Crack party.

Crack party.

Crack party.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 21 2005 12:59 PM

Crack Party

In Britain, Tories get a taste of what lies ahead for conservatism.


Friday, Oct. 21, 2005

Mug Shot: As they flip back and forth between CSI: White House and America's Most Wanted Congressman, Republicans are busy worrying how to get through the next week. But a year from now, after a rough midterm election, the GOP might get around to asking the more important question: Where do they go from here?

Anyone who wants to skip ahead and learn the answer should take a look across the pond at a real conservative crackup: the race for Conservative Party leader in Britain.


Yesterday, Tories narrowed the field to two candidates: David Davis, a bland, traditional conservative who was the front-runner until the party conference heard him speak; and David Cameron, a 39-year-old upstart who is running away with the race by promising to "modernize" the Conservative Party.

Here and in Britain, most of the press has ignored the philosophical particulars of the race in favor of the scandalous personal ones. Since Cameron's campaign took off, the tabloids have given him the full Kate Moss treatment. News of the World led the way with the immortal headline, "PARTIES WITH A COCAINE-SNORTING DOMINATRIX." Never mind my idle speculation about three-in-a-bed lesbian orgies with Maggie Thatcher. The New Tory motto is "No politics please, we're British."

A "professional dominatrix" nicknamed "Mistress Pain" claimed that she had once used cocaine with Cameron's campaign manager. The charges seemed straight out of the Rove playbook, and Cameron defused them with a classic Rove defense: He won't say whether he has ever used cocaine, but he denies using it in the four years since he became a member of Parliament.

It's hard to say whether what's going on here and in Britain is a "conservative crackup" or, as Rush Limbaugh insists, a "conservative crackdown"—but "conservative" and "crack" seem to be the key ingredients.


Oddly enough, rather than torpedoing his campaign, the tabloid stories only strengthened Cameron's credentials as an outsider. While the tabloids aren't finished with him yet, most Tories seem to agree that background checks are the least of their party's problems.

Modernism: Any time Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feel down on their luck, they should take solace in the plight of British Tories. Under Maggie Thatcher in the 1980s, Tories were on top of the world, dominating a weak, feckless Labour Party. Once Tony Blair modernized Labour, British conservatism collapsed and has scarcely been heard from since. A succession of Tory leaders have led the party to humiliation and defeat. In this past election, Blair cruised to victory even though his own party was up in arms about Iraq.

While Britain is not America, that morality tale holds lessons for both American parties. In a sense, Republicans and Democrats alike are always on the brink of elimination, if the opposing party can find and sustain a course that corrects its weaknesses so it can show off its strengths. As with any enterprise in a competitive environment, a party must modernize—or it will wither and die.

When Bill Clinton modernized the Democratic Party in the '90s, he, too, had Republicans on the ropes. In the space of two years, by winning the government shutdown, signing welfare reform, and balancing the federal budget on Democratic terms, Clinton rendered traditional conservatism irrelevant and laid the groundwork for a new progressive era.


In response, the Republican Party  had to modernize, or at least pretend to. John McCain offered one path with "national greatness" conservatism. Bush and the Republican establishment chose another path with compassionate conservatism. In office, however, modernism lost out to Rovism—enough for Bush to win re-election, but in a way that leaves Republicans a few indictments and one smart opponent away from returning to irrelevance.

In 2008, Republicans will face this choice again. McCain will run as the modernizer once again promising a new conservatism based on old ideals of responsibility, strength, and national greatness. Social conservatives like Sam Brownback will vie to be the candidate of traditional values.

The Republican establishment and the two logical heirs to Rovism, Bill Frist and George Allen, will have to decide if Bush-Rove conservatism is still worth anything—or whether, like Frist's HCA stock, it needs to be dumped before it falls even further.

Change vs. More of the Same: The Tory race so far ought to lift the spirits of Republican and Democratic modernizers alike. By all accounts, Cameron electrified the party conference earlier this month with a speech called "Change to Win." That also happens to be the name of Andy Stern's coalition of breakaway republics in the American labor movement.


