Saturday, Nov. 4, 2006
Term's Up: According to the New York Times, Republicans are feeling blue about their chances on Tuesday, and "increasingly steeling themselves" to losing the House after 12 years. GOP strategists describe the midterm outlook as "grim," "dreadful," and "the worst political environment for Republican candidates since Watergate."
Chin up, Republicans! Losing isn't all bad. In time, the conservative base, which never liked Congress to begin with, will be glad to be rid of it. From the president on down, Republican leaders will no longer have to resent Karl Rove for taking all the credit. Any surviving GOP members of Congress can stop worrying about going to jail for selling their vote, because nobody will want to buy it.
For Republicans from the famous class of 1994, here's the best consolation of all for losing the House this time around: You will finally have kept your promise.
The most powerful issue for the Republican revolution in 1994 was congressional term limits, which made voters think the 104th Congress would bring fundamental change to Washington. One of the early signs that the revolution was not on the level came in late March 1995, near the end of Newt's first 100 days, when the new House of Representatives failed to pass a constitutional amendment to put a 12-year limit on congressional service. Forty Republicans crossed over to help defeat the measure, which fell 60 votes short of the required two-thirds majority.
Most of the class of 1994 voted for the term-limits amendment. Had it passed, they would be out of a job after this Congress, anyway. So, in truth, voters are just helping them honor their original parting wishes.
At least a dozen Republican members who are in tough races this time voted for 12-year term limits in 1995. Half are members of the class of 1994: Steve Chabot of Ohio, Charlie Bass of New Hampshire, J.D. Hayworth of Arizona, Gil Gutknecht of Minnesota, Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, and Sue Kelly of New York. That's not counting Mark Foley and Bob Ney, for whom the House was a 12-year program that led straight to a 12-step program. Those two were so honor-bound to keep their term-limits pledge, they were willing to take the law into their own hands--and much, much more.
Others look like whiners by comparison. Last month, Kentucky Rep. Ron Lewis ('94) denied that he had ever promised to limit his term in Congress, even though he had written his constituents a letter in 1998 explaining why he wasn't keeping that promise. Lewis' opponent tried to run an ad accusing him of lying "when he put his hand on the Bible and took an oath to serve only three terms." The local FOX affiliate rejected the ad, claiming there was no proof the pledge was that length or that Lewis had put his hand on the Bible when he said it.
If Tuesday looks so bad, Republicans should stop cursing their luck and start claiming it as their destiny. In the minority, Gingrich used to complain that government programs never went away. By that standard, the vanishing Gingrich revolution wasn't a failure--it was a sweeping triumph! On Tuesday, the Republican class of 1994 should declare victory for finally doing what it came to Washington to do: go home. ... 11:59 P.M. (link)
Friday, Nov. 3, 2006
Unsecured Undecided Location:Dick Cheney went hunting for votes in my hometown last night. The first vice president in history never to change his mind didn't try to change any Idahoans' minds, either. Republicans decided it was too risky.
In 2004, Republicans won raves for micro-targeting—using modern marketing techniques to identify potential Republican voters based on what magazines they read and what purchases they make. This year, the GOP has been forced to use those same techniques for a less impressive purpose: to limit election rallies to true believers.
The White House has long kept presidential and vice-presidential events to the party faithful. Cheney's Idaho visit posed a special problem—Idahoans don't register by party. To make sure that all 2,000 tickets for last night's event went to diehards, the local party used micro-targeting to develop a countywide screening list.
According to the conservative local paper, the Coeur d'Alene Press, a small businesswoman and lifelong independent named Melodee Watt who wanted to attend the Cheney event was turned down when her name was rejected by the party database. "I thought, 'What? I've never been arrested or anything,'" Watt said. Her crime: the Republican voter vault had her pegged as a possible Democrat.
The GOP county party chair staunchly defended using the voter vault to screen out independents: "It's our party and that's what we want to do." Watt told the paper she thought that as an undecided businesswoman, she was exactly the voter Republicans would want to target. "No wonder there's so much division in the country," she said. "When did it become us versus them?"
It's hard to tell which is the greater sign of Republicans' desperation—that four days before an election, they had to send Dick Cheney to Idaho, or that they had to use sophisticated software to find anyone happy to see him. When I used to knock on doors for Democratic candidates in Idaho, we had our own system of micro-targeting. If a person came to the door in Birkenstocks or with a walker, there was a chance they might be a Democrat or at least undecided. Everyone else: Republican. If they came to the door with a twin-gauge or a Doberman, there was a good chance I was about to be micro-target practice.
