Thursday, August 23, 2007

Warner to Bush: pretty please?

Most Americans may well have taken it as an insult that George W. Bush, of all people, sought yesterday to lecture them about American history. It can be argued that the former C student, and current steward of one of America's signature foreign policy disasters, is ill-qualified to pose as an historian, but such trifles hardly deter the Decider.

So he proceeded, in his VFW speech, to suggest that all will be well in Iraq if only we would commit ourselves to stick it out and build a democracy, just like we did in Japan 60 years ago - somehow overlooking the fact that (a) Japan was a longstanding nation-state with none of the violent sectarian strife that predominates in Iraq, which wasn't even a nation until the British artifically created it in 1920, (b) the surrender of Japan capped a war that was universally supported on the U.S. home front, with mass sacrifice and higher taxes, (c) the military occupation of Japan was similarly supported on the home front, and it was sustained by a conscripted U.S. army that never had to worry about being stretched too thin, or about being trapped in the midst of a civil war.

But Bush is apparently free to continue his ahistorical lecture series, because it's clear that the Republicans on Capitol Hill still don't have the moxie to cross him. Witness John Warner's behavior today.

This afternoon, I received a series of breathless emails (CNN, PBS, Fox, among others) about how the Virginia senator/ranking Armed Services Committee Republican/ex-Marine and ex-Navu secretary/old bull of the GOP establishment was breaking with Bush, and demanding that the president begin troop withdrawals from Iraq.

In other words, a big story. But, at Warner's press conference, here's what he actually said:

"(I support) the need to send a sharp and clear message throughout the region, to the United States, and one that people can understand. I think no clearer form of that than if the president were to announce on the 15th (of September) that, in consultation with our senior military commanders, he’s decided to initiate the first step in a withdrawal of our forces. I say to the president, respectfully, pick what ever number you wish. You do not want to lose the momentum, but certainly in 160,000- plus, say, 5,000 could begin to redeploy and be home to their families and loved ones no later than Christmas of this year. That’s the first step. Let the president establish the timetable of withdrawal, not the Congress. Under the Constitution, as commander in chief, he has that authority. He need not lay out a totality of a timetable. I would advise against it...

"That simple announcement of a single redeployment of some several thousand individuals under the military tradition — first-come, first-served in Iraq, first to depart — you’ve got to be careful how those selections — they can pick them from various units; put together a group and send them back. Then evaluate, re-evaluate how successful it has been. Then perhaps, at the president’s discretion, select a second date and time for a contingent to be redeployed...Our president holds the key to any U.S. withdrawal. And I think a step as I’ve outlined will make that eminently clear."

So, let us review: He's suggesting the withdrawal of 5000 troops (out of 160,000) - unless Bush comes up with some other number; and he thinks that only Bush should decide on what that number should be, with no congressional input; and he implies that even if Bush opts to ignore his advice, Congress shouldn't do anything about it anyway.

Just another GOP profile in courage, right up there with Senator Arlen Specter's longstanding propensity for talking big and backing down. And that should be a comfort to our uncredentialed historian-in-chief, who yesterday implied that we should never have pulled out of Vietnam, and who neglected to mention that the Vietnamese communists, rather than seeking to spread their ideology across southeast Asia (remember the so-called Domino Theory?), are instead developing a thriving economic market for American capitalism.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The wrong kind of crime-fighter

In his bid to win the GOP presidential nomination, Rudy Giuliani has a big problem. It's true that, as mayor of New York, he was a renowned crime-fighter, and Republican primary voters certainly like a guy who not only has a tough-on-crime image, but also has the tough-on-crime statistics to back up the image. The hitch, however, is that, for Republicans, he's the wrong kind of crime-fighter.

Basically, he says he cut crime by curbing access to guns.

Those latter four words are a no-no. While GOP voters like the idea of cutting crime, they're not so wild about the idea of attaching any caveats to the red-blooded American right to purchase a piece...even though, in the case of New York City, those caveats reportedly did help to cut crime.

This issue surfaced yesterday, when the perpetually teasing Fred Thompson, who plays a crime-fighter on TV, pursued his unofficial candidacy by writing critically on his website about Giuliani's gun-control record. Thompson said: "When I was working in television, I spent quite a bit of time in New York City. There are lots of things about the place I like, but New York gun laws don't fall into that category. Anybody who knows me knows I’ve always cared deeply about the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. So I’ve always felt sort of relieved when I flew back home to where that particular civil liberty gets as much respect as the rest of the Bill of Rights." He also implied that crime is low nationwide because of "historically high gun ownership rates."

This shot across Giuliani's bow is clearly designed to appeal to the Second Amendment enthusiasts who vote heavily in GOP primaries, and who perhaps are unaware that the homicide rate and the rate of shootings both fell precipitously on Giuliani's watch. It'd be wrong to suggest that Giuliani's gun control policies -particularly keeping illegal handguns away from criminals - were solely responsible; a healthy '90s economy helped as well. But Giuliani himself contends on his own website that his policies were instrumental, that as a result of controlling illegal guns, "shootings fell by 72 percent and the murder rate was cut by two-thirds."