Cameron challenged his party to stop assuming that the other party's problems will convince the electorate to overlook the Tories' own. "That's a pathetic way for a great party to behave," Cameron said. "Let's have the courage to say: they've failed, but so have we." As Bob Shrum might say (but hasn't), "It's our fault, too."

The whole speech echoes the debate already under way in Democratic circles, just beginning in Republican circles, and reverberating among the out parties as far away as Australia:

"Some say 'hit Labour harder, and the electorate will come to their senses.' I say that's rubbish. People know that Labour have failed. They want to know how we will succeed. … Some say that we should move to the right. I say that will turn us into a fringe party, never able to challenge for government again."

Cameron could have been speaking to either party in America when he said, "We have to change and modernise our culture and attitudes and identity." He said that the one thing Labour fears most is "a Conservative Party that has the courage to change." And if anyone doubts that the Tory race in 2005 has anything to do with the Republican race in 2008, listen to Cameron's closing promise: "A Modern Compassionate Conservatism is right for our times, right for our party—and right for our country."


The surprising part is, Cameron is winning. He started as a long shot, but British bookies now make him the overwhelming favorite. Unless what's left of the old Conservative establishment can unite behind his uninspiring opponent, Cameron may win the party mantle without much more of a fight.

That's the good news. The bad news is that Republicans looking to figure out what "a Modern Compassionate Conservatism" might entail won't find much to go on in Cameron's platform. He has talked about universal service—an idea whose American champions include modernizers John McCain and Hillary Clinton. As the father of a disabled child, he warns conservatives to remember that many families depend on government services, and the Tory program shouldn't just be "an escape route for the privileged few."

The Tories' biggest problem is that, like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have a fully developed philosophy and program behind their Third Way. Cameron is still groping to find a Third Way of his own. "We'll share—that's right we'll share—the fruits of economic growth between tax reduction and public services," he says. Fair enough—but that sounds too much like Bush's plan to divvy up the surplus. That's not a theory of economic growth, it's a way for conservatives to share the fruits of New Democrat/New Labour prosperity.

So, Cameron could well turn out to be another fraudulent disciple of Rovism. But Tories, Republicans, and Democrats would still be wise to heed his warning: Make change your friend, or pain will be your mistress. ... 9:53 A.M. (link)


Thursday, Oct. 20, 2005

Glue Factory: From the White House to K Street, Republicans are paralyzed with fear that Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald will indict the party's master strategist, Karl Rove. "He's the glue that holds the whole place together," one Republican told the Dallas Morning News. "No one can contemplate life in the administration for the three years without Karl Rove."

As John Dickerson points out, President Bush has never known life without Karl, his political commander-in-chief. Congressmen, conservative leaders, and party operatives consider Rove the brain of their president and their party—and the one White House staffer they can call with any reasonable certainty that something will happen as a result.

I hope, for the sake of the presidency, that Rove didn't break the law. I met him once and was disappointed to discover that he was more Oz than ogre.

But if Rove is not entirely the bogeyman Democrats would like to believe, he isn't the genius he and his own party believe, either. Whatever happens to Karl Rove, the Republican Party should learn to embrace, not dread, life without Rovism.

The Bush White House fears it will be lost without Rove's services. Then again, the Bush White House—and the country—seem quite lost with Rove at the helm.

Rove is routinely described as "the leading architect of White House political and policy plans." At the moment, that's like praising Thomas Andrews for his fine work as architect of the Titanic.

Political plans? The Bush-Rove coalition is in tatters, and Bush's 58 percent disapproval rating ranks alongside his father and Jimmy Carter. Policy plans? Monthly inflation is the worst in 25 years, Americans have gone four straight years without income growth, and the Homeland Security Department that Rove sold as a political masterstroke in 2002 is now the flop that keeps on flopping.

So much for the House that Rove Built: The roof leaks, the foundation is collapsing, and the timbers are rotten with termites. When Slate's Witold Rybczynski wrote that "individuals and institutions usually turn to architecture at moments of decline," Karl Rove must have been the kind of architect he had in mind.

