Friday, April 27, 2007

An impressionistic take on the Democratic debate

Here are some quick impressions of the Democratic presidential candidates debate (video here), staged last night in South Carolina:

Hillary Clinton. She is certainly deft at evasion. Several times she was hit with sensitive questions, and she went slip sliding away. When she was asked whether she agreed with Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid’s contention last week that the Iraq war was lost, she replied, “This is not America’s war to win or lose.” Then, much later in the evening, she was asked about Rudy Giuliani’s contention the other night that American lives would be more imperiled with a Democrat in the White House (Giuliani: “Democrats do not understand the full nature and scope of the terrorist war against us,” and therefore, with a Democrat in charge, “we will have more losses…America will be safer with a Republican president”). More specifically, she was asked why the Democrats have long been saddled with a weak-on-national-security image, but in reply she ignored that theme, and focused exclusively on why she thought the GOP didn’t deserve its strength image (Republicans “hype the fear without delivering the promise of making America safer”). Elsewhere in the debate, on Iraq, she repeated her standard line about she had cast her ’02 war authorization vote based on the best information available at the time, and suggested that President Bush had duped her by moving too aggressively to invade; the Democratic left has long been annoyed by that stance, but it’s old news. Overall, she said nothing to imperil her early front-runner status. And she did manage to give herself a Golda Meir moment (i.e. a female leader has to exude toughness), when she said that, in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack, “a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate…Let’s focus on those who attack us, and do everything we can to destroy them.”

Barack Obama. He’s not well suited for a format that requires 60-second answers (at least not yet). On the stump, he does best when he can indulge his penchant for lofty eloquence; that trait doesn’t work on a crowded stage. He was repeatedly asked specific questions that required glib, focused answers, and he repeatedly tried to get lofty in response. When he was asked about his old friendship with indicted Chicago slumlord Antoin “Tony” Rezko (a focus of Chicago newspaper reports), he said that Rezko is just one of many donors who has contributed money - then quickly flashed back to his days in the Illinois legislature, where he championed ethics bills and built “a track record of bringing people around to this kind of politics.” Elsewhere in the debate, he was asked whether he agreed with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to outlaw late-term abortions; in reply, he punted, saying only that the late-term procedure “is a profoundly difficult issue,” and that he preferred to address “the broader issue” of abortion itself. Also elsewhere in the debate, he was asked the standard South Carolina question, about whether the state should still be flying the confederate flag; he replied that the flag belonged “in a museum” (which didn’t fully answer the question), then quickly segued by saying “we’ve got an enormous debate that’s taking place in this country right now” concerning black infant mortality. At another point, when asked about reforming health care, he managed a few lines in response, enough perhaps to mask the fact that he has yet to come up with a health care plan of his own.

John Edwards. He spent some of his time aiming fire at the two candidates listed above. He again chided Clinton for not apologizing, as he has done, for the ’02 war authorization vote: “I think that’s a question for the conscience of anybody who voted for this war. Senator Clinton or anyone else who voted for this war has to search themselves…” He also implied that Obama is all eloquence and no substance: “Rhetoric is not enough. High-falutin’ language is not enough.” Elsewhere, he apologized for having a $400 haircut and charging it to his campaign, then suggested that the episode doesn’t embody who he really is: a guy with humble beginnings, which launched him into a story about how his family had to leave a restaurant because his dad couldn’t afford the menu prices. That’s the Edwards MO, to stress his log-cabin creds, as a counterpoint to his adult life as a rich trial lawyer. (Although he was less successful when he tried to explain how his recent job as counsel to a New York hedge fund squares with his concern for the underprivileged.) Elsewhere in the debate, he, like Obama, evaded the question of whether he agreed with the high court ban on late-term abortion (“this is an extraordinarily difficult issue for America”), although there were no evasions when he touted his detailed health care insurance plan, the boldest of the bunch (although having the boldest health plan of 2004 didn’t help Dick Gephardt survive Iowa). Finally, he had one other noteworthy moment last night. Near the end, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they agreed with the proposition that the U.S. was engaged in a global war on terror. Edwards didn’t raise his. He later explained that although, yes, there were many bad people in the world, “but we have more tools available to us than bombs” to sway global hearts and minds. Have the GOP message-meisters noticed that Edwards didn’t raise his hand?

