a reception dinner for 1000 liberal bloggers, a comedian made a passing reference to Zarqawi's death. Very tepid applause. Then he mentioned that the indicted Tom DeLay had delivered his farewell speech In Washington. Wild applause, whistles, and whooping. And there it was, another gift for Karl Rove.


I want to finish with just a few words about Ann Coulter, and her attack this week on the 9/11 widows, who, in her view, are enjoying the fact that their husbands are dead. It's a waste of time to condemn Coulter, because she is merely the most extreme product of our increasingly uncivil era. Witness the fact that even Time magazine, that once venerable paragon of the eastern media establishment, has today given her yet another forum. The coarser the culture, the better for Coulter. She brings to mind a classic scene in the 1987 movie Broadcast News, when the news producer, played by Holly Hunter, rebukes the airheaded anchorman, played by William Hurt, for crossing an ethical line. And Hurt responds, "Well, they keep moving the little sucker, don't they?"

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Why the "ring bearers for gay marriage" acted the way they did

Greetings from the Philadelphia airport, where I am soon bound for Las Vegas, site of the first-ever national convention of liberal bloggers, and the numerous Democratic politicians who will trail in their wake. Bloggers and there's a combo: images of geeks in bathrobes bumping into one-armed bandits, with Sinatra singing "I got the world on a string." But seriously, folks. I anticipate there will be blogworthy items, and a long analysis about the blogosphere's potential impact on Democratic politics is planned for the Monday newspaper. Meanwhile, here's what came off the keyboard in the lounge this morning: Gay marriage.

Which is to say, so much for the gay marriage issue. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Republican quest for a U.S. constitutional amendment banning the concept – a symbolic gesture aimed at pleasing the party’s social and religious conservatives – was shelved yesterday on the Senate floor. Perhaps the only surprise was how easy it was to defeat.

By their voting behavior, Senate Republicans demonstrated that gay marriage remains a highly divisive topic within the party; that it pits moderates against conservatives; that it divides Republicans along geographic lines; and that, bottom line, a notable number of senators in President Bush’s own party don’t want anything to do with the issue.

Some of those senators see the issue as a distraction from the stuff that is really important (witness John McCain’s remark in the New York Times yesterday about how he was anxious to get to the defense authorization bill). Some see the issue as a turnoff for the folks back home (more on that below). And some see the constitutional amendment route as a betrayal of conservative small-government principles (more on that below).

The vote yesterday was not even on the bill’s merits, or lack thereof. It never got that far. The showdown was only about whether to move toward a vote on the merits. Sixty votes were needed to go forward – presumably, all 55 Republicans and five helpful Democrats. But only 49 senators voted that way. Most importantly, seven Republicans broke with their party and said, in effect, let’s quit talking about this. And that meant the issue was DOA in 2006.

It’s worth noting that, with the exception of McCain of Arizona, the Republican dissidents all hailed from the Northeast: Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), Judd Gregg and John Sununu (New Hampshire), Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins (Maine), and Lincoln Chafee (Rhode Island). That is no accident. The northeastern brand of Republican does not share the religious right’s passion for using the federal government to regulate morality.

As I’ve twice noted recently in print columns (here and here), some GOP strategists are concerned that a crusade for a gay marriage amendment could further alienate moderate Republican and independent voters in the northeastern suburbs, where a number of moderate Republican congressmen are fighting for survival in November.

Among those increasingly disapproving voters, Bush, who voiced support this week for a gay marriage amendment, is already viewed as too close to the religious right. A new poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center reports that support for Bush among moderate/liberal Republicans has dropped by 25 points since December 2004, and by 19 points among independents. In the Northeast, among all voters, Bush’s approval rating now stands at 27 percent.

And while 58 percent of Americans believe gay marriage should be illegal – this, according to an ABC News poll on Tuesday – only 42 percent believe that the Constitution should be amended to ban it. The gap in those percentages is mainly attributable to moderates and independents who view such a move as too drastic. (The document hasn’t been amended since 1992, on an issue of compensation for members of Congress; the previous instance was back in 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18.)

