Notes from the political sidelines.
Oct. 28 2005 1:48 PM


Why Bush should tell Rove to follow in Miers's footsteps.


Friday, Oct. 28, 2005

Know When to Fold 'Em, Part One: It's a sure sign of how far the Bush White House has fallen that it's considered a good day when only one top aide gets a criminal indictment. Soon they'll be breaking glass and pulling out the last, desperate spin: Better than Nixon.

Meanwhile, Republican sages around Washington are dusting off time-tested search-and-recovery plans from past disasters. The details vary in one respect -- James Baker or Howard Baker? -- but share a common theme: bring in ancient, unindicted wise men to give your administration a whole new look. In addition to their wisdom and experience, these men bring along another important characteristic: in our criminal justice system, the older you get, the less likely you are to commit a crime.


Bush could certainly benefit from better advice. But those sages have read enough polls and played enough poker to know that when you're holding a three and a nine, you'd be better off throwing in the whole hand.

At this point, the one way Bush can salvage his administration isn't to bring new people in - it's to fire some of the crowd he's got. In that respect, Fitzgerald has done Bush an enormous favor by providing Karl Rove with a stay of execution. If Bush wants to stop the bleeding, he will get out of his defensive crouch and say to Rove: For the sake of the country and the Presidency, it's time for you to go.

If Bush starts holding his White House to the highest possible standard, he might withstand blows that may await him down the road. If the President's standard is more like unindicted co-conspirator, all the Bakers in the world will find even "better than Nixon" to be a stretch. ...  10:43 A.M. (link)

Know When to Fold 'Em, Part Two: It's Hari-Kari Week at the White House, as Bush aides – loyal to the last – line up to take the fall. Give Harriet Miers credit: she wasn't Supreme Court material, but she could proofread the writing on the wall.


Democrats, already fighting the next war, blame the far right for making Miers a victim of human sacrifice. Miers's catty colleagues in the administration are already blaming her for not having what it takes.

But if Miers is a victim, it's at the hand of President Bush. Dick Cheney may well have picked himself as Vice President in 2000, but Miers didn't orchestrate the Supreme Court selection process to her own advantage. Her only sin was to tell Bush yes.

Exit, Stage Right: Her withdrawal is rich with irony. In a turgid letter to Bush, Miers wrote, "Protection of the prerogatives of the Executive Branch and continued pursuit of my confirmation are in tension. I have decided that seeking my confirmation should yield."

That was Bush's excuse – to preserve the office of the Presidency, he refused to allow "disclosures that would undermine a president's ability to receive candid counsel." Yet isn't that what doomed Miers from the start – the sense that any president willing to pick her wasn't getting candid counsel?


The White House tried to sell Miers as the loyal Staff Secretary made good, who would bring the Court expertise in areas the judicial monastery overlooks, like punctuation. But the administration never figured out how to punctuate her career. After three weeks as a question mark, then an ellipsis, Miers is at last what the British call a full-stop.

It's doubly ironic that a career built on abject loyalty and short on intellectual independence would come to an end over Miers's vague support a decade ago for "self-determination." For conservatives, that was the last straw: the whole point of the Miers nomination was the need for a woman who wouldn't think for herself, let alone encourage others.

So much for self-determination. For her sins, Miers was forced to carry out the one form of assisted suicide the right wing would embrace: hari-kari.

Harriet, We Hardly Knew Ye: Miers leaves behind many unanswered questions, including hundreds from Has-Been readers. Shortly before she withdrew, Jeff Johnson sent a prescient plea to publish the winning Stump Harriet entries. Alas, like all of Washington, I was too distracted by the Fitzgerald investigation to heed his warning.


The Washington Post says that Miers's "murder boards" were just that – and there's nothing like a murder to spoil a good punch line. But if readers' questions now seem bittersweet, they shouldn't be lost to history. As self-congratulatory conservative hack Manuel Miranda says, "It will be stamped across our foreheads for years: Which side were you on in the Miers fight?"

So, after a careful review, the Has-Been legal team has concluded that protection of the prerogatives of the Executive Branch and continued pursuit of these questions are not in tension. Winners earn the right to stamp "Has-Been" across their foreheads.

14. "If you were stranded on a desert island, which Warren would you take with
you?" (Frank X. Moffitt)

13.  "When serving stare decisis for dinner, which is a better wine pairing, pinot noir or Zinfandel?" (Paul Ruschmann)


12. "Who is the second most intelligent man you have ever met?" (igotinker, Jonathan Potts, Chris Gallinari)

11. "Do you believe in a constitutional 'right to party,' and if such a right
does exist, which parts of the Constitution are applicable?" (Keith Ripley)

10. "Which character on the TV show Dallas most closely resembles President Bush and why?" (David Griffith)

9. "Have you ever discussed Marbury v. Madison?" (Lee Golden)

8. "Was there a second shooter on the grassy knoll, or did Oswald act alone?" (sipkinsr)

7. "Train A leaves Washington traveling North at 9 AM.  Train B leaves New York traveling South at 9:30 AM.  If both trains are going 45 MPH, will you vote to overturn Roe v. Wade?"(Andrew LaFollette)