The Cheney rally took place in an airplane hanger outside the small town of Hayden, the most conservative precinct in North Idaho. For years, Hayden was home to the infamous Aryan Nations compound of the late neo-Nazi evangelist, Richard Butler, until a hate-crimes suit by civil rights leaders put him out of business. I'm not sure how the GOP voter vault ranks the magazines Butler's gang of skinheads subscribe to, but most of them couldn't come to the Cheney rally—they're back in prison.
It's just as well Melodee Watt didn't get to hear the vice president, because he said nothing to sway an undecided voter's mind anyway. He attacked "Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy, John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi" and predicted a "clean Republican sweep in Idaho next Tuesday." The only thing Cheney failed to do to play to the base was to ditch Air Force Two and arrive instead by black helicopter.
Even the party faithful don't feel on safe ground anymore. A Republican in the crowd yelled to Cheney, "Take us with you!"
The day after Cheney's visit, two more polls came out showing Republicans in deeper trouble than ever. In the race for governor, Democrat Jerry Brady has opened up a five-point lead over Republican Congressman Butch Otter, 41 percent to 36 percent. In the First Congressional District, Democrat Larry Grant now leads Freaking Idiot Bill Sali, 38 percent to 34 percent.
Apart from the Democratic leads, what's most striking about both polls is that contrary to the usual pattern, the number of undecided voters keeps growing as the election approaches. An astonishing 25 percent haven't made up their mind in the congressional race, which makes Idahoans the most undecided voters in America.
If Democrats win in the reddest of red states, it will be because the undecided have nowhere else to go. In Idaho and across the country, the Republican Party has already let undecided voters know: They're not invited. ... 1:37 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006
Buttersticks:The National Zoo in Washington doesn't get as much attention as its sister institution across town. But in recent years, the zoo has done its best to match Congress scandal for scandal: lax oversight, multiple cover-ups, millions of taxpayer dollars squandered, ruinous mismanagement and neglect, a pattern of botched mating attempts with the whole world watching.
Last month, the zoo opened a new Asia Trail designed to showcase its most bankable asset, the giant pandas, in their 40,000-square-foot Fujifilm Giant Panda Habitat. The $53-million project is part of an ambitious facelift by the zoo's new director, who wants to build "the world's finest zoo."
When the new trail opened, the Washington Post cooed over the antics of Fujifilm Giant Panda cub Tai Shan, the first surviving panda cub to be born at the zoo, who has been its top attraction since his birth last year. The Post reported that Tai Shan sparked a $1.6-million jump in merchandise sales in the first half of 2006, and the paper's eyewitness reporting showed why: "The cub snuffled through the underbrush as he hunted for a carrot, which he then devoured, licking his lips, as camera shutters whirred. Afterward, he climbed a cork tree and hugged it."
In the very next paragraph, however, the Post dropped a bombshell in what may be Washington's biggest and most ominous scandal yet:
"As part of an agreement with China, which lent Tai Shan's parents to the zoo, the cub is set to be returned to that country this summer after his second birthday."
In other words, this proud nation of ours—once master of its own destiny—is now renting itself out to have a rich totalitarian's babies.
For decades, millions of panda lovers have held their breath through the pandas' unpredictable and star-crossed attempts to mate. Time after time, thousands of schoolchildren wept when a surprised mother panda would give birth to a tiny cub, only to watch it die days later.
Thousands more voted in the zoo's suspiciously undemocratic Internet contest to choose the name Tai Shan ("Peaceful Mountain") from a list of five prescribed alternatives, each sanctioned by the China Wildlife Conservation Association. That list included two virtually identical and unappealing duds—Sheng Hua ("Washington China") and Hua Sheng ("China Washington")—and left out the cub's adorable American nickname, Butterstick ("Little Tub").
The zoo's website didn't bother to tell those young American stooges—most of them taking part in democracy for the first time—that they would all be invited back in 2007 to watch as the U.S. puts the cub on a Swift Boat to China.
According to the Post, "Zoo officials hope that they can breed the parents again this spring and that the roomy new habitat will increase chances for a second cub." The article doesn't say whether China will get to steal that young panda as well, in flagrant violation of its own one-child policy.