The second tier. Bill Richardson had my favorite line of the night: The American people “don’t want blow-dried candidates with perfection.” This was his way of defending his own imperfections, such as his recent decision to cut Alberto Gonzales some extra slack just because the attorney general, like Richardson, is Hispanic. Anyway, I wonder if his reference to “blow-dried candidates” was aimed at Edwards, the guy on the rung just above him….Joe Biden’s one memorable moment came when, in response to a question about his notorious loquacity, he answered with a single word and then fell silent, although he did later emphasize (who can disagree?) that Iraq can’t be stabilized without a political solution…Chris Dodd had a few lame moments. When he was asked how a career Washington politician (32 years) who takes money from lobbyists (via the Senate banking committee) can be expected to reform Washington, he lapsed into a reminiscence about his father (another senator) “tried cases in South Carolina in the ‘40s,” and how he, the son, is a “pro-growth Democrat,” which had little to do with the question….As for Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, the also-rans from the party’s left flank, they basically harangued the top-tier candidates for being insufficiently liberal and insufficiently pacifist – which probably aided those candidates greatly, in terms of appealing to centrist voters (assuming any were watching). Obama, for instance, needs to establish strong national security creds, and here was Gravel ranting that Obama wants to foment war with Iran (“Barack, who do you want to nuke?”), which merely gave Obama a chance to exude tough-guy vibes: Iran is developing nuclear weapons, “and that is a profound security threat to America and one we have to take seriously.” Obama should pay Gravel’s expenses to all future debates.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Debating tips for Democratic political junkies

No doubt you’ve all cleared your calendars in order to watch tonight’s Democratic presidential candidate debate, featuring all the ’08 aspirants on one stage, broadcast on MSNBC from the key primary state of South Carolina beginning at 7 p.m.

What do you mean, no?

Surely you can be convinced that such a debate might be important, even though it is being staged nine months ahead of the Democratic primary season, and even though at least five of the eight candidates will stagger out of New Hampshire next winter with the same prospects for victory as Sanjaya. Surely you can be convinced that the opportunity to watch Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel in action is more exciting than queuing up that new James Bond DVD.

What do you mean, you can’t?

All right. I’ll concede that these early debates sometimes have the shelf life of week-old bread. I’ve attended enough of them to know. The closest parallel to the event tonight was a Democratic debate staged in South Carolina on May 4, 2003, and when it was over, I wrote that the night’s biggest “winners” were…Joe Lieberman (because he effectively scolded Howard Dean and John Kerry), and Dick Gephardt (because he was able to tout a “big vision” health care plan). You may recall how well Lieberman and Gephardt eventually fared. And did I mention that valuable air time was awarded that night to a number of people (Bob Graham, Carol Moseley Braun, Al Sharpton, and of course Kucinich) who had no chance of winning whatsoever?

So perhaps tonight’s debate is not worth your attention. On the other hand, if you’re not yawning yet, here’s a tip sheet that might convince you to watch:

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will be standing next to each other, with the opportunity (under format rules) to address each other directly. She leads him narrowly in both the national Democratic polls and the South Carolina polls; she is also fighting him for the allegiance of African-American voters, and that’s particularly important in South Carolina, where roughly half the primary electorate is black. So, what will these candidates try to accomplish tonight? Will she play the Bill Card, and drop reminders of all the things that her husband did for the black community? Will Obama play the Iraq Card, by reminding viewers (presumably, liberal primary voters) that he opposed the war before it ever began, unlike the unnamed person who voted to authorize it on the Senate floor?