The Trouble with Rovists: The current mess does not stem from a run of bad luck—it's by design. Rove sold his party a product that was built to fail. Rovism has three inherent design flaws:

1. Base Worship: The central flaw of this presidency is that from the beginning, Bush and Rove have been willing to pay any price to avoid what they mistakenly consider the central flaw of the first Bush presidency—not keeping conservatives happy.

As a matter of policy, George W. Bush's constant right turns have consistently steered the country into the ditch. But they've turned out to be bad politics as well. Bush's two biggest assets in the 2000 campaign were compassionate conservatism and his pledge to change the tone in Washington. In office, both were instant casualties of the let-the-base-govern logic of Rovism.

Rove is hailed as a genius for pulling conservatives out of the woodwork to win the last election. In truth, the only reason Rovism worked in 2004 is that Democrats adopted it, too. Instead of the persuasion strategy that carried Bill Clinton to victory in 1992 and 1996, Democrats bought Rove's line that swing voters are extinct and mobilizing the base is all that matters.

Rovism turned out to be an even worse strategy for Democrats, who need swing voters to overcome the unfortunate fact that there are more conservatives than liberals. Democrats ran their best ground game ever, only to fall further behind.

Unfortunately for Republicans, Democrats may yet learn their lesson. Rovists clearly have not. In today's Los Angeles Times, Bush pollster and Rove disciple Matthew Dowd says: "The more important question for 2006 is: How motivated is each side's base? That's more important than the vicissitudes of swing voters."

What Dowd won't admit is that if independents swing to one side, his whole boat will tip over. If gas prices keep going up next year, soccer moms and dads will gladly drive to the polls to make Washington pay.

2. Policy by Numbers: Compassionate conservatism had the potential to transform the Republican Party, not because it was a clever slogan but because taking it seriously might have given Republicans what they've lacked for decades: a governing philosophy that actually works. Rove deserves credit for a winning slogan, but as the ultimate arbiter of Bush policy, he deserves the blame for an economic plan that stripped compassionate conservatism of any meaning.

With Rove's guidance, Bush 43 has now matched and even surpassed the real failing of the first Bush administration—its utter inability to run the country. James Dobson's prayers won't save your party when two-thirds of the electorate thinks you're leading America in the wrong direction.

3. Knee-Capping: Whatever the special prosecutor concludes in the Plame scandal, there are far, far worse things that Rove and company have done over the years—from knifing Max Cleland in 2002 to smearing John McCain in 2000. Jacob Weisberg may be right that no great joy can come from this prosecution. But whether White House aides intended to discredit the CIA or Joe Wilson, the whole sorry affair is an object lesson in why the knees you cap may turn out to be your own.

From Atwater to Ailes, Morris to Rove, American politics has become obsessed with the cult of the evil genius. This cult is especially popular in Washington, where young Mini-Me's come to cut their teeth, and the Art Formerly Known as Government is hopelessly passé.

Today, no young pol dreams of being the next Gene Sperling or Josh Bolton. Politics is now one long "American Idol" audition to find the next Karl Rove.

The current state of the White House and the nation cries out for a new breed of cult figure—less evil, more genius. Whatever becomes of Bush's best player, the Republican Party needs to scrap his losing game plan. ... 12:08 P.M. (link)


Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005

Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Been: With its grand marketing plan in ruins, the White House's latest strategy for Harriet Miers is more modest: Lose one senator at a time. Earlier this week, Miers nicely summed up her nomination by telling Sen. Charles Schumer, "No one knows how I would rule on Roe v. Wade."

According to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank, Schumer says Miers admitted, "I need to sort of bone up on this a little more." Meanwhile, as Dahlia Lithwick points out, Miers' opinion on the 40-year-old Griswold case changes almost hourly. She appeared to be for it in her meeting with Sen. Specter on Monday afternoon then called him back that night to say she hadn't yet endorsed it, prompting Specter to issue a statement accepting that he "misunderstood" what she had said. Yesterday, Specter said he didn't think he had misunderstood her at all, but that he wouldn't ask her again without cameras present.

Disclosure: While Slate and the Post share the same corporate parent as Stanley Kaplan, our Miers coverage is not meant as an official endorsement of its services.

