Friday, April 20, 2007

An insider's take on Fredo's "damning dereliction"

As the preeminent poster child for Bush administration incompetence, attorney general Alberto “Fredo” Gonzales has actually performed an important public service. In his long-awaited Senate testimony yesterday, the president’s crony repeatedly demonstrated – via lapses of memory, and sporadic bursts of damaging candor – all the myriad ways that this lame-duck regime has laid waste to yet another once-proud federal institution, in this case the U.S. Department of Justice.

It is tempting to deconstruct Gonzales’ fumbling attempts to rationalize the firings of the eight federal prosecutors (many of whom were either investigating Republicans during an election season, or were deemed to be investigating Democrats with insufficient zeal). But such an effort on my part would probably constitute a violation of the Eighth Amendment guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment.

After all, even Republicans told CNN yesterday that poking holes in the Gonzales narrative was the equivalent of clubbing a baby seal. Suffice it to say (for now) that the best defense offered yesterday by the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, when he wasn’t invoking “I can’t recall” more than 50 times, was that he had no idea what his own top aides were doing as they plotted the unprecedented firings, that he had no idea where the original hit list came from – and that, even now, even after weeks of prepping for his testimony, he still can’t explain the reasons for the firings. (By the way, President Bush said yesterday that he was “pleased” with Gonzales’ testimony, a statement which should rank with “Heckuva job, Brownie.”)

So rather than recite his embarrassments at length, I’d like to yield the floor to Daniel Metcalfe, who is well qualified to provide the big picture. Metcalfe, who describes himself as “a purposely non-partisan registered independent,” is a career public servant who worked at the Justice Department for nearly 36 years – under five Republican presidents and two Democratic presidents – as a trial attorney and later as a Freedom of Information specialist. He retired in January, which is why he now feels free to talk. In a long interview the other day with Legal Times, he minced no words in explaining why the prosecutor purge scandal is important, and, more broadly, why the Bush regime should be viewed as uniquely destructive.

I’ll excerpt his remarks at length:

“(T)his is a Cabinet department that, for good reason, prides itself on the high-quality administration of justice, regardless of who is in the White House. Ever since the Watergate era, when Edward Levi came in as attorney general to replace former Sen. William Saxby soon after Nixon resigned, the Justice Department maintained a healthy distance between it and what could be called the raw political concerns that are properly within the White House's domain….More recently, of course, the DOJ-White House distance hit its all-time high-water mark under Janet Reno, especially during Clinton's second term. And even (first Bush AG) John Ashcroft made it clear to all department employees that, among other things, he held that traditional distance in proper reverence…

“But that strong tradition of independence over the previous 30 years was shattered in 2005 with the arrival of the White House counsel (Gonzales) as a second-term AG. All sworn assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, it was as if the White House and Justice Department now were artificially tied at the hip….I attended many meetings in which this total lack of distance became quite clear, as if the current crop of political appointees in those offices weren't even aware of the important administration-of-justice principles that they were trampling.

“This matters greatly to Justice Department employees of my generation. They are now the senior career cadre there, with the high-grade institutional knowledge that carries the department from one administration to the next, and when they see a new attorney general come from the White House Counsel's Office with a wave of young ‘Bushies’ in tow and find their worst expectations quickly met, they just as quickly lose respect for nearly all of the department's political leadership, not to mention that leadership's ‘policy concerns.’ That respect is a vital thing, as fragile as it is essential, and now it's gone.”

Metcalfe views the purge scandal as a toxic mix of incompetence and ideological fervor:

“(I worked for) more than a dozen attorneys general, including (Reagan’s) Ed Meese as well as (Nixon’s) John Mitchell, and I used to think that they had politicized the department more than anyone could or should. But nothing compares to the past two years under Alberto Gonzales….(E)ven Ashcroft brought in political aides who in large measure were experienced in government functioning. Ashcroft's Justice Department appointees, with few exceptions, were not the type of people who caused you to wonder what they were doing there. They might not have been firm believers in the importance of government, but generally speaking, there was a very respectable level of competence (in some instances even exceptionally so) and a relatively strong dedication to quality government, as far as I could see.

