Friday, November 17, 2006

From faux hugs to faith-based meteorology

A quick survey of the landscape, since my work energies are required elsewhere today:

Check out this priceless photo. Such a happy family tableau. I am impressed that Steny Hoyer can manage to hug Nancy Pelosi, even while her stiletto is still lodged in his back. And I admire Pelosi’s acting skills, which, at this moment yesterday, required that she affix a facsimile of a smile to her face, in order to cloak her embarrassment and mask the fact that she had failed to twist the blade with sufficient lethal force.

Pelosi’s botched bid to dump Hoyer as her deputy is arguably the worst opening act for a Democratic leader since Bill Clinton decided in 1993 to launch his presidency by prioritizing gays in the military. Fortunately for Pelosi, this incident will probably have a brief shelf life outside the Beltway; and, as House Speaker, if she can make good on her “first 100 hours” pledge (by passing a minimum wage hike bill and a bill implementing the 9/11 Commission’s security tips), she will probably ease Democratic concerns inside Washington.

But, for the moment anyway, that heartwarming photo cries out for a cartoon dialogue balloon – a shared balloon that would depict these longtime rivals thinking the exact same thing, by channeling Michael Corleone: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”


The latest Iraq news concerns the price tag.

Remember how the Bush White House summarily fired economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey in 2002 because he publicly stated that the Iraq war (which, at the time, was in its early marketing phase) would probably cost as much as $200 billion? Because he dared contradict the official cost-effective cakewalk forecast?

Well, Lindsey was wrong after all…because now it turns out that he lowballed the likely tab by about $400 billion.

Bill Hoagland, a senior budget advisor to the Senate Republicans, said yesterday that “we’re easily headed toward $600 billion” in Iraq – a figure that, in today’s dollars, will surpass the American expenditures in Vietnam.

And this figure comes at a time when it appears we will receive even less assistance from the Coalition of the Dwindling. As the Washington Times reports today, we’re down to 23 nations (from a high of 42), and more than half of those nations are barely participating. Japan and Italy (the latter is one of the larger troop contributors) have already announced they are going home soon.

All these factors will further ratchet up the pressure on Bush and the Democratic Congress to sort out a new solution early next year, presumably with political cover from James Baker’s study group. But given the fact that General John Abizad, the top commander in the Middle East, said the other day that we can’t risk leaving, yet we can't pour in a lot more troops either, the likelihood of a major bipartisan breakthrough is virtually nil.


All the ingredients for political melodrama are there: A female presidential candidate who lives with her political partner, and whose first name is a household word…party allies who don’t think she’s sufficiently liberal, because she keeps trying to move to the center…a nation that has never elected a woman, but yearns for a new direction after two terms of a conservative president…

But this is not about Hillary.

This is about Segolene Royal, who yesterday became a major party candidate – and the potential frontrunner – in the French presidential race. “Sego” is the Hillary of France (except with a lot more charisma), and it will be interesting to see how she fares in the national election slated for next spring.

She’ll carry the banner for the Socialist party, which held power for 14 years before it was bounced in 1995. I covered that ’95 election as a foreign correspondent, and French voters were saying the same things about the Socialists that American voters were saying until last week about the Democrats – that they were out of touch, out of ideas, and in dire need of new blood. (I asked Jerome Blaine, a 24-year-old Parisian, about whether he viewed the left-wing party as credible. He replied: "It all depends on the nature of the lie. You might like one lie, but not another. So you cling hopelessly to a favorite promise.")

Now they have new blood, courtesy of Sego, but the Socialists still aren’t sure about her. Is she electable? Can she move to the middle (as she has been trying to do), and still hold her left flank? Will her political and personal partner, Francois Hollande, help or hurt her candidacy? Will she prompt a backlash among sexist voters who think France isn’t ready for a woman in power? Any of this sound like a familiar plot line for an impending American saga?

Of course, France being France, there are some unique elements in the Sego story. First, she parades on French beaches in a bikini that shows off a body seemingly two decades younger than her 53 years. (A French magazine broke the news last summer.) And second, she and Hollande have had four children out of wedlock...although that doesn’t appear to bother the French too much, which I suppose is one of the distasteful cultural traits that Donald Rumsfeld would dismiss as “Old Europe.”

