Friday, September 22, 2006

Obamamania and my theory of relativity

How best to assess, with a clear head and cold eye, the latest outbreak of Obamamania?

I am referring, of course, to the burgeoning desire among many Democrats for an ’08 presidential primary season that would conclude with the convention coronation of Senator Barack Obama – the silver-tongued African-American from Illinois who gets 300 speaking requests a week (according to his office), and whose reputed ability to wow a crowd ranks second only to Bill Clinton’s. Which is quite a compliment, since it has often been said that Clinton could talk a dog off a meat truck.

I was told several times this week that if I didn’t find a way to watch Obama’s recent speech in Iowa – last Sunday, he keynoted the annual steak fry hosted by Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin – then I was missing something special. So, through the combined forces of C-Span and TiVo, I checked it out.

Well, it was good, but not great. Much of it was the expected Democratic boilerplate. Some of it was wry and forceful (on Bush and the politics of 9/11: “I’ve had enough of using terrorism as a wedge issue. I don’t know about you, but the war against terrorism isn’t supposed to crop up just between September and November in even-numbered years”). But he also had the usual lines you hear in almost every speech from every politician in both parties (“Our parents and our grandparents faced greater challenges than we face, and yet somehow they were able to overcome it, that’s the essence of America”).

On the issue of Iraq, he didn’t bob and weave; even though he wasn’t in the Senate when it voted to authorize war back in 2002, he took pains to say that he had opposed an Iraq invasion while he was still a state senator in Illinois; on the other hand, that’s exactly what Harkin’s liberal audience would have wanted to hear. Yet when the moment arrived for him to propose what America should do next in Iraq, he deftly abandoned the topic, segueing seamlessly into a new anecdote about a 105-year-old woman of whom he had spoken earlier.

But he said it all very well, and most striking were the faces in the audience – rapt, mesmerized, eyes ablaze with hope. That’s probably what matters most. Charisma is a rare commodity; it can’t be bottled for general candidate consumption. They either have it or they don’t, and most don’t. Obama also has the gift of weaving the details of his own personal story (community organizer, law professor, “church-going man,” son of a Kenyan and a white Kansas mom) into a larger narrative about the hope and promise and “idea of America.”

The question is, does this mean he’s an historic figure in the wings, the miracle worker who can finally lead thirsty Democrats out of the desert?

Upside: He’s a fresh face, less than two years in the Senate at this point, and therefore unencumbered by the usual Washington baggage; his base is Chicago, a major Democratic fundraising hub; Illinois abuts Iowa, which means that, during the Iowa caucuses, he can flood the zone with volunteers; he can potentially galvanize the party’s African-American voters, while potentially drawing some white “values voters,” with his frank talk about the importance of religion in politics (last June, he rebuked “liberals who dismiss religion in the public square as inherently irrational or intolerant, insisting on a caricature of religious Americans that paints them as fanatical”). He can do the red-meat rhetoric, but he doesn’t get personal (on Sunday: “I don’t think that George Bush is a bad man”), which means that he’s not likely to polarize our politics any further. And did I mention his charisma?

Downside: Two years ago at this moment, the guy was a state senator in Springfield, Illinois. He has run only once in a statewide race, winning his ’04 Senate seat in a landslide only because his first GOP opponent, Jack Ryan, had to quit the race after seamy details surfaced about his divorce; and because the replacement opponent, right-wing radio host Alan Keyes, has long been a national joke. It’s also tough to think of a single time when he has taken a risky public stand against the Republicans on Capitol Hill; there was a brief tiff with John McCain over an ethics issue that nobody outside of Washington remembers. Indeed, he is so new to the national scene that some Democrats have no idea how he’d react if or when the Republicans feel compelled to try to dent his halo (either by cherry-picking his Senate votes, highlighting some inevitable Senate compromises, or simply Swift Boating him).

In other words, we don’t know at this point whether he’s hero or hype. But it’s fair to say that the current fervor is less about Obama than about the lack of fervor for the rest of the prospective ’08 field. On paper, his assets seem to stand out because of the others’ perceived deficits. Call it my theory of relativity. This is what I hear most often:

Hillary Clinton? A polarizer, and a didactic speaker.
Al Gore? Old news, and ripe again for GOP caricature.
Mark Warner? Too technocratic, not inspiring.
Evan Bayh? No passion, too long in the Senate, too centrist for the liberals.
John Edwards? GOP will zap him with “rich trial lawyer” image.
Bill Richardson? Reputedly lackluster on the stump, and bad on TV.
Joe Biden? Too long in the Senate, too verbose.
Russ Feingold? Too liberal to get elected.
Chris Dodd? Northeastern liberal, and too long in the Senate.
Tom Vilsack: Solid Iowan, but charisma-challenged.
John Kerry? Oh, please.
Wes Clark? Oh, please II.

