Will wonk for food.

Will wonk for food.

Will wonk for food.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Feb. 9 2006 3:46 PM

Will Wonk for Food

Should President Bush give me my old job back?


Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006

Gone Fishing: On its website, the Chicago Tribunereports:

Claude A. Allen, the president's domestic policy adviser, turned in his letter of resignation today at the White House, the Bush administration acknowledged tonight. … White House spokesman Scott McClellan said tonight that Allen is seeking more time with his family and cited purely personal reasons for stepping down after a few tough years in high-level posts.


Jobs like that don't come along every day, so I have reluctantly agreed to help in the search process. Here is the letter I plan to send the White House:

Dear Mr. President,

As you have no doubt been informed, Mr. Claude Allen, who works in the office directly above yours, has decided to leave the White House.

While no president ever likes to see staffers go, it is surely a relief to read that they want more time with their families, not more time with their lawyers or simply less time with you. Nevertheless, Mr. Allen's departure does leave a hole. The combination of his resignation and last week's State of the Union Address means that you now have neither a domestic policy adviser nor a domestic policy.

Margaret Spellings, the first person you tapped for the job, left the White House to clean up the mess at the Department of Education, so she could spend more time listening to her family call her "an anal-retentive chowderhead." The man you have relied upon to make most of your domestic policy decisions, Karl Rove, has yet to resign, but is having to spend more time with his lawyers.

I'm confident that even this late in your administration, you have a stable of young talent ready to step in. Don't let those anal-retentive vetters fool you: This job is not the kind where the person actually has to complete that college degree. After all, how hard can domestic policy be? The only real requirement is that your knowledge must stop at the water's edge.

Of course, with Congress planning to tighten the revolving door rules, fewer people may apply for the opening. As you well know by now, many aides who leave the White House insist on spending that family time in style. It's easier to forget the Christmas parties and Easter egg rolls when you're pulling down seven figures on K Street.

Five years ago, on January 20, 2001, I resigned as your predecessor's domestic policy adviser, citing "purely personal reasons," "a few tough years," and the desire to "spend more time with my family." I love having that time with my family, but after five years, I get the impression my family would rather have that old job back.

So if you're in the market for a used domestic policy adviser – and a new set of domestic policies -- I would be happy to take it under consideration. I'd have to check with Slate, but my guess is that anyone willing to do domestic policy in your White House can still safely call himself a Has-Been.

Of course, every White House is like a family, so I will understand if you decide you would prefer not listening to your own people rather than not listening to me. However, I can recommend a far more qualified candidate – a true domestic policy Hall-of-Famer who just happens to be family as well. What better choice as your new domestic policy adviser than your new brother, Bill Clinton? ...  3:45 P.M. (link)


Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2006


Grrrr …: Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, who gets paid to be a partisan attack dog, spent Sunday trashing Sen. Hillary Clinton. "I don't think the American people, if you look historically, elect angry candidates," Mehlman told George Stephanopoulos. "And whether it's the comments about the plantation or the worst administration in history, Hillary Clinton seems to have a lot of anger."

When told of Mehlman's charges, did the senator blow her top? According to the Daily News, "Clinton laughed out loud – and kept laughing."

On Tuesday, my friends at the Democratic National Committee, whose job is to go after Republicans, put out two pages of talking points entitled, "Temper, Temper! When John McCain Attacks." Their evidence? McCain's shouldn't-have-clicked-the-send-button letter to Sen. Barack Obama on lobbying reform.

Here's how it sounds when the DNC attacks: "Senator John McCain gets angry – a lot. McCain, 'the biggest bully in the Senate,'  is known by his colleagues and staff as having a bad temper and a 'short fuse.'"


And what calm, dispassionate, progressive sources does the DNC cite for these claims? "Biggest bully in the Senate" came from the legislative director of the National Right-to-Life Committee, which exists to bully members of Congress. "Short fuse" came from a former aide to Alan Keyes, the man who moved from Maryland to Illinois so he could denounce Obama's "slaveholder position" on abortion and say that Catholics who voted for Obama were like Germans voting for the Nazi Party that led to the Holocaust. (Obama, to his credit, laughed off Keyes's attacks: "At least he didn't call me the Antichrist.")

Anger is a real problem in American politics. Democrats lost the last presidential election in part because our side was so mad at Bush we couldn't see straight. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton consistently outfoxed Republicans because they hated him so much. Anger is so toxic that both party headquarters would do themselves and the country a great favor by steering their followers away from it.