6. "Are you now or have you ever been?" (Jordan Deitcher)

5. "What was the best thing about Coach Tom Landry, other than his hat?" (Blaine Campbell)

4. "The President has called you a pit bull in size 6 shoes.  If you could be any fierce animal you wanted, in any size shoes, which animal and what size would you choose, and why?" (Jeff Johnson)

3. "Which rejected nominee are you most like - Robert Bork or G. Harold Carswell?" (Gerald Glover)

2. "What are you wearing for Halloween?" (Madeleine Dulemba)

1. "If you could nominate one candidate to the United States Supreme Court, who would it be and what qualifications would you base that decision upon?" (Josh Loh) ... 7:46 A.M. (link)


Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005

Bad Day: You wouldn't want to have been a White Sox fan at the White House staff meeting this morning. The boss and all the other Texans were already grumpy from staying up till 2:20 a.m. to watch the Astros lose the longest World Series game in history. Now they have to spend the rest of the day watching some suit from Chicago serve up indictments.

This morning's split-screen highlights of the president's mother suffering through last night's loss and the president's staff suffering through this week's waiting game raise the uncomfortable question: Is Texas cursed?

Texas is the second-largest state in the nation. Yet in its entire storied history, the state has produced two presidents, both of whom crashed and burned after five years in office, and two baseball teams, neither of which had even made the World Series until this year. Now the Astros are one game away from elimination, and Bush is one indictment away from a similar fate. (Quibblers: Bush 41 was a Connecticut Yankee who vacationed in Maine; Ike was born in Texas but grew up in Kansas.)

Not even Oliver Stone could have imagined the eerie parallel between Bush and LBJ. Both men overcame the soft bigotry of low expectations to enjoy surprising electoral success. Both brought Texas-sized ambitions to the White House and insisted that America could binge on both guns and butter. Both squandered their high-flying popularity by mismanaging foreign entanglements. In their fifth year in office, both watched their own party sour on cronies they nominated for the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Astros fans have every right to assume their team is cursed. When this season began, the four teams whose fans had waited the longest for their team to make the Series were from Chicago and Texas.

Both Chicago teams are famously cursed: The Cubs haven't won the Series in nearly a century; the Sox haven't won in four score and seven years. Cubs fans blame the Curse of the Billy Goat; Sox fans blame the Black Sox scandal of 1919.

By contrast, if the Texas teams are cursed, nobody outside Texas has shown much sympathy, or even noticed. Both the Rangers (born in Washington in 1961 and transplanted to Arlington in 1972) and Astros (born in 1962) are expansion franchises—rather like Texas itself. So, even though neither had even made the Series until this year, both are still too young to tug at the heartstrings of America's most nostalgic pastime.

Texans no doubt seethe at this traditionalist bias of the baseball press corps. In its Series preview, the closest the Washington Post could come up to identifying a curse was that Houston's original Colt .45s logo included a "smoking gun." Down in Texas, fans must have rolled their eyes and scoffed that only liberal elite city boys would consider a smoking gun to be a curse.

Rain DeLay: After watching Astros relievers serve up not one, but two, game-winning home runs in Sunday night's thrilling White Sox victory, and another one last night, it's hard not to consider another uncomfortable question: Is Houston on the take?

Scrawny White Sox outfielder Scott Podsednik, who won Game 2 with a 400-foot blast, hadn't hit a home run in over 500 at-bats in the regular season. Last night's hero, Geoff Blum, hit only one other home run for the Sox this year, and his batting average for Chicago was right at the dreaded Mendoza line.

Here in Washington, we already had other reasons to suspect that Houston was on the take. Throughout the Abramoff scandal, conservatives have wondered why devout fundamentalist Tom DeLay led the fight to kill anti-gambling legislation. Perhaps Abramoff is DeLay's Arnold Rothstein, the man who cursed Chicago all these years by bribing the Black Sox to throw the 1919 Series.

Famed Texas partisan Paul Begala, a zealous convert from New Jersey, will be quick to offer a more compelling explanation—that the source of the Astros-Rove curse is Bush, not Texas. Karl Rove is a Bush creation (and vice versa). Astros owner Drayton McLane raised more than $100,000 as a Bush Pioneer in the 2004 campaign. He credits President Bush for encouraging him to buy the team.

The former President Bush and his wife are Astros regulars, and last night Bush 41's national security adviser Brent Scowcroft was in the stands cheering the team on—which is more than he will do for the Bush administration.

Under the Curse of the Bush theory, the Texas Rangers have never made the Series because the president used to run them. That could also explain the apparent curse upon former Rangers. Rafael Palmeiro, a Bush contributor who ruined his career by taking steroids and lying about it, holds the record for most games without ever playing in a World Series. Alex Rodriguez, a Bush contributor who has earned hundreds of millions popping out in clutch situations, may one day hold the record for most home runs by a player who has never reached the World Series. But first he will have to pass ex-Bush Rangers Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, whose career has seen one curse after another: Texas to Chicago to Angelos.