Nevertheless, I do plan to watch this race with interest. France, after all, didn’t give women the right to vote until 1944. What might it say about us if France, just 60 years removed from official chauvinism, elects a woman president first?


I mentioned yesterday that the doings in DC this week might well underscore the belief, shared by many Americans, that voting doesn’t matter. But here’s a stark illustration to the contrary, proving that, in fact, elections do have consequences:

Because the Republicans lost the Senate, a key Senate environmental committee will no longer be chaired by a guy who thinks that global warming is a left-wing myth. Because the Democrats won the Senate, this panel will now be chaired by a woman who believes there really is evidence that global warming can be attributed to human activity.

Barbara Boxer of California will replace Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Over the past few years, Inhofe – notwithstanding the consensus opinion of international scientific groups too numerous to mention – used his chairmanship to debunk global warming as “the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people.”

This switch doesn't mean, of course, that the Democrats will automatically push for tough emission standards; nor do environmentalists expect any miracles. But the Democratic victory does mean that Inhofe's faith-based views on global warming will have less official sway.

He can, however, still promote his perspective on friendly media outlets. This morning, for example, he told Fox News that, no matter what the scientists say, he knows for a fact who is most responsible for the warmer temperatures:

“Now look. God’s still up there.”

Thursday, November 16, 2006

How's that new era in Washington working out?

Sixty percent of eligible Americans didn’t bother to vote in the high-stakes ’06 midterm elections. They probably figured that a few minutes of democratic participation would be a waste of time, that nothing in Washington would really change no matter how they voted.

Right now, many of them might well be saying, “We told ya so.”

On Nov. 7, the 40 percent electorate essentially told the politicians that it was fed up with partisan warfare, petty power plays, and sleaze in high places. In response, the victorious Democrats declared that a new day had dawned in Washington; meanwhile, President Bush vowed to make nice with the new powers across the aisle.

But a mere nine days later, here’s what we see thus far: Partisan warfare, petty power plays, and sleaze in high places. For instance:

1. On the petty front, consider the Democrats. Usually they start cutting each other up after they have lost an election, assigning blame and hurling insults. But here they are, having actually won the House and Senate, in part because they promised to govern better than the Bush Republicans…yet they’re still cutting each other up.

I refer to the fact that Democratic national chairman Howard Dean has been jumped in a back alley by three heavyweight brethren – strategist/commentator James Carville, pollster Stan Greenberg, and House campaign leader Rahm Emanuel. They contend that because Dean refused to spread his money around, he wound up costing the party at least 10 winnable House seats; they charge that Dean had $6 million available during the final week, but didn’t put any of it in play, thereby hurting Democratic candidates (such as Lois Murphy in the Philadelphia suburbs) who wound up losing by only one or two percentage points.

Carville, not surprisingly, has been the guy with the sharpest tounge; yesterday he assailed the Dean performance as “Rumsfeldian in its incompetence,” which, on the viciousness scale, is the equivalent of one Republican assailing another Republican as “Clintonian.” Carville also calls Dean “a C-minus general” who should be canned prior to the 2008 election cycle.

Dean hasn’t responded to any of this, clearly preferring not to be drawn into a tit-for-tar spat that would confirm the suspicions of many Americans that the Democrats are as whacked out as ever. Dean’s supporters, however, are wading into the fray. Chris Bowers, the prominent liberal blogger, skewers Carville as (a) a hack who just wants his Washington consultant pals to get their mitts on Dean’s money, and (b) a closet conservative who represents “the anti-Democratic wing of the Democratic party.”

In the wake of this embarrassing episode, Don Fowler, a former national party chairman, said yesterday that this was no big deal: “We’re a diverse party. We have different people from different backgrounds…” Nice try. That’s what parties always say when their people are cutting each other up. Whenever Republican moderates and religious conservative war with each other, party leaders always say it’s just a sign of the party’s big-tent diversity.

I’m not particularly interested in figuring out which side is right in the Dean spat, because that would require refighting the past. What does interest me is the fact that the Dean detractors are delivering a not-so-subliminal message about the future. Carville, Greenberg, and Emanuel are prominent members of the extended Clinton family network, having all worked for Bill. My sense is that, with Hillary in the wings as a possible ’08 presidential nominee, the Clinton camp – which never liked Dean in the first place, going back to the ’04 primaries – is essentially telling Dean, “Get out, before we come for you and throw you out.”

