Friday, December 22, 2006

Hillary's electability: conventional wisdom trumps an inconvenient poll

As I mentioned in a print column not long ago, the conventional wisdom persists that prospective presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is not electable in 2008. Since I consider that assumption to be highly flawed, I was therefore eager to read the current edition of Newsweek, which features a cover story on the same topic.

I finally made time to read it last night. The article was quite skeptical about Clinton’s chances, citing the considerable “anti-Hillary sentiment in the country. The key passage: “A recent Marist Poll showed that 47 percent of respondents nationwide ‘definitely will not consider’ voting for her, a percentage that alarms some former aides to President Clinton. Those numbers will need to change for Democratic primary voters -- now comfortable with assessing electability -- to move her way.”

But there’s a big problem with the Newsweek story: The magazine had, in its possession, the results of its own new national poll…showing that, when Clinton is matched against John McCain, she currently beats him by seven points; and that, when she is matched against Rudy Giuliani, she beats him by one point; and that, when she is matched against Mitt Romney, she slaughters him by 26 points.

And yet Newsweek decided not to include this information in its skeptical take on Clinton’s electability.

I know about these poll results only because Newsweek shared its poll results in a separate press release ballyhooing the cover story. Check out the release here. You will need to scroll 60 percent of the way down the page to the fine print.

Hence, my question: Why would Newsweek run a Clinton electability story without including its own latest poll numbers?

It turns out that others were wondering as well. Newsweek editor Jon Meacham gave media watchdog Greg Sargent an explanation a few days ago: “(The Newsweek poll) numbers were eight, nine, 10 days old. This poll was in the field on Wednesday and Thursday (Dec. 6 and 7). The numbers informed our reporting; we routinely poll on questions that we may not end up specifically citing in the issue.”

That defense doesn’t hold water. If he was so concerned that his own Hillary-favorable poll numbers were “old,” then why did the story cite Hillary-averse poll numbers that were even older? The Marist survey, described in the story s “recent,” was actually conducted in late November.

Meacham also said suggested that “horse race” polls, pitting candidates against each other, are essentially meaningless at this point, and hence not necessarily worth citing. True enough, they do need to be viewed skeptically. But it nevertheless seems worth noting that Hillary Clinton’s horse race numbers have markedly improved. She trailed McCain throughout 2006 in the early match-up surveys – yet now, according to Newsweek, she is ahead. (And another new poll, this one by CNN, now shows her dead even with McCain and two points up on Giuliani.)

I’d suggest two reasons for this potential trend that Newsweek did not find relevent to its story: Starting with the elections on Nov. 7, the overall political landscape has shifted in favor of the Democrats, and as a result a sizeable share of voters now seem willing to view Clinton more favorably. Secondly, McCain in particular appears to have lost some ground with independent voters, which should be no surprise, given his strong rightward tilt and his support for a U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq that draws support from roughly 12 percent of Americans.

The point is, political moods are fluid and changeable (obviously, they could change again), and for those reasons it would appear that Newsweek missed an opportunity to add necessary nuance to its own work. Especially since it had paid for those poll numbers. But its glaring omission will only feed the flawed convention wisdom about Clinton’s purportedly high hurdle.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

He was for deferring to the military, before he was against it

In my Tuesday post, I revisited an ’05 speech by President Bush, to demonstrate the perishable quality of his Iraq rhetoric. And today, in the wake of the latest news about his contemplated troop “surge,” I will demonstrate again that what he said in the past apparently means little today.

Remember how he has always said that, on the issue of troop levels in Iraq, he defers to the wisdom of his military commanders in the field? Here’s just a recent sampling:

Dec. 4, 2006: “The force size will depend on conditions on the ground, and upon the recommendations of our commanders on the ground, absolutely.”

April 6, 2006: “I remember coming up in the Vietnam War and it seemed like that there was a -- during the Vietnam War, there was a lot of politicization (in Washington) of the military decisions. That's not going to be the case under my administration.” And if the military tells him that it can live with more troops or fewer troops, “that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Jan. 1, 2006: “I'm going to continue to rely upon those commanders, such as General Casey…(to) determine the number of troops we have on the ground in Iraq.”

