Friday, July 21, 2006

Bush and the NAACP: a fundamental disconnect

President Bush addressed the NAACP yesterday for the first time since winning the White House, which means that he and the civil rights organization have finally reached a d├ętente of sorts after six years of sporadic mutual distrust. I suppose I could just kiss off this event by noting that Bush’s bid to gin up black support for the GOP is probably futile, given the fact that, according to the polls, he currently enjoys the support of roughly nine percent of all African-Americans -- down from 18 percent in December ’04.

And it’s hard to imagine that Bush made many converts when he said that blacks should join him in his quest to eliminate the federal estate tax -- a pet GOP issue of greatest interest to rich white people who want to pass on their inheritances, and thus an issue that touches the lives of a minute fraction of black people. Indeed, there was predictably not a line in his speech about poverty, or, more specifically, about the latest Census Bureau figures which show that, during the first four years of his presidency, the percentage of blacks living below the poverty line jumped from 22.7 to 24.7, an increase of nine million.

There’s a lot more that can be said about what he didn’t say -- such as the fact that he opposes an increase in the minimum wage, and that he opposes expansion of the earned-income tax credit, a longstanding program that supplements low-wage incomes -- but I was most interested in something that he did say. One quick line, during the first 60 seconds:

“I come from a family committed to civil rights.”

That, really, is the crux of the matter. Yesterday’s address wasn’t just about trying to woo some black voters away from the Democrats party in the runup to the ’06 elections. It was, more importantly, the latest attempt (among countless attempts going back several generations) by a Bush family member to win over the black community simply by insisting that he is personally pure of heart. The Bushes have long sought to trumpet their good intentions, in the hopes that this would translate into mass black political support. The effort has never worked, but they keep trying anyway.

The president’s grandfather, Prescott, was a Connecticut senator during the ‘50s; he sponsored school desegregation bills. The president’s father, George H.W., was a young oil wildcatter in west Texas when he invited a local NAACP official to dinner at his house -- a shocking event in 1948. Some years later, when he chaired a county GOP committee, he put party funds in a black-owned bank, and in 1968, when he was serving in Congress, he supported fair housing legislation. The president’s brother, Jeb, has tried reaching out to blacks as Florida governor, and declaring how “it was wrong” when he ignored black voters during his first try for the big chair.

The problem, however, is that most black voters continue to judge politicians not on their good intentions, or whether their family has long been “committed to civil rights,” but on how they actually perform. President Bush may have admitted yesterday that he considered it “a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community,” but the fact is that the modern GOP over the past three decades has successfully wooed white voters with race-coded messages about crime, welfare, and job competition.

Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” was specifically designed to woo whites who couldn’t abide the northern Democratic-led crusades for desegregation and voting rights. The plan worked, and the GOP's dominance below the Mason-Dixon line is the result. Variations on the plan have worked ever since. The current president’s father won his 1988 race in part by sowing fear, in his TV ads, that his Democratic opponent would be soft on black criminals.

There is no sign thus far that George W. Bush will trigger a black stampede to the GOP simply because he is sincere about his intentions. It one thing for him to testify to his good heart, and to point out, as he did yesterday, that he applauds the GOP Congress’ renewal of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. But the reality is that the Bush administration’s Justice Department -- which is supposed to investigate such allegations as minority disenfranchisement at the ballot box – has not exactly followed the precepts of Martin Luther King.

The department's Civil Rights Division lawyers have twice signed off on Republican voting plans, in Georgia and Texas, that were later slapped down by the courts because they discriminated against minority voters. Not so coincidentally, the Division has been suffering a brain drain, with career civil rights lawyers quitting and young conservative idealogues taking their jobs. Reportedly, two-thirds of the lawyers in the Divison’s voting rights office have turned over during the past few years.