Harriet has a whole administration to help with her homework. The Judiciary Committee, by contrast, is depending on you. Since we launched the Stump Harriet contest on Monday, readers have submitted more than 100 off-the-wall questions.

If you have a curveball for Harriet Miers, send it to If she wants your endorsement, make her fill out the Has-Beens United for Lively Hearings questionnaire. ... 5:50 A.M. (link)


Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2005

Whose Line Is It, Anyway?: The best part of the current chaos in Washington is that for the first time in this century, the cast is operating without a script. It's Improv Night—nobody knows the next scene, let alone the ending, so more and more players are rejecting canned lines in favor of saying what they actually think.

Candor has never exactly been the coin of the realm in Washington, where people who tell the truth are quarantined as "mavericks." The tightly scripted Bush administration has made matters worse by putting the screws to any Republican who dared depart the party line—and by inspiring some Democrats to adopt the same logic. In such an atmosphere, talking points carry more weight than facts, and message discipline is prized over actual thought.

This administration allows improvisation only if it's even more inventive than the script. Ever since the infamous smear campaign against John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, Bush strategists have signaled that allies could freelance so long as their whoppers were consistent with the underlying fib. In the Plame affair, the White House may well have broken the law just to salvage an already shaky talking point.

Washington has become so immune to misdirection that Judith Miller didn't even blink when Scooter Libby asked her to quote him as a "former Hill staffer"—a label that could just as easily have applied to Joe Wilson or Vice President Cheney. If she let sources hide behind cloaking devices like that, no wonder Miller can't remember who else told her about "Valerie Flame."

School's Out: But in recent weeks, Washington Republicans who used to do as they were told have started acting up like a junior-high study hall. Thanks to screw-ups and scandal, the usual disciplinarians—DeLay, Rove, and Bush—are in detention themselves. So, after five years of sitting up straight and folding their hands, the class is seizing this brief window of freedom to throw spitballs in every direction.

On the right, the Miers nomination has unleashed a fury of honest introspection—in other words, name-calling. In today's New York Times, class president Bill Kristol leads the way by emasculating a new target, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. "He's always been—weaker is not quite fair, but he's always been a less powerful chief of staff than we're used to," Kristol says.

That's an impressive drive-by, even for a skilled insurgent like Kristol. It's not every day that a good partisan tells the nation's leading newspaper that the highest ranking appointed member of his own party is impotent—er, less important.

The coming weeks should bring more candor, not less. Truman used to say that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog. Today, he might say: If you want an honest answer in Washington, get a subpoena.

Grand jury appearances are one way to focus the mind. The prospect of imminent political disaster is another. The deeper Bush sinks in the polls, the more willing his followers will be to say what they really think. As the chairman of the American Conservative Union declared yesterday, "The days of the blank check have ended."

Curb Your Enthusiasm: On behalf of political spectators everywhere, I encourage this long overdue truth movement in conservative circles. Friends, it's not healthy to keep all those feelings of bitterness and neglect bottled up for so long.

We know you're good soldiers, but what about your loyalty to a higher cause, the conservative movement? When the White House made you sign that confidentiality agreement, they never said you'd have to bite your tongue and go along with gutless wonders on the bench, huge new entitlements in the budget, and the biggest increase in domestic spending since LBJ.

Now is the time to get it all off your chest. Tom DeLay's never coming back, so tell us what he's really like. Stop pretending that Karl Rove is "irreplaceable" when you know you could do a better job without enraging the right or risking jail time.

Above all, give us your honest take on that conservative heartbreaker, President Bush. The rest of America is jumping ship, and seats in the lifeboat are going fast.

Let's face it—the president is a lame duck. "Lamer" isn't quite fair; let's just say "less able than we're used to."

Conservatives of America, you've suffered enough—don't miss out on all the fun now. Unless you pile on, we'll have to assume you need a presidential pardon. ... 11:52 A.M. (link)


Monday, Oct. 17, 2005

Resume Gap: According to Time'sMike Allen, this week White House aides plan "to relaunch the nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court by moving from what they call a 'biographical phase' to an 'accomplishment phase.'"

