Friday, July 14, 2006

"We're shocked, SHOCKED, that line-crossing is going on in here!"

It's always amusing to watch mud-slingers accuse each other of fighting dirty.

Exhibit A this week has been the orchestrated flap over a 60-second Democratic online video that includes a two-second clip of flag-draped coffins returning from Iraq. Seeking to advance its latest campaign message ("America Needs a New Direction"), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which is helming the party's bid to take over the House in November, recently posted a web ad depicting all the bad things that Democrats are seeking to blame on President Bush and the GOP. One bad thing, the web ad alleges, is the war in Iraq. Hence, the quick shot of the coffins.

Hence, the Republicans have gone berserk. I just spent part of my workday reading and deleting the many expressions of their well-orchestrated outrage. It is "despicable," they say, that the Democrats should stoop so low as to show images of the fallen. Various Republican congressmen have come forth to say that the ad "turned my stomach," and that it is "tasteless", and that it "crossed the line."

Let us walk that "line" for a moment:

In the GOP's definition of ethical campaigning, it apparently "crosses the line" to show the coffins of dead U.S. soldiers (94.5 percent of whom have been killed subsequent to Bush's declaration that "major combat operations have ended") -- but it doesn't cross the line to put the face of a convicted black rapist on the TV screen (1988) and suggest that if the purported crime softy Michael Dukakis becomes president, your wives and daughters will be endangered. Under GOP rules, it crosses the line to show a quick visual depiction of America's overriding issue, but it doesn't cross the line to put Osama bin Laden's face on the TV screen (2002) and suggest that if Vietnam war hero Max Cleland is reelected to his Democratic Senate seat in Georgia, it would be good news for Osama bin Laden.

Some top conservative bloggers don't buy the GOP's argument. Tom Bevan at RealClearPolitics writes, "The outrage seems misplaced, if not a bit phony and hypocritical...The war in Iraq is the defining issue of our time, and the Democratic party is vehemently opposed to it. Soldiers are, in fact, dying in Iraq on a daily basis. So why can't the Democrats show a split-second visual depiction of that reality? What are they supposed to do, show a graph of the U.S. casualty rate to depict the sacrifices we're making in Iraq? Not mention them at all?"

Another conservative blogger, at Captain's Quarters, writes that "we should be careful with our moral outrage. The Democrats have every right to campaign on a belief that the Iraq war has failed, all evidence to the contrary." And another, Ryan Sager, calls the Democratic imagery "a perfectly legitimate piece of political message-making," just as it was legitimate in 2004 when a Bush ad used a brief visual of a flag-draped coffin being carried from the rubble on 9/11.

And here's the capper. Mark McKinnon, President Bush's longtime ad man, says of the coffin visual, "This is one where I respectfully disagree with my colleagues: I think it is an appropriate image."

It's hard to imagine that rough and tumble Republican politicos are really and truly in a swivet over such a tactic. This is really just an exercise in hardball gamesmanship, a savvy attempt by the GOP to sow dissent within the Democratic ranks over what should be deemed the proper boundaries of political debate in 2006. After all, Democrats are known to be far less adept than their counterparts at maintaining unity and message discipline.

And here's a news flash: The GOP umbrage effort has already worked.

The Republicans sent word to their candidates in the field, asking that they put the squeeze on all Democratic opponents, demanding (in their framing of the issue) that the Democrats either side with the DCCC or with the brave American soldiers who are fighting and dying for freedom. Sure enough, three Democrats -- congressman John Spratt in South Carolina, congressman Chet Edwards in Texas, and candidate Bruce Braley in Iowa -- have broken ranks and asked the DCCC to pull the video.

There are no plans for a party mea culpa, and the GOP wouldn't expect that. This is merely about keeping the other team off balance, getting the opposition to perhaps pull its punches when the game is on the line later this year. Manufactured outrage can be a tool in making that happen.

