Friday, July 27, 2007

Gonzo, out of control

They’re going Gonzo again in Washington, and no wonder:

The Bush factotum who still holds the job of attorney general has been exposed yet again as, at worst, a serial deceiver who is incapable of telling the truth even while under oath, or, at best, a willfully oblivious nonentity, the kind of guy who plays the parlor piano in a house of ill repute.

The latest Alberto Gonzales episode is a window into the Bush administration mindset, as if we need any fresh evidence. But it’s still worth a quick look, because it’s not every day that an attorney general provides sworn testimony that is flatly contradicted by his own nominal subordinate, the director of the FBI.

On Tuesday of this week, Gonzales insisted it was no big deal that in 2004, acting as Bush’s White House lawyer, he had shown up at the hospital bedside of his predecessor, attorney general John Ashcroft. The problem is, Gonzales appears to be alone in thinking that this nocturnal foray was no big deal.

The record shows that Ashcroft’s Justice Department had serious legal qualms about Bush’s warrantless electronic eavesdropping program; in fact, the ailing Ashcroft had temporarily ceded authority to his chief deputy, James Comey, who thought the still-secret program was illegal and was thus refusing to reauthorize it. So Gonzales raced to the hospital in the hopes of persuading the heavily sedated Ashcroft to overrule Comey. Comey, learning of Gonzales’ intentions, had himself raced to the hospital in order to head off Gonzales. But Ashcroft refused to budge, siding with Comey.

We know all this, by the way, because Comey, a Republican in good standing, laid out the chronology earlier this year in sworn testimony that sounded like a lurid plot line on the Fox show 24.

Anyway, on Tuesday, Gonzales insisted that the hospital showdown “was not about the terrorist surveillance program,” using the White House’s preferred terminology for the program run by the National Security Agency. Actually, Gonzales was merely underscoring what he has said before; during testimony in February 2006, he had insisted there had been “no serious disagreement” among Bush officials about the warrantless program.

But yesterday, FBI director Robert Mueller was put under oath. He proceeded to back up ex-deputy attorney general Comey’s version of events, including the fact that he, Comey, and others had been prepared to resign unless the White House backed off. (To quell the resignation threat, Bush later agreed to modify the program, in ways we do not know.) Mueller had not been present at the hospital bedside, but he consulted with Ashcroft and Comey in the immediate aftermath of Gonzales’ appearance. He has kept his notes ever since, because, as he now puts it, the incident was “out of the ordinary.”

Mueller’s key remark yesterday came in response to series of questions about the bedside showdown. He was asked to describe what Gonzales wanted to talk about. He replied, a tad haltingly: “The discussion was on a national – an NSA program that has been much discussed, yes.”

But even though Gonzales has now been contradicted by both the director of the FBI and the former deputy attorney general, the White House still doesn’t think its ever-faithful AG has a credibility problem. Bush spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that Mueller “didn’t contradict the attorney general,” and that the Democrats in Congress are simply out to get Gonzales: “they’re going to smear him up as good as they can” – somehow omitting the fact that virtually no congressional Republicans are lifting a finger to defend the attorney general. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter even went out of his way to trash Gonzales yesterday while traveling with Bush on Air Force One (“Our hearing two days ago was devastating. But so was the hearing before that, and so was the hearing before that”).

And here's an interesting assessment on Tony Snow, offered yesterday on MSNBC: "He's Ron Zeigler during Watergate," a reference to the White House press secretary who shredded his own credibility while serving in Richard Nixon's bunker. That take on Snow comes to us from Bruce Fein, a conservative Republican and attorney who served in Ronald Reagan's Justice Department.

It’s also a bit rich that another White House spokesman attempted yesterday to describe Alberto Gonzales as a victim of “an out of control Congress.” Any administration that launches a secret warrantless wiretapping program, in defiance of rules set down by a 1978 act of Congress, and then finds itself overruled by a conservative attorney general (Ashcroft) who essentially deems the program to be illegal, and then tries to pressure the attorney general while he’s under sedation in a hospital…well, I think that’s a fair description of “out of control.”