“Under Gonzales, though, almost immediately from the time of his arrival in February 2005, this changed quite noticeably….(M)ost significantly for present purposes, there was an almost immediate influx of young political aides beginning in the first half of 2005 (e.g., counsels to the AG, associate deputy attorneys general, deputy associate attorneys general, and deputy assistant attorneys general) whose inexperience in the processes of government was surpassed only by their evident disdain for it…

“I found it not at all surprising that the recent U.S. Attorney problems arose in the first place and then were so badly mishandled once they did….No longer was emphasis placed on accomplishing something with the highest-quality product in a timely fashion; rather, it became a matter of making sure that a ‘consensus’ was achieved, regardless of how long that might take and with little or no concern that quality would suffer in such a ‘lowest common denominator’ environment.

“And heaven help anyone, career or non-career employee, if that ‘consensus’ did not include whatever someone in the White House might think about something, be it large, small or medium-sized…

“(I)t became quite clear that under Gonzales, the department placed no more than secondary value on the standards that I and my office had valued so heavily for the preceding 25 years -- accuracy, integrity, responsibility and quality of decision-making being chief among them.”

Therefore, Metcalfe concludes, the attorney general’s “most damning dereliction” is that Kyle Sampson allowed unqualified underlings (whom Metcalfe describes as “too subject-matter ignorant to even realize how ignorant they are”) to cook up the prosecutor purge – even though “the end result was something that even he could not fully explain.”

True enough. My favorite Gonzales line yesterday: "This was a process that was ongoing that I did not have transparency into."

In the long run, said career professional Metcalfe, Gonzales will have to be long gone before the DOJ can “at least begin the process of restoring the department’s previous reputation for political independence and the reliably even-handed administration of justice.” Indeed, he said, the DOJ is in dire need of “Watergate-style repair.”

Which brings us back to one classic moment in Gonzales’ testimony. Midway through his morning ordeal, he declared to the senators: “When you attack the department for being partisan, you're really attacking the career professionals.” By saying that, was he being willfully cynical – or cluelessly incompetent? Because as Metcalfe (and others) have already demonstrated, it’s the career professionals who have been most victimized during Gonzales’ tenure, precisely because they have struggled to remain non-partisan.

Gonzales’ bid to hide behind the “career professionals” echoes Bush’s ongoing attempts to defend his war by hiding behind the troops. The two cronies are indistinguishable. Their talking points are the same; their governing styles are the same.

And remember, it was Bush who was really on the hot seat yesterday. The buck stops with him. As he put it yesterday (via CNN), in his inimitable style, "My job is a job to make decisions. I’m a decision — if the job description were, what do you do — it’s decision-maker."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

This is why elections matter - and why the high court matters at election time

The U.S. Supreme Court’s historic decision to criminalize late-term abortions – a ruling that further imperils the legal right to abortion, as codified in Roe v. Wade - is vivid proof that elections do make a difference, and that the high court’s composition deserves top-tier ranking as a campaign issue.

Back in 2000, when George W. Bush was pitted against Al Gore, it was widely believed that it wouldn’t really matter which guy won the race. Ralph Nader was hardly the only person who believed that there was scant difference between the two major parties, and their respective nominees.

The nation was at peace, the economy was decent, Bush and Gore were competing for moderate swing voters remember “compassionate conservatism?”), and a lot of people noted that, especially on pocketbook issues, the two candidates seemed barely indistinguishable: they both embraced free trade, endorsed a balanced budget, and believed that quality education was crucial in the high-tech era. Those prospective voters who were paying sporadic attention might well have concluded that the main difference between Bush and Gore was that the former seemed a tad light in intellect, and that the latter seemed insufferably superior in manner.

Yet there were fundamental differences. Gore, long before he won the nomination, tried to sound the alarm in Iowa about one crucial issue: “If you want a Supreme Court majority that is keeping with the philosophy of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, that is what is at stake in this election.” He was arguing that if voters wanted to protect (among other things) the right of women to make private decisions about their own bodies, then voters should choose the Democratic nominee in 2000; but if they wanted those rights curbed or eliminated, they should vote GOP in 2000.

