Okay, now what in Iraq?

Politics and policy.
Nov. 8 2006 5:38 PM

Rummy's Gone. Next.

Okay, now what in Iraq?

A New Architect: Maybe Matthew Dowd is the new smartest man in Republican politics. Karl Rove's status as political genius took a big hit Tuesday. Today Republican strategists were not talking about the GOP realignment that Rove once predicted but, as one put it, "a six to 10 year climb out from" Rove's tactics, which have emphasized the base over the political middle. While the recriminations come in and the verdict of history settles, Dowd is looking pretty good. He was not only the pollster and strategist for Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004, but in 2006 Dowd was chief strategist to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose resurrection and victory are the brightest story in the Republican ranks. Dowd's book, Applebee's America, will no doubt be required reading as GOP operatives lick their wounds and plot the next revolution. … 5:44 p.m. (link)

"It was a thumping."It was comforting to hear that candor from the president. Perhaps it was the months of relentless spin or the president's charge that Democrats were the party of "cut and run" while his Iraq policy moved ever closer to theirs, but it was a relief to hear George Bush say a true, if uncomfortable, thing out loud. Perhaps if he had said the true and uncomfortable things about the war in Iraq, he wouldn't have had to say that about the Election Day result.

Listening to Bush's press conference, it seemed like the administration's Iraq policy is up for grabs. Last week the president said he was standing by Secretary Rumsfeld, and now Rumsfeld is gone. Bush had said he was satisfied with the progress, and now he's not. All previous statements had been rendered inoperative by the election result. They were no more meaningful than election-year slogans.

But is that right? Is the president now being as candid about Iraq as he is about Tuesday's election? We'll see if the president shows the same kind of post-election flexibility on the more complex questions related to Iraq. Is he willing to rethink his approach, or is he shedding Rumsfeld the way he dropped the "stay the course language," only to stay fixed on all other points of debate. Bush says he's looking forward to the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group headed by Jim Baker, but the group is likely to make painful recommendations: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops. Bush has either refused to consider them or stayed mum. (One hopes that by picking Robert Gates, a member of the Study Group, to replace Rumsfeld, Bush is pre-emptively embracing, rather than co-opting, its recommendations.)

Democratic leaders might wonder soon if getting rid of Rumsfeld so quickly was such a great idea. The boogeyman of Rumsfeld made it easy to be a critic. By casting him aside, Bush forces Democrats to make decisions on those more complicated issues while they're still figuring out where to hold their caucus meetings. The Rumsfeld departure might have been a helpful act of symbolism, but it tells us nothing about whether Bush or the newly empowered Democrats have any chance of agreeing on a way forward in Iraq. ... 5:30 p.m.(link)

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

"But if the Democrats were to take control, their policy is pretty clear to me: it's cut and run."—George W. Bush, Oct. 24, 2006

"The Democrats are the party of cut and run."—George W. Bush, Oct. 10, 2006

"I don't know how many members of Congress said, "Get out right now." I mean, the—candidates running for Congress and the Senate. I haven't seen that chart. I—I—some of the comments I read, well, they said, 'Well, look, we just need a different approach to make sure we succeed.' Well, you can find common ground there."—George W. Bush, Nov. 8, 2006 … 2:59 p.m. (link)

Deciderer Time: It would show some measure of élan if George Bush at his press conference Wednesday would make fun of his own jibes at Democrats. "It turns out you were right to be measuring the drapes before victory and that's a good thing, because now we can get right to work and I look forward to working with you." This joke would show respect, a little deference due a co-equal branch (a first!), apologize a little for the heated words of the campaign, and start toward the goal of the entire press conference: moving on.

Two years ago at this time, the president gave a press conference and put his election victory in perspective: "After hundreds of speeches and three debates and interviews and the whole process, where you keep basically saying the same thing over and over again, that when you win, there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view."

Tuesday the people spoke, and they did not embrace his point of view this time. He has lost the country on Iraq, and now the election has ratified that. This verdict was coming before the election results were in as Republican candidates backed away from the president and his Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. But now Bush has been handed dramatic examples like the outcome in the Rhode Island Senate  race that show just how unhappy the country is with the war. He argued that Iraq was central to the war on terror and that seems to have backfired. Six in 10 doubt that the Iraq war has improved U.S. security. The exit polls show the Republican Party lost its advantage over Democrats on which party could better handle terrorist threats.

