Friday, December 08, 2006

A Republican senator says: Mr. President, you're no Churchill

I contended here the other day that President Bush is likely to suffer further political damage because of his Iraq debacle - and that the wounds would be inflicted by Republicans who are “fearful of an ’08 defeat."

Well, this is exactly what I was talking about: Republican Gordon Smith, who is up for re-election in 2008, spoke yesterday on the U.S. Senate floor, signaling that he could no longer stand with a Decider who, among other things, doesn't understand the Middle East and doesn't have a clue about history. Other Republicans are bound to follow.

To give you an idea of how fed up the GOP rank and file has become, I yield the balance of my time today to the junior senator from the blue state of Oregon:

“I have tried to be a good soldier in this Chamber. I have tried to support our President, believing at the time of the vote on the war in Iraq that we had been given good intelligence and knowing that Saddam Hussein was a menace to the world, a brutal dictator, a tyrant by any standard, and one who threatened our country in many different ways, through the financing and fomenting of terrorism. For those reasons and believing that we would find weapons of mass destruction, I voted aye....

“But since that time, there have been 2,899 American casualties. There have been over 22,000 American men and women wounded. There has been an expenditure of $290 billion, a figure that approaches the expenditure we have every year on an issue as important as Medicare. We have paid a price in blood and treasure that is beyond calculation, by my estimation.

“Now, as I witness the slow undoing of our efforts there, I rise to speak from my heart. I was greatly disturbed recently to read a comment by a man I admire in history, one Winston Churchill, who after the British mandate extended to the peoples of Iraq for five years, wrote to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England: ‘At present we are paying 8 millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano.’ When I read that, I thought ‘not much has changed.’ We have to learn the lessons of history and sometimes they are painful because we have made mistakes….

“Many things have been attributed to George Bush. I have heard him on this floor blamed for every ill, even the weather. But I do not believe him to be a liar. I do not believe him to be a traitor, nor do I believe all the bravado and the statements and the accusations made against him. I believe him to be a very idealistic man. I believe him to have a stubborn backbone.

“He is not guilty of perfidy, but I do believe he is guilty of believing bad intelligence and giving us the same.

“I can't tell you how devastated I was to learn that in fact we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction….I believe the President is guilty of trying to win a short war and not understanding fully the nature of the ancient hatreds of the Middle East. Iraq is a European creation. At the Treaty of Versailles (in 1919), the victorious powers put together Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia tribes that had been killing each other for time immemorial. I would like to think there is an Iraqi identity. I would like to remember the purple fingers raised high. But we cannot want democracy for Iraq more than they want it for themselves. And what I find now is that our tactics there have failed….

“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore. I believe we need to figure out how to fight the war on terror and to do it right. So either we clear and hold and build, or let's go home.

“There are no good options, as the Iraq Study Group has mentioned in their report. I am not sure cutting and walking is any better. I have little confidence that the Syrians and the Iranians are going to be serious about helping us to build a stable and democratic Iraq….

“Iraq is a battlefield in that larger (global struggle against terrorism)…But we have no business being a policeman in someone else's civil war.

“I welcome the Iraq Study Group's report, but if we are ultimately going to retreat, I would rather do it sooner than later. I am looking for answers, but the current course is unacceptable to this Senator. I suppose if the President is guilty of one other thing, I find it also in the words of Winston Churchill. He said: ‘After the First World War, let us learn our lessons. Never, never believe that any war will be smooth and easy or that anyone who embarks on this strange voyage can measure the tides and the hurricanes. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.’ That is a lesson we are learning again….

“I believe now that we must either determine to (fight more aggressively), or we must redeploy in a way that allows us to continue to prosecute the larger war on terror. It will not be pretty. We will pay a price in world opinion. But I, for one, am tired of paying the price of 10 or more of our troops dying a day. So let's cut and run, or cut and walk, or let us fight the war on terror more intelligently than we have, because we have fought this war in a very lamentable way.