Here's an ironclad rule of Washington: whenever a White House uses the word "relaunch," the ship has already sunk, and only the next of kin hold out hope that there will be survivors.

The current exercise is no exception. It would be hard enough to get Miers her day in court if Karl Rove and Scooter Libby weren't having so many of their own. But the real trouble with the Miers nomination isn't the launch – it's the boat. Her nomination is in deep trouble because her accomplishments are about as interesting as her biography.    

Allen says the administration's confirmation team will gin up op-eds, letters to the editor, and news conferences touting Miers's experience "dealing with such real-world issues as the Voting Rights Act when she was a Dallas city council member and Native American tribal sovereignty when she was chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission."

The White House is missing the point, or at least pretending to. The argument that's sinking Miers isn't that she hasn't accomplished anything in her life, or that she doesn't have enough Continuing Legal Education credits in constitutional law. Her nomination is floundering because her biography and achievements don't seem that exceptional, especially compared with the big questions the Court will face over the next two decades.

If we're going to look outside the judicial monastery, we ought to set our sets higher than the public access channel on cable. The White House might as well go back to touting something Harriet Miers is really good at, like bowling .

Contest Relaunch: Mike Doyle, a prize winner in Has-Been's Stump-the-Roberts contest, writes in to say it's time to pay Harriet Miers the same respect. He's right. There's a chance Miers won't make it to her confirmation hearings, but we should be ready to play Supreme Jeopardy just in case. If you have an off-the-wall question for Harriet Miers, send it to Queries for Nathan Hecht and James Dobson are welcome as well.

Mike's award-winning question for Roberts was, "Who was your least favorite philosopher and why?" The obvious follow-up for Miers: Who would be the greatest, coolest boss ever – George Bush, Jesus Christ, or Warren Burger? ... 12:31 P.M. (link)  


Friday, Oct. 14, 2005

Too tired to slog through a whole Has-Been? Sometimes there just aren't enough hours in the day – or enough B-12 shots in the posterior. That's why Slate is introducing Has-Been Express - More Blog, Less Thought for the busy reader who can't waste time fast enough…

Wage Gap: On Wednesday, Mayor Ray Nagin boasted that a labor shortage is driving up wages so much that there are no minimum wage jobs left in New Orleans. After a record four straight years of income stagnation, the Bush administration has finally figured out how to increase wages: flood the country. It's a supply-siders' dream come true - tax cuts to speed up global warming.

Heroes Gap: Josh Paul, the third-string Los Angeles Angels catcher who earned baseball immortality Wednesday for suffering the worst blown call since the first base ump gave Kansas City Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, is writing a book about baseball – and it's not about injecting teammates with steroids. The Post reports that Paul has a degree in English literature from Vanderbilt, and is so well-liked he's called "Pope Josh Paul." At his first postgame news conference after hitting his first major league home run, Paul deadpanned, "I am not a crook." The sad thing is, young fans probably think he's talking about Rafael Palmeiro.

Science Gap: Tim Noah deftly highlights Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher's break with Bush. "I was a scientist before I was a politician," Thatcher declared recently, before scolding Dubya for failing to do his homework on Iraq. Thatcher is the godmother of compassionate conservatism: as a young chemist, she helped develop the first soft frozen ice cream. At Oxford, she was a mediocre student under Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who won the 1964 Nobel Prize for discovering the chemical structure of vitamin B-12 – a discovery that gave the Prime Minister a boost late in life.

Dissing Bush isn't necessarily the beginning of wisdom for conservatives. The defections by Thatcher, Kristol, and other highbrow conservatives simply mean that right-wing intellectuals and left-wing intellectuals finally agree on one thing: they're a lot smarter than Bush.

Trust Gap: One of Allan Lichtman's students has some smart advice for his campaign. Mazer Rackam says, "He is a pretty good history professor." Lichtman should make those students the basis of his campaign, rather than his current claim: "For two decades I have worked to shape the great political debates of our time as a commentator for CNN."