John Edwards had originally expected to be the not-Hillary candidate, until Obama came along. What will he do tonight to raise his profile? Will he tout his own health care plan (the most substantive thus far), as a way to paint Clinton as incrementally cautious and Obama as policy-lite? Will he go for a daring proposal that plays well in a soundbite (rumor: he’s going to demand the firing of Karl Rove) and titillates the liberal base? Will he try to outflank Clinton and Obama on the left, by demanding that Congress push for a troop pullout from Iraq, even if it means holding up the war money?

Will Bill Richardson try to cut through the clutter by reminding everybody that he’s the only (potentially) major candidate with executive experience – running the state of New Mexico, where he has nudged the economy upward while cutting taxes? Since he’s battling Edwards for the third rung on the ladder, will he try to argue that, unlike Edwards’ health care proposal (which would require a tax hike on the affluent), his own health plan could be financed out of the savings accrued by ending the Iraq war? Is he savvy enough not to wear his bolo tie in South Carolina?

Who’s going to make the best pitch on national security? Regardless of how badly President Bush has botched Iraq, no Democrat can be elected next year without persuading voters that he or she can keep Americans safe. Rudy Giuliani, in a speech the other day, argued that America will face another 9/11 if a Democrat wins in 2008; in essence, he said, “Elect a Republican or you die.” Which Democrat will speak to this point tonight, and refute it most effectively? Edwards has already released a statement saying that the GOP has already botched the war on terror and that Democrats would do better. Clinton might well say that she’s best qualified to handle a crisis because of her long experience on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

What does Chris Dodd or Joe Biden do to get on the radar screen? (Beats me.) Will they seek to raise themselves by trying to lower a rival? Earlier this week, Dodd delivered a speech that appeared to target Obama: “Hope alone is not going to restore America’s leadership. Like never before, I believe we need national leadership that’s ready to lead from Day One.” Will he try out that line again? And can Biden adhere to the 60-second response rule, given that he usually requires several minutes to finish a sentence?

What will the candidates say if they’re asked whether the Virginia Tech shootings warrant a renewed push for gun control? What will they say if they’re asked whether the Supreme Court was wrong last week to bar the practice of late-term abortions? Gun control and abortion used to be Democratic staples. But if these issues come up tonight, you’ll see them dance like Fred Astaire.

So doesn’t this debate seem like more fun than a Fred Astaire movie?

What do you mean, no?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A soldier's message to the government propagandists: "The truth is always more heroic than the hype"

It’s tough enough to track all the current governmental lies, much less catalogue the lies of the recent past. But several of those old lies resurfaced yesterday, lies that tell us much about the dark art of wartime propaganda, and the myriad ways that war marketers seek to manufacture heroes for a naive and credulous public.

At a hearing on Capitol Hill, Pat Tillman’s loved ones finally got the opportunity – after three long years – to vent their anger at the military in an open forum. Tillman, you may recall, was the ex-pro football player who enlisted as an Army Ranger intent on fighting al Qaeda, only to be slain in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. The public was initially fed the story that he died as a hero, killed by evil-doers; he was subsequently awarded the Silver Star, and his May 3 memorial service was nationally televised.

What Americans didn’t know at the time – and what his surviving family members didn’t know, either – was that the military already knew the truth, that Tillman had been killed by members of his own unit in a bungled mission. But the truth was suppressed; whether intentional or not, the timing of this “hero’s death” story was helpful to the Bush administration, which was anxious to blunt the bad news coming out of Iraq from the Falluja seige (which contradicted the Bush scenario of an increasingly pacified land) and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (which undercut our occupancy of the moral high ground).

And while Pat Tillman couldn't speak on his own behalf to assail the hero mythology, Jessica Lynch did show up yesterday to denounce the same practice.