As for conservative blogger Jim Geraghty at the National Review, he seems to feel that the GOP shouldn't waste its time taking umbrage at imagery, when in fact it has a stronger case on the merits: "I don't think it's inherently offensive to show images suggesting the fallen and contending, 'This is too high a price to pay.' Of course, the ad says jack squat about what Democratic legislators would do differently in Iraq, probably because they couldn't get a consensus in their caucus if their political lives depended on it."

No argument there.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Personally, I'd rather listen to Springsteen

I'm slated to be on the air at Philadelphia's NPR outlet, WHYY, 90.9 FM, from 10 to 11 a.m. on Friday morning. The topic will be Congress and the '06 elections; Susan Milligan, who covers Congress for the Boston Globe, is tapped to join me. Apparently you can also listen online at Feel free to call in, assuming you're not already in TGIF leisure mode. I should be sufficiently caffeinated at that hour.

A watchdog goes to obedience school

The Republican Congress has signaled lately that it might be wearying of its longstanding role as obedient doormat for the Bush administration. This week alone, three different committees are looking at Bush's Guantanamo policy, perhaps with the aim of bringing it into compliance with U.S. and international law. Several weeks ago, a Senate committee examined Bush's penchant for "signing statements," which he has frequently used to undercut the bills he has been signing into law. Also several weeks ago, the Senate took steps to boost their oversight of the money being spent in Iraq.

Is the GOP on Capitol Hill indeed rousing itself from a supine position, perhaps in a bid to act tough just in time for the '06 elections? I plan to probe that issue at length in a weekend newspaper column, but today, after checking out this report, I need to sound a harsh note of skepticism. Notwithstanding the fact that Congress has a constitutional responsibility to oversee the executive branch, and ask the tough questions, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas still prefers to carry the administration's water.

This week, Roberts, as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has again postponed the deadline for the panel's long-awaited official examination of whether the Bush administration misused intelligence in the runup to the war in Iraq. The report by Congressional Quarterly indicates that, with the new deadlines, there is "virtually no chance" that the report will be finished, much less released, before the November congressional elections.

How convenient. But to get the full flavor of doormat behavior, let us look at the factual record of this stalled probe:

1. Roberts announced way back in February 2004 that he would permit a study of whether the Bush administration misused the prewar intelligence. This was to be "Phase II" of the committee's work. But first came "Phase I," a more limited report, which looked only at whether the intelligence agencies had screwed up. That was promptly completed on July 9, 2004.
Roberts then went on Meet the Press, and absolved Bush before the Phase II probe was even begun. He told Tim Russert that it was wrong to put the blame on Bush for his inaccurate prewar claims. Roberts contended: "What he said is what he got, and what got was wrong."

2. Reacting to suggestions that the intelligence agencies were being scapegoated, Roberts insisted on July 9 that Phase II would indeed be conducted, to assess whether Bush had twisted some of the intell. That day, Roberts told UPI: "It is a priority. I made my commitment and it will get done." Yet, two days later, he told Russert that even though Phase II was "ongoing," he had a calendar problem: "I don't know if we can get it done before the election. It is more important to get it right." The election that November was Bush versus Kerry. The report didn't get done.

3. In March 2005, Roberts told the press that Phase II was "basically on the back burner." Why? Because, in his words, it "got to be a problem, in regard to a subjective point of view."
And because, referring to the '04 elections, "we were in an even-numbered year, and you know what that means."

4. But the odd-numbered year, it turned out, wasn't going to be any better. That March, he also said that "to go through that (Phase II) exercise, it seems to me, in a post-election environment, we didn't see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress."

5. On Nov. 1, 2005, speaking on the Senate floor, he said: "What is Phase II? Why has it been delayed, if in fact it has been delayed?...It isn't like it's been delayed. As a matter of fact, it's ongoing."