2. On the petty power play and sleaze fronts, we now have the spectacle of Nancy Pelosi humiliating herself before she even picks up the House Speaker’s gavel.

She put herself on the line by backing John Murtha in his bid to become her majority leader – only to be soundly rebuked this morning by her own Democratic rank and file, which instead elected Steny Hoyer to fill the post. What better way to signal the expectant nelectorate that the Democrats don’t have their act together?

One can always argue that House Democrats saved Pelosi from an act of hypocrisy; after all she was championing Murtha - an ethically-challenged practitioner of pork and special-interest earmarks – at a time when she was also promising an era of ethical and clean government. But, as it turns out, Hoyer isn’t exactly a fresh breeze, either. He’s a politics-as-usual guy who has long promised to nurture close ties with the K Street special-interest lobbying crowd that has financed him heavily for years.

The bottom line, in any case, is that Pelosi’s first act on the hot seat was to burn herself. For those Americans who voted last week for a return to government competence, it can’t be reassuring to watch the new House leader get stiffed by her own people. Stu Rothenberg, a nonpartisan Washington analyst, got it right today when he said: "Instead of generating front page stories about the Democrats’ agenda, Pelosi has made herself and divisions within her party the story du jour."

All told, it’s been quite a mess, with all these nasty intramurals. As liberal activist David Sirota lamented the other day, “Look, I'm tired. We're all tired…I mean, can we at least get a few days rest from this? And more importantly, can the Democratic rank-and-file in Congress please put its foot down and reject this comedic-yet-sad B-movie parody? I mean, come on people - it's embarrassing.” He’s got that right.

3. On the partisan and sleaze fronts, remember how President Bush spoke so glowingly last week about a new era of bipartisanship? Well, that didn’t last long.

Yesterday, he sent up to Capitol Hill the same list of controversially conservative judicial nominees that have been rejected in the past. The list includes William Haynes, a Defense Department official who reportedly helped craft the administration’s torture guidelines overseas; William Myers III, a mining industry lobbyist who is viewed by Democrats as hostile to environment laws; and Terrence Boyle, a former Jesse Helms aide who, as a lower-court federal judge, has ruled repeatedly against plaintiffs alleging racial discrimination.

Just as tellingly, Bush has renominated Kenneth Tomlinson to chair the federal board that overseas Voice of America and other U.S. broadcast programs abroad – despite the fact that even Republican Senate has been balking about this guy. And why? Because Tomlinson has already been exposed by State Department investigators for using his board office to run a horse-racing operation and to put a pal on the federal payroll. This is the same, by the way, who Bush previously appointed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where he violated a federal law prohibiting CPB officials from applying political litmus tests to their employes.

Apparently, not even a decisive “accountability moment” has changed the Decider, contrary to last week’s initial impressions.

4. And one last observation (for now). Even though the voters on Nov. 7 were apparently pleading for some clarity on Iraq, they may not get much help on that score from the number two Senate Republican.

Yesterday, by a one-vote margin, Trent Lott returned to the hierarchy, after having been banished four years ago for showing up at a Strom Thurmond birthday party and waxing nostalgic about the Old South segregation era. (Dean Barnett, a prominent conservative blogger, was scathing yesterday: "If there’s one message that the electorate sent the Republican Party last week, it’s that we hadn’t given them enough of Trent Lott.")

But can this Senate leader help us comprehend the Iraq crisis? Decide for yourself. Here’s what he said, on Sept. 29: “Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

After the '06 politics of exclusion, now it's back to inclusion mode

The fundamental tensions within the fragile Republican coalition, which were severely exacerbated by the 2006 campaign, are likely to persist now that Mel Martinez has been tapped to work as general chairman of the national party.

During the Bush era, the GOP has long been struggling to hang onto their traditional conservative voters (many of whom take a hard line against illegal immigrants), while at the same time reaching out to the ever-expanding pool of Hispanic voters (many of whom view a hard line against illegals as a symptom of intolerance). It has been a tricky balancing act, and in this election the Republicans lost their footing.