It was the official White House position that nobody was thinking about a world where Democrats controlled either house of Congress, but someone must have been. After Iraq, administration officials surely knew the cost of failing to plan for unwelcome disasters.

The president will offer conciliatory language, of course. His spokesman, Tony Snow, will presumably retreat from claiming  that Democrats have no respect for the troops, no experience with them, and that they are not a serious political party. But will the president show any actual bi-partisanship—will he sacrifice something or show that he accepts the judgment of the voters that he was so anxious to embrace when it went his way?

Advisers have been saying that Bush will rely on the bi-partisanship of his Texas days when, as governor, he worked with Democratic Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. But they have sold that line before—repeatedly. Those Bullock days were a long time ago. As a president, Bush has only shown brief spasms of bi-partisanship. "We have never put any skin in the game," said one Bush adviser of the lack of interest in bi-partisanship.

Before Election Day, the White House shelved the expression "stay the course" when talking about Iraq, but the president did not do much to change his Iraq policy. Now he will talk about bi-partisanship, but the test will be whether, on the question of the war and how to proceed, he will offer more than just some new words. ... 2:43 a.m. (link)

Rhode Island Message? Dick Cheney recently reasserted that Ned Lamont's primary victory over Joe Lieberman was a sign to the terrorists that Democrats were weak on terror. The vice president, who is away on a so-far uneventful hunting trip, is presumably happy that Lieberman won. But what does he make of the story of poor Lincoln Chaffee? The Rhode Island senator voted against the war, and 62 percent of his constituents told exit pollsters they approved of his conduct. And yet they voted him out of office. Why? Iraq. Of those voters who strongly disapprove of the war in Iraq, 27 percent voted for Chaffee, and 72 percent voted for Sheldon Whitehouse. Not good news for the other Whitehouse. … 12:54 a.m.(link)

Quotes at the Wire: Here are some amusing things I clipped from the last moments of the 2006 race:

"We got a lot of I told you so moments right now because polls are tightening and people are thinking about issues." —Tony Snow to Rush Limbaugh Monday about coming Republican successes.

" 'I feel like I'm in ninth grade going in for a chemistry test I knew I didn't study for. I'm going to fail, and there's nothing I can do about it.' "—Senior Republican aide on the Hill to CNN's Dana Bash.

"I am God fearing second amendment supporting and as I said before I like girls and I like football…You don't have to worry about me e-mailing little boy pages on the Senate floor…Politics is way to puny for the Jesus I serve and Love… The real guiding force in this race is my Lord and Savior. I serve a big God. I serve an enormously big God."—TN Senate candidate Harold Ford on various MSNBC interviews.

"We're also joined from around the country by a couple more webcams and bloggers who couldn't make it."—CNN host of "Blogger Party."

"She's going to have enough money to burn a wet mule."—Haley Barbour on Hillary Clinton's 2008 run.

"Casey's campaign style was sleep apnea—periods of breathless gasping interrupted by occasional incoherent snorts."—Time's Joe Klein on Bob Casey beating Rick Santorum.

"Guys, this is a football."—J.C. Watts's sports analogy to explain how Republicans will have to focus on basics again.

"He completed something."—Keith Olberman on Heath Shuler the former professional football quarterback winning in North Carolina. ... 12:50 a.m. ( link

Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006

Not Running on 911: If you've got Abramoff connections, it's not exactly clear whether you'll pay a political price, but if you make someone call 911, you're likely to lose your election. Republican John Sweeny lost in New York. His wife called 911 claiming a domestic disturbance. Don Sherwood lost in Pennsylvania. His girlfriend, not his wife, locked herself in the bathroom, called 911, and claimed he had tried to choke her. …9:40  ( link)

Blowing Smoke: Republicans said they would win in the Maryland, Michigan, and New Jersey Senate races. They've lost all three. So, were they delusional and incompetent, or were they just spinning? They spent actual dollars in those races late in the contest, so perhaps the evidence supports the former! The momentum for those long-shot races sure was strong. After the networks had called Maryland for the Democrat Ben Cardin, RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman said that Republican "Michael Steele could be making incredible history." … 9:34 p.m. ( link)