All told, it’s a cinch bet that Bush’s NAACP listeners care more about policy and performance than testaments to a family’s personal decency. As black politics expert David Bositis, an occasional GOP adviser on minority issues, told me right after the Katrina debacle, “Republicans always think that if they make some small (outreach) gestures, that African Americans will applaud their good intentions. They still don’t understand that African Americans would look at (the record) and conclude, ‘Those people really don’t like us.’”

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Joe, Gil, Ralph, John, and The Massager

Let's do some quick hits:

When I heard the other day that a Washington-based Democratic strategist named Tom Lindenfeld was heading up to Connecticut to work for Senator Joe Lieberman's primary campaign, I knew it meant that Joe was in big trouble. And that Joe knows it as well.

Theoretically, an incumbent Democratic senator should have no need to hire a grassroots turnout specialist at the eleventh hour; theoretically, a senior figure like Lieberman should be no more concerned about his primary challenger than a picnicker is concerned about the fly who's buzzing his hamburger. Clearly, however, Lieberman's internal polling indicates that the average grassroots Connecticut Democrat is actually poised to strip away his party designation on Aug. 8, and award the '06 Senate nomination to his antiwar challenger, Ned Lamont. Hence the apparent need to rush Lindenfeld into the breach, in the hope that he can gin up a ground game in a mere 19 days.

And now we have outside confirmation of Lieberman's mounting woes. The latest Quinnipiac University poll now reports that the heretofore little-known Lamont, who trailed Lieberman by 15 points in June, today leads Lieberman by four points. That's a stunning finding. It's also further evidence that your average Connecticut Democrat increasingly views Lieberman as fatally compromised by his longstanding national-security alliance with President Bush; by his refusal to hold Bush accountable for the well-documented string of administration failures in Iraq; and by his insistence that Democratic dissent is not appropriate.

As a barometer of mainstream Democratic opinion, I offer Richard Schneller, age 84, a retired Connecticut legislator who led the state Senate Democrats back in the early '80s, when I was covering politics in that state. He emailed me the other day: "I just think that Joe is way off base in his support of the war in Iraq, and his support of Bush. I don't consider myself a liberal Democrat, whatever that is, but I'm voting for Ned Lamont because I want to send a message to Joe Lieberman that the war in Iraq, and many things that the Bush administration is doing as a result of invading Iraq, are very detrimental to the future health and well being of the United States."

It's not the liberal bloggers who Lieberman should be worried about on Aug. 8. It's folks like Dick Schneller.

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Speaking of Iraq, here's another defeatist, hate-America, cut-and-run complaint about the current conditions on the ground in Baghdad:

"The condition there is worse than I expected....I have to be perfectly candid: Baghdad is a serious problem.....It’s not safe to go anywhere outside of the Green Zone any part of the day....All of the information we receive sometimes from the Pentagon and the State Department isn’t always true....I don’t want to predict what will happen if things don’t get better....What I think we need to do more is withdraw more Americans."

Must be Michael Moore taking a quick tour, right? Or maybe a "liberal" journalist who is too chicken to leave the hotel room? Or maybe a weak-kneed Democratic senator who has succumbed to anti-Bush hysteria?

No, those remarks (here and here) were uttered this week by Republican congressman Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota. A member of the Newt Gingrich class of 1994. His 2004 rating from the American Conservative Union is 94 percent, his ACLU rating is zero percent, and the liberal Americans for Democratic Action rate him at five percent. And he's far from alone these days on the Republican side.

What does it say about Joe Lieberman when even a conservative back-bencher like Gil Gutknecht seems more willing than he is to question the Bush administration on Iraq?

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This is my last word on Ralph Reed, unless or until he resurrects his dashed political dreams. I only note today that, according to conservative journalist Rich Lowry, the ex-religious right leader and aspiring president has decided to blame his disastrous loss in Georgia not on his own shortcomings (well-documented corruption) but on those who exposed and reported on his corruption.