6. On Feb. 12 of this year, Roberts was back on Meet the Press and told Russert: "Phase IIwill be completed, and rest assure there's nobody in Washington that wants that completed more than I do." He then volunteered that the Bush adminstration didn't personally pressure intelligence agents to hype prewar evidence -- an irrelevent point, because Phase II is supposed to be about whether the administration twisted and manipulated the evidence it received.

7. On April 25 of this year, The Hill, a reliable newspaper that covers Congress, reported that Roberts had decided to reorganize the Phase II probe, in a way that would "push off its most politically controversial elements to a later time...Left unfinished would be a report on whether public statements and testimony about Iraq by senior U.S. government officials were substantiated by available intelligence information."

Barring an unlikely Democratic takeover of the Senate in November, we can assume that Roberts' conception of congressional oversight is ongoing.


On another matter: As I noted here yesterday, one of President Bush's lawyers testified on Capitol Hill this week that his boss had a few traits in common with Louis XIV of France and all those English royals who once believed in the divine right of kings. The quote under oath, from deputy attorney general Steven Bradbury, was: "The president is always right."

Now Bradbury says that he was only kidding. Appearing again yesterday on Capitol Hill, Bradbury said, "I guess that just shows I shouldn’t try to be humorous when I’m testifying."

I saw that original Bradbury quote on C-Span. He looked pretty grim for a side-splitting comic. Then again, it worked for Buster Keaton.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Awaiting the new White House definition of "involved"

If White House promises are intended to be taken at face value -- and if, indeed, sentences spoken in plain English are intended to be taken literally -- then empirical evidence suggests that master strategist Karl Rove should no longer be employed by the Bush administration.

In a piece published today, conservative columnist Robert Novak finally cleared up some of the mysteries surrounding his central role in the outing of undercover CIA employe Valerie Plame. He specifically named Rove as one of the sources who confirmed Plame's employment. Her employment status was supposed to remain classified; last autumn, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald specifically said so.

Novak, for those of you not tracking all the twists and turns, wrote a column on July 14, 2003 that sought to undercut retired ambassador Joe Wilson, who had publicly (and accurately) questioned the veracity of a key Bush claim about WMD activity in Iraq. As we now know, from the Fitzgerald probe, the Bush team retaliated by firing a shot across Wilson's bow, suggesting that Wilson had been sent abroad by the CIA to investigate the Bush claim only because his CIA-employed wife -- Valerie Plame -- had arranged a junket. That's the context for Plame being outed.

Anyway, by naming Rove as one of the outers, Novak is confirming that the president's closest political guru played a key role in a national security leak -- a revelation mentioned last autumn in the indictment of top Cheney aide Scooter Libby, and acknowledged by Rove's own lawyer. Moreover, Rove leaked Plame information to Newsweek reporter Matt Cooper, who kept the crucial email and ultimately gave it to Fitzgerald.

We are tempted to ask why President Bush inveighs against The New York Times for publishing leaks, but said nothing today about Robert Novak publishing leaks. Perhaps the double standard can be attributed to the fact that Novak and Rove have worked together behind the scenes, going back at least 15 years. Or the fact that the Plame leak might have deemed a "good" leak, since it was designed to aid the administration in its defense of the case for war.

But back to Rove, and my remarks at the outset about promises and plain English. After the Plame flap erupted, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan promised this, on Sept. 29, 2003: "If anyone in this administration was involved in it, they would no longer be in this administration." A month later, on Oct. 30, Bush himself said this: "If somebody did leak classified information, I'd like to know it. And we'll take the appropriate action."

Well, Novak is now the latest source to say that, yes, Rove was "involved." Yet he remains in the administration, and Bush has declined to say anything publicly about the matter. An argument can be made that Bush is clearly in the wrong on this one -- but loyalists in the administration would dispute that, because they apparently believe that Bush is never wrong.

I am not exaggerating.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, Steven Bradbury, a top Bush lawyer, was quizzed about the Supreme Court ruling that slapped down Bush's unilateral decision to limit the rights of Guantanamo detainees. Bush has insisted in recent days that the court upheld his basic policy, so naturally Bradbury was asked how Bush could be so in the wrong about what the court actually said.