A teenage Army supply clerk, she was marketed by the military as a true-life Rambo after her capture during the initial phase of the U.S. invasion of Iraq back in 2003. Officials spread the word that Lynch fought off her Iraqi captors by firing her weapon; they said that “she did not want to be taken alive,” and, as a result of her heroics, she was “shot multiple times.” The military also circulated its own video, shot and edited by its own crew, depicting Lynch’s rescue from an Iraqi hospital (where, it turned out, the soldiers faced no resistance; Iraqi combatants had departed a day earlier). The mainstream media – you know, the same media that is depicted by Bush defenders as “the liberal media” – basically accepted the official version of events; the Washington Post and New York Times ran glowing stories that depicted Lynch as a cross between Stallone and John Wayne, and Newsweek gave Lynch a magazine cover.

Yet here was Lynch yesterday, testifying that it was all a crock. She never fired a weapon. She was never shot. She stated that “the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting” was “not true.” She added, “I’m still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend. The bottom line is that the American people are capable of determining ideals for heroes, and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies.”

Kevin Tillman, recounting his brother’s case yesterday, didn’t use the term “elaborate lies.” He preferred something stronger, “deliberate and calculated lies.” He testified, "I come from Hollywood. I expect show biz in Hollywood, not from the military."

Example: The April 30, 2004 press release depicted Pat Tillman storming a hillside to rescue conrades pinned down by enemy fire. The military stated, “Through the firing, Tillman’s voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces emplaced on a dominating high ground,” while Tillman “personally provided suppressive fire with an M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon machine gun.”

This, too, was a crock. It's now known that an eyewitness saw Tillman yelling "Cease fire, friendlies!" shortly before he was killed. Tillman's brother testified yesterday that the government saw his brother’s death as an “opportunity” to send an “inspirational message” at a time when the war in Iraq was bogging down (which was ironic, because Pat Tillman reportedly opposed the Iraq war, and saw it as a drain on the resources that were needed to effectively fight al Qaeda). Kevin told the lawmakers that the government's strategy "shifted the focus from the grotesque torture at Abu a 'great American who died a hero's death.'"

Kevin Tillman was joined yesterday by Army specialist Bryan O’Neal, who was the last soldier to see Pat alive. O’Neal testified that, even though he and the lieutenant colonel in charge of the platoon both knew the truth about Tillman’s death, he was told to stonewall Tillman’s family: “I was ordered not to tell them. He (the platoon leader) made it known that I'd get in trouble.”

Multiple government probes – conducted at the behest of the persistent Tillman family members – have broadly confirmed the coverup, and fingered four generals and five subordinate officers for possible discipline, although none have yet addressed the question of whether senior Bush administration officials knew the truth at the time when the family, and the American public, was being fed the lies. The family is hoping that Congress will pursue that issue. (Indeed, at the risk of stating the obvious, yesterday’s first public airing of the Lynch and Tillman cases would never have occurred had Bush’s Republican enablers retained their control of Congress in the elections last November.)

Perhaps Jessica Lynch should get the last word: “The truth of war is not always easy. The truth is always more heroic than the hype.”


Meanwhile, here in the tumultuous present, we have a fresh half-truth from President Bush. In remarks yesterday, he maligned the Democrats for seeking to suggest a troop withdrawal timetable, and said this: "To accept the bill proposed by the Democratic leadership would be to accept a policy that directly contradicts the judgment of our military commanders."

A policy that contradicts the judgment of military commanders...The sheer effrontery of those Democrats! But wait - I seem to recall that, last autumn, when Bush's military commanders openly voiced skepticism of a troop hike in Iraq, Bush proceeded to contradict their judgment by replacing them.

In the new issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, national security specialist Michael Desch (who teaches at Texas A&M's George W. Bush School of Government) describes what happened in the fall of 2006:

(S)enior U.S. military commanders in Iraq had come to believe that U.S. forces were part of the problem, rather than the solution, as the insurgency had morphed into an interconfessional civil war. So instead of asking for more troops, as they did in the run-up to the war, many senior commanders in Iraq began to argue that the United States needed to lower its profile and reduce its footprint. Less than 40 percent of troops supported an increase in force levels, the Military Times found.