Conclusion: Obamamania is not just about Obama. It’s also about grading on a curve.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Just asking: a three-act drama

Just asking:

1. If the Democrats botch their ’06 opportunity to recapture the Congress in November, will they demand Howard Dean’s head on a pike? Because if money is any kind of measurement, it would appear that the national party chairman is currently demonstrating why he flamed out as a presidential candidate while losing 17 of 18 primaries.

Take a look at the latest party figures, as reported to federal elections officials: On the eve of an autumn campaign that will hinge on the importance of grassroots turnout and state-by-state advertising, the Democratic National Committee had $10.9 million in the kitty…while the Republican National Committee had nearly four times that amount, $39.3 million.

Worse yet for the Democrats, there are reports that the RNC, bolstered with new fund-raising revenue this fall, plans to outspend Dean’s DNC by a margin of five to one. The Republicans’ $60 million will go to turnout and advertising efforts in the states and districts deemed crucial to their prospects for keeping the Senate and House; the DNC, by contrast, is reportedly planning to spend $12 million on turnout, and nothing on advertising.

It should be noted that other Democratic outposts are keeping pace with the GOP. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises and spends money for House raises, is holding its own against the GOP House campaign group; and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is actually doing better than its Republican Senate campaign counterpart. But Dean’s performance – and some of his spending priorities – are clearly rankling the Democratic players on Capitol Hill. When Democratic Senate campaign leader Chuck Schumer – who is rarely at a loss for words about anything – was asked about Dean yesterday, he declined comment.

The problem all along is that Dean has refused to focus headquarters money on the states and districts that are most crucial to the ’06 outcome; rather, he has spread it nationwide in an effort to build the party even in deeply red states. Naturally, the state Democratic chairmen in these neglected states love him for that. The flip side, however, is that valuable resources are going to places where Democratic House and Senate candidates face virtually impossible odds.

Democrats already fear – perhaps with good reason – the vaunted GOP turnout machine. So if the Republicans successfully pull out their voters, with the help of more efficiently expended resources, the Democratic long knives will be unsheathed beginning Nov. 8. And in Washington, Howard Dean may need to watch his back.


2. How long will the Democrats sit back and allow the GOP to twist Nancy Pelosi’s words out of context?

This morning, for perhaps the umpteenth time, I received a Republican email that seeks to hang the House Democratic leader for something she said in May of 2002. The parsed phrase goes like this: “I don’t really consider ourselves at war.” Clearly, the GOP wants to use this as the ’06 campaign equivalent of John Kerry’s infamous ’04 utterance about having voted for an Iraq aid bill before voting against it; in other words, whole Kerry’s remark exposed him as a waffler, Pelosi’s remark is supposed to demonstrate that she’s a wuss.

Well, I just took the trouble to track down her remark, which appeared at the bottom of a Newhouse wire service story on May 6, 2002. It may come as no surprise that Pelosi actually said a lot of things, during that breakfast with reporters, and that the phrase at issue is best read in context. Here’s Pelosi in the Newhouse story: "I don't really consider ourselves at war. We're in a struggle against terrorism throughout the world, and we stand with the president in that fight," but that does not bestow "some kind of mantle on the president that he can't be subject to criticism."

Pelosi herself might well wish she had phrased the first sentence better. But, interestingly, I don’t see the GOP quoting the rest of that paragraph.

And at that same breakfast meeting, Pelosi also discussed the mounting Bush administration push for a war in Iraq. Voicing concern about granting the president a blank check, she said:
"Let's hope we don't have to resort to the use of force, because one thing is guaranteed: American military personnel will be killed, collateral damage will occur, and we don't know if we will achieve mission success."

Strange, I don’t see the Republicans quoting any of that.


3. How has ’08 presidential hopeful George Allen turned his slam-dunk ’06 Senate campaign into a carnival sideshow?

First, the Virginia Republican senator poked fun at a young Indian-American, who was standing in the middle of an all-white audience, by calling him macaca (a racial slur), then spent the better part of two weeks offering a slew of explanations about whether he knew or didn’t know what the term meant or didn’t mean. And now he’s caught in an avoidable contretemps about when he knew or didn’t know that he was part-Jewish, and why he got defensive about it when asked.