“Those are my feelings. I regret them. I would have never voted for this conflict had I reason to believe that the intelligence we had was not accurate. It was not accurate, but that is history. Now we must find a way to make the best of a terrible situation, at a minimum of loss of life for our brave fighting men and women. So I will be looking for every opportunity to clear, build, hold, and win - or how to bring our troops home.”

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why McCain's "maverick" label no longer applies

At an event last month in New York City, I got into an interesting conversation with some notable journalists. The topic was John McCain. More specifically, the topic was why so many notable journalists give such a free ride to John McCain. And, of course, it only took about 30 seconds before we came up with a consensus answer:

McCain is at ease around journalists, he gives them access, he’s not afraid to think out loud – all of which is so unlike so many contemporary pols, who treat the press like dirt unless they are armed in advance with robotic talking points that are bound to make them look good.

It’s a simple formula, really: Give access, get good press….And it continues to pay off. Even though ’08 GOP candidate McCain continues to curry favor with the religious conservatives leaders whom he once condemned as “the forces of evil,” he is still widely described as a “maverick.” Even though McCain was ranked in 2005 (by as the third most conservative U.S. senator, he is he is still widely described as “independent.” Even though he has flip-flopped lately on a number of issues (he voted against the Bush tax cuts in 2001, but voted to extend them last winter), he is still widely described as a “straight-talker.”

One of his effective selling points, during his failed ’00 presidential bid, was his image as a boat rocker, an insurgent in full cry against the Republican establishment. But now, today, we have further factual evidence that the old labels should not apply. Reports indicate that he has hired, as his 2008 campaign manager, one of the most notorious hardball specialists of the Republican establishment.

Here’s the abridged book on Terry Nelson:

1. Two months ago, Nelson was one of the key GOP consultants who produced the now-famous Tennessee TV ad attacking Democratic senatorial candidate Harold Ford. Ford is black; at the ad’s conclusion, a white actress playing a semi-naked bimbo winked at the camera and said, “Harold. Call me.” The heat over this ad was so intense that Wal-Mart, another of Nelson’s clients, subsequently decided it would be “the right course of action” not to work with him anymore.

2. Three months ago, when the Republicans decided they could not retain the House or Senate unless they dug up personal information against their opponents and launched a massive negative ad blitz, they hired Nelson to run the effort.

3. Last year, when Nelson launched a new firm, Crosslink Strategy Group, he enlisted the aid of Chris LaCivita, one of the ’04 principals behind the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (whose ads were condemned at the time by John McCain).

4. Nelson’s name surfaces repeatedly in the Texas indictment against former House Republican leader Tom DeLay. Nelson has not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing, but the indictment indicates that Nelson, in his capacity as a national Republican official back in September 2002, played a key role in helping DeLay and his money men allegedly evade a Texas law that bans the use of corporate money in Texas campaigns.

5. Nelson’s name also surfaces in the New Hampshire “phone-jamming” case. Late last year, James Tobin, the national GOP’s New England political director, was convicted and jailed for his criminal role in a successful effort to jam Democratic party phone lines and thus impede Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts on election day 2002. Nelson, as the GOP political director, was Tobin’s superior. (A New Hampshire GOP official was also convicted and jailed.) At trial, Nelson was on the prosecutor’s witness list, but he was never called.

McCain first hired Nelson as an advisor last winter, apparently unaware of Nelson’s track record. He said at the time he was unaware, anyway. While appearing last March on a Seattle radio show, a caller quizzed McCain about Nelson, citing some of the examples listed above. McCain’s first response: “None of those charges are true.” Then moments later: “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

Which to me prompts the question, how can he know the charges are untrue, if he’d never heard them before? In any event, assuming that he has learned more about Nelson in the subsequent months, he is clearly not concerned. Today, he said: “I am honored to have Terry’s leadership.”

I’ll stress again: Nelson has not been criminally charged with anything. But, in view of his hardball track record, his presence at McCain’s side is sufficient proof that the “maverick” label no longer applies.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see why the McCain camp has taken Nelson aboard. McCain wants to win; Nelson plays to win. And, to paraphrase a line from the film Apocalypse Now, charging a politico with shady dealings is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Will Bush listen to inconvenient truths?