At various junctures in that election campaign, candidates and activists and outside observers (myself included) pointed out that Bill Clinton’s successor would have the opportunity to shape the high court for a generation; that four of the nine judges at the time were at least 65 years old; that three of those oldsters – John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – were longstanding supporters of the Roe ruling; and that the next president would likely get the chance to tap several like-minded nominees.

GOP candidate Bush, with his eye on suburban swing voters that year, repeatedly sought to downplay the court issue, insisting that America “wasn’t ready” for a Roe repeal, and that he merely wanted to defuse the polarized discussion. But activists in Gore’s camp didn’t buy it, and tried to argue that voters should view the future of the high court as a major campaign issue; as academic Carole Joffe contended a month before the 2000 election, “Neither Bush’s evasive chirping about how good people can disagree when he is asked about abortion at a national forum, nor Nader’s impatient dismissal of the differences between Bush and Gore, should blind supporters of reproductive freedom to the stakes in this election. They are monumental.”

But the future of the high court never became a major issue; Bush and Gore basically split the vote in the suburbs, where abortion rights are generally viewed sympathetically, and they split the women’s vote as well. Nor was the high court’s composition a major issue in the 2004 race; neither John Kerry, nor President Bush, talked about it much, even though it was again clear that the direction of the closely-divided bench might well depend on who won that November.

And now we have fresh evidence that the high court, and the president who staffs it, matter greatly.

Yesterday, thanks to the votes of Bush appointees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, the court narrowly decreed – for the very first time – that an abortion procedure should be banned with no exceptions for safeguarding the woman’s health. Seven years ago, in a similar case, the court rejected that thinking; the swing vote was O'Connor. Now she's gone, replaced by Bush appointee Alito. He swung the other way.

The new majority overruled the decisions by six different federal courts, and swept aside longstanding evidence compiled by medical experts (notably the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), who had argued that relatively rare late-term abortions (known in medical parlance as “intact dilation and extractions”) might sometimes be necessary to protect the health of women suffering from high-risk pregnancies. Until yesterday, the high court over the past three decades had decreed that any restrictions on the right to abortion must include a legal waiver if a woman's physical or emotional health was imperiled; not so anymore. And, as a result of this ruling, anti-abortion activists feel emboldened to push for more.

Since this is hardly the first time that the judges have demonstrated its influence on the everyday lives of Americans, how come the high court’s composition has never been of paramount interest to voters? And - given what happened yesterday, and given the fact that the GOP might be one John Paul Stevens illness away from finally zeroing in on Roe, is it conceivable that the court could become a top-tier issue in 2008?

I’ve been tracking this lack of voter interest since I started covering national politics back in 1992. The judges at that time were also chipping away at Roe, but when I asked some smart people whether the high court was therefore emerge as a major issue, they dismissed the idea. William Galston, a political analyst and occasional Clinton adviser that year, said it best: “I remember when I was a campaign adviser to (Democratic nominee) Walter Mondale in 1984, and Mondale worked hard to play the Supreme Court card (against Ronald Reagan), but it didn’t work. Or course, that year, a Democratic ticket of Jesus and Moses wouldn’t have gotten 45 percent against Reagan. Still, as an issue, it doesn’t work. Fear of the future isn’t as potent as something based on current experience. People are going to be fixated on what’s wrong right now.”

Even dedicated court-watchers tend to agree with that view. In the autumn of 2004, with Bush and Kerry battling, Elliot Mincberg of the liberal People for the American Way told me that, as an issue, the high court “doesn’t have the immediacy of Iraq or the economy. It doesn’t lend itself to the daily back-and-forth of a campaign, because maybe court appointees won’t happen at all, or maybe it’ll take five years for a new majority to coalesce.” In addition, as I have often been told, Americans generally don’t like to see the high court brought into politics, because they prefer to view the judiciary as being independent and separate from the partisan fray. (Even though it isn’t.)

Some women’s rights groups are now hoping that the high court will play well as an issue next year, that yesterday’s ruling will underscore the future stakes for female swing voters in particular. And they’re only mirroring sentiment among their opponents, who have long believed that shaping the judiciary should be a top-tier political crusade. Given the high court’s newly documented willingness to intervene in women’s lives, it would appear that the activists on both sides can make a credible case for spotlighting judicial clout during the ’08 race.