General John Abizaid, the current head of Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in November that he did "not believe that more American troops right now is the solution to the problem" in Iraq. In response to prodding from Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Abizaid explained that he had "met with every division commander, General [George] Casey, the corps commander, General [Martin] Dempsey [head of the Multi-National Security Transition Command in Iraq]. ... And I said, 'In your professional opinion, if we were to bring in more American troops now, does it add considerably to our ability to achieve success in Iraq?' And they all said no."

Abizaid and other senior U.S. commanders believed increasing the number of U.S. forces in Iraq would be counterproductive. As Abizaid explained on 60 Minutes, "There's always been this tension between what we could do and what the Iraqis do. If we want to do everything in Iraq we could do that, but that's not the way that Iraq is going to stabilize." In congressional testimony, he noted, "We can put in 20,000 more Americans tomorrow and achieve a temporary effect ... [but] when you look at the overall American force pool that's available out there, the ability to sustain that commitment is simply not something that we have right now with the size of the army and the Marine Corps."

But despite such protests, the military leadership was once again overruled by civilians in Washington -- leading to the "surge" taking place right now.

As I said at the top, fact-checking this Washington regime is an arduous job.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Lessons in hubris from one of the best and brightest

In a departure from routine, I want to acknowledge the untimely death of a great American author and journalist. David Halberstam was killed in a car crash yesterday, and when I heard the news, I pulled from the shelf my battered hardcover copy of The Best and The Brightest. Halberstam wrote that book more than 35 years ago, yet its insights into the perils of White House hubris are just as true today. Needless to say.

Halberstam, for those of you too young to remember, was already in Vietnam as a young New York Times reporter, writing about the disparity between Washington talking points and factual reality on the battlefield, long before many Americans were even focusing on the war at all. His dispatches seriously ticked off President Kennedy, who then sought to have Halberstam yanked off his beat. Halberstam stayed, and continued to file stories that systematically challenged the sunny spin of the Democratic administration. Several years after he returned to America, he embarked on an ambitious project to tell the inside story about how a team of arrogant war planners, acting on behalf of two Democratic presidents, led America astray during the 1960s.

The Best and the Brightest was published in 1972, and many of its countless anecdotes still resonate. One of my favorites recounts an incident during the summer of 1964, when President Johnson and his war spinners decided to ask Congress for an open-ended resolution to wage war in Vietnam. They did this by exploiting an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin, where North Vietnamese PT boats may have challenged two U.S. destroyers. The truth was far murkier (as Halberstam painstakingly documents), but the White House decided to frame the incident as an example of naked communist aggression. Let’s pick up the book narrative:

(War planner) McGeorge Bundy gathered the White House staff together and said that the President had decided to go for a congressional resolution calling for a general posture in Southeast Asia…After Bundy finished, Douglass Cater, a White House adviser on domestic issues, was one of the first to speak up. “Isn’t this a little precipitous?” he asked. “Do we have all the information…?”

Bundy looked quickly at him and said, “The President has decided, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Cater, new to the White House, persisted: “Gee, Mac, I haven’t really thought it through.”

Bundy, with a very small smile: “Don’t.”

Tens of thousands of American deaths later, Halberstam finished his book in 1972 with this assessment:

Lyndon Johnson had lost it all, and so had the rest of them; they had, for all their brilliance and hubris and sense of themselves, been unwilling to look to and learn from the past….He and the men around him wanted to be defined as being strong and tough; but strength and toughness and courage were exterior qualities which would be demonstrated by going to a clean and hopefully antiseptic war with a small nation, rather than the interior and more lonely kind of strength and courage of telling the truth to America (about an unwinnable war) and perhaps incurring a great deal of domestic political risk…

Nor had they, leaders of a democracy, bothered to involve the people of their country in the course they had chosen; they knew the right path and they knew how much could be revealed, step by step along the way. They had manipulated the public, the Congress, and the press from the start, told half truths, about why we were going in, how deeply we were going in, how much we were spending, and how long we were in for. When their predictions turned out to be hopefully inaccurate, and when the public and the Congress, annoyed at being manipulated, soured on the war, then the architects had been aggrieved. They had turned on those very symbols of the democratic society they had once manipulated, criticizing them for their lack of fiber, stamina, and lack of belief….What was singularly missing…was an iota of public admission that they had miscalculated. The faults, it seemed, were not theirs, the fault was with this country which was not worth of them. So they lost it all.