Everybody seems to be blasting feathers off the lame duck.

For starters, the American electorate, infuriated by the debacle in Iraq, took aim at President Bush four weeks ago today and delivered a decisive no-confidence verdict. Then Robert Gates, the next Defense secretary, auditioned for his new job yesterday on Capitol Hill by (a) flatly contradicting Bush’s Pollyanna spin on the war, and (b) frankly acknowledging the long string of Bush war team blunders.

And now, today, we have the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group (full text found here), which is really an attempt by some grown-ups in the Washington establishment to pierce the Decider’s protective bubble and offer some reality-based advice - even at the risk of telling him some inconvenient truths that, even now, he may not not want to hear. Indeed, the big story in the days and weeks ahead is whether Bush will welcome new thinking, or simply take refuge in his old certitudes.

He was talking a new game at the White House this morning; one line was particularly amusing: “The country, in my judgment, is tired of pure political bickering that happens in Washington, and they understand that on this important issue of war and peace, it is best for our country to work together.” It’s good that he feels that way, since so much of the “pure political bickering” on the issue of war and peace was fostered by the Bush administration, which, this past summer, was still suggesting that those who opposed the White House approach to Iraq were defeatists and appeasers.

Anyway, this morning he lauded the Iraq Study Group for floating “some really very interesting proposals,” which, in translation, means that he of course reserves the right to reject whatever he doesn’t like. And there is plenty of stuff that he won’t like, starting with the recommendation that he bulk up on the diplomatic front by initiating “new and enhanced” efforts to negotiate with the evil-doers in Iran and Syria; and that he establish a goal of phasing out most U.S. combat troops by early 2008, barely a year from now.

Regarding the latter recommendation, it sounds a lot like cut-and-walk; in the words of the Study Group’s executive summary, we need “a change in the primary mission…that will enable the United States to begin to move its combat forces out of Iraq responsibly.” This sounds suspiciously like a prescription for a graceful exit; the problem, however, is that the man who constitutionally remains commander-in-chief until January 2009 signaled last week that he rejects the idea of any graceful exit.

Politicians in Washington have long hoped that the Study Group, headed by ex-Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton and ex-Secretary of State James Baker (a senior George Bush insider who is trying to clean up the son’s mess), would somehow conjure some magical solutions for Iraq. Clearly that hasn’t happened, largely because the White House’s neoconservative dream has devolved into such a nightmare. At this point in the spreading civil war, it is fanciful to believe that any magic can be conjured by anyone in Washington, because Washington is not in control of events on the ground in Iraq.

Hence the humble tone in the Study Group’s executive summary; referring to its own recommendations, it says: “All have flaws…There is no magic formula to solve the problems of Iraq.” Hence the carefully hedged remarks in the report, which says, for example, that combat troops should be phased out, but not in accordance with any timeline. In the words of Andrew Bacevich, a national security expert and retired Army lieutenant colonel, almost any recommendations at this point would be “laughably inadequate….One might as well spit on a bonfire.”

The Study Group recommendations, most of which have been leaked in recent weeks, have already drawn fire from both the left and right. Antiwar liberals are attacking the report for recommending a long-term (albeit reduced) U.S. military presence in Iraq, while the unrepentant hawks on the right are ridiculing Baker and Hamilton for suggesting that, in the interests of stabilizing Iraq, Bush should negotiate with Iran and Syria, both of which are members of the “axis of evil.”

Nevertheless, most Americans are hungry for new thinking; in the latest Harris poll, only 26 percent (a record low) support Bush’s handling of the war. This suggests that Baker and Hamilton have the upper hand, politically speaking, in their efforts to talk sense to the president. Basically, these Washington establishment figures see wisdom in phasing out the U.S. combat role and stressing diplomatic initiatives - and those stances are endorsed by most Americans and by most congressional Democrats. The risk for Bush is that, if he rejects these ideas and retreats to his bubble, many of his fellow Republicans, fearful of an ’08 defeat, might bail out as well, leaving him increasingly isolated – and with his international credibility further diminished.