But will most voters care? Not if the past is prologue.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The pitfalls of mourning myopia, and other topics

Dare I breach the national mourning ritual and provide some perspective? Sure, let’s do it.

According to news dispatches, here’s what happened early this week in a galaxy far, far away: In Anbar province, the bodies of 17 Iraqi civilians were found buried in a schoolyard; in Baghdad, 25 civilian bodies were discovered; in Falluja, 10 bodies with signs of torture were discovered; in Mosul, two university professors were shot dead; at a site near Kirkuk, three bodies were discovered; at a checkpoint south of Mosul, 13 Iraqi soldiers were killed in an attack.

Even if you omit the soldiers, that’s 57 dead Iraqis – nearly double the body count at Virginia Tech. Naturally, I am not dismissing the horror of what happened on the home front, or demeaning those whose lives were lost in the campus shootings. But since many Americans tend to be a tad self-absorbed about life in their own backyard – a cultural impulse that is currently being reinforced by the 24/7 cable news coverage – it’s easy to forget, or never to realize in the first place, that random killings of the innocent are a daily fact of life in our war of choice.

The faces and bios of the 32 murdered students and teachers are already being reported and broadcast on the home front, but it should be noted that – in April alone thus far – the known number of slain Iraqi citizens and Iraqi security people exceeds 733. And the website that tallied this number warns that “actual totals for Iraqi deaths are higher than the numbers recorded on this site.” (Update: We can now put that known number at roughly 966. Fresh reports indicate that at least 233 Iraqis were killed or found dead on this day alone.)

Long after the pain of the Virginia Tech tragedy has subsided, Iraqi innocents will continue to be killed in numbers that dwarf what happened here. I am not suggesting that we instantly cauterize our wounds and snuff out our ceremonial candles. But our myopic focus on the death of American innocents does tend to suggest that we assign more value to those lost lives than to those whom we deem to be mere statistics. We wouldn’t really want to leave that impression, would we?


With respect to cable TV news, there was a particularly shoddy incident on the first night of the Virginia Tech coverage. Once again, the impulse to be first trumped the responsibility to be accurate.

The news channels, anxious to identify the shooter but lacking any hard factual information, seized on badly-sourced newspaper report that the assailant was “a Chinese national” who had only recently arrived in the United States on a visa. It all started with a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, who wrote Monday that “authorities were investigating whether the gunman…was a Chinese national who arrived in the United States last year on a student visa. The 25-year-old man being investigated for the deadliest college carnage in U.S. history reportedly arrived in San Francisco on a United Airlines flight on Aug. 7, 2006, on a visa issued in Shanghai, the source said."

So a columnist hears from unnamed “authorities” that they are chasing a tip (probably one of many), and that the tip (which turned out to be dead wrong) involved an adult arriving last year from Shanghai. The columnist decides to go with this material. And then the cable news channels, without knowing whether these unnamed sources in another news outlet have any veracity, decide to go with it as well, citing "uncomfirmed reports."

There once was a time when being right was more important than being first, when journalists (even on TV) actually took the time to weigh the information in their notebooks before deciding whether to use it. But today, with a deadline every moment, there is too often a tendency to just share the raw notebook material with the world. And given the sensitivities today about foreigners in the post-9/11 world this particular erroneous report had the potential to inflame domestic suspicions.

Indeed, even after the news about shooter Cho Seung-Hui was confirmed, some analysts were suggesting yesterday that maybe such tragedies could be averted if we tightened our border procedures. As National Review commentator Candace de Russy argued, “How much checking up on visa applicants do those responsible for granting such visas actually do? That is, just how effective are these officials at identifying signs that an applicant may prove to be dangerous? In the case of Cho, were any such signs missed?”

Take a chill pill, Candace. He was eight years old when he entered the country.


Yet another sign of the Bush administration undercutting on its own spurious spin:

Apparently Pentagon chief Robert Gates didn't get the memo about how the Democrats are supposed to be characterized as defeatocrats who merely want to root for failure in Iraq and make it easier for the terrorists to follow our troops home.