The Bright Side: There's just one big flaw in the RNC/DNC diatribes: Hillary Clinton and John McCain are not only two of the most upbeat politicians in Washington these days, but also are among those least likely to let anger drive their politics.

Full disclosure: As the DNC might say, I like them both – a lot. But you don't have to know Hillary Clinton and John McCain to see why Ken Mehlman and his Democratic counterparts are barking up the wrong tree. Over the years, both politicians have been subjected to vicious, unfair attacks – and made a career of turning the other cheek. Hillary Clinton works side by side with Republicans who demonized her health plan and voted to impeach her husband. John McCain forgave the Viet Cong, not to mention George Bush and Karl Rove.


As First Lady, Hillary Clinton brought Tom DeLay to the White House to press for legislation they both supported on child welfare – at a time when the Clinton administration's welfare wasn't exactly DeLay's top priority. In the Senate, she has reached across the aisle to work with Republicans who never dreamed they would like her.

McCain has spent the past decade reaching across the aisle in the other direction. In 1998, when many angry Republicans in Congress were hot to impeach my boss, McCain offered to work with us in an epic battle with the tobacco industry. The tobacco lobbyists and tobacco-state senators were the angry ones; McCain was the coolest head around.

Indeed, the fact that they aren't riddled with anger is one of the reasons Hillary Clinton and John McCain have such political strength. If anything, Ken Mehlman is projecting: His real fear is how paralyzed with anger the base of the Republican Party becomes at the mere mention of Hillary. Mehlman and Karl Rove didn't spend the past six years inventing compassionate conservatism just to watch the pitchfork wing of the Republican party drag it back down again. McCain's appeal is that he might keep those pitchforks at bay.

In fact, that is one of Obama's many strengths as well. Last year, he wrote the blogosphere an eloquent letter about how much "the tone we take matters." He makes a related point about the Democratic party in today's New York Times: "We have been in a reactive posture for too long. I think we have been very good at saying no, but not good enough at saying yes."


That's the ultimate irony of the recent broadsides from both parties' headquarters. If the 2008 primaries are all about anger, neither Hillary Clinton nor John McCain (nor Barack Obama) will be their party's nominee. As Republicans learned in 1992, and Democrats learned in 2004, the side that gets mad won't be the side that gets even. ... 11:55 A.M. (link)


Monday, Feb. 6, 2006

Face-Off:Just days after President Bush announced an "American Competitiveness Initiative," his party has already begun to deliver. Thanks to Congressional Republicans, the U.S. is making a comeback in one of the hottest areas of international competition: the face-saving gesture.

The president was right to worry, for the pioneers on this front are his dreaded nemeses: the French. Today, French scientists held a press conference to unveil Isabelle Dinoire, the Frenchwoman who received the world's first face transplant.

From the beginning, the gruesome Dinoire case has been an ethical nightmare. Lately, Dinoire's doctors have boasted that to fight tissue rejection, they had her gargle with steroid mouthwash. At last, another product for Rafael Palmeiro to endorse besides Viagra.

House Calls: Here in America, the pioneers in face-saving are politicians, not scientists. For example, the most heated debate on Capitol Hill right now is whether changing the way Washington works should be real or just a face-saving exercise. Just as Isabelle Dinoire could not look herself in the mirror after being mauled by her Labrador, Republicans do not want to go through the rest of their political lives bearing the scars of Jack Abramoff. But that has forced them to confront the difficult question of whether they can get away with cosmetic changes or need to make deeper changes in their way of life.

Last week's race for House majority leader was a referendum on this subject. The incumbent, Rep. Roy Blunt, pledged as little real change as possible. The insurgent, Rep. John Shadegg, called for more fundamental soul-searching, warning that anything less than sweeping change could mean the death of the conservative cause.

The winner, Rep. John Boehner, split the difference between these two camps. He joined with Shadegg in a reform-minded effort to stop Blunt on the first ballot. But Boehner won a majority by convincing his colleagues that they don't need to change their habits so much as change the face they show the world.

Yesterday, the new majority leader appeared on "Fox News Sunday" to explain what change in the Boehner era will mean." Numerous profiles have shown why he's an appealing face. Chris Wallace actually asked him, "How do you keep that tan?"