Some of the dissident Republicans had their own take on why a constitutional amendment was inappropriate; they saw that option as a betrayal of party principles – namely, the traditional GOP notion that the feds should never tread on policies best left to the states. McCain and Sununu have made this argument, which clashes with the religious right’s more new-fangled notion of using Washington to police morality (witness last year’s famed attempt by Congress to intervene in the Terry Schiavo case).

Perhaps the best articulation for the states’ rights argument was offered the other night on MSNBC by Joe Scarborough, the conservative ex-congressman from Florida: “You can be for or against gay marriage, (but) it just seems to me that Republicans are going to have to decide once and for all whether they believe in states’ rights or not, because…the same conservatives who are saying we need this national preemption…are some of the same Republicans that, when it comes to abortion, are saying ‘Let the states decide what to do on the issue on abortion.’ You can’t have it both ways…I believe that the federal government should mind its own business.”

All the factors cited above help to explain why the dissident Republican senators acted as they did yesterday, although that won’t assuage the anger of the religious right, which feels betrayed. Last night, religious right leader Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council circulated an email charging that the Dissident Seven should now consider themselves to be “ring bearers for gay marriage.” He also charged that the will of the people is being stymied by “48 United States senators.” (Memo to Perkins: That’s democracy, as decreed by the founding fathers. They intended the U.S. Senate to be the place where public passions are cooled. George Washington essentially said that to Thomas Jefferson.)

No matter. Ban supporters insist they are undeterred, despite their decisive loss. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said that what happened yesterday was actually a step toward ultimate victory. He said, “We’re building votes,” which is actually a creative inversion of simple math, given the fact that, in 2004, when Senate Republicans last tried and failed to enact a ban, the supporters actually had one more vote (50) than they have now (49).

The Senate floor debate yesterday did have its theatrical moments – such as when Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma displayed a huge photo of his brood and proudly declared that “in the recorded history” of his family, they had never suffered “any kind of homosexual relationship” – but more value-based entertainment is still on tap:

Passage in Washington is already dead this year, but that won’t stop the House Republicans. In July, they plan to resurrect the issue anyway. Why would they bother? The answer was revealed on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC program.

Scarborough, speaking to Republican strategist Jack Burkman: “Jack, it sure smells like political pandering to me. Is that what the president is doing?”
Burkman: “Sure, but there’s nothing wrong with pandering, if it’s the right thing to do, Joe.”

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Spin ain't the same as a win

My dictionary defines victory as "defeat of an opponent," and, to the best of my knowledge and experience, an election victory occurs when one side gets more votes than the other side.

But those little details aren't hindering the Democrats this morning, nor their supporters, as they strive to spin yet another election loss into some kind of victory - moral, Pyrrhic, symbolic, or whatever.

The topic this time is the special congressional election that was staged last night in the suburban California district on the north side of San Diego (for details, see yesterday's post). In this Republican enclave, corrupt Republican congressman Duke Cunningham was recently dispatched to jail, thus necessitating a June 6 contest to replace him. Democrats were anticipating that if their candidate, Francine Busby, could pull off a win, the news would galvanize the political world, demoralize the GOP, and give the Democrats psychological momentum for their bid to topple the Republican majority in the November congressional elections.

Well, it didn't happen. Busby took 45.46 percent of the vote; the victor, Republican Brian Bilbray (who previously served in Congress, in a neighboring district), garnered 49.43 percent. And turnout, among supposedly energized Democratic voters, was reportedly tepid.

But that isn't deterring the losing side. Let the spin begin!