But perhaps Gonzales said it best in his latest testimony. When asked whether he thinks it was appropriate to importune Ashcroft, he replied: "There are no rules governing whether or not General Ashcroft can decide 'I'm feeling well enough to make this decision.’”

Question: Even when the guy is under sedation?

Gonzales: “There are no rules.”

There are no rules…That’s the Bush administration, in a nutshell. For once, Alberto Gonzales was telling the truth.


Quote of the week, from a top military aide to David Petraeus, while discussing new attempts to measure whether the Surge is really working:

“We are going to try a dozen different things. Maybe one of them will flatline. One of them will do this much. One of them will do this much more. After a while, we believe there is chance you will head into success. I am not saying that we are absolutely headed for success.”

Thursday, July 26, 2007

"Troops out," and then what?

Further thoughts on the CNN-YouTube Democratic debate:

As I mentioned in passing several days ago, the '08 Democratic presidential hopefuls have generally failed thus far to tell Americans how they would responsibly manage the difficult logistics of a massive withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Perhaps, in the wooing of liberal primary voters, it's sufficient to simply say "troops out" by a date certain. (Bill Richardson, during the YouTube debate: "I believe we should bring all the troops home by the end of this year, in six months, with no residual forces -- no residual forces.") But ultimately, in the wooing of swing-voting independents, it will be necessary for Democrats to ensure that their national security credentials are in order - by making it clear that they're thinking long term about how to best secure the region in the wake of a major U.S. military drawdown.

The YouTube debate on Monday night was another missed opportunity. At one point, a citizen questioner asked the big question: "Don’t you think if we pulled out now, that would open it up for Iran and Syria, God knows who -- Russia -- how do we pull out now? And isn’t it our responsibility to get these people up on their feet? I mean, do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself? How do we pull out now?"

Barack Obama responded not by talking about 2007 and beyond, but by harkening back to 2002 (when he opposed the war before it began). Then he offered a nice sound bite - "I think we can be as careful getting out as we were careless getting in" - without offering any details. Then he condemned the Iraqi parliament for going on vacation in August. Then he said that a troop pullout should be accompanied by a "diplomatic surge," but again offered no details.

Joe Biden, who at least has floated a post-withdrawal plan for Iraq's political future, riffed quickly on his main points about decentralizing the Iraqi government and setting up separate ethnic jurisdictions. (In that sense, he gave the best answer.) He was followed moments later by Hillary Clinton, who, rather than detailing any of her ideas for post-withdrawal Iraq, contented herself with assailing the President Bush's Pentagon for not adequately developing its own ideas ("there are a lot of questions that we’re asking, but we’re not getting answers"). Then, shortly thereafter, Chris Dodd offered a few general principles - redeploy the troops, "robustly" pursue diplomacy, develop a program "that allows us to become much more engaged in the region" - but nothing else.

In fairness to some of these candidates, it should be noted that the debate format continues to defeat them. The stage is way too crowded (thanks to the presence of people who haven't the remotest chance of getting elected), and therefore the available time to respond in detail is severely limited.

But maybe, even with more time, these Democrats would still be taking refuge in generalities. I sense that such a posture won't suffice in the long run. Many Americans who back troop withdrawal are nevertheless concerned about what would happen in Iraq and the region when we leave. Swing voters will want specifics on how the Democrats would minimize resulting bloodshed and, at the very least, how Democrats would protect our broader security interests.

Will Marshall, a moderate Democrat and prominent Washington policy wonk, has effectively framed the stakes in a new piece posted online. He writes:

"Democrats are right to argue that the United States should start moving its major combat forces out of the country. But since we don’t know how that will affect Iraq’s civil strife, we need to pull out gradually and keep the worst from happening.
Specifically, we should redefine our military mission in Iraq as enforcing three 'noes' that are essential to protecting America’s strategic interests — no safe havens for al Qaeda, no genocide, and no wider regional war. This happens to be the position of most Democratic Congressional leaders and presidential candidates. Given the central role national security will play in next year’s national elections, Democrats would be wise to start emphasizing the longer-range aspects of their Iraq plans."