Bradbury's response: "The president is always right."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

They were against Geneva before they were for it

The Bush administration today engineered a flipflop in the war on terror, thereby demonstrating that a president who would prefer to act unfettered nevertheless must bow at times to political and constitutional constraints.

Until today, the Bush team was adamantly against the idea of giving basic legal rights to detainees in U.S. custody and protecting them from inhumane treatment, as required by the Geneva Conventions. But now the Bush team says it is for Geneva. The news broke today that a Pentagon memo, citing the relevent provisions of the 1949 international accords, was circulated last Friday.

What's most instructive is the timing: The administration has taken this step just two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that Bush's unilateral and secret military tribunal process violated U.S. and international law. And this sudden bow to the Geneva accords comes on the eve of three congressional committee hearings aimed at urging the administration to accept Geneva; most tellingly, these hearings will host a phalanx of retired military lawyers who see the administration's past behavior as lawless (as retired rear admiral and Navy attorney John Hutson told the New York Times this morning, "We can finally get on the right side of the law and have a system that will pass Supreme Court and international scrutiny").

On the issue of timing, there's much more. This administration flipflop -- it was against Geneva before it was for it -- comes on the eve of Bush's upcoming trip to a G8 summit, where many of his allies have long been critical of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo.

And lastly, reports indicate that the Pentagon memo was ordered by general counsel William Haynes, who has long been tapped by Bush to be a federal judge, but whose nomination has stalled because of ongoing questions about his key role in developing controversial interrogation methods. (A letter from 20 retired military officers charges that Haynes played a role in adopting policies "that compromised military values, ignored federal and international law, and damaged America's reputation and world leadership.") Haynes' decree about Geneva conveniently arrives on the eve of his latest confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

In other words, this move by the administration is a frank acknowledgement that it can no longer afford to act as it sees fit in the war on terror. Political, legal, constitutional, and international realities have intruded. This decision can also be read as a victory of sorts for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her people, who, thinking pragmatically, have been viewing the Bush policy in Guantanamo as a propaganda boon for the anti-American forces worldwide. And that means the memo is a setback for the Dick Cheney faction (helmed by indispensible Cheney aide David Addington), which didn't want Congress or the international lawyers or the military JAG lawyers to have any role in detainee policy.

Meanwhile, politicians on both sides of the aisle are probably relieved to hear about the memo. Republicans in recent days have been split about whether to basically rewrite the U.S. Code of Military Justice and thereby legalize Bush's secret tribunals; or whether they should write legislation that would curb their president and thus carry out what the high court decreed. Democrats, meanwhile, catch a break on this one. Now they won't have to worry that a Democratic message of "obey Geneva" would be demonized by the GOP -- in the runup to the '06 elections -- as national security weakness.

Nevertheless, a note of caution is in order. The Department of Defense memo says that the Geneva accords will cover all detainees in U.S. military custody (“You will ensure that all DOD personnel adhere to these standards”) -- but it doesn't address the issue of detainees who may be outside military custody, but under intelligence agency control in those less-than-secret "black sites," the Eastern European prisons.

Nor does the memo guarantee that military interrogators would find ways to circumvent the Geneva rules, or interpret them in the broadest possible manner; as Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, contended in a Senate hearing today, one key Geneva provision -- that detainees should be treated in a manner "recognized as indispensable by civilized people” -- could be read as ambiguous.

If the Bush team goes looking for loopholes, then its flipflop on Geneva may turn out to be nothing more than a rhetorical concession. Otherwise known as damage control.

Sticking with The Decider, for better or worse

As the usual sectarian violence continues to rage in Iraq -- nothing has changed since evil-doer Zarqawi was slain to great acclaim; at least 70 civilians have died around Baghdad since the weekend; an ambitious U.S. military effort to secure the city has faltered -- I am busy thumbing the pages of National Review, a conservative bible that often offers political tips to restive Republican politicians.