Bloggers! Bloggers! Bloggers! Nevermind. Joe Lieberman won in Connecticut. Didn't  we  always  know? ... 9:15 p.m. ( link)

What Kind of Party: Republicans have an easy post-election fight: George Bush and the war are deeply unpopular. They need to fix that. Democrats have a tougher spat. Are they the party of the moderate-to-conservative Democrats that may deliver them a majority, or are they the party of their liberal-activist base? So far, the count is two to one in favor of the conservatives. Sherrod Brown has won the Ohio Senate seat on a campaign of old-fashioned populism. On the other side, Bob Casey, a pro-life candidate, has won the Senate seat in Pennsylvania, and social conservative Brad Ellsworth has also won in the Indiana's 8th Congressional District

This is going to be a wonderful fight. Brown won by taking his economic message to those rural districts where Republicans have usually done well (we'll see if this is really true in the exit polls). So, liberal activists have a strong piece of evidence, in an electorally crucial state, for the case they've been making all along: that Democrats don't have to match Republicans on values issues but instead stick to their economic message. If McCaskill wins in Missouri, they'll get another piece of evidence—she made the same rural economic pitch.

But with those two victories by social conservatives, moderates in the party also have a case they can make. They can also argue that Republicans are so unpopular in Ohio, a fork could have gotten elected. Furthermore, evangelicals seem to have voted in large numbers for Jim Webb in Virginia. That's a state where two gubernatorial victories have given support to Democratic governors who are right in the middle. Let's see where Harold Ford ends up. Today he was talking about "his enormous God" in a final spasm of overt religiosity. If he wins, the moderates and conservatives are going to win this internal argument. … 9:09 p.m. ( link)

He's Heavy, He's My Brother: CNN reports exit polls in Florida show 44 percent of respondents approve of President Bush. 66 percent approve of Governor Bush. … 8:17 p.m. (link)

Not Net Joe: Lieberman never did get that Internet thing. I just got this e-mail, which the Lieberman campaign sent to his supporters: "Please remember to vote tomorrow and remind your friends to vote the bottom line. My name will be at the bottom of column two on your ballot tomorrow, so please remember to look past the partisan game-playing and vote the bottom line tomorrow." ... 7:06 p.m. ( link)

Ehrlich in Trouble: The incumbent Maryland governor just sent out this e-mail to supporters: "Hi, this is Governor Bob Ehrlich with an urgent message. I am asking for your immediate help in order to win. Our internal tracking polls show that turnout may be down in several of our key counties. … If you haven't already voted, please stop everything you are doing and go to vote right now. Polls are open until 8pm tonight." … 7:01 p.m. (link)

Ford’s Prayers Answered? Perhaps Harold Ford was right about God's role as his campaign manager. During the day miserable, cold, rainy weather moved out of Democratic-leaning Memphis—and on to Eastern Tennessee, an area that leans more Republican. ... 6:39 p.m. ( link)

Rove on the Radio: "It's going to be a very close race," Karl Rove told Sean Hannity, "but I'm confident of a Republican Senate and a Republican House if everyone turns out to vote." This means one of two things: Republicans learned in 2004 that exit polls leak and can depress turnout, so they've prepared a drive time blitz to keep GOP voters going to the polls and not home for a sulk.  Or, it means that turnout in Republican counties is low, and Republicans are freaked. … 5:19 p.m. ( link)

Pelted With Turnout Predictions: The spinning on Election Day is so outlandish and outrageous that it makes your head hurt. My favorite candidates and campaigns are the ones who go bowling or to a movie on Election Day, because the ones who don't spend all their time in green rooms making outlandish claims about how well their turnout operation is going. Even my best sources who play it pretty straight are spinning:

From a strategist working with Ford campaign: "long, long lines in TN.  early indicators are good."