All that time in the green room is a red flag, not a qualification. It's as if Lichtman's counterpart Larry Sabato were to reveal, after being quoted thousands of times by reporters looking for an impartial observer of Virginia candidates, that he had just been laying the groundwork to replace the chumps all along. As Pope Josh might say, you can't umpire one day and play ball the next. But if Lichtman wants to give students a greater voice, more power to him. Let Wellstone be Wellstone!

Stature Gap: For a woman who reportedly doesn't suffer fools, Harriet Miers has certainly found a number of them to vouch for her. In today's installment, a Texas lawyer describes his reaction when he learned that the tough but fair lawyer would be on the other side: "It was mixed. . . . It's like seeing your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your brand-new Mercedes. There are advantages." Stay tuned for more episodes of Friends-Don't-Let-Friends-Get-Confirmed. ... 3:51 P.M. (link)


Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005

Vouching Toward Bethlehem: When the Miers nomination ran aground, the Bush White House launched its own Operation Rescue, based on a simple premise: Harriet Miers may not have John Roberts' résumé, but from the president on down, she has awesome references. Over the last week, we've heard daily testimonials from President Bush, along with frequent praise from the first lady, Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, and family-values kingpin Dr. James Dobson.

There's only one problem with the White House survival plan: Every time the president and his allies vouch for Miers, they make matters worse.

As John Dickerson points out, the president, the first lady, and supreme handler Ed Gillespie deeply offended conservatives by suggesting that criticizing Miers was sexist. Yesterday, Bush sparked more controversy by acknowledging that Miers' religion was a factor in her selection.

Judge Hecht has said more about Miers' views on Roe v. Wade in the last week than Justice Roberts has said about his own in an entire lifetime. Dobson's initial embrace kept the Miers nomination on life-support, but then he had second thoughts and agonized that his endorsement "could do something to hurt the cause of Christ, and I'd rather sacrifice my life than do that." When the leading evangelical conservative starts publicly musing about suicide, the party that tried to rescue Terri Schiavo will have its hands full rescuing Harriet Miers.

Dobson caused more trouble when he revealed how Karl Rove talked him into becoming a reference for Miers. If the Judiciary Committee calls him to testify, Dobson could be an even worse character witness than Hecht.

So far, my favorite Miers character reference comes from "her friend" Ed Kinkeade, a federal district judge, who told the Post, "She's not Elmer Gantry." With friends like that, who needs references?

House Mates: Even Miers' friends in the Bush administration are doing her more harm than good. Today, the Post quotes a number of prominent colleagues, none of whom does her any favors.

Former OMB director and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels says, "She did have that schoolmarm voice." Former press secretary Ari Fleischer says Miers was "always being tough as the paper kept moving," then adds, "Is that a skill you need to be a Supreme Court justice? No, I don't think so."

Even the able and honest Margaret Spellings, my successor at the White House, unintentionally damns Miers with faint praise: "To her, it was a matter of moving the grist through the mill. ... She was a manager of the process."

If that's the best that Bush staffers will put on the record, imagine what they say on background. In fact, the biggest threat to Miers' nomination comes from angry conservative pundits, who have far more forthcoming sources inside the White House than most White House reporters.

Quiet in the Court: John Roberts knew how to say nothing in three languages. We have no idea where Harriet Miers stands on past Supreme Court rulings, but she and the White House might brush up on Miranda: "Anything you say can and will be used against you."

No doubt, the White House is already planning just such a fallback strategy: Next time the president is asked about his nominee, he might take a page from Roberts and refuse to comment on Miers because it's conceivable she could come before the court someday. ... 8:55 A.M. (link)


Gong Show:As Bush's fortunes plummet, Republicans are having trouble recruiting candidates for 2006. In recent weeks, leading Republicans rebuffed White House pleas to run against Democrat incumbent senators in North Dakota and West Virginia. In Florida, only sure loser Rep. Katherine Harris seems willing to take on Sen. Bill Nelson, in a race where no recount will be required.

Democrats have the opposite problem: It looks like such a good year, everybody wants to run. For the most part, that's great news, because primaries generate excitement and make the winner a stronger, sharper general-election candidate. But like early rounds of American Idol, it can sometimes be painful to watch.