Here's the magazine's latest advice on how to handle the Iraq issue (which it calls "the elephant in the room") during the autumn congressional campaign: Stick with Bush, because there's no other choice.

The magazine says that GOP pols can make Iraq a winning issue if they aim their persuasive powers on those Americans who once supported the war but now deem it to be a mistake. Republican strategists believe that roughly 25 percent of the people in the mistake camp are "former hawks" who, in the magazine's view, might still be open to the old arguments that "Saddam was a threat to us and our interests," that UN containment policy was teetering, that the cost of failure would be serious; and that "Saddam had a WMD capacity and ties with terrorists." (You've got to love that last one, a deft attempt at revisionist history. Before the war, we were not told that Saddam had a "capacity" for WMDs. We were told that he actually had WMDs, and that they were aimed at us.)

Anyway, the main advice is that the only viable political choice is to stick with Bush, because "congressmen will get some credit vfrom Republican voters for being seen as resolute and standing by the president. The alternative isn't an option. There is no running from the war at this point. That will only further depress Republican hawks and implicitly make the Democratic case that the war was a mistake...The election prospects of House Republicans will be boosted if the poll numbers for the war and for Bush tick upward."

Left unsaid, however, is what could happen to some of the vulnerable Republicans if poll numbers on the war continue to slide. It's doubtful that this conservative advice would be much comfort to the moderate Republican congressmen who are fighting to save their careers in northeastern U.S. districts where antiwar sentiment is strong. Which explains why one of those endangered lawmakers, Connecticut's Christopher Shays has been voicing all kinds of mea culpas, declaring that he failed during the prewar phase to ask the tough questions. He said the other day that, by failing to get tough with the administration early on, he and other Republicans on Capitol Hill were "unfaithful to the process and our system of government."

That kind of talk presumably won't sit well with the National Review devotees who think that all Republicans should tie their fates to the Decider, but, for vulnerable Republicans, some deft distancing might up the odds on political survival.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Tom DeLay's long goodbye

Tom DeLay is starting to remind me of a John Belushi character, The Thing That Wouldn't Leave.

The Thing (on Saturday Night Live) showed up at a friend's apartment, wreaked havoc, and hung out in perpetuity, oblivious to his host's pleas that he shove off. The big difference, in DeLay's case, is that even though his hosts in the Texas Republican party dearly want him to shove off, he might nevertheless be compelled by the courts to stay and hang out, potentially wreaking havoc all the way to November.

Several months ago, it appeared that the GOP had solved its Thing problem. Freshly indicted for alleged campaign-finance violations, the avatar of the House Republican conservatives had announced he would quit his suburban Texas seat and take his name off the re-election ballot in November, thereby insuring that a corruption-free Republican could vie for that seat in a year when the outcome of every House race could be crucial. DeLay established resident in Alexandria, Virginia, hoping to demonstrate that he was no longer a Texas citizen.

But late last week, the scheme was derailed by a federal judge, who decreed that DeLay can't be disqualified from the ballot on residency grounds -- because in fact DeLay still owns a home in bucolic Sugarland. (A nice house, too. I drove past it last year. An American flagpole in the front yeard, a golf course bordering the backyard.) Result: DeLay is still on the ballot, still the candidate who would have to face the well-financed and well-known Democrat, Nick Lampson. And Lampson's best hope is that DeLay stays there. (Election-law experts generally predict that the judge's ruling will be upheld on appeal.)

That brings us to the quote of the day, courtesy of Capitol Hill's Roll Call tabloid newspaper. This comes from James Bopp, the lawyer for the Texas GOP, who is mightily ticked off that DeLay is still in the picture: "This is election by litigation. You just wonder why we even have elections at all. It's just an effort to steal a seat. (Democrats) don't care about voter choice or democracy, they just care about power."