From Lowry today: "Reed's connection to the (Jack) Abramoff stuff had broken back in the summer of 2004, so it couldn't have been predicted that it would be such a huge deal even now. But it was. The Reed camp blames John McCain for playing payback for his 2000 primary defeat with a campaign of leaks, and the press, of course, was happy to pile on."

Blaming the press is the usual yawn. That aside, it's noteworthy that he blames McCain. It was McCain's panel, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which exposed Reed's unsavory relations with now-convicted felon Jack Abramoff, most recently in a report released in June. It so happens that McCain had the facts on his side, but let's just say that McCain is surely shedding no tears today, knowing that his panel's report helped fuel Reed's defeat in the lieutenant governor's race.

McCain's 2000 presidential fortunes crashed in the 2000 South Carolina primary, after conservative voters got wind of artfully circulated "rumors" that McCain was nuts due to his years as a POW; that he was the favored candidate of gay activists; and that he had fathered an illegitimate child (actually, he and his wife had adopted a Bangladeshi girl). McCain has long blamed Reed for those rumors -- Reed was one of Bush's top southern honchos at the time -- so perhaps there is an element of "payback" in what happened in Georgia Tuesday night. But the bottom line is, Reed provided McCain with the factual ammo to blast him asunder.

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I don't want to make a big deal out of this, but I'm just asking:

Was there something wierdly inappropriate about The Decider unilaterally deciding this week to become The Massager?

It's captured on video: With war raging in the Middle East, with North Korea testing missiles, and with America's image in the world at low ebb, President Bush walks into a G-8 summit meeting, and decides to lay hands upon the only female world leader at the table. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel confers with a colleague on her right, Bush summarily administers a drive-by shoulder massage. Whereupon the surprised Merkel jerks her arms upward, in the kind of reflexive response last seen when a crazed tennis fan snuck up behind Monica Seles and stuck a blade in her back.

Some Bush defenders insist, naturally, that what he did with this woman isn't as bad as what Bill Clinton used to do with his women. (See first posted comment here). Granted, Clinton's myriad backstage peccadillos are well-established as factual reality. But, again, I'm just asking: Did Bill Clinton ever find it appropriate to exercise a right to preemptively grope a female head of state in a world summit meeting? And, if he had, can you imagine how his critics would have reacted? For those of you who do think that the Merkel massage was a tad cringe-worthy, you might enjoy this expression of disdain.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"OK, disease sufferers, you won't get advanced medical research, but at least we disagreed on whether to disappoint you!"

As I watched President Bush explain today why he vetoed the popular bill that would have expanded embryonic stem-cell research ("I'm not going to allow it!"), I realized that this episode does have a potential political upside for the GOP (notwithstanding everything I wrote yesterday). That scenario goes something like this:

The Democrats, with an eye on the '06 elections, are constantly inveighing against what they call "the rubber stamp Republicans," suggesting that the GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill basically march in step with The Decider -- and therefore deserve to be defeated in November. But the stem-cell episode undercuts that argument. In May 2005, when the House decisively passed the stem-cell bill, 50 of 230 Republicans voted Yes for passage. And yesterday, when the Senate decisively followed suit, 19 of 54 Republicans voted Yes for passage. The 19 defectors included anti-abortion stalwarts Bill Frist, Trent Lott, Orrin Hatch, and John Warner, all of whom saw expanded embryonic stem-cell research as a "pro-life" initiative.

Today, we also saw some anti-lockstep behavior in the Republican House. Witness Curt Weldon, the longtime Republican congressman who represents a suburban Philadelphia district that has been slowly trending Democratic. Weldon is in a tougher than expected re-election race. Last year, he voted NO on the expansion of stem-cell research. But today, he said he intended to vote YES, in favor of overriding Bush's veto. Clearly he thinks that fighting with with Bush on this issue could be a political boon back home; in defying Bush, he emailed this message today: "I find it difficult to look a mother or father in the eye who has a sick child and tell them I didn't do everything in my power to try to help them find a cure for their child."