Later in the piece, he writes: "Too hasty an American departure would likely leave behind a failed state that plunges deeper into sectarian violence and sucks neighboring countries into the maelstrom. All this would add immensely to the prestige of al Qaeda, which would claim credit for having driven the Americans out, just as it claims to have been instrumental in forcing Russia’s exit from Afghanistan in the early 1980s. So instead of promising glibly to stop the war, Democrats should spell out the next phase in what will likely be a prolonged endgame in Iraq."

Marshall basically likes the idea of trimming troops levels to 60,000 in 2008, with full withdrawal by 2012. He argues that this plan "meets the basic demand of war critics: get U.S. troops out of the business of mediating Iraq’s sectarian conflicts and focus those who remain on protecting essential American security interests battling al Qaeda, discouraging intervention by Iraq’s neighbors and preventing genocide."

That kind of timetable might be too slow for the liberal Democratic base. But the liberal Democratic base isn't big enough to deliver the '08 election. Swing voters in search of a credible commander-in-chief will want assurance that, beyond simply pulling out the troops, Democrats are also thinking seriously about the day after.


By the way, there's a new twist in the Pentagon's tiff with Hillary Clinton. As I noted the other day, high-ranking apparatchik Eric Edelman sent her a snarky letter last week accusing her of emboldening the terrorists. She had asked, months ago, for information on the Pentagon's troop withdrawal contingency plans, and received no reply - until Edelman (one of Dick Cheney's former minions) finally told her that a request like hers "reinforces enemy propaganda."

Edleman's boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, assured Hillary late last week the congressional oversight was a good thing. And today, the Associated Press is reporting that Gates has now gone a step further. In a new letter, he tells Hillary that her credentials as a loyal American are still in order:

"I emphatically assure you that we do not claim, suggest, or otherwise believe that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies, nor do we question anyone's motives in this regard."

It wasn't exactly an apology, but no matter. Confessions of error by the Bush war planners are rare indeed. All they managed to do, in the Edelman episode, was to further embolden Hillary Clinton.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Obama's Bambi problem

Five foreign policy experts allied with Barack Obama want to reassure you that the candidate has the right stuff to be commander-in-chief. They sent out an email message, late yesterday afternoon, saying it was so. They said that Obama would engage in “tough-minded diplomacy,” in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, who “personally negotiated arms agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev.”

If you’re wondering why these Obama allies suddenly felt compelled to laud their man as Reaganesque, here’s the explanation:

Damage control.

Obama screwed up big time in the CNN-YouTube debate on Monday night, by leaving the impression – during a response to a crucial foreign policy question – that he would not be sufficiently tough-minded when dealing with America’s adversaries. That’s a fatal error for any Democrat, given the party’s traditional image. And it’s a potentially special problem for Obama, because he is still new on the national scene, and is stuck with the task of demonstrating to skeptical voters that his commander-in-chief instincts might at least compensate for his lack of experience.

But he might’ve hurt himself on Monday might, when he left the impression that he would be Bambi in a forest of predators.

(He has done this before, by the way. I’ll get to that in a moment.)

In the latest debate, a YouTube questioners asked: “Would you be willing to meet separately, without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?”

Obama replied: “I would.”

He went on to explain that, as a matter of principle, it’s “ridiculous” for America not to talk to hostile countries, but the damage had been done: He had basically said he would break bread with people like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Fidel Castro without any preconditions, such as whether they were merely going to use a presidential summit as a grandstanding opportunity.

Hillary Clinton listened to Obama, spotted the rhetorical opening, and drove a Hummer right through it. She said that it would be wrong to “promise a meeting at that high a level before you know what the intentions are. I don't want to be used for propaganda purposes. I don't want to make a situation even worse….I will use a lot of high-level presidential envoys to test the waters, to feel the way. But certainly, we're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be.”

Translation: Obama, by his own words, is a naif who would be rolled by the bad guys.