Boehner gave an honest, if unsettling, answer: golf. If politics is a game of charades, Boehner's response to "golf handicap" isn't "Jack Abramoff." He told Wallace his handicap is six.

With the new job in hand, Boehner appears to have jumped off the reform bandwagon and spent yesterday trying to slow it down. He straddles the issue of earmarks the way some members straddle the issue of abortion: He says he is personally opposed to earmarks but does not want to outlaw them for others. Yesterday, Boehner hinted that earmarks will remain safe and legal; Republicans are still struggling with how and whether to make them rare.

Where There's Smoke: Last week, the New York Times called Boehner a modern-day Dean Martin, noting the "ever-present Barclay cigarette between his fingers." Anyone who knows his colleagues well enough to upset the sitting leader is no Dean Martin. But that Barclay cigarette sends an interesting message of its own.

Brown & Williamson introduced the "ultra-low tar" Barclay cigarette in 1980 with what was then the costliest cigarette launch ever. Claiming to keep "air moving 5 times the speed of smoke," the Barclay's new ACTRON filter had intake holes that dramatically reduced the amount of tar that showed up in machine tests. Unfortunately, the Federal Trade Commission discovered that actual smokers compensated by covering up the holes with their lips and fingers and ended up taking in much higher tar levels as a result.

Few people smoke Barclays anymore. R.J. Reynolds, which merged with Brown & Williamson in 2003, no longer advertises the product, calling it a "non-support brand" that is distributed only where there is consumer demand.

As House Republican colleagues press him for changes that are only skin deep, John Boehner might want to look at that Barclay in his hand. To borrow the slogan of another faded RJR brand, Tareyton, there's not much future for a party that would rather bait than switch. ... 2:56 P.M. (link)


Thursday, Feb. 2, 2006

House Republicans 1, White House 0: In a recent Washington Post poll, voters said by a 51-35 margin that they'd rather see the country move in the direction offered by Democrats in Congress than the current direction of President Bush. That's striking, since a comparable majority don't think Democrats have a direction.

In 2006, the American people are in the mood to throw the bums out. So today, House Republicans came to the same conclusion: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. By a vote of 122-109, the GOP caucus dumped the incumbent status quo candidate, House Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri, in favor of self-proclaimed reformer Rep. John Boehner of Ohio.

Boehner's victory doesn't mean that the House will suddenly become a cauldron of reform. Boehner is no stranger to K Street, and many House Republicans are already grumbling that limits on gifts and lobbying have gone too far. Boehner won't mean an ideological shift, either. House conservatives want deep cuts in spending, senators and House moderates want the opposite. Without Tom DeLay's Hammer, House Republicans will continue to be hard-pressed to pass even must-pass bills.

Boehner's political savvy probably means that Republicans will run smarter this year than last. He's more likely to take his cue from his mentor Newt Gingrich's camera-ready Contract With America than from the tin-eared approach DeLay showed with his constant house calls on the base (e.g., Terri Schiavo).

But whether or not they will run smarter, the choice of Boehner means one thing for sure: House Republicans have begun to run scared. The race for majority leader was a political blood-pressure test. A vote for Blunt meant a member hasn't a care in the world and can't even remember the name Jack Abramoff. A vote for Boehner meant a member is losing sleep and experiencing mild chest pains. A vote for the third candidate, Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, meant a member is scared as hell and just can't take it anymore.

Texas Hold 'Em: Of course, it may not be enough for House Republicans to panic if their president insists on staying calm. One reason conservatives woke up so disappointed in Bush's State of the Union is that he offered nothing to help them take back control of their political fate. By ignoring the reform cloud—and the rest of the domestic agenda—the president pushed all his chips to the middle of the table and bet the House that he can convince America that Democrats are wimps.

ESPN's computer hasn't told us the odds on Bush's gamble. But it's a lot easier to go all-in when you're playing with someone else's chips.

Obviously, House Republicans don't feel so comfortable. They hope the levees that DeLay built—redistricting and money—will hold, but they don't know what kind of storm they'll be facing.

Bush should panic too—not because he might lose the House but because his presidency won't amount to much unless he gets moving. Six years ago, as a candidate, Bush transformed the Republican Party's fortunes because he was more in touch with the American people than House Republicans. Ironically enough, now even House Republicans can hear the storm winds of change a-blowing, and George Bush is the one who's out of touch. ... 4:47 P.M. (link)