Bush stood against all these dissenting Republicans today, but that's the point: By publicly disagreeing on such a high-stakes issue, they've all demonstrated (at least in this instance) that the GOP's game is not simply a matter of Follow the Leader. That might not be a comfort to families suffering from debilitating diseases and hoping that America might lead the world in medical advances, but a GOP "big tent" talking point might be enough to blunt the Democrats' "rubber stamp" line.

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By the way, I don't think it's worth spending a lot of time talking about how this is Bush's first veto, and about how historic that is because only Thomas Jefferson waited as long to nix a bill. The moment is overrated, because, lest we forget, Bush has become a master of the "signing statement." Instead of vetoing bills that he has disliked during the past five years, he has opted instead to sign them into law and append statements indicating that he reserved the right not to obey them. He has reportedly done this 750 times, a number that far exceeds the 575 signing statements issued by all his predecessors combined.

Ralph Reed and the politically fatal intersection of God and commerce

The best laid plans of Ralph Reed -- the onetime cherubic public face of the Christian Coalition and media-savvy front man for the religious right -- have been rudely derailed by Georgia voters, who apparently decided last night that this purported exemplar of moral virtue had become a poster boy for Washington sleaze.

It now does not appear that Reed, a high-rolling lobbyist in recent years, will be charting a presidential bid in 2016 or 2020 after all (that was indeed part of his master plan), because as he sought to climb the first rung on the electoral ladder, he was summarily yanked back to earth. So much for his former boast about leaving his opponents in “body bags.”

Step one of his ascent was to be the lieutenant governor job in Georgia. But he was thrashed in the Republican primary last night by a little-known conservative challenger, state senator Casey Cagle, who took 56 percent of the vote and dominated in the populous conservative-leaning suburbs around Atlanta. Thus, in defeat, Reed becomes the first electoral casualty of the Jack Abramoff scandal and, more broadly, of the Washington “culture of corruption,” where morals are traded in for big money.

Reed’s defeat is arguably a warning to other scandal-marred pols that the ‘06 elections won’t necessarily be a cakewalk. This morning, public interest activist David Donnelly, the national campaigns director at the Public Campaign Action Fund, contended that the Reed debacle sends a message: “Politicians who side with donors and big-moneyed interests, and not with voters, can’t depend on their base” to stay faithful on election day. He cited five Capitol Hill incumbents (four Republicans, one Democrat) who are seeking re-election despite being enmeshed in money and lobbying scandals.

In the Georgia race, Cagle successfully persuaded conservative primary voters that Reed’s longstanding ties to convicted felon Abramoff had essentially dented his halo (Time magazine had once referred to Reed as the “right hand of God”). Cagle said of Reed, “his values are for sale,” and a U.S. Senate report backed him up. Reed, in 1999, had crusaded on moral grounds against southern gambling bills -- when, in reality, he was taking gambling money from a native-American tribe (the Mississippi Band of Choctaws) that already owned casinos and was mainly interested in ridding themselves of gambling competition.

As he took heat for this in Georgia, Reed insisted that he hadn’t known he was being paid with gambling money (the Choctaws were Abramoff clients, and the money had been routed through Abramoff). Reed’s standard stump line was, “Had I known then what I know now, I would not have taken the work.”

The problem with his denial, however, is that it rang false. The Senate report contains some juicy emails. One, from 1999, features Abramoff telling Reed to “get me invoices as soon as possible so I can get Choctaw to get us checks ASAP.” And in 2000, Abramoff tells Reed, “The firm has held back all payments, pending receipt of a check from Choctaw.” It was this kind of evidence that prompted former Reed loyalist and Georgia lobbyist Clint Austin to announce in a primary eve Internet posting that he would vote for Cagle, because “Reed’s words and actions do not match up.”

In political circles, Reed’s struggles have prompted little sympathy. Centrist Democratic think tank denizen Marshall Wittmann, who once worked for Reed as a Christian Coalition lobbyist, wrote the other day, “Insofar as the Lord seems to treat the self-righteous with special disdain, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ralph gets a busy signal if he calls for divine intervention on his behalf.”