Gee, do you think the Republicans would have a field day with something like that, if Obama won the nomination? All they’d need to do is quote the Hillary camp, which said yesterday: “Senator Obama has committed to presidential-level meetings with some of the world’s worst dictators without precondition during his first year in office.” Or they could just quote Hillary, who called Obama’s remarks “irresponsible and frankly naive.” As for Hillary, she now has a potential weapon for the Florida primary; Cuban-Americans might not look kindly on a candidate who says he’d talk to Fidel without any preconditions.

Maybe a case can be made that this is unfair to Obama, that perhaps in his remarks he only intended to signal his general affinity for diplomacy as a foreign policy tool, and that, in doing so, he simply overlooked the more specific question at hand – whether it’s wise, in the name of diplomacy, for a president to simply talk with the bad guys under any or all conditions. Yet, if that’s what happened, then at the very least Obama showed he might not be sufficiently sensitized to the nuances of delicate national security questions. And, arguably, that connects back to his lack of experience.

Obama tried to recoup late yesterday, by contending that Hillary was trying to create a "fabricated controversy" and that she was really the naive one, because she voted to authorize the Iraq war. Then he said: "What she’s somehow maintaining is that my (debate) statement could be construed as not having asked what the meeting (with the bad guys) was about. I didn’t say these guys were going to come over for a cup of coffee some afternoon...I think that is absolutely wrong.”

Then why didn't he respond that way at the time, when he took the question? Obama has brought this on himself. His first instinct, during all these debates, is to speak in stirring generalities. One of his favorite phrases (I heard it again on Monday night) is, “Let me go to the broader issue here.” For a candidate, eloquence can be a powerful asset. But a candidate with a thin track record in Washington needs to demonstrate an instinct for nuance as well.

And a Democrat in particular, fairly or not, needs to demonstrate toughness, at least rhetorically. Obama’s problem is that he has also whiffed on that test before. In a debate back on April 26, he was asked: “If, God forbid a thousand times, while we were gathered here tonight, we learned that two American cities have been hit simultaneously by terrorists, and we further learned, beyond the shadow of a doubt, it had been the work of al Qaeda, how would you change the U.S. military stance overseas as a result?”

Note that he was specifically being asked how he would command the military in response to a homeland attack. But his first instinct was not to talk about how he would command the military. He talked instead about something else – the home front.

He replied: “Well, the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans.” And, much like what we witnessed on Monday night, Hillary Clinton spotted that opening as well, and spoke like a commander-in-chief: “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.”

Politically, Obama can’t afford to keep flubbing these national security questions. If he somehow wins the nomination, yet is widely perceived as a naïf, the Republicans will put him in a tank with Mike Dukakis.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Democrats and box populi

Regarding last night’s historic Democratic debate, which featured regular folks posting questions via YouTube, here’s my thumbnail review: Thumbs-up, with an asterisk.

Thumbs-up, because the ’08 candidates had to field a wide range of citizen questions that were, at various times, heartfelt, provocative, impertinent, irreverent, and insouciant.

In other words, they were often framed in ways that journalists would not have dared to attempt, for fear of being scolded later by some candidate’s flak. For instance, Hillary Clinton was asked whether a woman president would be taken seriously in Arab countries that treat their own women as second-class citizens; John Edwards was asked whether it’s fair that he opposes gay marriage on religious grounds; Barack Obama was asked whether he considers himself authentically black; everybody was asked why the quality of the balloting process varies so much from state to state, in an era when a Starbucks latte tastes exactly the same regardless of locale. I also liked the Michigan guy who brandished his jumbo assault rifle and demanded to know whether the Democratic candidates would protect his “baby” – thereby prompting Joe Biden to stray off-script and grumble, “If that’s his ‘baby,’ then he needs help.”

But I’ll add an asterisk, because these questions were merely a fraction of the 2700 submitted to CNN. In other words, the gatekeepers of the “old media” functioned as editors, culling the “new media” for quality queries. I’d bet the ranch that hundreds of the videographers lobbed open-ended softballs, along the lines of: “What would you do to ensure that our children have more economic opportunity?” I’d also bet that many others hailed from the dark side. All the more reason for the pros to function as arbiters – as CNN will do again, when the Republican candidates face the YouTube citizenry in September. It makes sense to me. If the Internet is indeed today’s version of the Wild West, then give it a sheriff.

