First Ladies Club

Notes from the political sidelines.
July 16 2005 8:48 AM

Desperate Housewives

George Bush learns you can't go home again.

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Did Rove leak on purpose? 
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Did Rove leak on purpose?
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Look Who's Talking: Over the past four years, the press has written hundreds of articles describing the Bush White House as "tight-lipped." How do reporters know this? The Bush White House told them. "It's not our job to be sources," Andrew Card told Ken Auletta of the New Yorker last year. "The taxpayers don't pay us to leak!"

I guess we should ask for our money back. According to Karl Rove's lawyer, it depends on what the meaning of "leak" is. As always, Rove is on message: He's still fighting for freedom.

Whatever happens to Rove, Matt Cooper's e-mails prove that the Bush White House spins the press every bit as hard as past administrations. The Rove affair should put to rest the self-congratulatory nonsense that Bush officials are too disciplined to leak to the press. What sets this White House apart is that so few officials actually know what's going on, the top brass has to do all the leaking.

All the News That's Fed to Print: Here's a little secret that no White House—and no White House press corps—wants you to find out: Most leaks are on purpose. With rare exceptions, White House leaks don't come from whistle-blowers or staffers with scores to settle. They're deliberate, carefully planned, and signed off on at the highest levels. For every Deep Throat, there are a hundred Karl Roves.

White Houses orchestrate leaks for the same reason Rove talked to Cooper: They want to shape or drive the story. In the Clinton White House, we didn't endanger the lives of secret agents by blowing their covers. But we routinely gave selected reporters a sneak peak at upcoming presidential policy announcements. The Bush White House did the same thing just the other day.

No reporter will win a Pulitzer for being spoon-fed these scoops—and the White House official who does the talking will get a pat on the back, not a trip to the woodshed. (Special bonus: No jail time, either!) But White House officials and White House reporters are tight-lipped about them because these leaks are fake and somewhat ridiculous, like teleprompters or the congressional auto-pen.

The Rock: Michael Deaver, who practically invented the fake White House, told the New Yorker that the Bush crowd is "the most disciplined White House in history." But that discipline isn't because the President walks the halls of the Old Executive Office Building with a cattle prod. It's because they don't know anything.

When I started in the Clinton White House in January 1993, I received 20 press calls a day. By March, my phone had stopped ringing altogether. I wish I could say my iron discipline, dedication, loyalty, and love of country were the reason. But the truth is, like most staffers in the Bush White House, I was too far out of the loop even to fake it. ... 11:31 A.M. (link)

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Monday, July 11, 2005  

The Long Goodbye: According to well-informed and unindicted  rumormonger   Robert Novak, Chief Justice William Rehnquist will announce any moment that he has hung up his Gilbert and Sullivan robes for the last time. His resignation won't change the court, but it could dramatically change the court battle. If Rehnquist joins Sandra Day O'Connor in retirement, the key question will be who—if anyone—has the capability to fight a two-front war:  conservatives, liberals, or the White House?

Here's a brief history of two-front war: One way or another, it's a losing battle.  Napoleon conquered Europe but couldn't beat the Russians.  Hitler knew better but made the same mistake. Bin Laden slipped through our fingers in Afghanistan while the Pentagon diverted forces to Iraq. 

Hitler, Napoleon, Rumsfeld ... you can see why Neas, Gray, and Rove might not want to add their names to that list.

The conventional wisdom is that a two-front war would be bad news for Democrats, who have the most to lose. But Democrats aren't the only ones who should be nervous. A two-justice war could turn into a nightmare for everybody, depending on which strategy Bush picks.

You Scratch My Back: For the last 10 days since O'Connor announced her retirement, we've seen the competing pressures on the White House.  Pro-life conservatives want a court that will expand states' rights and stop abortion.  Pro-business conservatives want a court that will curtail states' rights and stop trial lawyers. 

O'Connor's retirement scares the White House because the president might have to choose one faction over the other. A double vacancy means he can bow to both: Give the social conservatives a justice the business crowd doesn't mind, and give the corporate conservatives a justice the pro-lifers can stand. Then both factions can logroll for each other's nominee.

This strategy is more than enough to placate Bush's business wing, which views noisy confirmation battles as a distraction from the more important work of doling out tax cuts and subsidies. Faced with a mainstream conservative and an activist one, Democrats also might decide to let one hostage go. 