Republicans will wince most during the New York Senate race, which pits ambitious Fox News talking head Jeanine Pirro against Nixon son-in-law Ed Cox. Pirro's husband went to prison for tax evasion; Cox's father-in-law resigned in shame—so both candidates can boast of first-hand experience in dealing with cronyism and corruption.

The Democrats' episode of Cringe Factor may turn out to be the Senate race in Maryland, where Rep. Ben Cardin and former congressman and NAACP President Kweisi Mfume now have to endure the vanity campaign of American University professor and occasional CNN commentator Allan Lichtman.

Cable Guys: Pirro and Lichtman have the same dream: that 2006 will be the Year of the Talking Head. First the cable networks tried to ruin American politics by running pointless shouting matches around the clock. Now cable has grown up, decided to work within the system, and wants to ruin American politics by running pointless, shouting candidates around the country.

Pirro has reportedly told friends  that losing will boost her career at Fox. By contrast, Lichtman isn't even the only one in the Maryland Senate primary who owes his obscure candidacy in part to cable. He will be hard-pressed to keep up with a more impressive dark horse, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, sister of CNN-turned-Fox legal analyst Greta Van Susteren.

Someday, we'll get the marquee matchup Roger Ailes has dreamed of, in which the Republican nominee is a commentator for Fox and the Democrat is a commentator for CNN. Imagine the synergy: the two candidates could debate each other, then appear on their respective networks to analyze their own performance.

Consider the possibilities: Bill O'Reilly vs. Aaron Brown, Fred Barnes vs. Carlos Watson, and of course, the battle of the party-switchers, Greta Van Susteren vs. Paula Zahn.

Perennial ratings cellar-dweller MSNBC might have to launch a third party to get its candidates into the race – but Pat Buchanan would be up for the challenge. CNBC could corner the market in a new breed of commentator by hiring talking heads who lost instead of losing politicians.

Attention, bookers: When the 2006 Senate race is over, Allan Lichtman will still be available.

To be fair, Lichtman isn't running entirely on his cable TV experience. He's also resting his candidacy on even more unlikely credentials: his career as an expert witness in redistricting and voting rights cases, as well as his system for predicting the outcome in presidential elections.

These days, you don't often see candidates running on their success in Democratic redistricting—because there hasn't been any. In his announcement speech, Lichtman actually cites his work helping Texas Democrats lose their redistricting battle to Tom DeLay.

As an expert in voting rights cases, Lichtman no doubt made Democrats' problems worse. One reason Republicans now control the House is that in the early '90s, civil rights groups (and their expert witnesses) fought to create ultrasafe districts for minorities—concentrating Democratic votes so that other districts were beyond the party's reach.

In any event, it's hard to imagine a place where redistricting experience would be less useful than in the U.S. Senate. In fact, that's just the type of obvious insight Lichtman perfected in his former life as a cable commentator: The whole point of the Senate is that it doesn't have districts.

The professor's other claim to fame—his system of handicapping presidential election outcomes—might interest some senators. He might offer to chair a Whether-to-Run-This-Time caucus.

It's harder to see what Lichtman's system has to offer Maryland voters, whose idea of constituent service may not include election forecasting. Yet Lichtman devotes an entire section of his campaign Web site to his book, The Keys to the White House, including this modest claim:

"In 1991, Allan J. Lichtman received a call from the Special Assistant to Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas who asked whether Dr. Lichtman still believed what he had written in his just published book on the Keys: that George H. W. Bush was a likely loser in 1992. Dr. Lichtman said that he did, sent Clinton a copy of the book and a memo on why he would become the next president. The rest is history."

Why is Allan Lichtman running? Perhaps he means it when he says he's running on "7th amendment rights." If you're an expert witness, the whole world is a trial by jury. Perhaps he agrees with one of the (lonely) supporters at his rally, who held up a sign that said, "If You Have a Brain, Vote for Lichtman." Perhaps he really believes he's the next Paul Wellstone, as he claimed in his announcement speech (just before attacking Cardin, and in the days since, Mfume and Harry Reid).