For weeks, President Bush and Vice President Cheney have been arguing that those meddling Dems on Capitol Hill, with their demands for a withdrawal timeline, are undermining American resolve and prompting Osama bin Laden to turn handsprings - yet here was Gates yesterday, speaking to Pentagon reporters: "The debate in Congress…has been helpful in demonstrating to the Iraqis that American patience is limited. The strong feelings expressed in the Congress about the timetable probably has had a positive terms of communicating to the Iraqis that this is not an open-ended commitment.”

A new national poll reports that, by a 58-33 percent margin, Americans trust the Democratic Congress more than Bush to handle the situation in Iraq. Now that Bush's top Pentagon guy has validated the Democratic position, I doubt that those numbers will flip any time soon.


Oy, what a goy: On a lighter note, let’s check in with Tommy Thompson, a Republican presidential candidate who might well be advised to pack up his dreams and fade away. It’s not every day that a White House aspirant wins a Don Imus Award, but this guy qualifies. And he also gets a special mention for most creative excuse.

In Washington two days ago, speaking in front of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, Thompson said: “I'm in the private sector, and for the first time in my life I'm earning money. You know, that's sort of part of the Jewish tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that."

You can see the problem with that remark. It seems to me that the Christians who built this country during the nineteenth century, long before Jewish immigrants arrived en masse to work sewing machines in the ghettos, and the Christians who controlled Wall Street and who for many decades enforced Jewish quotas in the major law firms and universities – well, it would appear that those folks were “earning money” quite effectively, even though they were not part of the “Jewish tradition”...

Maybe Thompson didn’t run those thoughts through his mind, but clearly he knew that he had said something wrong, because he quickly decided to amend his remarks…and only made matters worse: “I just want to clarify something because I didn't (by) any means want to infer or imply anything about Jews and finances and things. What I was referring to, ladies and gentlemen, is the accomplishments of the Jewish religion. You've been outstanding business people, and I compliment you for that."

This is like a politician addressing a black audience and saying, “For the first time in my life, I am shooting hoops for exercise. You know, that’s part of the black tradition, and I do not find anything wrong with that…What I was referring to is the accomplishments of the black culture. You’ve been outstanding athletes, and I compliment you for that.”

Anyway, Thompson insisted yesterday that he said these things only because he was tired and had a cold. If he stays in the race, let’s just hope that he doesn’t show up sick at any more Jewish confabs, and ask the women for chicken soup.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech and the muzzled Democratic response

So here we go again; we all know the drill by now. Politicians of all stripes will offer their “thoughts” and “prayers” to the victims’ families. Special-interest groups on the left will cite the latest bloodbath as proof that we need gun control. Special-interest groups on the right will cite the latest bloodbath as proof that we need more gun ownership. Religious right activists will blame the tragedy on the video violence propagated by “Hollywood liberals.” And cable television will rerun the same video clips umpteen times, fill the airways with talking ranters, and thus leave the impression that nothing else is happening anywhere in America or overseas, probably for the next week or so. (Which at least means that Don Imus gets a reprieve.)

This is what happened after two twisted kids shot up the Columbine high school on April 20, 1999. We witnessed the national wringing of hands, the convening of symposia and the ritual assignations of blame – and now we’ll do it again, of course, before settling back into our routines until the next massacre provides a temporary jolt.

But in that spring of 1999, we also witnessed something that we are not likely to see replicated this spring, in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings: The spectacle of elected Democrats clamoring to crack down on the easy purchase of over-the-counter weaponry. Those days are over. The gun-rights lobby has prevailed. The rest of the western world is decrying the American "gun culture" this afternoon, but the Democrats wouldn't dare.

At this writing, we don’t know all the facts about our latest gun marauder. We do know, however, that police found a receipt which indicates that 23-year-old Cho Seung-Hui purchased one of his weapons, a Glock .9mm semiautomatic, last month. We don’t know whether he bought it from a licensed legal firearms dealer or from a gun show dealer or from a crook on the street, and we don’t know whether he bought it in Virginia or another state. But the odds are strong that, regardless of the specific circumstances, he was greatly aided by the general ease of purchase. Virginia’s gun laws, for instance, are famously lax; there is no gun registration, and no mandatory waiting period. And, nationally, there are no mandatory background checks at gun shows; nor does Virginia choose to impose its own purchase restrictions.