Baker and Hamilton, despite their hedged prose, have thrown down the gauntlet to Bush. There is a clear warning in the executive summary that he should not simply cherry pick the recommendations that he likes while spurning the stuff he doesn’t want to hear. Baker and Hamilton flatly contend that we can’t salvage the Iraq disaster unless Bush accepts their advice on all fronts: “(These) recommendations….are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation.”

One wonders how Robert Gates, the next Pentagon chief, will react if Bush defies the Baker-Hamilton suggestions and sinks further into the desert sands. As evidenced by Gates’ statements yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, he now officially on record as an open critic of Bush’s war stewardship and his rhetorical spin.

Asked whether we are winning in Iraq, Gates said, “No, sir,” which is a far cry from Bush’s October declaration that “absolutely, we are winning.” (Gates and the Study Group are in sync; Baker and Hamilton say the situation in Iraq is "grave and deteriorating.") Asked whether invading Iraq was a good idea in hindsight, Gates said, “That’s a judgment the historians are going to have to make,” which is a far cry from the Bush-Cheney contention that they made the right call in 2003 and still think so today.

He also said that we sent insufficient troops to stabilize the country after the invasion (a direct slap at his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld), and he said it was the wrong call to disband the Iraqi Army, a move that fueled the ranks of the Sunni insurgents. And he rebuked the neoconservative hawks who today think it might be a good idea to invade Iran, by deftly dumping on the prewar optimists of 2003: “I think that we have seen in Iraq that once war is unleashed, it becomes unpredictable.”

Back in the distant days when Bush was riding high, when cowed critics were deemed to be lacking in patriotism, this kind of candor by an aspiring Bush official would have been inconceivable. But we are in a different era now. The political test for Bush, as autumn turns to winter, is whether he recognizes that fundamental fact.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Florida again: the mysterious case of the vanishing votes

The widening civil war in Iraq (or, as President Bush prefers to calls it, “the young democracy”) will continue to dominate the news this week, as we await the official release of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. In the meantime, however, a fascinating – albeit underreported – story is unfolding right here in the old democracy, one of those high-tech nightmares that voting experts have long been warning us about.

In a print column last month, after noting that nine separate reports have found fundamental flaws in the new-fangled electronic touch screen machines, I concluded that “a festering problem could well become a future crisis.” Well, it turns out the crisis is at hand right now, on a blessedly small scale, in the southern Florida congressional district that includes Sarasota. We can at least be grateful that, on Nov. 7, control of the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t hinge on the results of a single seat, because, if it had, Sarasota right now would be ground zero in a national psychodrama.

Just do the math: Back on Nov. 20, Florida state election officials decreed that Republican congressional candidate Vern Buchanan was the winner in the 13th congressional district, topping Democrat Christine Jennings by 369 votes. The problem – the enduring mystery, actually – is that nearly 18,000 touch screen voters in Sarasota County went to the polls, and chose their favorite candidates in all the major races…except in the hotly-contested, high-publicized congressional race. According to the touch screen machines, 18,000 people somehow skipped the Buchanan-Jennings contest.

All told, about 15 percent of the voters in Sarasota decided not to choose between Buchanan and Jennings – according to the machines, anyway. Yet elsewhere in the congressional district, the percentage of people who skipped that race was much lower, anywhere from two to five percent. Nobody has yet explained this stark discrepancy, but it’s clear that Jennings, the Democrat, has a major stake in finding out what happened – because, as the Orlando Sentinel has already reported, those 18,000 voters were predominantly Democratic, strongly backing virtually all the other Democratic candidates, up and down the ballot.

Many voters have come forward in recent days to complain that they tried to vote for Jennings, but discovered that their preference was not recorded when the machine displayed a review screen. Jennings is suing for a new election, and she is suing the touch screen manufacturer, Electronic Systems & Software, alleging “evidence of machine malfunction.” The state’s initial probes have not uncovered any malfunctions, but the authors of those aforementioned nine reports (at Stanford and Princeton and Johns Hopkins, among other esteemed locales) have all warned that these machines are prone to either lose votes or simply fail to register votes.