Lichtman could be touting his book on the campaign trail because a paperback version comes out in November, and the current Amazon sales rankings for his previous works range from 870,000 to 3,575,000 to "None." More likely, he's running because he actually thinks he has a chance. That kind of egocentric bad judgment won't get him far with the voters, but on the upside, it might help him get his old job back. ... 2:55 P.M.  (link)


Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2005

The Vapors: Back in July, prescient Has-Been reader Sean Watterson proposed a perfect name for the online paper trail of blog posts, e-mails, and easily Googled commentary that will make it harder for ambitious young lawyers today to be the blank-slate Supreme Court nominees of tomorrow. Watterson called this new phenomenon a "vapor trail."

If George Bush had his way, vapor trail would be the name for the entire confirmation process. Bush chose John Roberts because he was a tabula rasa, not because Roberts knew a thousand more Latin phrases where that came from. Harriet Miers is such an unknown that there's no paper trail to cover up.

Her official correspondence and state papers, released yesterday in Texas, reveal only that Miers told Bush he was "the greatest" and "cool." A New York Times review of her time in private practice found "little for the public record," except a mediocre win-loss record. Advice she has given Bush as White House Counsel is protected by presidential and attorney-client privilege. If we ever see any memos she wrote in her previous stint as deputy chief of staff for policy from 2003-04, they will confirm what we already know: The Bush White House didn't come up with any policy in that period.

What to make of this silent witness with a vapor trail? Dahlia Lithwick aptly points out that because we know so little about her, Miers has become a "human Rorschach test." But if she's an inkblot, she must have been written in lemon juice.

So far, Miers seems more like Bush's imaginary rabbit friend Harriet. He says she exists. His friends think he's crazy, but he continues to believe in her, anyway. We'd like to play along and take his word for it, except that every time we look, there's nothing there.

Pookaville: To quiet doubters, the White House has produced a few people who claim to have seen Miers. The most omnipresent is Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, who has known Miers for the past three decades.

If, as White House staffers reportedly joke, Miers is Bush's "work wife," Nathan Hecht is a previous work husband. She interviewed him for a job at her Dallas firm and later gave more than $6,000 to his judicial campaigns. Hecht returned the favor by helping Miers find the meaning of life during a mid-life crisis after she made partner.

Hecht is more than just another character witness. He's her longtime friend and colleague, fellow SMU grad, spiritual confessor—and above all, her substitute for judicial experience.

Hecht is even Miers' own personal Tower of Babel on abortion. "I know she is pro-life," he reassured the right last week. While she may once have been pro-choice, he says she told him at church in the 1980s that "life begins at conception." Yet at the same time, Hecht claims that Miers' personal views on abortion probably won't lead her to overturn Roe v. Wade: "I think she would take the view that only in the rarest of circumstances would she do something to reverse that kind of precedent."

It's bad enough that Bush thought Harriet Miers was the next John Roberts. Now her boyfriend thinks he's the next John Roberts, too.

Hecht and Miers describe their relationship as on-again, off-again. For Miers' sake, let's hope it's off again. Nathan Hecht is the kind of friend who would make anyone believe in the right to privacy.

He told the national press, "I know her judicial philosophy." He told conservative bloggers like Marvin Olasky that Miers' evangelical philosophy carries over into her judicial one: "She's an originalist—that's the way she takes the Bible."

Only Wonkette cares whether Hecht "knows" Miers' judicial philosophy in the Biblical sense. But now Hecht says he knows her Biblical philosophy in the judicial sense.

How? There's one way to find out: The Judiciary Committee should call Nathan Hecht as a star witness at Miers' confirmation hearings. He shoots from the hip, he can't stop talking, and like all great witnesses, he sounds like he's making it up as he goes along.

Hecht could be the worst character witness since the infamous John Doggett, who tried to vouch for Yale Law School classmate Clarence Thomas at his 1991 confirmation. His creepy performance did little for Thomas except to convince the nation that things could have been worse—if Bush had nominated Doggett.

The same could happen with Hecht and Miers. We won't know until the hearings whether Miers is more impressive than her résumé. It's a safe bet she is more impressive than her on-again, off-again boyfriend. ... 10:26 A.M.  (link)