But Democrats generally might be well advised not to view Reed’s demise as a victory for their side. After all, he was beaten in a Republican primary by another conservative; the voters were not being asked to choose between him and a Democrat. And if he had won last might, he may well have beaten his Democratic opponent in November -- a plausible outcome in GOP-trending Georgia. In other words, Democrats still don’t know whether Abramoff baggage is fatal in an interparty contest.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that Ralph Reed can no longer lay claim to the loyalties of Christian conservatives, not after trading on their values for special-interest cash, and that in itself is a noteworthy development. Perhaps Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, best diagnosed Reed’s problem last April, when he told the press, in the wake of the Reed-Abramoff revelations, that “the Bible says you can’t serve God and Mammon.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Will Ralph Reed win redemption?

Still wondering whether Republicans will be hurt at the polls this year by the Jack Abramoff scandal, and its various corruption subplots? There has been scant evidence thus far, but we will see a fresh test tonight, in Georgia, where one-time religious right golden boy Ralph Reed is trying to win the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.

Reed, who once helmed the Christian Coalition and was lionized at an early age for his political savvy, left the organization late in 1998 for the financially lucrative world of political consulting. He quickly hooked up with super-lobbyist/networker Abramoff, his conservative friend and comrade from the early '80s (telling Abramoff in an email, "I need to start humping in corporate accounts!"), and made a pile of dough. The problem is, the recent past has intruded on his maiden foray into elective politics - an important foray, because everyone around Reed knows that he sees the lieutenant governorship as the first stepping stone to very high office.

It will be instructive to see whether he prevails tonight, in his GOP primary race against state senator Casey Cagle. Last year, he looked like a cinch winner. But then his fundraising fell off, and now the polls show Cagle slightly ahead. What happened? Well, a Senate report was released in June showing that Reed took $5 million from Abramoff to wage a grassroots moral crusade against legalized gambling in the South; in reality, the money was put up by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians (Abramoff clients), who already had Gulf Coast casinos and wanted to thwart any competitors from butting in. Nothing illegal here, just a shrewd (or hypocritical) meshing of God and commerce. In any case, Reed says now that he had no idea where the money came from. Also, Reed and Abramoff (now a convicted felon) are being sued by another tribe, in Texas, on charges of "corruption and deceit."

Will Georgians derail Reed from his carefully-charted political fast track? Tune in tomorrow.

Most call it hope for millions, Bush calls it "murder"

The Republican-led Senate has spoken -- today, by a 63-37 vote, it passed a bill expanding federally-financed stem cell research --and now President Bush must decide whether he sides with the religious and social conservatives who oppose that research, or with the clear majority of his fellow citizens.

Actually, he has already made up his mind -- his heart is with his political base -- which means that, when he issues the first veto of his presidency, he will be defying the medical community, the scientific community, 41 Nobel laureates, hundreds of citizen health groups, Nancy Reagan, and the millions of Americans who see value in doing the advanced research that could pioneer new treatments for serious diseases.

The stem-cell issue, which has been debated for the past several days, is a textbook example of the fundamental divide within the Republican party. Potentially, as the '06 election draws near, this issue is political poison for the GOP, although that assumes the Democrats would know what to do with the gift that is about to be placed in their perpetually tremulous hands.

The issue itself -- spending taxpayers' money to conduct research on diseases by using stem cells taken from human embryos -- is broadly popular among moderate Republicans, centrist Republicans, and probably conservative Republicans whose loved ones suffer from serious illness. Two years ago, a University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey reported that 53 percent of Republicans nationwide support stem-cell research. Last year, a CBS poll reported a GOP plurality in favor of such research, 46 percent to 42 percent. The overall national percentage of Americans favoring stem-cell work is as high as 70 percent.