Potential Waterloo: The right wing, however, might not go so quietly. For pro-lifers, the second verse is same as the first: They want every nominee to be a vote they can count on. If the president has to disappoint the right by picking one mainstream conservative, he might try to atone by making his other choice a card-carrying extremist. While that might satisfy the right, such a nominee would be much easier for Democrats to Bork. If the Senate confirmed the moderate but blocked the right-winger, the odd man out would turn into an even bigger martyr—and ensuing right-wing demands would grow harder, not easier, to meet.

Double or Nothing: Some Democrats fear that Bush will use two vacancies to do what the right wants and flood the zone with two activist conservatives. He has a flair for the bold and unreasonable and might conclude that his best shot to get at least one hard-right candidate confirmed is to nominate two.

Against two strong conservative nominees, Democrats might indeed have to cut their losses and accept one. But in the field of activist conservatives, it's hard enough to find one who won't have some trouble threading the needle. The Gang of 14, which prides itself on the virtue of political balance, would have a hard time accepting an unbalanced ticket. Liberal groups preparing to go in the ring with the far right see a twin billing as offering twice the targets.   

Oddly enough, that may be precisely the defining war that many liberals and conservatives want most, and the White House wants least. The biggest danger for Bush is that giving the right everything it wants on the court might be enough to wake the rest of the country, which will otherwise wait to watch the replay on Saturday Night Live

Gonzales, Gilbert and Sullivan, and an A.G. to Be Named Later: The real question is, what does Bush want? My guess is, he wants to promote his friend Alberto Gonzales, name the first Latino justice, and keep the right wing on the reservation. I happen to think Bush could accomplish all that with one vacancy; if he does what he wants, and not what the groups want, it should be even easier with two.

In the end, the biggest advantage of having two picks is that you get to make them and the next president doesn't. So, instead of looking for a two-front war, Bush should go looking for a separate peace. Make history with Gonzales. Pick a Rehnquist conservative—creepy, but not wacky—as chief justice. If the ravenous right demands more, give them back the Justice Department, which might as well have a right-wing head considering how much right-wing dirty work  it's doing.

By the way, Rumsfeld has already weighed in with his advice. After the dual strain of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon just announced a review of its long-standing policy that the military should be able to win two wars at once. They're thinking about settling for one and a half. ... 7:55 A.M.  (link)

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Friday, July 8, 2005

    The thing that I saw in your face
     No power can disinherit:
     No bomb that ever burst
     Shatters the crystal spirit.

                   George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia 

A Tale of Two Georges: Unlike President Bush, my favorite political philosopher is George Orwell. As we grieve for London after another totalitarian blitz, and wonder what to do, Orwell seems the best place to turn. 

There's a reason the right and left have spent the last 60 years trying to claim Orwell for themselves. His writing has all the qualities we find wanting in politics today: honesty, self-criticism, love of country, the courage to fight for his beliefs, and an equal fervor that any ideology loses meaning if it is not supported by fact. 

When London was under attack in World War II, Orwell wrote an essay entitled "England, Your England." The essay opens, "As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me," then goes on to describe the gentleness of "a land where the bus conductors are good-tempered and the policemen carry no revolvers" and the "privateness" of a people who love crossword puzzles, stamp collections, and above all, flowers. Orwell is brutally honest about what's wrong with Britain, from hypocrisy to class privilege – and yet, as in all his work, what's most striking is how deeply he loves his country anyway.

That's exactly what Orwell didn't like about the political extremes of his day. Tories lived to protect wealth and privilege ("Only when their money and power are gone will the younger among them begin to grasp what century they are living in") and wrapped themselves in the flag without deserving it (" Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism"). But he also worried about an intelligentsia badly severed "from the common culture of the country." His plea then rings true today: 

    "Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again. It is the fact that we are fighting a war, and a very peculiar kind of war, that may make this possible."

In politics, all of us have a tendency to try to turn every piece of news to our advantage. Orwell took a longer view: the old debates still matter, but keep your eyes on the real enemy who is exploding bombs outside your window. 

For a few months after 9/11, the U.S. did just that. Politicians who might earlier have caned one another on the House floor stood together to sing the national anthem on the Capitol steps. When Bush chose to use 9/11 as a partisan issue in the 2002 midterms, he blew an unprecedented opportunity to change the tone of our politics for a generation. Ever since, like an old, scratched LP, our political debate has kept going back over the same rut, as if 9/11 never happened.    

The London bombings, every bit as direct an attack on freedom and decency, should have had the same galvanizing effect as 9/11. But as Andrew Sullivan and others report, that probably won't happen. Even though most Brits view yesterday as a ruthless, unprovoked attack on Britain, the debate after 7/7 may well be the same one they (and we) were having before it.  