At a debate Monday night, the moderator asked Allen about a report in a Jewish newspaper that had found some Jewish lineage on his mother’s side. Allen freaked out on camera, then huffed, "My mother's French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian." In reality, Allen reportedly learned from his mother last month that she had been raised as a Jew in Tunisia before emigrating to America.

Why not just acknowledge the Jewish newspaper report, and move on? Instead, oy vey, what a mess: Allen’s defensive denial promptly gave his opponent, Jim Webb, and a number of Jewish leaders, the opening to raise questions about whether Allen was embarrassed about his heritage. Some liberal bloggers even asked whether Allen had something against the Jews.

Still playing defense, Allen had to put out a statement declaring that he is indeed proud of the heritage that he denied during the debate (“I embrace and take great pride in every aspect of my diverse heritage, including my Lumbroso family line's Jewish heritage, which I learned about from a recent magazine article and my mother confirmed”). And shortly afterward, to show that he really embraced the heritage he had denied, he charged that his critics were behaving like anti-Semites. At this rate, he’ll be showing up in shul this weekend for Rosh Hashanah.

But it should be noted that politicians can be weird about issues of ethnicity and religion. My favorite case in point: John Kerry.

For years he intimated, to his heavily Irish-American Massachusetts electorate, that he was Irish. Consider these Kerry remarks, which appeared in the Congressional Record on March 18, 1986: "For those of us who are fortunate to share an Irish ancestory, we take great pride in the contributions that Irish-Americans, from the time of the Revolutionary War to the present, have made to building a strong and vibrant nation.”

Well, the fact is that Kerry isn’t Irish at all. (He does have Jewish ancestors.) When he was busted for those Congressional Record remarks, his office performed the usual damage control ritual, by blaming the whole incident on a staffer.

So which is worse: a politician (Allen) who denies who he is, or a politician (Kerry) who paints himself as someone he isn’t?

Just asking.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The caveats behind the stagecraft

Politically speaking, President Bush’s latest round of war-on-terror speechifying has already accomplished his goal of goosing his poll numbers northward (as most recently evidenced here), thereby boosting the spirits of incumbent Republican congressmen who have been fearing a debacle in the November elections. Bush’s speech yesterday at the United Nations will probably help as well, since there’s no greater political advertisement for the GOP than to have the commander-in-chief extolling the virtues of freedom on worldwide TV.

Fortunately for Bush and his party, powerful stagecraft generally trumps the caveats of factual reality. Most voters won’t stop to examine all the nuances. But a close look at the Bush speech prompts the conclusion that the president isn’t nearly the master of Middle East events and moral arbiter that his stagecraft sought to convey. For instance:

1. Bush took a shot at the totalitarian leaders of Iran, declaring that America “will stand with the moderates and reformers” in the Middle East. Left unmentioned was the fact that the America-backed elections in Iraq have actually been a boon to those totalitarian leaders in Iran – because now, with old foe Saddam Hussein gone, they have a lot more leverage, thanks to the alliances they have formed with their Shiite brethren in Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. In fact, Iraqi prime minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has already met with the Iranian leaders, and asked for their help in quelling the violence in Iraq.

2. Bush urged United Nations members to help him stop the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons; he asked, “will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?” Nobody wants that kind of future, of course. But his clout with the UN, and his push for international support, has been undercut by the war in Iraq, which the UN refused to endorse. As a Fox News correspondent told Bush at a press conference last Friday, “I wonder how much that (push for support) is frustrated by two things: the war in Iraq and world criticism of that; and the Iraqi prime minister going to Iran and basically challenging your administration’s claim that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs.”

3. Bush appealed directly to Muslims in the Middle East, insisting that Americans “respect Islam,” and that he isn’t waging a war on Islam, no matter what kind of “propaganda” they might be hearing. Left unmentioned was the fact that, until very recently, Bush was talking incessantly about our war against “Islamic-fascism” (his latest reframing of the war on terror), and apparently the term was ticking off Muslims.