It is tragic that Halberstam won’t be around to recap the Iraq debacle in similar fashion. But, as you can see, perhaps he already has.


An open letter to John Edwards:

What is it with you and your hair, anyway? I’ve seen you up close a number of times, and we even chatted when you first ran for the Senate in 1998, and it’s abundantly clear to me that you have good hair, the easy-to-cut kind of hair, the straight hair that mitigates against your ever having a bad hair day…and it shouldn’t cost $400 (at campaign expense, no less) to get that hair looking right.

I don’t intend here to imply that your fancy haircut is the most monumental issue of the day; it’s also important to point out that many politicians with expensive habits have successfully portrayed themselves as friends of the downtrodden. Bobby Kennedy was filthy rich, yet his portrait adorned the walls of thousands of shacks in Appalachia and in ghettoes. Lyndon Johnson, before being consumed by Vietnam, was fixated on fighting poverty, and believed deeply in the mission, even though he had made himself rich, thanks to some sweetheart ownership deals for Texas TV stations. Franklin D. Roosevelt was a friend of the little guy, even though he lived his life in the lap of luxury in Hyde Park. So I wasn’t necessarily scandalized by the news that you had purchased a 100-acre spread in North Carolina, complete with basketball court, squash court, swimming pool, and a 600-square foot bedroom.

But, really, this hair thing was so avoidable.

Fairly or not, you’ve already been tagged with that “Breck girl” label, and you’ve already been immortalized on YouTube as someone preternaturally obsessed with what stray locks might fall over your left brow. That video clip drags on for two minutes, and it feels like 20. Your detractors are forever looking for new ways to question your gravitas as a candidate, to impugn your crafted image as a populist crusader, to show that you’re on the rich side of your Two Americas, so why give them any fresh ammunition?

Here’s how you explained it the other day: “This guy had to come to where I was to (give) a haircut.”

John…Dude…Was it so hard to anticipate that Joseph Torrenueva might be a tad pricey? First, he was making a house call. Second, he was coming from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. Repeat, Beverly Hills. That’s a place where a cold plate of gefilte fish at Nate ‘n Al’s Delicatessen will run you nearly $15.

So, just a word of advice: If you want to be a man of the people, get a people’s haircut. I go to an earthy guy named Frank who wears a neck chain and cuts hair for $20, including tip. I’ll give you his number. His shop is located in a swing state with an early primary, if that’s any help. And do yourself another favor: pay for it out of your own pocket next time.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Equating Harry Reid with Jane Fonda: Does that tactic work anymore?

In their increasingly shrill attempts to rationalize the Iraq war, President Bush’s defenders persist in thinking that if they choose to demonize a war critic as a white-flag-waving wimp, that most Americans, even at this point in the conflict, will simply accept the characterization as truth. Apparently these defenders somehow believe that it’s still 2002, and that they still hold sway over public opinion, despite all empirical evidence to the contrary.

Consider, for example, the latest episode involving Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid. Last Thursday, he said: “I believe myself that the secretary of state, secretary of defense, and – you have to make your own decisions as to what the president knows – that this war is lost, and the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq.”