June 28, 2005: “Sending more Americans would undermine our strategy of encouraging Iraqis to take the lead in this fight. And sending more Americans would suggest that we intend to stay forever, when we are, in fact, working for the day when Iraq can defend itself and we can leave. As we determine the right force level, our troops can know that I will continue to be guided by the advice that matters: the sober judgment of our military leaders.”

April 22, 2004, via flak Scott McClellan: “He looks to our commanders in the theater to make (troop) determinations, in terms of what is needed.”

Well, apparently Bush was in favor of deferring to his military leaders before he was against it. Because in his year-end press conference yesterday, while discussing the potential for a troop “surge” (one that is reportedly opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by the soon-to-be-retiring Gen. John Abizaid, and perhaps by other commanders in the field), Bush declined to repeat what he has always said before, about deferring to military opinion.

This time, all he said was this: “The opinion of my commanders is very important. They are bright, capable, smart people whose opinion matters to me a lot."

But the killer quote came from this anonymous Bush official, speaking to The Washington Post: “He (Bush) has never left the decision to commanders. He is the commander in chief. But he has said he will listen to those commanders when making these decisions. That hasn't changed.” (In other words, drop all previous Bush statements into the Orwellian memory hole. The new talking point is: He doesn’t “continue to rely” on the commanders to determine troop levels at all…in fact, he has never continued to rely on the commanders.)

Anyway, in political terms, Bush’s problem isn’t with the commanders. If he overrules their counsel, they’ll zip it and obey. No, his problem will be keeping his restive fellow Republicans in line. Unlike Bush, they still have to run for re-election, and they don’t want his Iraq debacle to be hung around their necks while he goes home to plan his presidential library.

A couple Fridays ago, for instance, I mentioned that GOP Senator Gordon Smith of Oregon, who has to run again in ’08, had eviscerated Bush in a Senate floor speech, contending that the president’s war strategy in Iraq “may even be criminal.” I suggested that Smith probably would be joined by other Republicans down the road. Now he has, at least on the “surge” issue.

Yesterday, GOP Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota – you guessed it, he also has to run again in ’08 – announced that he would "stand against" a troop increase, because “I think it would create more targets. I think we would put more life at risk.”

When these kinds of Republicans go public in this manner, it’s a true sign that the wheels have come off. Ditto Rich Lowry, the conservative commentator. He just wrote a piece (hat tip to Howie Kurtz on this one) basically acknowledging that the mainstream media…drum roll…has accurately reported on the dire state of affairs in Iraq, and that his conservative brethren, who have “lost touch with reality in Iraq,” should learn how to deal with it. The last three grafs go to Lowry:

“Most of the pessimistic warnings from the mainstream media have turned out to be right — that the initial invasion would be the easy part, that seeming turning points (the capture of Saddam, the elections, the killing of Zarqawi) were illusory, that the country was dissolving into a civil war….

“The ‘good news’ that conservatives have accused the media of not reporting has generally been pretty weak. The Iraqi elections were indeed major accomplishments. But the opening of schools and hospitals is not particularly newsworthy, at least not compared with American casualties and with sectarian attacks meant to bring Iraq down around everyone’s heads in a full-scale civil war….

“(R)ealism is essential in any war, and it is impossible without an ability to assimilate bad news, even bad news that comes from distasteful sources. Conservatives need to realize that something is not dubious just because it’s reported by the New York Times, and that the media ultimately will be wrong about Iraq only if - fully acknowledging how bad it is there- the Bush administration takes bold steps to reverse the tide.”


Meanwhile, is there any room on the next Saturday Night Live for a Sandy Berger skit?

It seems that Bill Clinton’s former national security advisor did some creative subterfuge back in 2003, when he swiped some classified material from the National Archives. According to a report released yesterday by the Archives’ inspector general, Berger (who pled guilty to a misdemeanor last year) hid the documents under a trailer at a nearby construction site, then returned a few days later to retrieve them and destroy a few.