Even Senate Republican leader and presidential hopeul Bill Frist (anxious to repair his medical bona fides after that episode when he offered his video diagnosis of Terri Schiavo) strongly pushed the bill to expand stem-cell research. But, within the GOP base, the religious and social conservatives say thumbs-down - and they still hold sway at the White House. Bush and his lieutenants remain dedicated to keeping them happy, especially during the runup to congressional elections that will require a strong base turnout.

So the White House position is that Bush will veto this measure -- already passed last year by the Republican House, normally a bastion of pro-Bush sentiment -- and thus sustain the tight restrictions that Bush himself imposed on federal stem-cell research back in August 2001.

It's hard to see how the GOP can emerge from this episode politically unscathed. In the wake of Bush's expected veto -- which would probably be upheld, since two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber would be needed to override him -- independent and moderate swing voters may well conclude that Bush considers his fealty to the religious right to be more important than the health of millions of Americans.

A Bush veto could also put the political squeeze on conservative senators such as Jim Talent, who voted today against the stem-cell research bill. His re-election in Missouri is being threatened this year because swing-voting Missourians appear to be siding with stem cells and science. It's noteworthy that last weekend the national Democrats chose Talent's opponent, Claire McCaskill, to deliver the party's Saturday radio address.

Another potentially vulnerable senator is Rick Santorum, who's already trailing Democratic challenger Bob Casey Jr. by double digits in the polls, and who also voted NO today on stem-cell research. To survive in November, he'll need at least minimally respectable support out of the populous suburbs -- but that's where stem-cell research is broadly popular, and where Bush-style social conservatism is not. As Kenneth Davis, a county GOP chairman in the Philadelphia suburbs, told me a couple years ago, stem-cell research "is something everyone can relate to, because everyone has a story about a loved-one's illness." (Casey also broadly opposes using federal money on expanded stem-cell research; on the other hand, his party is far more supportive of the idea than Bush's GOP.)

Bush has long viewed his willingness to defy majority sentiment as an asset; in the words of press secretary Tony Snow the other day, "People like leadership much better than a finger in the wind." But in this case, the leader has misrepresented some of the facts. Bush claimed, in a White House message the other day, that the stem-cell bill "would use Federal taxpayer dollars to support and encourage the destruction of human life for research.” In reality, the stem cells covered by the bill have been specifically created for in-vitro fertilization, are no longer needed and, if not used for research purposes, would be discarded anyway as medical waste. Frist also described the bill this way, in a Washington Post op-ed column this morning.

But the White House is not interested in such nuance; as Snow put it today, "the simple answer is, he thinks murder's wrong." (Snow has only been at the White House a few months, but he's already starting to talk like Bush.)

By all accounts, a Bush veto thus presents Democrats with an electoral opportunity. Many Republicans recognize this; a northeastern party official told CNN today that the stem-cell issue is a "stinker" for the GOP, because "when you're portrayed as arguing against treatment of disease, it's a tough place to be politically."

As political columnist Jules Witcover notes here, even Democratic leaders acknowledge that they have failed in recent connections to connect with the day-to-day concerns of average voters. Yet as the polls demonstrate, the stem-cell issue already clicks with the concerns of average voters. Cancer, MS, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, among many other crippling diseases, attack Americans across the ideological divide.

Therefore, the question is whether the Democrats can manage to invoke the Bush veto and rhetorically contend that the president is "out of the mainstream," that he is "against" improving the health and reducing the suffering of his fellow citizens. Even Bill Frist referred to the stem-cell bill as "preserving life," so what does opposition to the bill imply?

The Democrats will undoubtedly some attack lines during the (probably futile) effort later this week to override the expected veto. Suffice it to say that Karl Rove, if working for the other team, could craft this one in his sleep.

Monday, July 17, 2006

The specter of vigorous oversight

Thank you, editors! Normally, I am not pleased when (on rare occasions) they cut stuff from my print columns without advance notice and I am left to discover the excisions when I pick up the paper. But yesterday, they probably did me a big favor when they trimmed a key paragraph in the interests of space.