1. Here's Chris Bowers, at the grassroots website MyDD: "No matter what the media says, no Democrat should be mistaken about this result. First, this is a huge, seismic shift in our favor that bodes extremely well for November." In his view, Democrats made great gains because Busby, who lost by 22 percentage points against Duke Cunningham in 2004, lost by only 4.5 points this time around. He notes that the national Republicans pumped big money into this race, and "if Republicans want to spin losing 18 points after spending $4.5 million of committee money as a good thing, go for it. "

2. Here's John Kerry, who had weighed in for Busby during the campaign. He emailed his supporters: "This morning, Republicans are making laughable claims of momentum in the 2006 elections. They (spent big money) to hold onto a seat that they've held since it was created by the GOP, for the GOP 15 years ago. And they eked out a victory by 5,000 votes. Their claims of momentum are as phony as their claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."

3. Here's Howard Dean's brother at the grassroots Democracy for America. He too lauded Busby for losing by less this time around, and declared: "If Democrats everywhere improve that much this November, we'll have a Democratic House and Senate!"

4. Here's House Democratic campaign spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg, on the CNN and MSNBC websites: “In an election cycle that is shaping up to be a change vs. the status quo contest, Francine Busby has shown that a strong change message can make even former members of Congress vulnerable in deeply red Republican districts."

Just wondering: Can you win the House by making the victors look "vulnerable?"

I know the drill: Divining silver linings is what spin is all about. After all, Democrats and liberal bloggers are still dining out on last year's special congressional election in Ohio, when Democrat and war vet Paul Hackett almost defeated Republican Jean Schmidt. (Sure enough, a liberal blogger today declared that Hackett would have won the California race.) But building a case for a moral victory requires a certain selectivity about facts: Even though the optimists today are billboarding the fact that the national GOP put big money into the California race, they fail to mention that the national Democrats also kicked in a couple million for Busby.

Ken Rudin, the political editor at National Public Radio, artfully doused the Democratic spin today, writing that "it would be wrong to paint the result as anything other than a victory for the Republicans. Given the national mood, given the fact that their previous incumbent is now spending eight-plus years in the slammer, given the split in the (GOP) over issues such as immigration, given the fact that the pre-election polls had the race dead even, a win is a win is a win."

And let's also remember that an anti-immigrant conservative, with backing from the Minutemen, was also on the ballot, and took four percent of the voters, most of whom otherwise would have probably gone to Bilbray.

The fact remains that these California results again fail to suggest that a great Democratic wave is building. Busby's share of the district vote (45 percent) is roughly the same as what she received in April, during an open primary for the seat. In 2004, while running for president, Kerry won roughly that same percentage inside the district. In 2000, Al Gore won roughly that same percentage. I pointed all this out in April, when I reported on that primary and voiced initial skepticism about forecasts for a big Democratic year.

Bottom line: Busby did not grow the Democratic vote. Yes, there was a high hurdle in a predominantly Republican district, but if a Democrat can't win on the corruption issue in a district where the corrupt Republican incumbent had to go to the pokey; and if the Democrat can't turn a tough district with the wind at her back (Iraq, gas prices, competence, etc.), then I still fail to see how anyone on the Democratic side can presume to have bragging rights today.

On this one, I cede to John McIntyre, a blogger at RealClearPolitics, who wrote, before the returns were counted, that "this is exactly the type of race Democrats are going to have to win at around a 75 percent clip if they hope to net the 15 seats they need to take over the House."

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

As California goes, so goes the nation?

Busby versus Bilbray, check it out. By this time tomorrow morning, we may finally have some raw evidence of the national political mood, some insight into whether the Democrats really do have a realistic shot at taking over the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

Today, in the affluent, heavily-Republican congressional district that covers the north side of San Diego and neighboring La Jolla, a special election will be held to fill the seat vacated by convicted bribe-taker Duke Cunningham, a Republican who now wears prison garb. The Republican candidate today is Brian Bilbray; the Democratic candidate is Francine Busby. In a normal year, in this district, somebody like Bilbray (an ex-congressman himself, from a nearby district) would win in a walk. Yet the final polls are showing a statistical tie.