But the real fascination is with his socks; specifically, the unresolved debate over whether Berger was seen at the Archives trying to slip some classified material into his socks (as a witness contends), or whether (as Berger contends), he was merely trying to adjust the hosiery because (as the report put it) “his shoes frequently come untied and his socks frequently fall down.”

I suppose this might prompt a sober debate over what is the best type of undergarment for document theft – Sandy Berger’s socks, or Fawn Hall’s bra? (As Oliver North’s secretary, she allegedly spirited away some of his materials back in ’87.) But when thinking only of the physical comedy possibilities involving a guy screwing up with his socks falling down, I am left to ask only this:

Where’s Chevy Chase when we need him most?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Remember that "Plan for Victory" in November '05?....Oh. You don't?

Much ink and air time has been expended lately on the fact that President Bush chose to postpone, until after the holidays, his long-awaited speech on “the way forward” in Iraq.

For instance, the White House press corps has been peppering spokesman Tony Snow about the delay, and Snow has assured everybody that the Decider is just being deliberative: “This is not not knowing what he wants to do; this is out of an absolute determination to do this right, making sure that he is absolutely convinced that the pieces have been put together, he's gotten the best advice, he's gotten the best facts, and that he now has the policy that he thinks will be the best to move forward.”

What puzzles me, however, is why anyone at this point would assume that anything Bush says is going to (a) break new strategic ground, or (b) quell the sectarian chaos, or (c) lodge in the American memory. On the contrary, we seem to have forgotten that he has delivered dozens of speeches on Iraq over the past few years, most of them instantly forgotten, with nary a phrase that can be invoked years from now as testaments to either his eloquence or prescience.

So as we all brace for the next one, the post-holiday address that may well unveil “the surge,” perhaps it is best to dampen expectations by revisiting one of his earlier, much-awaited rhetorical forays, and taking note of its remarkably short shelf life, its yawning chasm between assertion and fact.

It was just over a year ago, on Nov. 30, 2005, when Bush outlined what he called his “strategy for victory” (not to be confused with the January 2007 strategy for victory), during a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. He said, for instance, “we are pursuing a comprehensive strategy in Iraq….On the security side, coalition and Iraqi security forces are on the offensive against the enemy.” He said that “Iraqi forces have made real progress,” and that “they’re helping to turn the tide of this struggle in freedom’s favor.”

That was good for one news cycle. The problem is, those words are worthless today; not even his own military leaders bother to endorse any talk about turning the tide. As Marine Lt. Gen. John Sattler, director of strategic plans and policy for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday, during a briefing on the Pentagon’s latest quarterly report on Iraq, “The violence has escalated at an unbelievably rapid pace. We have to get ahead of that violent cycle, break that continuous chain of sectarian violence.”

Flash back again to that speech one year ago. At another point, Bush lauded the training of Iraqi police officers: “Iraq has now six basic police academies, and one in Jordan, that together produce over 3500 new police officers every ten weeks…As the training has improved, so has the quality of the recruits being trained. Even though the terrorists are targeting Iraqi police and army recruits, there is no shortage of Iraqis who are willing to risk their lives to secure the future of a free Iraq.”

But again, today’s factual reality has rendered those words inoperative. The new Pentagon report frankly points out that many of those ballyhooed police officers are helping the sectarian killers roam at will: “Shia death squads leveraged support from some elements of the Iraqi Police Services and the National Police, who facilitated freedom of movement and provided advance warning of (security) operations. This is a major reason for the increased levels of murders and executions.”

Here, too, is Bush one year ago: “Iraqi (military) units are growing more independent and more capable; they are defending their new democracy with courage and determination….their confidence is growing…”

But yesterday, Sattler said that even though the number of trained Iraqi forces was expected this month to reach 325,000, the number of available troops – after factoring in all the Iraqis who are “on leave” or who have quit – is actually only 196,000. And as for those aforementioned well-trained police units, the number of battalions deemed ready for “lead responsibility” fell during the autumn season from six to two.