But you won’t hear much about this from the Democratic presidential candidates, nor from the congressional Democratic leaders (indeed, nothing thus far), because they have long concluded that, as an issue, gun control is a political loser.

They first sensed this during the 1990s, after President Clinton prodded his Democratic Congress to enact a ban on assault weapons. The National Rifle Association promptly went to work, with its cash and electoral muscle, and helped to oust at least a dozen pro-ban Democrats during the 1994 congressional elections – thus playing a key role in the ascent of Newt Gingrich and his conservative Republicans allies in that historic year.

Democrats rightly concluded, in the wake of that debacle, that even though a majority of Americans (particularly suburban moms) professed to favor gun control, they nevertheless were not motivated to cast their votes on the basis of that issue; by contrast, hunters and Second Amendment adherents – including a lot of the blue-collar males that Democrats would dearly love to enlist - were strongly motivated to punish those politicians who seem to be soft on gun rights. (Moreover, support for tighter gun laws has been declining ever since.)

Then came the 2000 presidential race. I well recall that Vice President Gore, right after Columbine, was talking up the need for “sensible” gun-purchase restrictions. He appeared on Larry King’s CNN show and complained that “we have a flood of handguns that are too deadly,” and that an existing ban on automatic weapons should be strengthened. Gore at the time was gearing up for the ’00 race, and, taking early aim at his eventual opponent, he often mentioned during 1999 that George W. Bush, as governor of Texas, had done nothing to curb gun purchases in his state; on the contrary, Bush had signed a law making it easier for Texans to carry concealed weapons.

But after Gore won the nomination, and election day drew near, he barely said a word about gun control, aside from mentioning that maybe a photo ID would be a good idea at the time of purchase. Nor did he take on Bush when the GOP candidate opined on guns in his inimitable style. (I was at a March 2000 debate, in Los Angeles, when Bush sought to explain why he opposed any federal requirement that guns be equipped with trigger locks: “I don’t mind trigger locks being sold, but the question is, are we going to have ‘trigger-lock police’ knocking on people’s doors and saying, ‘show me your trigger locks’?”)

Gore’s people muted the gun issue when it became clear, during the final weeks of the campaign, that he needed to boost his appeal to male gun owners in key swing states. I spent the closing days of the race in one of those states, Michigan, and it was clear that, fairly or not, a lot of the guys viewed any gun restrictions as akin to gun confiscation. One office worker, Joe Overton, said to me, “In this state, we mobilize more people on the first day of hunting than saw hitting the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. My brother and sister are hunters, and they think a photo ID is like getting tattooed.”

In the end, Gore managed to win Michigan – as well as Pennsylvania, another big gun state. But, more significantly, Gore lost Tennessee (his home state), Arkansas (Clinton’s state), and West Virginia (which had been a solid Democratic state for decades). If he had prevailed in just one of those three states, he would have won the election. Democrats have since concluded that those three losses were partly attributable to his image as a gun-curber. The national exit polls provided broader evidence: nearly half the voters in 2000 were gun owners – and they broke for Bush, by 61 to 36 percent.

Flash forward to 2004. That year, the Republican Congress allowed the ’94 weapons-assault ban law to expire – and only a handful of Democrats said a word about it. The new Democratic strategy (which has been working, albeit slowly) is to broaden the party’s appeal in southern and western states by embracing gun rights. A new breed of “macho” Democrats, such as Virginia Sen. James Webb, has joined the ranks. And at least one Democratic presidential candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, considers himself the gun owner’s friend.

We don’t yet know whether tight gun laws would have conclusively prevented the Virginia Tech massacre. But since we are now entering yet another broad national debate about the root causes of such tragedies, the traditional Democratic perspective will be conspicuous by its absence (the gun-control groups can’t do it alone).