From a strategist working with Allen: "Presidential level turnout in high GOP areasthe Valley, Richmond and Central. Don't pop the Champagne yet!" ... 4:25 p.m.  ( link)

Talk Quickly—It's Election Day: At the end of a campaign, candidate fatigue and the constant repetition of the same message can produce a kind of verbal blast where candidates produce talking points with little connective tissue or just throw them at the camera like a handful of rocks. It sounds somewhere between poetry and spam e-mail and may, in really close races, cause barking. Harold Ford just gave us an example on MSNBC in an interview with Tucker Carlson: "I am a God fearing second amendment supporting and as I said before I like girls and I like football. … You don't have to worry about me emailing little boy pages on the Senate floor." ... 1:23 p.m. ( link)

Let the Recriminations Begin: Yesterday, Florida Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist decided not to campaign with President Bush. Karl Rove didn't hide his disappointment when talking to the Washington Post: "Rather than being with the governor and the president and 10,000 people in Pensacola, they made a last-minute decision to go to Palm Beach. Let's look at the comparison. Let's see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours' notice versus 8,000 or 9,000 people in Pensacola." Rove says he's not going to get involved in the 2008 presidential campaign, which should leave him lots of free time to punish whomever it was in the Crist campaign who made this decision to bail on Bush. ... 12:22 p.m. ( link)

Oh, Daughter: Alicia Menendez is sending out emails this morning urging New Jersey Democrats to vote for her father, Bob Menendez, in New Jersey. You can do a lot with the children in a Senate race that you can't in a presidential contest. Make too much of your daughters in a presidential race, and you get stalkers and cover stories in US magazine with unflattering Facebook pictures of sloppy drunkenness. But in a Senate race, you can put your children to work. Here are some other ways candidates have brought out the family.

1. Stop Picking on Dad: In the Santorum Senate race in Pennsylvania, the entire Santorum clan participated in an ad defending their dad for living in Virginia and not Pennsylvania. And boy, does his campaign have pictures.

2. Sassy Daughter Knows Best: In Michigan, Mike Brouchard has tapped daughter Mikayala— first to introduce him and now at the end of the race. She also produced regular video blogs.

3. We Are Dreamy and Wholesome—Vote for Dad: Bob Corker's  ad "My Girls" offers his teenage daughters, Emily and Julia, in a glowing light, offering testimonials about their father. ... 12:00 p.m. (link

Monday, Nov. 6, 2006

Tony Snow, the New Karl Rove: The president's spokesman and the president's top political strategist each gave hard-charging, confidence-laden interviews to conservative luminaries Monday. Rove talked to Hugh Hewitt, and Snow talked to Rush Limbaugh. Given Rove's reputation in the minds of his enemies and his bare-knuckle style of politics, you would expect his interview to be the more combative one. Plus, as the political operative, he gets some leeway to be recklessly partisan—that's why the White House press operation doesn't e-mail his interviews to the great, wide world.

Snow, on the other hand, has a job that requires maintaining an appearance of less overt partisanship. It's a good time to keep up this tradition, since he's the one who might have to articulate administration positions if there's a Democratic-controlled House or Senate. Prudence, then, would dictate restraint. No sense in giving the single-finger salute today when you're the administration figure who might have to offer the hand of bipartisanship tomorrow. If prudence didn't dictate a little adult behavior, then Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, a sensible fellow who has his eye on the days after the election, might demand it.  Plus, Snow's comments are broadcast through official channels as a government document, so surely we would expect him to be the more the nuanced and careful of the two men.

We would be silly to think so. "You gotta wonder if they're a serious political party," Snow said of the Democrats at the start of his interview with Limbaugh. Rove, when offered an opportunity to take a shot at John Kerry's "botched joke," became wrapped in nuance willing only to make Kerry stand in for "elements within the Democratic Party." Snow bashed the whole party: "Democrats tend to have a view of the military that is not always fully respectful and even when they say they're supporting them, they're undercutting them … constantly trying to undermine public confidence in that military by describing defeat what people on the ground see as hard-won victory."

Maybe it was a slip of the tongue. Sure, the press secretary is supposed to be careful with words, but whom among us hasn't gotten excited by Rush Limbaugh and condemned an entire race or political party? So, maybe he wouldn't keep taking such broad unfocused swipes. Or, maybe not. "None of these folks have really spent enough time around the all volunteer military to understand we've got the best educated, the best trained, and also the most professional military we've ever had," Snow said of the Democrats. Col. Murtha, Secretary Webb, Maj. Duckworth, Capt. Murphy, Lt. Cmdr. Carney, and Vice Adm. Sestak, I believe he was talking about you.