So now Bush isn’t using it anymore. Washington columnist Morton Kondracke broke the story this week in subscriber-only Roll Call: “In a controversial move within the administration, (undersecretary of State for public diplomacy Karen) Hughes and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seem to have persuaded Bush – temporarily at least – to drop the label ‘Islamic-fascism’ from his speeches; diplomats say that Muslims hear it as an attack on their religion, thereby validating the extremists’ false charge that the U.S. is at war with Islam.” (I guess this means that Rick Santorum and other GOP senators should excise the term from their autumn campaign speeches.)

4. Bush assailed the Iranian leaders by directly appealing to the Iranian people, saying, “You deserve an opportunity to determine your own future…The greatest obstacle to this future is that your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation’s resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons.” Yet moments later, regarding the nuclear pursuit, Bush said that “we’re working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis.”

The contradiction is clear: On the one hand, the Bush team is saying that it wants to negotiate a diplomatic solution with the Iranian leaders; on the other hand, it’s asking the Iranian people to rise up and “determine your own future.” This reflects the longstanding, and unresolved, internal Bush administration debate between those who want regime change and the diplomatists who don’t see it as feasible. But since Bush gave voice to both camps in his speech, it left the impression that he expects the Iranian leaders to sit down and talk business with the Americans who want them to be overthrown.

5. At one point, while Bush was sharing his dream of “a world beyond terror,” he cited a famed UN document, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and lauded it as “the foundation of freedom and justice and peace in the world.” Yet this same document declares that everybody deserves that “a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him,” as well as “a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense.” And this document, with a bow to the Geneva Conventions, also bans “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

These are precisely the kinds of guarantees that the Bush administration is seeking to compromise in its current negotiations with Congress. Regardless of whether the White House has a good case for undercutting the UN document, the fact remains that many in Bush’s worldwide audience are not nearly as receptive as the Republicans on Capitol Hill.

6. Meanwhile, the UN isn’t helping matters much. Key Security Council members, such as France, Russia, and China, have no interest in imposing sanctions on Iran. They’ve got money tied up in Iran; China alone reportedly has done $8 billion worth of business with Iran since January. But some conservatives with no love for the UN are now blaming Bush for failing to get tough with the international body.

Ex-Bush speechwriter David Frum – one of the authors of the 2002 “axis of evil” phrase – wrote yesterday that Bush’s speech “marks the final fizzling out of his Iran policy of the past three years…Did the president call on the Security Council to reconsider (its refusal to impose sanctions)? Did he challenge the Iranian bomb program before the world? He did not. He said nothing about it.”

Will any of these caveats to the Bush speech reverse his uptick in the national polls? Not likely. A persuasive counter-message from the Democrats might help slow the GOP’s rise, but don’t hold your breath. It’s tough to win an argument with stagecraft.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

So much for the pander strategy

Some quick hits on a busy day:

As I noted recently, John McCain has spent a lot of time this year recalibrating his image in order to curry favor with the conservative Republican activists who have virtual veto power over the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. But apparently the guy is incapable of pandering to the Republican right 24/7 – as evidenced by the fact that he refuses to support President Bush’s current attempts to loosen the anti-torture language in the Geneva Conventions. And now his stance threatens to land him in hot water with conservatives, most of whom are diehard Bush loyalists who might look askance at any ’08 candidate who has publicly defied the Decider.

During the 2000 primary season, Bush loyalists spread word that McCain was mentally unstable, courtesy of his stint as a POW in Hanoi. But once McCain surrendered and endorsed his rival, talk about his alleged nuttiness ceased. Now, suddenly, it is back again. On Fox News last night, former New York senator Al D'Amato told Bill O'Reilly that McCain is still nutty from his POW experience: "Bill, I give John McCain a pass on this (torture issue) only because I think he was so traumatized by the events that took place (in Hanoi), that he doesn’t even really want to, or is in a position to, consider the impact" of how his Geneva defense would harm the war on terror.

Meanwhile, McCain was roasted the other day in New Hampshire, the state that will hold the first GOP presidential primary; according to a front-page editorial in the Union Leader newspaper (a longtime barometer of the state’s conservative sentiment), McCain’s defiance of Bush and defense of the Geneva accords "are blocking our ability to gain from terrorist captives the vital information we need to fight a war in which the enemy strikes us here at home from multiple locations around the world…Can the nation afford a President McCain?"

But that was a tame assessment, when compared to the hue and cry from Rush Limbaugh, who is warning on the air that McCain’s behavior “is going to go down as the event that will result in us getting hit again, and if we do, and if McCain, et al., prevail, I can tell you where fingers are going to be pointed."