Anyway, regarding last night: If Hillary Clinton’s rivals don’t start taking her on, if they don’t find a way to trim her commanding lead, this Democratic race will be over in a hurry. At this point, seven candidates are eating her dust.

In a few short months, she has managed – despite her ’02 vote authorizing an Iraq invasion - to remake herself as an antiwar candidate. As recently as last year, she was still opposing any troop withdrawal timeline. She was against it then, and she’s for it now. But apparently the Democratic primary electorate is taking this flip-flop in stride; the latest ABC-Washington Post poll reports that she leads Obama, by 51 to 29 percent, among those who want to pull out all the troops – and this is despite the fact that Obama opposed the war long before President Bush ever started it.

Last night, she again polished her new credentials (“I put forth a comprehensive three-point plan to get our troops out of Iraq, and it does start with moving them out as soon as possible”). At another point, she reminded people that she has been asking the Pentagon to map a pullout plan and to share that information with her; she also mentioned proudly that the Pentagon has accused her of emboldening the enemy. Also last night, she aired a campaign video that borrowed a Bob Dylan ‘60s protest riff: One placard asked how many WMDs had been found in Iraq, and the next placard said “Zero.” (Wait…hadn’t she voted to authorize the war on the belief that Saddam Hussein did have WMDs? Doesn’t this mean that SHE screwed up?)

She wasn’t challenged on any of this – except once, when Obama uttered one passing remark: “I think it’s terrific that she’s asking for plans from the Pentagon, and I think the Pentagon response was ridiculous. But what I also know is that the time for us to ask how we were going to get out of Iraq was before we went in.” Hillary didn’t bother to rebut it, nobody else followed up on it, and the moment passed.

She was pushed a lot harder by a YouTube questioner, during the early moments of the debate. A guy from California asked how she’d define the word “liberal,” and whether she’d use the term to describe herself. In a sense, this was a great question, because it tested whether Hillary might have the political courage to take on the Republicans who have succeeded, over the past 30 years, in reducing the word to a pejorative.

Well, she didn’t. Instead she said this: “It is a word that originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years, it has been turned up on its head…”

By who? In what way? For what presumably craven purpose?

She skipped all that. She then said, “I prefer the term ‘progressive,’ which has a real American meaning…So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive.”

Wait…the word “liberal” doesn’t have a real American meaning? By simply ceding the word, doesn’t that validate the frequent GOP insinuation that a “liberal” is somehow unAmerican? And doesn’t she sound a bit defensive, the way she twice felt compelled to slap “American” onto her preferred label?

That answer was a far cry from what John F. Kennedy said in September of 1960: "What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label 'liberal'?...If by a 'liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'liberal,' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'liberal.'"

Hillary's caution, as evidenced in her answer, still bugs some Democrats. On the other hand, last night she again demonstrated her skill at defusing inconvenient questions, and turning them to her advantage. A Democratic committeeman from Illinois, via his video, asked her whether the election of another Clinton (after a Bush, a Clinton, and another Bush) would “constitute the type of change in Washington that so many people in the heartland are yearning for.” This was the 28-year-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton Dynasty Question, and she promptly squashed it:

“Well, I think it was a problem that Bush was elected in 2000. (Pause for laughter) I actually thought that somebody else was elected in that election, but…” (Pause for applause)

In other words, she undercut the entire premise by suggesting that, if not for the ’00 Florida election overtime crisis, nobody would be talking about any two-family dynasty; and, simply by bringing up the ’00 events, she tossed raw meat to the liberal Democratic voters. Then she played the nostalgia card by invoking her husband’s tenure. Then she lauded the other candidates on stage, and said they all would have been better presidents than the (apparently illegitimate) current Bush. By this time, the rapturous audience wasn’t even aware that she had never answered the guy’s question about whether a second Clinton would actually be able to change Washington. (Fringe candidate Mike Gravel, moments later, said in one of his trademark harangues that Hillary would not be able to change anything, but nobody listens to him anyway.)