Karl Rove, having never served, was unwilling in his interview to make similar broad claims that apply to those who have. Maybe that's the difference between being Bush's Brain and Bush's Mouth. … 10:33 p.m. (link)

Haggard Voters: If you read the comments from Ted Haggard's parishioners, you'll see why I don't think his scandal will play that big a role on Tuesday. They don't seem to have had their faith shaken; if anything, it has been redoubled. As sharp reader NR points out, Haggard is on message even as he's escorted out the door. He says he's a "liar and deceiver" and implies that he tried and failed to avoid what he sees as the sexual sin of gayness. He does not, as Mark Foley did, admit that he's gay and go from there. Instead, he gives his parishioners his own example to spur them to fight the sin harder. Just a few more locks on the closet. … 4:49 p.m. (link)

What's Less Reliable Than an Internet Poll? At first I thought the prize for lamest phony poll  went to those ham-handed GOP "push pollsters" at Common Sense 2006. But the Santorum race has perhaps a first—a criminally bad poll. ... 3:00 p.m. (link)

Calling the Theocracy Police: In one of the crucial Senate contests for control of that body, the religious zealots are once again making bald appeals to gain political power.

From Monday's Washington Post:

[Harold] Ford told an African American crowd at Mount Zion Baptist Church here, was evidence that "we got something else at work."

"I think the congressman said something wise -- we got another manager in this race," Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) told the group.

If President Bush made overt religious references like this on the weekend before the election, there would be a march on the White House. ... 2:42 p.m. (link)

C rist Crossed: Last week, a White House senior adviser outlined the president's campaign schedule for the coming Monday.

Q: Who are you promoting in Florida?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Charlie Crist and the ticket there...

Nevermind. From Monday's AP story:

Bush's first stop is in the Florida Panhandle to stump for Republican attorney general Charlie Crist, who will be a no-show.

The president will now appear on stage with his brother Jeb Bush, who is not running for anything, and Katherine Harris, who is nearly 25 percentage points behind her opponent in the polls. …

Update: From ABC's The Note. "McCain attends an event for GOP gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist...That's right, Crist canceled his plans to be with President Bush, but still plans to stand with Sen. McCain today." ... 12:05 (link)

Sensible House Democrats? President Bush has been making fun of House Democrats for their hubris lately, but NBC's First Read suggests that Democratic leaders have a healthy sense of perspective. NBC correspondent Mike Viqueira reports that every Democrat he talked to about how they might run the House "mentioned the name 'Dan Burton' by way of illustrating what they would like to avoid: turning the committee room into a circus." Burton, the excitable chairman of the government reform and rversight committee during the Clinton years, famously shot a pumpkin in his backyard in a DIY investigation into former Clinton adviser Vince Foster's suicide. Liberals have bristled at the Burton analogy when it has been applied in the past, outraged at the suggestion that Democrats could ever achieve anything approaching Burton's excesses. Fortunately, House leaders appear to be more sensible than some of their supporters. They have something neither myopic liberal activists, nor the Iraq war Bush planners have: a sense of their own hubris. …11:08 a.m. (link)

Kerry Over?Several days ago I asked a Democratic strategist in one of the Senate races where momentum has switched to the Republican candidate if the Kerry "botched joke" had caused any problems or showed up in their internal polling. I expected him to say, "Our numbers were good until the Kerry thing, but then they tanked." Why not? Whether it was true or not, Kerry was a perfect excuse for a Democratic campaign on the ropes to cover up for whatever other reasons it might be having difficulty.

But no, I was told the Kerry comment won't matter. He's Mr. Irrelevant. Sunday's Pew poll suggests that might not be right. 18 percent of independents said the Kerry remark gave them serious doubts about voting for the Democrats. That number is higher than I would have guessed from independents. We traditionally assume independents are sensible and thoughtful. They don't buy Party propaganda, so surely they weigh daily events more carefully. They should know that a) Kerry's remark was a slip of the tongue, or b) John Kerry is irrelevant and therefore shouldn't affect their vote. Even the majority of the Republican base appears to have ignored Kerry. Only 36 percent said the gaffe gave them serious doubts about voting for a Democrat.

With signs of weakening Democratic momentum in the latest polls, I'm guessing Kerry will be just too handy a scapegoat if Democrats don't perform well. ...