Already, religious conservatives are filling my in-box with denunciations of our cultural decadence, and of the need to “turn to God” as a hedge against the “evil” that stalks us. A pro-gun group, Gun Owners of America, has emailed to say that the Virginia Tech massacre could have been prevented if only the Virginia legislature hadn’t killed a bill that would have allowed teachers and students to carry concealed guns (“Isn’t it interesting that Utah and Oregon are the only two states that allows faculty to carry guns on campus. And isn’t it interesting that you haven’t read about any school or university shootings in Utah or Oregon?”) Meanwhile, the media watchdogs are already on cable TV, denouncing video games and Quentin Tarantino (we don’t yet know whether the Virginia Tech shooter played video games or watched movies by Quentin Tarantino).

So, since this is destined to be the national conversation for the next few days, it would seem appropriate, at the least, that high-powered Democratic arguments about the easy availability of weaponry should be part of the mix.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"I think we are making progress," and other bloviations from the Cheney bubble

Bob Schieffer of CBS: “Does this administration have a credibility problem?”
Vice President Cheney: “I don’t think so, Bob.”

One would think that if the Bush administration was really interested in reconnecting with the American public, it would put somebody on the air besides Dick Cheney. At this point, Don Imus could probably do a better job.

Cheney’s appearance yesterday on Face the Nation was predictable in most respects. Indeed, it would be waste of cyberspace to critique it at length, given the fact that this is the same guy who insisted that we would be “greeted as liberators” in Iraq (2003); that the insurgency was in its “last throes” (2005); and that Saddam Hussein’s agents had personally met with 9/11 terrorist leader Mohammed Atta (December 2001, and again in 2004, even after the 9/11 Commission concluded that no such meeting had occurred). Even the pollsters at Fox News are reporting a national thumbs-down verdict on Cheney; in their latest survey, only 34 percent of Americans rate him favorably – his worst showing ever, dating back to the first Fox soundings in July of 2000.

Nevertheless, President Bush’s backstage consigliere did mutter a few new lines that will no doubt look even more embarrassing six months from now. When Cheney was specifically asked about the latest setbacks in Iraq – the massive anti-American protests that were staged last Monday, on the fourth-anniversary of Baghdad’s “liberation”; the Green Zone bomb in the Parliament cafeteria; the two big bombs that were exploded on Saturday (not to mention the Sunday bombs that killed 45 Iraqis, and the Sunday news that two Shiite Cabinet members had quit the government) – Cheney shrugged everything off and said:

“I think we are making progress.”

Also noteworthy was Cheney’s response to the federal prosecutor purge scandal. In the latest document dump by the Justice Department, last Friday, a little gem was unearthed. It turns out that Kyle Sampson, attorney general Alberto Gonzales’s chief of staff, had started lining up successors for the targeted prosecutors back in January 2006 – thereby contradicting his sworn statements to Congress last month, when he testified that there had been no organized plan to fire the prosecutors and replace them with pre-designated ideologically loyal Bushies. Meanwhile, Gonzales is slated to testify tomorrow on Capitol Hill, and will have to explain why he first claimed that he had never attended a purge meeting, when in fact documents now show that, last Nov. 27, he most certainly did.

Schieffer wondered aloud why anyone would believe that Gonzales has a firm grasp on what’s going on in his own Justice Department. Cheney’s response: “(Gonzales) is a good man. I have every confidence in him. The president has every confidence in him.”

This was also at the point in the interview when Cheney insisted that the Bush administration does not have a credibility problem. He elaborated: “Obviously, we’ve got issues we need to work through…You do the best you can with what you’ve got.” And in the end, he said, the Bush track record “will stand up well to scrutiny.”

In particular, he is referring to Iraq (hard as that may be to believe). He apparently believes that he and Bush still have the upper hand, politically speaking, in the forthcoming tussle with the Democratic Congress over the future of that conflict. Democratic leaders plan to meet this week with Bush, and insist on their troop withdrawal timeline as a precondition for approving the next round of war money. Bush and Cheney view the Democrats as “irresponsible” (an ironic use of the word, given the way that Bush and Cheney have waged this war, and the arguments they used to launch it), but Cheney’s own language is actually harsher than that.