In seeking to ensure that their conservative voters came to the polls, House Republicans spurned path-to-citizenship legislation and opted instead for a border-security bill, and, before that, a bill that would have made it a felony for anyone to be in America illegally. But, by taking these steps, they turned off millions of Hispanic voters, who stampeded to Democratic candidates and thus sealed Democratic congressional victories in states (such as Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado) that will be presidential battlegrounds in 2008.

The GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote was 29 percent last week, marking a roughly 15-point drop from 2004. And considering the fact that Hispanics are the fastest-growing electorate in America, and that Karl Rove has long considered Hispanics to be one of the party’s top priorities, the ’06 results have to be considered worrisome.

Hence Bush’s decision to tap a Hispanic as the public face of the Republican party for the next two years. Florida senator Martinez will be the one who delivers the GOP talking points on the Sunday talkfests. Of course, whether Hispanic voters will be impressed just because the GOP’s front man is Hispanic is another matter entirely. But it’s clear that his ascent reflects serious Republican concern about losing ground with that important slice of the electorate.

Which brings us back to those internal Republican tensions – and the fact that a lot of border-security conservatives aren’t thrilled about Martinez getting the job. Simply put, they see his ascent as a slap in the face to the base.

Martinez is on record as favoring a guest-worker program that would help smooth the illegals’ path to citizenship, a Bush idea that base conservatives generally assail as an amnesty program. Indeed, Martinez told reporters yesterday that the party’s ’06 decision to scrap that approach was a political mistake: “Border security only, enforcement only, harshness only, is not the message that I believe America wants to convey.” And he recently contended, “I think there could be great political risks to becoming the party of exclusion, and not a party of inclusion.”

But if, as expected, Martinez pushes these arguments as general chairman of the GOP, he risks seriously riling up the base. The conservative bloggers are already cutting him up; Michelle Malkin calls him "a squish on border security."And one of the key congressional hardliners, Tom Tancredo, warned yesterday that if Martinez spurns “the will of rank and file Republicans and uses (the GOP chairmanship) to advocate for things like the president’s amnesty proposal, then I believe the party could be headed for another shellacking at the polls in 2008.”

Obviously, the Bush team would dearly love to find a way to reconcile both groups of voters, to retain the conservatives while mending bridges with Hispanics. But clearly, by choosing Martinez, the White House has decided there are potentially more Hispanic votes to be gained than conservative votes lost.

And some of the election results last week appear to support the White House position. In Arizona, which is home to a burgeoning Hispanic electorate, two GOP congressional candidates, incumbent J. D. Hayworth and newcomer Randy Graf, ran as security-first conservatives – yet they both lost. Meanwhile, in deeply-red Indiana, incumbent Republican congressman John Hostettler stumped with members of the Minutemen (the citizens group that patrols the border) and ran ads assailing “the nightmare of amnesty” – yet he was waxed on election night by 22 points. He lost for many reasons, of course, but it’s clear that his hard line on illegal immigrants didn’t cut his losing margin.

By naming Martinez (who needs to be formally confirmed by Republican National Committee members six weeks hence), the White House is clearly being mindful of the demoralizing California lesson.

There was a time, during the Reagan era and the early ‘90s, when the GOP was making great strides with Hispanic voters in California, to the point where Republican leaders believed they could paint the nation’s biggest state red for the long haul. But then came a pivotal moment. In 1994, GOP governor Pete Wilson decided that if he bashed illegal immigrants, he could best ensure his re-election; hence his support for a state referendum that would have restricted illegals’ access to schools and health care. The result? Legal Hispanic voters, perceiving the GOP as intolerant, retaliated by voting Democratic in 1996 and 1998 – and virtually wiping out the Republicans in state government. The pattern has held, and California Hispanics have overwhelmingly voted Democratic in federal elections ever since.

I heard this Hispanic sentiment first hand, during a stint in southern California for a magazine story in the spring of 1997. A plumber named John Raya, who was still ticked off about Pete Wilson (and at presidential candidate Bob Dole, who had tried to replicate the hard line strategy in 1996) told me why he was fed up with the Republicans: “All I want is to get my share of the pie. Talk to me about economic opportunity. Talk to me about lower taxes and safe streets. Don't talk to me about immigrant-bashing. I tell the Republicans I know, ‘You guys have been giving the Democrats the best recruiting tool since the Kennedys were alive.’"