Update: Kaus says Kerry's off the hook. The Democratic wave started weakening before his flubbed funny. But if the trend was already heading down, can't Democrats still blame Kerry for giving it rocket-propelled thrust toward the topsoil? Or, alternatively, isn't the "Kerry doomed us" scapegoat narrative just too powerful to overcome even with potentially persuasive analysis? Kerry would need an army of bloggers to tirelessly defend him for months and he doesn't have them. … 10:56 p.m. ( link)

Disaffected Evangelicals Use the Courtesy Phone: If your vote on Tuesday has been changed by the Ted Haggard revelations, please send me a note explaining why to slatepolitics@slate.com. I don't think you really exist or exist in large enough numbers to change much on Tuesday. ... 4:06 p.m. ( link)

GOP Closing Momentum? The findings in the new Pew poll and the ABC/Washington Post poll show that the generic ballot gap is closing, Republicans are motivated again, and even the GOP's horrible standing with independents has improved. ... 3:14 p.m.( link)

Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006

Look for the Liberal Label: Thomas Schaller, in his relatively new book Whistling Past Dixie, makes a case for Democrats giving up on the South and running in the Midwest and West. He rightfully spends particular time on Montana, where Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer won in 2004. His victory, aided by state Sen. John Tester, was proof that Democrats could win in a red state. So then, what's happened to Tester? He was up in the polls against Conrad Burns, who is tainted by the Jack Abramoff scandal, but now they're even. Burns appears to have closed the gap by launching relentless old-school attacks, painting Tester as a liberal. I thought those weren't supposed to work in Montana, especially against a candidate who looks so authentically a product of the state. The other state where the old-style attacks are working is Tennessee, which also has a Democratic governor. Democrats wanted to nationalize the election, but has that hurt them? Do Republicans vote for Democrats when it comes to local government but not when national issues are involved? ... 10:50 p.m.(link)

Friday, Nov. 3, 2006

Jibe Talking: Are Democrats funny enough to be in the majority? That's the question that comes to mind when I hear President Bush getting such regular and sustained laughs from partisan audiences when he talks about Democratic hubris.

President Bush has been starting his stump speeches with the same riff recently. "You probably heard all the reports from the punditry in Washington, D.C.," he said in Joplin, Mo., Friday. "Some of [the politicians] are already measuring for new drapes.  That's not the first time, by the way, people have said the election's over before the people vote.  You might remember 2004.  Some of the crowd up there was picking out their offices in the West Wing.  Then the people of Missouri and people from around the country voted, and the movers were not needed." In the official transcript, nearly every sentence of this set piece is interrupted by applause or laughter. Unlike John Kerry, the president can sustain a joke. Maybe it's only getting yuks with his base, but they haven't had a lot to laugh about recently, and at least some think it's working.

This set of laugh lines is coming from the man who landed on the aircraft carrier Lincoln in May 2003 and declared that major combat operations were over in Iraq under a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished." And he's talking about early merriment? Even the most committed neoconservatives can surely agree that the carrier landing was perhaps the greatest act of foolish pre-emptive celebration in the history of warfare, perhaps mankind. It broke a key rule that rookies are taught and that the Bush staff used to repeat regularly: When you get to the end zone, look like you've been there before. Nancy Pelosi could be caught on film taking gavel banging practice, and it would never come close to the faulty gloat of Bush's carrier landing.

This seems like a moment for a puncturing Democratic laugh line. Not on YouTube and not from one of the left-leaning comedians like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or Al Franken, but from a public official. An official quip keeps the message in the news cycle more than a comedian's quips, and it makes a politician seem winning, a trait the Democratic Party could use.

But there seems to be a deficit in wit from elected Democrats. John Kennedy had the weightless élan of ready humor. Bill Clinton knew how to use this trick. Barney Frank has it too but doesn't have the national throw-weight. Perhaps the cleverness deficit comes from the fact that the Democratic Party doesn't have any one leader, but the prospects the nominee in 2008 are also dim. The auditioning presidential candidates are not skilled in this area (Senator Chris Dodd is witty but not going to be president). Where is Obama on this question?

The point is not to be constantly frivolous and glib. Most of our public debate could use more, not less, sobriety. Tom Friedman's response ($$$) to the recent attacks on John Kerry was appropriately outraged. But humor must be matched with humor, and that's what's called for here. Also, the president's hubris charge is so zany it can only be punctuated with a grin. To rebut it seriously upgrades it and gives the claim a credit it doesn't deserve.