One last observation about this debate, at least for now: None of the Democrats gave substantive answers to what was probably the best question of the evening.

“Mitch from Philadelphia,” who said he was no fan of the Iraq war, nevertheless asked how it was feasible to simply pull out now, and leave the Iraqis to their violent fate, with perhaps Iran and Syria waiting in the wings. “I mean,” he asked, “do you leave a newborn baby to take care of himself?”

Biden, as always, took a decent stab at that question. Obama said something about “a diplomatic surge” in the region, but little else. Democrats, if they want to demonstrate that their national security credentials are in order, will have to persuade voters that they can pull out the troops responsibly, with an eye toward securing the region in the long term. Mitch from Philadelphia is hardly the only American who is hungry for an answer.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Bush's spymaster says yes to reality

Most Americans have long believed that the Bush team knowingly misled the nation into war by building a specious case against Saddam Hussein – in one national poll last October, 58 percent shared that view – but it’s rare indeed that a high-ranking Bush teammate stands up in public and says the same thing.

Actually, Admiral Mike McConnell was sitting down yesterday when he confirmed the Bush team’s prewar deceptions; it was a newsworthy event, given the fact that McConnell, a former National Security Agency official, currently serves Bush as director of national intelligence. It was valuable to get him on the record. His words yesterday, on Meet the Press, will probably be grist for those future historians who will assess Bush's legacy.

The key moment came when Tim Russert brought up some McConnell remarks that appear in a new book written by Stephen Hayes, a conservative scribe at The Weekly Standard magazine. Hayes, in preperation for his biography of Dick Cheney, interviewed McConnell in late November of last year. McConnell basically said that the top Bush officials cooked the intelligence in order to sell their case for war:

“All of these current players, Secretary Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney, and the president…had, first and foremost, very strong political convictions. My sense of it is their political faith and convictions influenced how they took information and interpreted it, how they picked up and interpreted outside events. As a former intel pro, when you don’t like the answer and you set up your own thing, you tend to get the answer you want. You hire people who think like you do or want to satisfy the boss. I’ve read much more about the current set of players, and they did set up a whole new interpretation because they didn’t like the (intelligence community’s) answers. They’ve gotten results that in my view now have been disastrous.”

They’ve gotten results that in my view now have been disastrous...Good grief, does this man have Bush derangement syndrome (as no doubt the dwindling band of Bush idolators would argue), or, as an "intel pro," is he merely speaking as a member of the reality-based community? Clearly, he was referring to the neoconservative Pentagon office, set up by Cheney acolyte Douglas Feith, who skewed the intel until it was Cheney-worthy.

On NBC yesterday, Russert read that long McConnell quote, and asked the admiral to comment. I was expecting him to utilize the standard Washington dodge, and claim that Russert was taking his comments out of context; instead, McConnell confirmed and elaborated:

“I am a concerned citizen…What I was taking greatest exception to was to have a secondary unit established in the Pentagon to reinterpret information…The way you do (proper) intelligence is all sources considered. You have to factor one issue against another and balance it. If you start an independent effort with a point of view, it’s not infrequent that you would take a single piece of data to make a point as opposed to consider everything…. I consider myself an intelligence professional. I’ve been doing this either in—on active duty or serving this community for 40 years. The first responsibility of an intelligence professional is ground truth, and the second responsibility is to speak truth to power.”

From a Bush team perspective, McConnell was clearly “off message” - and this happened repeatedly yesterday. Russert pointed out that, according to the latest National Intelligence Estimate, the war in Iraq has actually helped al Qaeda by providing the terrorists with a handy recruiting tool. (Bush, we now know, was warned of this dark possibility during the prewar phase.) Russert wanted to know what McConnell thought of that NIE observation. McConnell didn’t hesitate: “It (the war) has served as a recruiting tool to draw additional terrorists into Iraq.”