Raya added: "You know how this feels (listening to the GOP)? It's like when you have a friend, and you see him keep doing bad stuff, so finally you start to think, 'I'm not so sure about this guy anymore.’ And then you can't stick up for him anymore. I'm at that point. I used to try to talk up the Republicans to other Latinos, but I can't handle it now. I'm a proud guy. I don't want to be cannon fodder anymore."

By designating Mel Martinez as the party’s public face, the White House is trying to put a stop to that kind of talk. But if prominent conservatives, sensing Bush’s lame duck status, figure that they have nothing to lose by resisting, then Hispanic voters may well pay more heed to the GOP’s mixed message – and voice their objections in 2008.


They decide, then they report:

Fox News, the broadcasting arm of the new minority party, is anxious to spread the message that the '06 Democratic victory is akin to a victory for the terrorists. I learned this today, after reading an internal Fox memo (leaked here). In the words of the vice president for News, "Let's be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress."

(By the way, these would be the same Iraqi insurgents whose numbers and clout have grown exponentially since 2003, because of the well-documented failure of the Bush administration to anticipate their presence or map plans to effectively combat them.)

To me, however, the most interesting line in the memo is the final one: "Just because the Dems won, the war on terror isn't over."

"Just because...?"

Funny, I don't recall hearing a single Democratic candidate campaign this year on a platform of ending the war on terror. I do recall hearing Democrats argue for a new direction in Iraq (albeit unspecified), in order to more effectively fight the war on terror. But perhaps this nuance has been lost on the Fox vice president for News.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

So much for that Nancy Pelosi honeymoon

Intramural party feuds on Capitol Hill are generally ignored by the average citizen, who equates that kind of stuff with inside baseball. For instance, I happen to remember the distant summer of 1997, when conservative GOP rebels, aided and abetted backstage by Tom DeLay, sought without success to oust Newt Gingrich as House speaker. It was, by journalistic standards, a noteworthy story – yet it’s a safe bet that far more Americans that summer had their headphones on, listening to Jewel.

So I wonder whether most people outside the Beltway will be riveted by the fight over who becomes Nancy Pelosi’s House majority leader...although maybe there is galvinization potential after all:

John Murtha, the Pelosi candidate, is pitted against Steny Hoyer, who served (sometimes uncomfortably) as Pelosi’s number two in the minority ranks. It’s not a big ideological showdown, because Murtha actually has a more conservative voting record than Hoyer; indeed, Murtha is pro-gun and anti-abortion (with a zero rating from the abortion rights community). It’s more accurate to say that this is partly about Iraq, because Murtha at least put the Democrats on the map last year by putting his Marine credentials behind the “redeployment” of troops position – and Pelosi is grateful for that. But this is also about personal payback; Murtha, working backstage, helped Pelosi rise through the House Democratic ranks, and she is grateful for that as well.

There is, however, one aspect of this episode that could hurt the incoming Speaker, and prompt some eye-rolling among those Americans who follow these developments closely on cable news: Murtha has a track record that suggests a lack of ethics.

In fact, the Democratic-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, calls Murtha “one of the most unethical members of Congress,” and paints him as a longstanding opponent of ethics reform, a veteran practitioner of the special-interest pork barrel maneuver known as earmarking, and a "pay to play" operator who rewards campaign donors with federal largesse. (Details, here.)

All of which arguably makes Murtha less than the perfect number two for Pelosi - the same Pelosi who is currently vowing an era of clean government: “Democrats pledge to make this the most honest, ethical, and open Congress in history.” Certainly, Murtha's Democratic detractors sense a potential image problem.

And speaking of ethics (or lack thereof), perhaps the more interesting story on the Pelosi front concerns the future of the House Intelligence Committee (a key national security panel), and the identity of its next chairman. Most Americans probably won’t pay much attention to this development either, but, if Pelosi does what some Democrats fear – denying the job to the tough-on-terrorists lawmaker who is in line, and instead naming a guy with an ethically shady past – she will play right into the hands of the conservatives who are looking for ways to shake off their post-election blues.