And the post-election probe is hindered by the fact that these machines lack any kind of backup paper trail. Well, what a surprise. Congress has spent the last three years sitting on a bill that would require paper trails on the new touch screens, and now here we are. In addition, we now have a new federal draft report, issued last Thursday, which concludes that paperless electronic voting machines “cannot be made secure.” In the words of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency, the absence of a paper trail “is one of the main reasons behind continued questions about voting system security and diminished public confidence in elections.”

ES&S, the touch screen manufacturer, issued this statement the other day, absolving themselves of blame for the mystery results in Sarasota: "Testing and recounts conducted by Sarasota County and the state have both shown that the touch-screen voting system used in Sarasota County accurately records and tabulates voter selections. Specifically, Sarasota County has conducted a recount - as required by state law. That recount confirmed election day results from the touch screen machines.”

The problem, however, is that this recount was essentially worthless. All it means is that the elections officials recounted the actual votes that the Sarasota machines had already recorded, as opposed to all those they may have failed to record. These are precisely the kinds of “software dependent” machines that NIST, the federal agency, wants to abolish – because they provide no paper trail that could help auditors determine what really happened.

The Republicans and their supporters, meanwhile, have come up with a number of curious arguments that seek to explain away the mystery of the “undervotes”. Buchanan, the certified winner of the election, suggested to the Associated Press that 18,000 Sarasota voters chose to skip the race out of protest, simply because they were “turned off by negative campaigning.” The flaw in that explanation is obvious. Why would predominantly Democratic voters in one county be three to six times more likely to be “turned off by negative campaigning” than the voters in the congressional district’s other three counties?

Charles Stewart III, a voting technology expert and political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has filed a brief on Jennings’ behalf. He summarily rejects the negative-campaign argument: “Evidence that such alternative explanations were causing high undervote rates would have shown up throughout the district, not just in a single county, and not just in one type of voting machine in one county.”

Then we have the Wall Street Journal editorial page, an outpost of the conservative media that has long been known for coming up short on fundamental factual homework. Here’s what the editorialists said last Friday: “if anyone ought to be complaining about undervotes, it’s the GOP. Sarasota is the largest and most Republican country in the district…which makes it more likely that it was Republicans who declined to vote in the congressional race, not Democrats.”

Somehow the editorialists missed the Orlando Sentinel’s report, eight days earlier, which documented that the undervoters were predominantly Democratic. And the Journal neglected to mention that, among all the recorded votes, Democrat Jennings defeated Republican Buchanan in Sarasota County by 52 to 47 percent -- thereby feeding Jennings’ argument that she might have won the election if all votes had been properly counted. Stewart, the MIT expert, agrees; if not for “factors related to machine malfunction,” he contends that Jennings would have won the election, albeit narrowly.

The general public may not be watching this story closely, but the political community certainly is. The topic came up last Thursday at a Washington confab, while I was in attendance. Larry Sabato, the noted University of Virginia pundit, was incensed at the prospect that so many votes had been lost: "It's really outrageous....Imagine how you would feel if that happened in your state or congressional district."

And one of his panelists, former Republican National Committee attorney Michael Toner, while not necessarily endorsing the machine-glitch scenario, said that the United States lags far behind other western democracies "in the professionalization of its elections." Most of the people manning the polling places, he said, are basically "70-year-old volunteers who are making maybe $6 an hour," and are therefore ill-qualified to master and oversee these patently flawed touch screen machines. (Actually, it's worse than that. The feds have yet to put in place a certification procedure that would vet - or question - the reliability of these machines.)

So what happens next in Florida? A state audit of the machines is in the works, Buchanan is setting up his Washington office, while Jennings (who refuses to concede) is demanding that ES&S give up its “source codes,” the proprietary information that would allow independent investigators to probe inside the actual machines. What a mess. Let’s just hope that the latest Florida flap is not just a gruesome dry run for the 2008 presidential election.

And we have been warned enough already; as the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress concluded one year ago, “problems with the security and reliability of electronic voting systems (are) potentially affecting the reliability of future elections, and voter confidence in the accuracy of the vote count.”

Let’s hope the Iraqis with the purple fingers don’t hear about this one.