In a little-noticed speech last Friday, sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation, Cheney argued that the Democrats have taken “a hard left turn,” toward the “abandonment and retreat” of the early 1970s – as evidenced, he said, by their congressional support for an Iraq withdrawal timetable. But his argument only serves to demonstrate, yet again, that he is out of touch with American public opinion – because, far from taking a hard left turn, the Democrats are taking a stance that precisely mirrors centrist sentiment in the electorate.

As I’ve noted here before, all the polls reflect this. And in the latest CBS News poll released this weekend, 57 percent of Americans said they support a withdrawal timetable. When the question was asked another way, 61 percent said they favor war funding only for a limited time. On yet another question, 60 percent favor decreasing the number of troops, or removing them all. And, as perhaps the best measure of centrist sentiment, 74 percent of independent voters now say that Bush is mishandling the war.

These kinds of figures would never deter Cheney, of course, but he still doesn’t think that the GOP defeat last November was a big deal. In his Heritage speech on Friday, he said this: “It was, in retrospect, a narrow victory. A shift of only 3600 votes would have kept the Senate in Republican hands, and a shift of fewer than 100,000 votes would have maintained Republican control of the House of Representatives.”

Well, if we want to talk about a “narrow victory,” we might simply observe that Cheney owes his job to the fact that Democratic voters in Palm Beach County were flummoxed by the butterfly ballot, and that a one-vote Supreme Court majority dragged him and Bush across the finish line. But anyone can play the “if only” game. The slam-dunk refutation to Cheney’s argument can be found in the fine print of the ’06 vote:

In the aggregate tally of all contested House elections, the Democrats won 53 percent of the national vote, the Republicans only 46.4 percent. That is actually a more decisive spread than the Republicans enjoyed when they took the House in the “revolution” of 1994. (The tally that year was GOP 52.9 percent, Democrats 46.9 percent.) Moreover, in 2006, the GOP failed to capture a single Democratic seat; the GOP hadn’t failed in that fashion since the House elections of 1948.

And totaling all the Senate races, the spread was even larger: the Democrats took 53.8 percent of the national vote, while the GOP took 42.4 percent – a particularly large asymmetry, given the fact that so many of the Democratic triumphs occurred in red states (GOP incumbents were unseated in Virginia, Montana, Missouri, and Ohio). This is in stark contrast to the ’02 Senate midterm elections, when the GOP won 51.3 percent of the national vote, the Democrats only 44.7 percent. To anyone but Dick Cheney, the ’06 Democratic Senate victory can be attributed to a nine-point swing in the vote, which hardly fits the description of “narrow.”

And the ’06 House and Senate exit polls demonstrate why Cheney’s party lost so decisively: Independent voters (again, the center of the electorate) broke for the Democrats by 59 to 41 percent.

But if Cheney truly believes that he and Bush represent the center, and that the Democrats are merely doing the bidding of the “hard left,” perhaps he should take that same Friday speech and deliver it in front of a cross-section of citizens, a moderate audience in a swing state. At least that way, he’d see whether the applause lines that galvanized the Heritage Foundation really work outside the bubble. More likely, middle-of-the-roaders would leave the arena asking themselves the same question that Bob Schieffer articulated yesterday:

“Why should people believe you now, when so many times, in the past, statements from this administration have proved to be incorrect?”


By the way, before Cheney complains too much about how the Bush team is under fire from "the hard left," he might want to check in with his fellow conservatives who are now demanding that attorney general Gonzales quit his job. In a letter signed by members of the newly-formed American Freedom Agenda - the members include David Keene, chairman of the grassroots American Conservative Union, and veteran conservative fundraiser/activist Richard Viguerie - Gonzales is dismissed as "an unsuitable steward of the law."

They cite the prosecutor purge scandal ("He has engendered the suspicion that partisan politics trumps evenhanded law enforcement in the Department of Justice"), but, more generally, they contend that "Mr. Gonzales has presided over an unprecedented crippling of the Constitution's time-honored checks and balances. He has brought rule of law into disrepute, and debased honesty as the coin of the realm."

But since Gonzales is merely an instrument of his White House masters, what does that say about their debasement of honesty?