It's not fair to curse a whole state for one man's handiwork. So, best of luck tonight to Houston and the Lone Star state. And here's today's survival tip for Sox fans in the Bush White House, and Democrats in Washington: Respect your opponent's pain, and keep your mouth shut. ... 11:57 A.M. (link)


Flight Plan: On Wall Street, times of uncertainty often spark a flight to quality. Washington usually has a simpler reaction: flight. When presidents are running scared, quality is the least of their worries. They want loyalists—and can end up with the likes of Harriet Miers as a result.

If Miers was a flight to mediocrity, Ben Bernanke, Bush's nominee to replace Alan Greenspan as chairman of the Federal Reserve, seems like a solid blue-chip choice. As Dan Gross points out, Bernanke has ample credentials, broad respect from within his field, and no political agenda—which is sometimes more than could be said for Greenspan himself.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal said of Bernanke: "Though a libertarian Republican, he displays few partisan leanings." Some economists say he's even less partisan than that.

Wall Street probably assured Bernanke's confirmation by responding to news of the appointment with a 170-point gain in the Dow. By contrast, Harriet Miers futures are trading at a third of what they were worth the day of her nomination.

The only remaining question is how conservatives will react. If the Laffer Curve is the Roe v. Wade of right-wing economic theory, Bernanke may have trouble convincing conservatives that he goes to the right church.

"A supply sider he is not," John Tamny wrote in August in a piece called "The Scary Side of Ben Bernanke" for National Review Online. Tamny gave Bernanke the dreaded label "Keynesian" and warned that picking him would cost Bush his chance to remake the Fed the way the right wants him to remake the Supreme Court. Tamny didn't even mention that Bernanke has been praised by Bush-hater Paul Krugman, or that as head of the economics department, Bernanke hired Krugman to come to Princeton.

Over at The Corner, Larry Kudlow quickly reassured conservatives about Bernanke, sounding a little like a highbrow James Dobson: "He has told me in the past that raising tax rates would only harm the economy."

But conservatives are in such a funk over Miers, they're hard-pressed to raise a fuss. "His bio at least sings 'qualified,' " writes Kathryn Jean Lopez.

As one clever conservative told me, "I'm just relieved the president didn't nominate his accountant."

In fact, President Bush now has a face-saving excuse to explain Miers in his memoirs: Her nomination was actually a shrewd, expectations-killing distraction to keep the right from demanding an ideologue at the Fed.

Brain Dump: For the past few months, Benanke has served as chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers. With a few exceptions, like conservative guru Glenn Hubbard, the CEA post is one of the most apolitical, hack-proof jobs in the White House. Every administration is divided into hacks and wonks, but CEA chairs generally fall into another elite category: nerds.

Harriet Miers has suffered badly because she doesn't fit into any of those established camps. She's too politically tone-deaf to be a hack. She's too obsessed with process to be a wonk. And apart from a promising stint in the Latin Club at Hillcrest High, she doesn't have the numbing credentials to be a nerd.

Washington worships the evil genius; CEA chairs tend to be the ordinary kind. While they try to be loyal team players, they're like Spock on the starship Enterprise, struggling to make sense of a political world that defies logic. Their analytical work can be quite useful, if the White House finds the time to listen. But most White House pols notice the CEA only when it wanders off message, as when Bernanke's predecessor Gregory Mankiw caused a campaign firestorm by praising the outsourcing of American jobs.

If nerdiness is an occupational hazard at the White House, it's almost a prerequisite for chairing the Fed. Alan Greenspan served in the Ford administration with Rumsfeld and Cheney, who served as chief of staff, and who have since gone on to become political lightning rods. Greenspan was CEA chair and for two decades has been America's Nerd. His biggest blunder came when he tried to play politics in 2001, giving intellectual cover to Bush's tax cuts  with the politically improbable argument that budget surpluses posed a long-term risk.

I don't know whether Bernanke is a real nerd or just posing as one. A quick review of recent speeches showed that he can match Greenspan in at least one respect: After a few pages, I had no idea what he was talking about and figured it was all my fault.

If Roberts was Latin for Rehnquist, Bernanke might be econo-babble for Roberts. According to U.S. News, one of Bernanke's greatest disappointments in life came in a sixth-grade spelling bee. John Roberts claims he never lost a local spelling bee; Bernanke was spelling champion for the whole state of South Carolina.

But when he put too many "i"'s in "edelweiss," Bernanke lost the national championship and the chance to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In his new job, he won't have to worry: There's no 'i" in "nerd."  ... 7:46 P.M. (link)

Update: My choice for the Fed would have been Vice-Chair Roger Ferguson, who has three degrees from Harvard, experience in managing financial crises like 9/11, and a keen understanding of Washington. I assumed that as a Clinton appointee, he never had a chance. But the  Post reports that Ferguson was in the running until the Miers fiasco made it impossible for Bush to take a chance. Conservative economist Bruce Bartlett attempts to explain the White House strategy: "When your team is on a losing streak, you schedule a game with a cream-puff opponent. Then you go with the hot hand." But that's all the more reason to look outside your team. If you had any hot hands, you wouldn't be losing.


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 thehasbeen@gmail.com. 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 thehasbeen@gmail.com. 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)