Moments later, Russert followed up: “But al-Qaeda is a much more robust and larger presence in Iraq now than it was before the war.”

McConnell’s response: “That’s fair to say, that’s fair to say.”

I doubt that Bush will be awarding this guy a Presidential Medal of Freedom any time soon.


My latest Sunday newspaper column – which argued that the typically timid Democrats need to go for the gut and paint the GOP as the weak-on-terrorism party – was featured yesterday on C-Span’s Washington Journal; during the show’s first 30 minutes, many of the 18 Democratic callers argued that it’s high time the Democrats grew a backbone and engaged voters on an emotional level.

While reading a new book by clinical psychologist/Democratic consultant Drew Westen – entitled The Political Brain, as discussed in my column – I was struck again at how often the Democrats have rendered themselves mute while under heavy GOP bombardment. Westen resurrects some of the golden oldies, such as Michael Dukakis’ 1988 decision to ignore the senior George Bush’s gut-level attempts to paint the Democrat as an unpatriotic coddler of criminals; Al Gore’s 2000 passivity as Republicans painted him as a serial liar; and John Kerry’s failure, for two long weeks, to hit back at the Swift Boaters. In all those cases, the Democrats simply convinced themselves that the GOP hyperbole lacked intellectual merit and that, therefore, they should not deign to hit back. They never imagined that the voters would buy the GOP arguments. The rest is history.

But Westen, on page 338, also brought up an incident that I had forgotten – one that is quite relevant at the moment.

In 2004, again on Meet the Press, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle debated Republican challenger John Thune, who was vying for Daschle’s South Dakota seat. At one point, when Daschle criticized Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, Thune retorted that any and all second-guessing of the Leader “emboldens our enemies.” In other words, Thune went for the gut, calling Daschle a coddler of terrorists. And Daschle - who, unlike Thune, was a military vet - said basically nothing in response, except to lament how he was “disappointed” and “saddened” that Thune would attack him that way.

Westen weighs in here: “You don’t express sadness or disappointment when someone slugs you. You express rage, and you start slugging back.”

For a textbook response on how to slug back, consider the way Hillary Clinton handled the Bush administration’s attempt last week to paint her as a coddler of terrorists.

This past May, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee (and, of course, as a Democratic presidential candidate), she had asked the Pentagon to explain how it would work out the logistics of any eventual troop withdrawal from Iraq. This was not a shocking request; it was widely reported, nearly 18 months ago, that the Pentagon has worked on such contingency plans. But Hillary got no response for nearly three months.

Finally, a week ago, Pentagon underling Eric Edelman, apparently channeling his old boss Dick Cheney (whom he served as deputy assistant for national security), sent Hillary a letter, warning her that any “premature” discussion of U.S. troop withdrawal “reinforces enemy propaganda.”

Rather than say that she was saddened or disappointed by being labeled a terrorist propagandist, she lashed back, in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “Under Secretary Edelman…claims that congressional oversight emboldens our enemies. Under Secretary Edelman has his priorities backward. Open and honest debate and congressional oversight strengthens our nation and supports our military. His suggestion to the contrary is outrageous and dangerous...Redeploying out of Iraq will be difficult and requires careful planning. I continue to call on the Bush Administration to immediately provide a redeployment strategy that will keep our brave men and women safe as they leave Iraq - instead of adhering to a political strategy to attack those who rightfully question their competence and preparedness after years of mistakes and misjudgments.”

And in response, Gates quickly caved. He said Friday that of course he values congressional oversight; in fact, he considers it “constructive and appropriate.”

The lesson for Democrats – as Westen outlines at length in his book - is that weakness in the face of GOP aggression is fatal: “The kind of candidate who will not appeal to the American voter in the post-September 11 world is a candidate (who is) advised to take stands that exude timidity in the face of political aggression at home, for fear of being branded or outflanked. If the American people take that timidity at home as an indicator of how Democrats will respond to aggression from abroad,” then Democrats deserve to lose.

“What we need to today,” writes Westen, is a Democrat “with cajones. As we have seen, you don’t have to be born with them to use them.”