And that fact alone is worrisome for the national GOP, which has pumped more than $5 million into a race that should normally require very little outside money. This is a district where 44 percent of the registered voters are Republican, and only 30 percent are Democrats. The fact that Democrat Busby, a local school board member, is totally competitive on election eve would appear to confirm the warnings of Republican strategists that their party may be facing a tough political climate this year. As California political analyst Gary Jacobson put it the other day, "It's a district Republicans should never lose."

Stu Rothenberg, who runs the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington, put it best the other day. He wrote (in the subscription-only Roll Call newspaper) that the election tonight is "a test of Democratic efforts to ride a wave of voter dissatisfaction, and of Republican efforts to energize the party's conservative base."

If the GOP does lose tonight, the political impact would be felt nationwide. Democrats would claim bragging rights tomorrow, and declare that, as California-50 goes, so goes the nation in November. Whether that would be true, who knows. But, if Busby does win this district tonight, it would be a major story, for its rarity alone. Consider this statistic, courtesy of Jacobson: In California, since 1966, Democrats have lost every single congressional race in districts where registered Republicans have outnumbered registered Democrats by 3.7 percent or more; and as I noted above, the GOP advantage in this particular district is 14 percent.

But it's noteworthy that, even in this district, President Bush has not made an appearance on Bilbray's behalf. He has confined himself to leaving automated phone messages in the households of registered Republicans, praising Bilbray as "an ally in the war on terror." This is a testament to Bush's declining popularity, even in a district that he won in 2004 by 11 percentage points. Meanwhile, the national Democrats have countered with Al Gore, who has left his own phone messages on Busby's behalf, contending that "George Bush and the congressional Republicans have taken us in the wrong direction." (This is the same Al Gore who says that the political world is "toxic," and that he has no plans to get involved again.)

Both candidates have had their woes. Bilbray was embarrassed last week when John McCain abruptly canceled a fundraising appearance to boost the Bilbray candidacy, apparently because he and Bilbray strongly disagree on the immigration issue. McCain wants a "guest worker" program, while Bilbray is more outspoken about border enforcement. One might argue that maybe the McCain cancellation would help Bilbray with conservative voters in the district; the hitch is that another candidate on the ballot, independent William Griffith, is talking even tougher on immigration and boasts the endorsement of the San Diego branch of the border-patrolling Minutemen. Even if Griffith draws only a percent or two of the vote away from Bilbray, that could be crucial in a tight race.

Busby has been trying to tie Bilbray to the national anti-incumbent mood, and to the Democratic message about a GOP "culture of corruption." One Busby ad says: "Had enough? Corruption in Congress. High gas prices. No action on illegal immigration...It's time to fix our broken system, so Congress works for us again." On the other hand, Busby has been weathering her own problems. She has been targeted by the national conservative media for some ill-chosen words that she uttered last week at an Hispanic rally.

During this rally, an audience member told Busby, in Spanish: "I want to help (the campaign), but I don't have papers." The comment was translated. Busby gthen replied: "Everybody can help, yeah, absolutely, you can all help. You don't need papers for voting, you don't need to be a registered voter to help."

You don't need papers for voting...Somebody had taped Busby's comments, and the recording of that particular line quickly made the rounds. Within the past few days, it turned up on Rush Limbaugh's program, on the home page of The Drudge Report, and in a Republican party ad which suggested that Busby was encouraging illegals to vote.

Busby, whose previous experience as a major league candidate was the 2004 congressional race, in which she garnered 36 percent of the vote against Duke Cunningham, has sought to explain what she meant. The other day she issued a statement: "I was clarifying the question that was being asked in Spanish and then stated that you do not have to be a registered voter to help the campaign because there were so many people who appeared to be under 18 in the group who wanted to volunteer....I want to make it very clear that anyone here illegally does not have the right to be here, does not have the right to vote, does not have any right to be a part of the electoral process, and illegal people shouldn't be working on a campaign."

Maybe this episode won't matter; maybe the Democratic voters will simply be more energized than the more numerous Republican voters, and maybe the swing independents (22 percent of the district's electorate) won't care. But if Busby does lose this race by a hair, that parsed remark -- "You don't need papers for voting" -- will be remembered as her equivalent of John Kerry's "I voted for it, before I voted against it."