The Union Leader’s rebuke may not matter, because that newspaper’s clout has waned in recent years, and McCain is still popular in New Hampshire (where he clobbered Bush in the 2000 GOO primary). But South Carolina – which hosts the first southern primary, an event dominated by conservative voters – might be a problem. Katon Dawson, the state GOP chairman, told a reporter the other day, “Obviously the president is right on this issue. John McCain thinks he’s right. I think that people on the ground think (he’s) wrong.”

And many of those “people on the ground” are Christian conservatives who have long viewed McCain as soft on illegal immigrants, too liberal on same-sex marriage, and too permissive about stem-cell research. Now comes the torture standoff with Bush, which is prompting Christian conservative anger over McCain's refusal to engage in lockstep loyalty. Religious right leader Tony Perkins warns, “Maverick status is looked upon as a strength in Congress, but a maverick in the White House is not looked upon with great admiration from our folks.”

All told, conservative commentator William Kristol (a McCain fan in 2000) believes that McCain “has badly damaged his 2008 presidential chances.” Perhaps. There is a temptation to say that voter memories are short, but long experience prompts me to observe that the average conservative Republican activist has the memory of an elephant.


I noted here last Friday that some Republicans are seeing an upside to losing the ’06 congressional elections. Now some Democratic contacts are telling me that they, too, are playing the same game; in other words, they too see the upside of the Republicans retaining control of both the House and Senate. They just don’t want to say this publicly, with their names attached.

The advance spinners of a Democratic defeat see it this way: if the GOP keeps it narrow majorities and stays in charge, that would enable Democrats to run in ’08 as outsiders against an exhausted GOP governing establishment. Whereas if the Democrats win a chamber, they will have to shoulder some of the responsibility for whatever goes wrong, or simply doesn’t get done, during the next two years.

Under this scenario, it’s better for Democrats to inveigh in ’08 against a do-nothing GOP Congress than a do-nothing bipartisan Congress. And one Senate Democratic aide has gone on the record about this; Pete Giangreco, who works for Barack Obama, tells Washington reporter Chuck Todd that “coming up a few seats short keeps the hunger alive.”

If the losing party stages the happiest election-night celebration, I guess now we’ll know why.


I mentioned yesterday that Bush's push for flexible torture rules might pay off politically with the conservative voters who are crucial to the GOP's November prospects. Actions aside, Bush is also romancing those voters with his words. Last week, in an Oval Office sitdown with seven conservative journalists (who did their job by writing nice things; witness this love note), Bush riffed about the new faith-based fervor he is finding across the land -- what he calls a "Third Awakening" of religious devotion. This story is a week old, but it has been somewhat underreported in the mainstream press. Bush said:

“I’m not giving you a definitive statement — it seems like to me there’s a Third Awakening with a cultural change. And it would be interesting to get your observations if that is accurate or not accurate. It feels like it. I’m just giving you a reference point, if this is something you’re interested in looking at. It feels like it to me. I don’t have people coming in the rope line saying, ‘I’d like a new bridge, or how about some more highway money.’ They’re coming to say, ‘I’m coming to tell you, Mr. President, I’m praying for you.’ It’s pretty remarkable.”

For Christian conservatives in the GOP base, the term Third Awakening has special meaning. For many, it connotes (among other things) the return of Christ, and the final struggle of good versus evil in Jerusalem. Some Bush critics are upset about the president's words, and see them as evidence of dangerous faith-based policy-making. I'm not going there. I am merely pointing out the political utility of his words - that he intends them as a message of solidarity with the citizens whom he needs at the polls in November. He is willing to indulge their hopes for a religious transformation, even though his evidence is limited to the pre-screened people he meets in rope lines.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Democrats to McCain: Better you than us

What Democrats dread the most – particularly in the wake of their electoral debacles of 2002 and 2004 – is the predictable GOP charge that they would undermine the personal safety of our fighting men and women. So today it is undoubtedly with considerable relief and gratitude that they can sit back and watch a quartet of esteemed Republicans train their fire at President Bush – who, in their view, is threatening to undermine the personal safety of our fighting men and women.

Politically, it wouldn’t embarrass the White House at all if a liberal Democrat – somebody like Senator Russ Feingold, for instance – stepped forward to deplore Bush’s current push for flexible torture rules. If Feingold, or Howard Dean, or Ted Kennedy, stood up for the Geneva Conventions (which have defined the international rules of war and the standards for prisoner interrogations ever since its inception in 1949), Republicans, led by the White House, would cite that behavior as further proof that Democrats have a “pre-9/11 mindset” (Karl Rove’s words), and therefore cannot be trusted to effectively wage the war on terror.