The question is whether Giuliani is prepared to tout his New York City record as proof that tougher control of illegal guns can indeed lower the crime rate, and take that message to the GOP primary electorate. Fat chance. Gun-owning voters generally view efforts to curb illegal guns as the first step toward national confiscation of legal guns - which is why Thompson sought to put the squeeze on Giuliani yesterday. And which is why Giuliani's website leaves him wiggle room:

"Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn't necessarily work in Mississippi and Montana."

By the way, this "state's rights" pitch is fairly new; not too long ago, when he had yet to begin pandering to the Republican right, Giuliani was a staunch supporter of federal gun licensing laws that would indeed have applied to places like Mississippi and Montana. But if we take his current stance at face value, here's the question:

If keeping illegal guns away from criminals worked in New York, as he claims, then why wouldn't that policy be worth trying elsewhere, maybe in Mississippi and Montana, or especially in other cities? After all, 240 mayors believe that curbing illegal guns would reduce gun violence. Politically speaking, however, Giuliani won't dare to highlight this issue, especially with Thompson laying the groundwork to outflank him on the right. His viability as a Republican candidate hinges on his ability to edit or erase his own past.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What the war spinners omitted

Breaking news! Hillary Clinton and other leading Democrats eat crow and endorse President Bush's troop hike strategy in Iraq!

So says the conservative media, anyway.

In their latest attempt to spin the Iraq war as a worthy enterprise, in advance of the September Surge report, Bush's enablers have been very busy over the past 24 hours, spreading the story that Hillary, along with Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin, have finally acknowledged that the Bush troop hike has improved security around Baghdad.

For instance, The Drudge Report yesterday highlighted a fragment of a Hillary sentence ("it's working") that the Democratic candidate uttered during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The Washington Times newspaper carried a report this morning that Levin, in a joint statement with influential Republican Sen. John Warner, has conceded that "the military aspects of President Bush's new strategy in Iraq ... appear to have produced some credible and positive results." Fox News seconded that, announcing that Levin and Warner were praising the Surge. And, a popular website, posted a headline this morning - "Hillary: the Surge is Working" - along with a YouTube clip of her remarks.

Yet somehow, when these allegedly breathless developments are viewed in full context, they seem to lose their punch. Hillary, in her speech, stated: "We've begun to change tactics in Iraq, and in some areas, particularly in Al Anbar province, it's working." (emphasis mine) That's hardly a ringing endorsement of Bush's war stewardship, when one considers what she said next: "We're just years too late changing our tactics. We can't let that ever happen again," which merely underscores what she has repeatedly said in recent years, that the administration's conduct of this war has been abysmal. And because the war has been so badly executed, she said that "I'm not sure there are any good options" in the long run, regardless of how well the Surge goes, as a short-run military tactic.

The Washington Times, to its credit today, did report some of Hillary's caveats. But it was AWOL on Carl Levin. After spotlighting Levin's remarks about how the Surge was producing some positive reults, the newspaper saw fit to omit this passage in the Levin-Warner statement:

"While we believe that the 'surge' is having measurable results, and has provided a degree of 'breathing space,' for Iraqi politicians to make the political compromises which bare essential for a political solution in Iraq, we are not optimistic about the prospects for those compromises."

At least in the traditional world of journalism, it would be deemed highly relevent that a leading Republican foreign policy figure (Warner) is tempering his praise for the Surge by conceding that he is "not optimistic" about the Surge's underlying purpose, and that he also believes "time has run out." But, under the rules of the Bush administration media, that little factoid would interrupt the story line about Democrats eating crow. Hence, its omission.

And while those media outlets were crowing about Hillary and Levin, we also learned elsewhere this morning - in The Wall Street Journal, where the news pages (at least for now) operate by traditional journalistic standards - that others share Warner's view that the Surge may well fail to coax the Iraqis toward reconciliation. Consider this quote: "It would be a huge shame if after all the military has accomplished with the surge, we don't get a political accomodation. But I'm not optimistic."

That was Gen. George Casey, who until recently served as the top U.S commander in Iraq. He and Hillary are saying roughly the same thing.

The basic problem facing the conservative media is that the Surge is no more capable of working miracles than a massive dose of morphine can heal a patient who is mortally ill. The Surge may well ease the pain in Iraq, as Hillary acknowledged yesterday, but a late dose of U.S. military power - after years of administration ineptitude - will not be able to cure the body politic.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Democrats' Sunday manners

Some thoughts on the latest Democratic presidential candidate debate, staged this morning on ABC News:

After two relatively raucous debates – I am referring, of course, to the August pander festivals sponsored by liberal bloggers and labor activists – the Democratic candidates clearly felt it was time to lighten up on the intramural bloodletting. This time, they were auditioning live in an auditorium filled with Iowans, and those good Democrats are earnest and serious and generally adverse to bad manners on stage. They also get to vote first, in the Democratic caucuses next January.