In a column about the fitful efforts by the GOP Congress to conduct meaningful oversight of the Bush administration, I cited several examples of the Republicans seemingly rousing themselves from their five-year slumber. For instance, I wrote, "Last Thursday, after weeks of prodding by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, the White House agreed to comply, at least in part, with a 1978 law and thus submit its warrantless surveillance program for scrutiny by a secret intelligence court."

It turns out that the Specter sentence didn't make it into print. In retrospect, that's just as well -- because the more I look at Specter's deal with Bush, the less I am convinced that it qualifies as an example of meaningful oversight.

This was supposed to be Specter's finest moment, his triumph in holding President Bush accountable to the rule of law. Bush's domestic surveillance program, exposed last December, directly violated the 1978 Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, which basically decreed that all proposed surveillance targets be reviewed in advance by a secret FISA court . The law expressly states that FISA shall be the "exclusive" overseer of such executive activity. Bush's program, however, was proceeding without any legislative or judicial oversight. Hence, Specter's avowed determination to get some compliance.

Well, I've now read all the fine print in the ballyhooed deal -- and it looks like yet another triumph for the imperial presidency. Or, as Yale constitutional law professor Jack Balkin calls it, "a virtual blank check to the Executive...a complete and total sham."

Basically, rather than holding Bush to the rule of law, Specter's deal alters the rules to help Bush. The compromise bill makes it clear that FISA and its panel of judges are no longer the "seclusive" overseer of electronic survillance; under Specter's deal -- which still has to be approved by Congress -- electronic survillance would now be authorized "under the constitutional authority of the executive, or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978."

Under the constitutional authority of the executive...now there's a loophole that would swallow an SUV. That's boilerplate for the Bush legal team's argument that the president has inherent powers to do what he wants in wartime, under Article II of the Constitution. In fact, Specter's bill states this even more explicitly in Section 801: "Nothing in this Act shall be construed to limit the constitutional authority of the President to collect intelligence with respect to foreign powers and agents of foreign powers." For the legal eagles at the White House, that sentence is the gold standard.

So the political question is, what will the congressional Democrats do about this? Will they basically accept the Specter compromise as a prudent "middle ground," for fear that they will be labeled as "soft of terrorists" if they fight for tougher restrictions on Bush? Or, as some First Amendment experts are urging, will they have the guts to frame the issue to their own advantage?

First Amendment lawyer Glenn Greenwald offered this formula over the weekend: "This is not a debate about whether to eavesdrop on al Qaeda -- everyone is for that -- but is about whether George Bish should have the power to eavesdrop on Americans with no oversight, an awesome power which this country overwhelmingly decided (by enacting FISA) 30 years ago, in the wake of decades of abuses, that we do not trust the president -- any president -- to have."

But it's probably not a good bet to expect the Democrats to go to the mat on this...not when they couldn't even stand firm and defend their online political ad which showed a quick visual of flag-covered coffins in Iraq.

As I noted here Friday (see below), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (which is running the effort to take over the House) had posted a web ad which touched on the war in Iraq by showing some coffins of slain soldiers. The Republicans squawked that this was "despicable," that the ad should be removed, and two incumbent southern Democratic congressmen agreed. For a couple days late last week, the national Democrats staunchly defended the ad, and suggested that the GOP had some nerve, given the fact that they where the ones who had shown disrespect for the troops by sending them into battle with inadequate body armor and equipment.

But, sure enough, late last Friday (politicians always do their embarrassing stuff on Fridays, when they don't think the press will notice), the Democrats pulled the ad off their website. They replaced with a minimum wage ad.

Why did they go belly up?
DCCC spokesman Bill Burton replied: "We're moving to another major effort that we're highlighting on our Web site."

Well, that certainly clears it up. Here's a translation: "We prefer not to say why we validated the Republican charge by bowing to their demands."