George Bush knows the power of the funny. It punctures pretension. He can use it to make fun of himself and in smaller settings he uses it to own people—making fun of the bald guy's hair, the older guy's age or the tall guy's size puts him in charge. Liberals say George Bush isn't very smart, but he's getting a lot of mileage out of this joke and so far the combat feels asymmetrical. ... 4:28 p.m. (link)

Bench Warner: In the final days of the 2002 campaign, George Bush traveled to states with close Senate races like Arkansas, Missouri, and Minnesota and to battleground House districts like Indiana's 2nd District. His travel schedule was a map of the competitive races. Now, it feels more like a wilderness trail. He stopped in Montana Thursday and will travel to Missouri Friday, where there are key battleground races, but he's staying away from the Senate fights in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia ,and New Jersey. The 2nd District of Nevada where he stopped Thursday hasn't been won by a Democrat since its creation 25 years ago.

Bush is being deployed to places where he has the best chance of turning out the GOP troops. Since he's preaching to stir the faithful, I'll be looking at his speeches over the next six days to see what we can learn about the messages the GOP thinks will move their people out the door on Election Day. Bush will talk about taxes and the war on terror, but what else will he emphasize?

For his first day, the new emphasis was on judges, a favorite for roiling the blood because it hits multiple GOP constituencies. Corporate executives and small-business owners worry that liberal judges will enforce regulations and reward plaintiffs; social conservatives worry that judges will destroy the institution of marriage and give unfair advantages to women and minorities.

Bush didn't talk about specific rulings by activists judges, like the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling on civil unions, but focused instead on the ruin that would follow if Democrats in control of the Senate could determine what kinds of judges sit on federal courts. In both Billings, Mont. and Elko, Nev. he told voters that John Roberts' nomination to a lower court had been blocked when the Senate was in Democratic hands. "I want you to hear this loud and clear: If the Democrats controlled the Senate, John Roberts would not be the Chief Justice today," Bush said.

One last note: The John Kerry piñata has been put away for the moment. In both speeches Thursday ,the president dropped his references to the senator's recent botched joke. Did Bush accept his apology? Doubtful. ...12:54 a.m. ( link)

Thurdsay, Nov. 2, 2006

Which Is It?  Yesterday in interviews with wire-service reporters, the president defended his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who in the most-recent NBC/WSJ poll only 26 percent of respondents say they view positively, while 49 percent view him negatively. "He's handled all three at the same time (Afghanistan, Iraq, and the military at home)," said Bush. "And I'm pleased with the progress we're making." But in an East Room press conferencea week ago, the president said he wasn't pleased with the progress: "I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq. I'm not satisfied, either." ... 1:16 p.m. ( link)

Lock in your punditry. Every race has overblown turning-point moments that may not have any real effect on the races but which live on long after in campaign mythology. They get repeated at Harvard symposia on elections, pundits recycle them, and bloggers grip them like a squirrel with a nut. Howard Dean's scream after losing the Iowa caucus is one such turning-point moment. The conventional wisdom about these turning-point moments plays a big role in the strategy and arguments and plotting in the next race.

The Playboy party ad run against Harold Ford in Tennessee feels like it's going to become one of those moments. Ford is slipping in the polls. In the latest Zogby poll, he now trails Bob Corker by 10 points. Ford is widely viewed as having run a perfect race by minimizing his family baggage, moving to the center, and not letting his opponent and the Republicans paint him as a liberal. So, why is he slipping? Liberal pundits are likely to say it was the ad, which tapped latent racist feelings among Tennessee voters. Other analysts will say that the press outrage over the ad created a backlash that favored Corker.

The ad may also have had no great impact on the race, but just arrived at a natural turning point. Tennessee is a tough state for a Democrat, and the polls might just reflect late-in-the-game tightening. Or, could it be that those push polls running against Ford, which I argued were incredibly lame, were actually effective?

If Ford wins, the ad will be seen as the last gasp of old-style Southern politics, and the conventional wisdom will embrace Bill Clinton's view which he articulated yesterday at a rally for Ford: "You know what it will mean if Harold gets elected on Tuesday. It won't mean what all those columnists and commentators say. It won't mean that it's a victory of race; it will be a victory of going beyond race."

Figure out where you are on these questions now before the wave of punditry locks in conventional wisdom you might not agree with. ... 12:25 p.m. (link)