Let's unpack that one: (1) DeLay, from Washington, engineers a plan to elect GOP majorities in both chambers of the Texas legislature, so that said legislature can redraw the boundaries of congressional districts in a way that makes it easier to elect more Republican congressmen and kick out incumbent Democrats (2) DeLay's plan unfolds in mid-decade, thereby breaching the tradition that such boundary-redrawings take place once every ten years, at the start of each new decade (3) DeLay raises allegedly illegal corporate money, to help fund the races of his Texas legislature candidates, and winds up under criminal indictment....and it's the Democrats who "just care about power"?

Strangely, Bopp never assailed the presiding federal judge as a "liberal judicial activist." Maybe that's because the judge who has kept DeLay on the ballot is, in fact, a Republican appointee, tapped for the job in 1991 by the president's father.

A spritz of Joe with a Cheney chaser

Enough about the embattled Joe Lieberman (for now). But since my newspaper column on Lieberman and the Democratic party dilemma ran this morning, I wanted to share a few of the observations that landed on the cutting room floor:

1. Leaving aside the issue of whether Senator Lieberman is betraying his Democratic party by weighing an independent candidacy in November, he has smartly looked at the electoral math in Connecticut. If he loses the nomination in the Aug. 8 primary to antiwar challenger Ned Lamont, he appears well positioned to win a three-way autumn race (the GOP nominee is weak). A check of the state voter list bears this out. The largest chunk of Connecticut voters -- 867,76 -- are "unaffiliated" (i.e. independents), and they outnumber Democratic registrants by more than 200,000. This means that Lieberman can keep his seat by combining independents and conservative Democrats. Lamont would need to demonstrate that his staunch antiwar stance and his image as darling of the left-leaning blogosphere can attract independent voters. I am skeptical. Then again, it's only July.

2. His hawkish stance on Iraq aside, Lieberman is in big trouble with his state's liberal Democratic base because he describes himself as a conciliator who can reach across the aisle and work with Republicans. But that's precisely why his base voters think he's a chump -- because, as they see it, the highly partisan Bush administration has long demonstrated that it would rather demonize and exploit Democrats than work with them. Lieberman himself was the guy who first suggested the creation of a Department of Homeland Security; the Bush team resisted it for months, then finally swiped the idea, and painted any Democrat who opposed it (or, more specifically, opposed Bush's plan to curb civil service protections for workers) as soft on national security. And, in his debate with Lamont last Thursday, Lieberman inadvertently mentioned that his work-with-Republicans credo has been a bust; at one point, talking about a recent Senate immigration bill, he called it "one of the few bipartisan accomplishments we've had in the Senate in the Bush years."

3. If Lieberman loses the primary to Lamont, he would become the first failed Democratic vice-presidential nominee to lose his party's nomination in a subsequent race. Over the past 78 years, a lot of Democratic senators have been re-elected with ease after running unsuccessfully for veep: Joe Robinson (1928), John Sparkman (1952), Estes Kefauver (1956), Ed Muskie (1968)....

On the other hand, big deal. Lieberman's potential milestone sounds a bit like one of those obscure baseball records, something akin to Most Times Striking Out in a Home Game After Nearly Homering in the Previous Game.

4. This item is a bonus: While reviewing the transcript of Lieberman's 2000 debate with Dick Cheney, I ran across an interesting passage in Cheney's remarks. To frame it properly, let us first remember how the troops in Iraq have been sent into battle without adequate body armor, and without adequate protection for the vehicles that run the gauntlet of roadside explosives. Let us also remember how a National Guardsman who complained about this, who told Donald Rumsfeld that soldiers were being forced to "dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal," was applauded by his comrades. OK, now read this Cheney remark:

It's the commander in chief who "decides when to send our young men and women to war. When we send them without the right kind of training, when we send them poorly equipped or with equipment that's old and broken down, we put their lives at risk."