One year ago, Bush also declared that “people are expressing their opinions freely on the streets of Baghdad,” a remark that today might well puzzle the people of Baghdad, who seem to be mostly preoccupied with staying alive. The Pentagon report notes that, last January, there were 180 sectarian “executions,” mostly in Baghdad; during the month of October, the number was 1028.

Bush also said, in that ’05 speech, that “we’re also helping (the Iraqi troops) build a democracy that is worthy of their sacrifice…the Iraqi people have made incredible progress on the road to lasting freedom.” Contrast that assertion with today’s factual reality; yesterday, Peter Rodman, an assistant Defense Secretary, told reporters that the ever-escalating violence is now “shaking the institutions” of our client government.

But perhaps the striking aspect of the Naval Academy speech is the material that isn’t there at all.

That day, Bush blamed the violence in Iraq on what he called three distinct groups: the Sunni Arabs who had lost the “privileged status” they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein; the Hussein loyalists who had held power under Hussein; and al Qaeda fighters. Yet there was no mention of the growing presence of the violent Shiite militias (major players in the sectarian civil war of 2006). In particular, Bush said nothing about the Mahdi Army (controlled by a cleric who is close to the Iraqi prime minister), even though that militia was already a prominent force in the streets. It is cited by the Pentagon today as perhaps the greatest threat to security in Iraq.

In other words, no speech at this point can be expected to “turn the tide,” not when the facts on the ground are clearly beyond his control. Most Americans sense this as well; in the latest CNN poll, 70 percent oppose his handling of Iraq, a record high.

Nor can we assume that Bush’s potential “surge” of additional troops will fundamentally change those facts; Pentagon official Sattler didn’t seem to think so yesterday: “I don’t know how many forces you could push into a country, either U.S. or coalition or Iraqi forces, that could cover the whole country, where these death squads couldn’t find somebody.”

And now, in the wake of reports that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are skeptical about the workability of a “surge,” Bush has actually reached a fascinating juncture. Would he deliver a speech that overrules the military? Back in that ’05 speech, he said: “If our military leaders tell me we need more troops, I will send them” – but what happens if they tell him NOT to send more troops?

Maybe in January he will simply declare, “I will settle for nothing less than complete victory.” That’s what he said at the Naval Academy. If he uses it again, we will know that none of the evidence from the reality-based community has made a dent.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Our democratic ideals at work

Regrettably, blog posts will be brief and sporadic this week. Other pressing work duties require me to take this temporary measure.

So, two quick items today:

1. Here’s a fresh take on President Bush’s freedom agenda, courtesy of a Navy vet who went to Iraq two years ago as a security contractor. After blowing the whistle on yet another corruption case – his company was apparently selling weapons to Iraqi officials with ties to the death squads – Donald Vance wound up in a military brig for 97 days, without access to a defense attorney or to the evidence that the U.S. had compiled against him. (It turned out there was no such evidence.)

Here’s what Vance says today: “Even Saddam Hussein had more legal counsel than I ever had. While we were detained, we wrote a letter to the camp commandant stating that the same democratic ideals we are trying to instill in the fledgling democratic country of Iraq, from simple due process to the Magna Carta, we are absolutely, positively refusing to follow ourselves.”

When a Navy vet/security contractor starts talking like a board member of the ACLU, you know that something must be amiss. Vance is also intending to sue Donald Rumsfeld, who would probably respond by saying that you go to war with the protections we provide you, not the ones you might want or wish to have at a later time.

2. The quote of the day, on the Sunday shows, was uttered by Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. Referring to Iraq, and his possible support for a temporary "surge" of additional troops, Reid stated: “The American people will not allow this war to go on as it has.”

The American people won’t “allow” it? What a quaint sentiment. Since when do they have a say?

Even though the ’06 elections were a decisive rebuke of Bush’s war policies, even though most people support a drawdown of U.S. troops, and even though only 12 percent want to send more troops, Bush is nevertheless preparing to send more anyway, as part of his “way forward” to “victory.”

The American people sent Bush a clear message – Bush in the past has defined an election as “an accountability moment” – but thus far it hasn’t mattered a whit. What does this say about the “democratic ideals” that Donald Vance was talking about?