It could also be argued that a Busby loss would put the Democrats back at square one in the battle of 2006. But Stu Rothenberg, the Washington analyst, doesn't necessarily think so; he says it's important to remember the overwhelmingly Republican makeup of this particular district. Perceptions matter in politics, and he believes that, even in defeat, Busby could still give Democrats a PR victory: "A strong Busby showing (say, near 50 percent) would be evidence that the Democratic Deluge of '06 has begun."

Monday, June 05, 2006

The "hazy" and "gauzy" Haditha story

Note: Technical problems all day prevented me from posting this much earlier. Apologies.

In Iraq, the Bush administration and its defenders have been dealing in recent days with yet another tricky public relations dilemma:

Last Thursday, the new Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whom President Bush proudly calls his "ally and friend," uttered some decidely unfriendly comments about that alleged massacre by Marines of 24 innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha -- and about what he views as a hostile American military attitude toward Iraqi civilians in general.

He charged that violence against civilians, perpetrated by the American-dominated coalition, is "a regular occurrence." He said that many troops in the coalition "do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable."

This was most embarrassing for the White House. Maliki is supposedly our pal, our new bulwark against the bad guys. Therefore he could not be simply dismissed as, say, a "Bush-bashing hysteric" or "liberal handwringer" or "cut and runner" or "Michael Moore clone."

So the decision was made to say that Maliki was simply misquoted. Last Friday, Bush flak Tony Snow told the White House press corps that our own ambassador to Iraq had consulted with Maliki, and that Maliki had told our ambassador, who then told the White House, that Maliki had never actually said what he was quoted as saying.

Got that?
Or maybe this is clearer. Here's Snow: "(I)t becomes a little convoluted, and so I don't want to make a real clear characterization, because it's a little hazy to me, too. All right? What I do know is that he was misquoted, he's looking into it. But that what he said, and when he said it, and in reaction to what is a little gauzy."

Which brings us to Condoleezza Rice's appearance yesterday on Fox News Sunday. When asked about Maliki's remark, she came up with a new defense. They're not claiming any longer that Maliki was misquoted; that spin is apparently inoperative. The new spin is that he was quoted accurately, but out of some larger and unspecified context.

She said that Maliki's charge about Americans killing civilians "was in a much longer set of comments." She didn't elaborate on what that "longer set of comments" was, or whether those comments somehow canceled out his provocative charge. But she needn't have worried about being pressured to explain, because Fox News was having none of that. Her helpful host, Chris Wallace, only asked one question about Maliki's charge, and here it is: "What do you think of his broad criticism of the role of U.S. troops who, after all, liberated his country?"

Translation: Hey Condi, can you believe the gall and ingratitude of that guy, daring to knock America?

Fox's hospitality notwithstanding, other crucial questions could have been asked. Such as:

Madame Secretary, on another touchy PR matter, can you explain why -- nearly seven months after Haditha, and long after the death certificates proved that the innocent civilians had been shot at close range -- the Marines' PR office still hasn't corrected its Nov. 20 press release which stated that the innocents "were killed yesterday from the blast of a roadside bomb"? And why, as late as January, was a Marine spokesman telling inquiring reporters that asking questions about Haditha was the same as swallowing al Qaeda propaganda? Was that appropriate?

But even as Time and Newsweek both give Haditha cover treatment this week (thereby, no doubt, sparking talk of treason among Fourth Estate-haters), some questions are being raised within media circles that perhaps the press was lax in uncovering the story. One such account appears here.

And this article provides a broader perspective on the Marines' thankless task in Iraq, and of how Haditha could have happened ("Like other Marine battles, from Tripoli to Iwo Jima to Khe Sanh, the story of their battles in Iraq will center on themes of extraordinary hardship, endurance and loss, as well as a remorselessness in combat, that offer a context, though hardly any exoneration, for what survivors allege happened that November day.").