Jane Harman, a national security veteran with somewhat hawkish credentials, is the congresswoman in line for the chair. The problem is, she and Pelosi reportedly don’t get along, in part because Pelosi doesn’t think that Harman was sufficiently vigilant about Bush while serving as the ranking committee Democrat. Pelosi has already indicated that she will stiff Harman and pick somebody else. And the next person in linem in terms of Intelligence panel seniority, is a Florida congressman named Alcee Hastings.

This would be the same Alcee Hastings who, while serving as a federal judge back in 1988, was impeached by the House for conspiring to take a $150,000 bribe, for lying about the case under oath, and for manufacturing trial evidence. Oh, and did I mention that he was subsequently convicted by the Senate and tossed off the federal bench?

Thus, the wet dream for the conservative media machine. The shorthand would look something like this: San Francisco liberal Pelosi dumps a fighter in the war on terror, thereby demonstrating national security weakness, and instead she picks a corrupt hack who undercuts the promise of an ethical Democratic Congress.

The bottom line is that, for conservatives, Hastings-for Harman is a potential two-fer.

It’s always possible that Pelosi could find a way to skip past Hastings and name a different chair, but here’s the problem with that: Hastings is African-American, and the Congressional Black Caucus is adamant that he be named. And Pelosi wants to make amends to the CBC, because this past summer the CBC didn’t like it when she moved to strip black congressman William Jefferson of his seat on a key committee. (A certain little detail about Jefferson – the fact that the FBI had found a freezer filled with cash in Jefferson’s house – didn’t seem to impress the black caucus as being important.)

In other words, if Pelosi names Hastings in part to please the CBC, she will also open herself up to the charge that the old party litmus tests are alive and well – or, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus contends, a Hastings ascent would mark “a return to paint-by-numbers Democratic Party interest-group politics as usual.”

So watch how Pelosi handles these various ethics challenges. The last thing that the triumphant Democrats need is to have Jewel seemingly singing about them: Who will save your soul / if you won’t save your own…

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Rove response to the '06 debacle: intentional spin, or clinical state of denial?

Ever notice how a big shot partisan operative will never admit error, even after he has just suffered an embarrassing defeat in full view of the entire nation? No matter how decisively the voters have stripped him naked, he nevertheless will insist, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary, that he’s still decked out in his finest threads.

As Tony Soprano said during Season One, “The con never stops.”

I vividly recall the election of 2002, when the Democrats got their clocks cleaned, losing the Senate that they had held so briefly, losing further ground in the House, and losing a slew of important governorships – yet despite these realities, Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe declared, “It’s a great night for the Democrats.”

But Karl Rove is giving McAuliffe some very tough competition. I hadn’t planned to dwell again on Rove – he already earned a slot on my top five losers list for 2006 – but it’s worth examining his interview this weekend in Time magazine, because it is evidence, even now, of residual bunker spin in high places.

Whether President Bush’s political guru truly believes his fact-challenged attempts to explain away what happened last Tuesday, or whether he’s just spinning out of self-interest (to hang onto his ebbing genius aura, for instance), is almost immaterial. What matters is that the most influential strategist in the Bush White House has publicly chosen to play bad cop to Bush’s good cop. Bush is talking magnanimously about reaching across the aisle to the victorious Democrats – while his political adviser is saying that the Democratic win was no big deal.

The election results, Rove told Time’s Mike Allen, “are a transient passing thing,” because “the power of the underyling agenda of this president,” and “the power of the (GOP’s) ideas” remain unsullied. For instance, Rove didn’t think that Iraq was so important in this election; in his words, “Iraq does play a role, but not the critical central role.”

He put heavy blame on the corruption issue, talking as if the GOP sleaze on Capitol Hill was some distant development: “The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I'd expected. Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard [the disgraced evangelical leader] added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass.”

Rove also offered some voter stats which are intended to prove that the GOP hung on to both chambers. Time reports: “A shift of 77,611 votes would have given Republicans control of the House, according to Bush's political team. And a shift of 2,847 votes in Montana, or 7,217 votes in Virginia, or 41,537 votes in Missouri would have given a Republicans control of the Senate.”