But, as evidenced again on the Sunday shows, that “pre-9/11” mindset appears to be alive and well with Senators John McCain (‘60s POW in Hanoi, and Iraq hawk), John Warner (World War II volunteer at age 17, Navy secretary under Richard Nixon, conduit to the military establishment), and Lindsey Graham (former military lawyer, judge in the Air Force reserves, citizen of South Carolina, arguably the reddest state in the South), as well as with Colin Powell (former Bush secretary of state, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, former wounded Vietnam soldier).

In the midst of a hot election season, and with control of the House and Senate hanging in the balance, the GOP’s intended game plan (which can be boiled down to Democrats = wimps) is clearly undercut when someone like McCain steps forward to say that President Bush’s ideas are a clear and present danger to our troops in the field. The Bush plan to amend the Geneva Conventions for the first time ever, McCain says, “puts our military personnel and others directly at risk in this and future wars."

Nor is it helpful to the GOP game plan if someone like Graham (22 years as an Air Force JAG lawyer) shows up on a Sunday show and basically suggests that Bush is behaving in an unprincipled and lawless fashion. Arguing against Bush’s proposed breaching of the Geneva standards, Graham said: “We cannot do well if we’re seen to abandon our principles and the rule of law.”

On CBS yesterday, Graham basically articulated the argument that most Democrats seem timid to attempt. Graham said that if Congress, at Bush's behest, amends the Geneva standards in order to make torture easier, “why can’t every other country redefine the Geneva Convention to meet the needs of their secret police? It would be a disaster….I can give you plenty of examples of – for downed (U.S.) pilots, people who were caught in foreign countries, who were saved from torture and death because we insisted that the Geneva Convention be applied.”

The folks on Fox News yesterday acknowledged that Bush is not exactly helped politically when credible critics surface within his own ranks. Host Chris Wallace put this pointed question to national intelligence chief John Negroponte: “Compared to the leaders in this administration, who, in all honesty, did not see combat, don't those fellows (McCain and company) have more credibility when it comes to the rule of law and putting U.S. soldiers in danger -- rather, the rules of war and putting U.S. soldiers in danger? “ And Negroponte replied, “Well, I think certainly they have a great deal of credibility.”

Bush, at his Friday press conference, was asked directly about the point raised by Graham: whether Bush’s congressional bill for more flexible torture rules would expose our troops abroad to retaliatory torture. Bush replied: “I would hope that they would adopt the same standards we adopt.” In other words, Bush is saying that he hopes the enemy would play by Bush’s amended rules – an argument that doesn’t quite square with his repeated assertions that the enemy is lawless and doesn’t play by any rules, much less ours.

The muted Democrats are also helped in this dispute by the fact that top military officials are defying the White House. Even though Bush said repeatedly during his Friday press conference that he was merely seeking “clarity” for our interrogators who might be confused by the “vague” Geneva standards in Article 3, a top military official one day earlier had stated in effect that those vague standards had seemed clear to him for a very long time. As Major Gen. Scott C. Black, judge advocate general of the Army, reportedly said: "Article 3 is a baseline standard. And I would say that, at least in the United States Army -- and I'm confident in the other services -- we've been training to that standard and living to that standard since the beginning of our Army, and we continue to do so.”

But, in political terms, there are no guarantees that the Democrats will benefit from this internal GOP dispute. William Kristol, the Iraq-Iran hawk and conservative commentator, isn't necessarily wrong when, referring to the torture issue, he argues that "a few (GOP) defections won't prevent Republicans from saying - truthfully- that there is a real difference between the two parties on the war on terror, and that they stand with Bush and against Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi."

Notwithstanding the dissents from McCain and his allies, Bush’s basic argument might well resonate with the conservative Republican base (which is still wary of McCain anyway). Bush’s argument is visceral and boils down to a simple phrase: “We’ve got to fight the terrorists in every possible way.” And the potential variations are endless: “The Democrats won’t plunk Osama bin Laden’s head under water. We would.” Indeed, some of the latest polls, conducted in the wake of the 9/11 anniversary, report upticks in base support for Bush.

And since the ’06 congressional elections are all about base turnout, a turned-on conservative base is the crucial factor that could enable Bush’s party to hold their fragile House and Senate majorities on Capitol Hill.