So it was amusing to hear John Edwards chastise George Stephanopoulos for asking tough questions about how the candidates differ on issues and message. “I know you’re trying to create a fight up here,” said Edwards – the same candidate who, in previous debates, has been laboring to gain ground by creating fights up there.

But Edwards, who lately has been widely criticized for seeming too “angry” and too divisive, suddenly surfaced today more as a uniter than a divider – to the point where he was even stealing his rivals’ lines. During a discussion about the Iraq war, a topic that typically prompts him to hurl knives at Hillary Clinton for her refusal to renounce her pro-war authorization vote, he instead switched to reconciliation mode and said: “Any Democratic president will end this war. The differences between us…are very small compared to the differences between us and the Republican candidates.” That’s a standard Hillary line, virtually verbatim.

Meanwhile, Hillary continues to hone her incremental mea culpa on Iraq, and her antiwar rivals basically gave her a pass on that today. Referring to her 2002 war authorization vote, she said: “I, too, regret giving George Bush the authority that he misused and abused….So, you know, looking back on it, I wouldn't have voted that way again, certainly…And obviously for me that is a great regret…I would never have diverted our attention to Iraq, and I never would have pursued this war. I think that has been a terrible mistake for our country.” It wasn’t exactly the apology long sought by the liberal base, but none of her major competitors said a word in protest.

Barack Obama was also stressing common ground on the issue of U.S. troop withdrawals. After Hillary gave a long answer about the logistical complexities of an orderly military pullout (“This is going to be very dangerous and very difficult, and a lot of people don’t like to hear that”), with Joe Biden seconding the point, Obama went un search of a Democratic consensus: “I think Joe is right on the issue of how long this is going to take. This is not going to be a simple operation. I think Senator Clinton laid out some of the challenges that were out there. I agree with John Edwards that all of us on this stage I think would begin to bring this war to an end. I think we also can all agree that it's going to be messy, that there are no good options.”

It wasn’t all Kumbaya up there. Obama had no choice but to defend himself on the issue of experience, after Stephanopoulos launched the show by asking the other candidates whether Obama was sufficiently seasoned. (Hillary, also in reconciliation mode, had dodged the question by saying, “I think we have a great group of candidates.”) Obama waited 45 minutes before delivering a rhetorically effective rebuttal: “Earlier on, we were talking about the issue of experience. Nobody had more experience than Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney and many of the people on this stage that authorized this war. And it indicates how we get into trouble when we engage in the sort of conventional thinking that has become the habit in Washington.”

On the other hand, Obama went easy on Hillary when he was asked whether the frontrunner was a polarizing figure who would endanger down-ticket Democratic candidates in 2008. (Last week, the departing Karl Rove repeatedly assailed Hillary as a polarizer whose high negatives would imperil her election; and the Associated Press reported that many Democrats around the country are worried that she would be a drag on candidates running for lower offices.)

Obama didn’t take the bait, however. Rather than paint Hillary as too baggage-burdened for the party's good, he quickly switched, as he often does, to high road mode: “There’s something bigger at stake here…the big challenges we face,” whereupon he riffed about health care and other big issues, and said, “They’re not just Republican problems. They’re Democratic and American problems…” He did make a passing remark about “the failed politics of Washington,” and about election strategies that are predicated on dividing America into blue states and red states, all of which might have been about Hillary, but nothing that constituted a skewering sound bite.

Hillary’s high negatives – roughly 48 percent of Americans reportedly view her with suspicion or worse – are indeed a potential impediment. But she had an effective response today: “You know, the idea that you're going to escape the Republican attack machine and not have high negatives by the time they're through with you, I think, is just missing what's been going on in American politics for the last 20 years.”

Translation: Hillary is saying that she has already suffered the wounds of battle against the GOP, and that she has survived those wounds – whereas, relatively speaking, none of her less-tested rivals have yet suffered so much as a scratch. She is suggesting that she has maxed out on her injuries, that the GOP has already spent all its ammunition on her (indeed, earlier today the Republicans emailed some embarrassing remarks that Hillary made…in 1992) – whereas her rivals are pristine only because they have not been sufficiently targeted.

This is a key question that many grassroots Democrats may well ask themselves on the eve of the primary season: Has Hillary hit her negative ceiling, or can it still go even higher? Should Democrats find a different candidate, or is it inevitable that any Democrat would wind up hitting the same ceiling (just as John Kerry went from war hero to Swift Boat caricature)? Or are Democrats needlessly worrying about what Hillary calls the “Republican atttack machine,” given the public’s general disdain for the GOP these days, as the Iraq war grinds on?


The Democrats today were probably relieved that nobody (for once) asked them about gay marriage. I explained why this issue makes them squirm, in my latest Sunday newspaper column.