Regardless of whether this is all cynical spin or a clinical state of denial, the countervailing facts are abundant:

1. Iraq – and the president’s poor handling of the war – was listed as the most important issue, virtually all year in virtually every poll. It was again listed as the number one issue this weekend, in Newsweek’s post-election survey. Eighty-five percent of Americans said that the “major reason” for the Democratic victory was Bush’s war stewardship.

2. In citing the GOP corruption issue, and characterizing it as merely “all things Washington,” Rove skipped over his own central role. One of the most underreported stories in recent months was the autumn resignation of Rove aide Susan Ralston, who had acted as a frequent messenger between the White House and superlobbyist/convicted felon Jack Abramoff. According to a GOP House committee report, Abramoff had 485 contacts with the White House, and 69 through Ralston (who used to work for Abramoff). And a new book reports that Rove used to confer with Abramoff on street corners. Translation: Abramoff was not a distant aberration; rather, he was a key player in the GOP’s Washington political network of lobbyists and lawmakers, a network that Rove helped supervise.

3. And Rove was hardly a spectator in the Foley affair. Despite the fact that, by 2005, there was plenty of evidence floating around that Foley was chasing after underage boys, Rove reportedly talked a reluctant Foley into running for re-election this year. Foley told this to a friend, who told The New Republic.

4. As for his “if only there was a shift of votes in some locales” argument, that’s tantamount to the old saying that if a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump its ass so much. The fact is, the votes were the votes; indeed, the aggregate of all elections nationwide shows that - leaving aside the small handful of races when some House incumbents ran unopposed - Democratic House and Senate candidates won roughly 53 percent of the vote; the Republicans, roughly 45 percent.

(To refine a point I made the other day: Anyone can play the “if” game. If Ralph Nader had not been on the Florida ballot in 2000, and therefore had not siphoned away 93,000 votes, most of which would have gone to Al Gore, then it’s a fair bet that Bush’s 537-vote win would have been erased, and Rove would have regained his title as the most important political consultant in Austin, Texas.)

Checking the 2006 exit polls, this decisive aggregate victory for the Democrats is easy to explain: Nationwide, Hispanic voters (whom Rove has assiduously courted for his permanent GOP majority) broke for the Democrats this year by 70-30 percent (the GOP’s share in 2004 was higher, although the percentage is in dispute). Catholics, another longtime Rove target, voted Democratic by 56-44 percent, after having tilted toward the GOP two years ago. Working-class voters earning between $30,000 and $50,000, another Rove target, voted Democratic by 57-43 percent, after having split down the middle two years ago.

In other words, Bush’s architect lost ground virtually across the board. In his Time interview, he failed to mention the Democratic gains (in House, Senate, and/or gubernatorial seats) in Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, Montana, Indiana, Arizona, and Colorado – all of which he had checked off as red states in 2004.

But perhaps one race best sums up the current GOP predicament. Right now, the contest for Wyoming’s only House seat is still officially undecided. In deeply-red Wyoming, the home state of Dick Cheney, the Republican candidate is currently ahead by only 970 votes out of 186,000 cast – and this is because 71 percent of the state’s independent voters sided with the Democrat. The fact that the Republicans can’t even nail down a seat in Wyoming is stark evidence of the embarrassment that Rove refuses to publicly acknowledge.

So, in summation, the White House is purposely sending mixed signals. While Bush seemed humble last Wednesday when he said he had suffered a “thumpin,’” Rove is arguing to the contrary. Hence, the key question: Is Bush truly interested in pursuing a partnership with the Democrats, when his own political advisor is signaling publicly that the Decider has no reason to feel thumped?


In a new print column yesterday, I brought up the ’08 Republican presidential race, and toted up some reasons why John McCain might benefit from the party’s ’06 defeat. But I also questioned whether his “straight talking” proposal about sending more troops to Iraq would play well with an electorate that is increasingly receptive to phase-down scenarios.

Indeed, McCain restated his position yesterday on NBC: “I believe that there are a lot of things that we can do to salvage (the war), but they all require the presence of additional troops.” Gallup reported in June that only eight percent of Americans want to send more troops.

So, last question: Can McCain capture the middle of the electorate if he’s actually more hawkish than Bush?