The Republicans and their allies instantly assumed that they had hit the jackpot: Reid had uttered the phrase “this war is lost,” and thus he could be fitted for cement shoes, destined for eternal demonization as an enemy-emboldening, troop-endangering defeat-o-crat. Everybody got into the act. Texas Senator John Cornyn told CNN that Reid “is playing to the worst elements of the antiwar left.” Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino characterized Reid’s stance as “disturbing.” Conservative House Republican Tom Tancredo dismissed Reid as “reckless.” A colleague, Pete Hoekstra, claimed that Reid was conceding Iraq to al Qaeda. Conservative lawyer-activist Mark Levin wrote that Reid’s remark was “so disgraceful and brazen that it could have been uttered by Tokyo Rose during World War II, or Jane Fonda during the Vietnam war.”

And the attacks continues yesterday; on Fox News. neoconservative war hawk William Kristol said that Reid was “a disgrace,” and Fox political commentator Brit Hume said that Reid’s comment was “laughable.”

What’s particularly ironic about these attacks – and the implication that Reid had marginalized himself as a lefty peacenik at odds with the American mainstream – is that the war apologists have totally misread their man. Harry Reid, far from being a left-leaning ideologue, is actually a cautious politician who hews to the middle of the road; one gets the feeling that most of his moves as majority leader were heavily poll-tested in advance. So when he suggests publicly that “this war is lost,” one can assume that he is merely reflecting mainstream opinion.

And that’s precisely the case.

Three days prior to Reid’s remarks, the latest ABC-Washington Post poll was released. It asked Americans whether we would win or lose the war. Fifty-one percent said we’d lose, 35 percent said we’d win. Last month, meanwhile, the USA Today poll offered four choices, ranging from most optimistic to most pessimistic. The largest share of respondents opted for the latter. Forty-six percent said they didn’t think we can win; another 20 percent said victory was possible, but didn’t think it would happen; 17 percent said we’d probably win; and 10 percent said we’d definitely win.

In other words, it is Reid’s critics – not Reid – who are out of the mainstream. We’re long past the point where they can successfully demonize a Democrat simply by putting him in a tank with Michael Dukakis and parading him around as an object of ridicule.

Indeed, when the critics assailed Reid, they somehow overlooked the fact that his substantive point – about the futility of military victory – has already been voiced by a number of military experts. Retired Gen. Tony McPeak, who served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first Gulf War under the senior George Bush, said not long ago that “Even if we had a million men to go in, it’s too late now. Humpty Dumpty can’t be put back together again.”

And, over the past few days, I don’t recall any of Reid’s critics focusing their ire on conservative icon William F. Buckley, who has long indicated his belief that the war has "failed." Nor have they attacked retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom, who directed the National Security Council under Ronald Reagan, wrote in February that it’s futile to keep American troops in Iraq (“fighting on now simply prolongs our losses and blocks the way to a new strategy”).

But Odom was merely repeating what he said on NBC in 2004. Three years before Reid’s remark, he told the Today Show: “We have already failed. Staying in longer makes us fail worse. If we blindly say we should stick to it, we’re misusing our power and we’re making it worse…I think we’ve passed the chances to not fail.” At the time Odom made those remarks, we had lost roughly 720 soldiers in Iraq.

By the way, Reid added some new remarks today. It's noteworthy that he didn't repeat the "war is lost" phrase (why invite fresh attacks, regardles of how fatuous they might be?); rather he opted for this choice of words: "Winning this war is no longer the job of the American military. Our troops have already done their job...The military mission has long since been accomplished. The failure has been political. It has been policy. It has been presidential."

So here’s my question: Who will the public choose to believe about the war – Harry Reid, or the people who are seeking to equate Reid with Jane Fonda?

And here’s another: Who deserves to be more publicly maligned – the war planners and enablers who have precipitated and perpetuated the disaster, or the politician who merely addresses the reality of the disaster?

And a final one: A number of Republicans have already indicated that if Bush’s troop escalation doesn’t yield “progress” by this autumn, they will bail out on Bush in order to save their skins on the ’08 election. (Congressman Jack Kingston: "A heck of a lot of us will start peeling away.") Will they hew to that promise? Or will they cave again, when the president inevitably pleads with them to sit tight and give him another six months to turn the tide?