Longtime Blair critic George Galloway fired the first shot: "We argued, as did the security services in this country, that the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq would increase the threat of terrorist attack in Britain . . . . Tragically, Londoners have now paid the price of the government ignoring such warnings." On this side of the pond, Rush Limbaugh took the bait and fired back.   

President Bush did the world a terrible disservice turning the debate about 9/11 into a debate about Iraq. Let's not do the same with the debate about 7/7. 

The trouble with George Bush and George Galloway is that they don't read George Orwell. Try it this weekend, for England's sake and our own. ... 4:21 P.M.  ( link)

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Thursday, July 7, 2005

Off Base: Give Alberto Gonzales credit—for the first time in Bush's presidency, right-wingers are genuinely nervous that the President might not do everything they want. Until now, the Bush White House made it easy: Send Karl Rove your shopping list and wait for a reply e-mail with the number to track your order. While such first-class customer service has kept conservatives happy, it spoiled them as well. Now that they have a real fight on their hands, they don't know which buttons to push.

After all that care and feeding from the White House, conservative groups no doubt assume they have the power to cross names off Bush's list. In the end, perhaps they will. But their first salvo—an all-out attack on Gonzales—seems to be having the opposite effect. Bush has testily defended his friend two days in a row, and the White House had to tell the right to pipe down.

Yesterday, Bush lashed out at "special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity ... for their own fund-raising capabilities." In five days, the far right has managed to make the president do what the rest of us have tried in vain to get him to do for the last five years: go after his base.

Bush has finally discovered the downside of interest-group conservatism. One morning you wake up and realize you're not president anymore—you're not even executive director.

The right wing wants the White House to think that if Bush picks Gonzales, conservatives will take to the streets and weep like Parisians. But from a sheer political standpoint, the case for Gonzales isn't even a close call. No matter how much conservatives pout, Bush will do far more to expand the Republican party's reach by putting the first Latino on the court. Gonzales will probably be a much more reliable conservative than the right fears—and their attacks guarantee that the press and many Democrats will hail him as a moderate.

Like any president, Bush is interested in his legacy. Even if he packs the court with Ashcrofts, Luttigs, and Coulters, he can't count on them to secure his place in history. There's no guarantee Roe v. Wade would stay overturned for long, and an activist court might drive the Republican Party back into minority status. Appointing the first Latino Supreme Court justice is a legacy no one can take away.

Bush has done the right's bidding for so long, he may not know how to quit. But remember the first rule of interest-group politics: If you can't pander to the one you love, pander to the one you're with. 

Political Bonus: Picking a right-winger ensures that the battle will be about abortion, an issue that politically savvy Republicans don't like to fight in public. By contrast, if Democrats choose to fight Gonzales, they'll only help Bush cement Republican inroads with Latinos. Some Democrats won't be able to help themselves from going after the Gonzales torture memos. Rove's consolation prize to the right: another chance to fight Democrats on terror—and now there's not only 9/11, but 7/7.

Honest Harry Reid joined Bush in attacking "the far right," and defended Gonzales as "qualified." At least he didn't say Gonzales is "not so bad."

Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Counsels: If you've been worrying that the president would lose valuable time in the war on terror rereading Judge John Roberts' 1991 brief in Rust v. Sullivan, relax. Bush said yesterday he would let his "legal experts deal with the legal ramifications of legal opinions." He's going to assess "their character" and "their interests."

Maybe the right should stop worrying about Roe and let Bush know which candidates have right-wing hobbies. We know Scalia likes to hunt. Of course, the justice most enthusiastic about Bush's hobby is Stephen Breyer, who botched his first job interview with Clinton because he was in so much pain from a bicycle injury. ... 12:54 P.M.

Update:   While Washington gears up for a $100 million battle over the legal ramifications of Bush's next pick, the President reacted the same way as many Americans: "I'm not a lawyer, thankfully." He wasn't joking—that is his judicial philosophy. In 2004, it was practically his campaign slogan.

In 1976, Al Gore was elected to Congress in his second year of law school. Best campaign slogan Gore never used: "I'm a law school dropout." ... 8:42 P.M. (link)

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Take Me to Your Leaders: Sooner or later, you may find yourself wondering whether a political apparatchik like me can write honestly without fear of reprisal. A few years ago, for example, I wrote an op-ed  in USA Today urging Major League Baseball to abandon its plans for contraction and give Washington a team. Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos wrote a terse letter to the editor pronouncing me "intemperate, abusive, and outrageous" as well as "irresponsible, uninformed and completely unfit to serve" the Democratic party. Such a nice man—it's a shame the Nationals are doing so well.