Of course, America's youngsters might as well get used to shipping their prized possessions off to China, because thanks to the current administration and Congress, that's what they're likely to spend the rest of their lives doing. In the past month, China's foreign-currency reserves topped $1 trillion, most of it invested in U.S. Treasury bonds to finance the Bush deficits. It's no crowd-pleaser, but the Bush White House and Congress have built their own Asia Trail: the Fujifilm Giant National Debt.
Fiscal disciplinarians have struggled to find a way to capture the nation's imagination about the Bush debt and America's looming indentured servitude to China. At last, we may have our chance. Get ready for this simple and devastating 30-second attack ad, "Butterstick":
"It's bad enough that President Bush looks the other way while illegal immigrants flock to America. Now the White House is letting China steal babies born in America and force them to spend the rest of their lives behind bars on Communist soil. This time, it's a cute and cuddly panda cub. But the way Republicans keep running up debts to China, your cute and cuddly 2-year-old could be next. That's wrong. Little ones made in America ought to stay in America. It's time to tell Republicans in Washington to get their paws off our children. If China wants babies, they can go make their own."
Lou Dobbs has already agreed to do the voiceover. … 12:21 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006
Egg on Your Head:For years, critics have wondered how to deal with what might politely be described as the president's apparent lack of intellectual … curiosity. Back in 1999, Jacob Weisberg warned, "The sharpest tool in the shed he ain't" and prophetically explained why dim bulbs don't make better presidents. In 2001, E.J. Dionne called for "a moratorium on calling the president of the United States stupid," which prompted Chatterbox Tim Noah to counter that whatever Bush's innate intelligence, he is "functionally dumb."
In his introduction to a 2004 collection of Bushisms, Jacob Weisberg returned to this conundrum, concluding that the president's real problem was that he had made a conscious choice to know nothing about policy or history: "As the president says, we misunderestimate him. He was not born stupid. He chose stupidity." Some men are born dim, and others have dimness thrust upon them.
That settled one question—were Bush's wits fair game—but left open another: Was it smart for the president's critics to raise the issue? Jonathan Chait said yes and complained that in 2004, "Democrats had almost nothing to say about Bush's lack of intellect, while Republicans joyfully and repeatedly attacked John Kerry as an egghead."
I disagreed, siding with Dionne and his Post colleague David Von Drehle that Bush was just smart enough to want to be thrown in that brier patch and that Karl Rove would like nothing better than a bunch of intellectuals mocking Bush as not one of them. For my part, I sometimes go entire paragraphs without making fun of the president for governing like such an idiot.
If nothing else, John Kerry's blunder yesterday should put Jonathan Chait's mind at ease that Kerry could have won in 2004 if only he'd done more to question Bush's intelligence. At a time when even many Republicans enjoy a good joke at the president's expense, the senator swung at and missed that big, fat target and accidentally hit the nation's armed forces.
As he made clear in his apology, Kerry never meant to criticize men and women in uniform. Whatever troubles candidate Kerry sometimes had bonding with Main Street, he has always had a palpable, genuine bond with veterans and soldiers. The sole target of John Kerry's scorn was, is, and always will be George W. Bush.
Wednesday morning, Kerry went on Imus to make clear that had he known then what he knows now, he would not have gone forward with that joke. After Kerry pointed out that Bush had botched jokes, too, Imus replied, "O.J. killed his wife, doesn't mean I'm going to." The senator agreed. Tomorrow's headline on the Drudge Report: "Kerry Not Going to Kill Wife."
The underreported problem with Kerry's joke is that it wasn't very good before he botched it. Michael Kinsley famously wrote that a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth. A botched joke is one that wasn't funny.
Kerry aides say the joke as prepared was, "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush." Note to file: Bushisms—funny. Jokes about being stuck in Iraq—not funny.
But in its own way, the whole overheated flap suggests why Republicans' trusty wedge issues have been firing blanks all year: Americans are in a grumpy mood and won't easily be distracted.
Nobody died when Kerry joked. Nobody laughed, either. In any case, the White House won't get far trying to make 2006 about 2004. Say what you will about George Bush; the American people aren't that stupid. ... 10:58 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2006
More Is Less:In 1994, Republicans took over the Congress with one goal foremost in mind—to turn Americans against government. Twelve years later, they've succeeded, although not the way they intended. A new CNN poll finds that 54 percent of Americans think government tries to do too much, while only 37 percent think government should do more. And to put government in its place, they're going to vote … Democrat.
In years past, that question about the scope of government has been one of the most telling indicators of voter preference. According to the 1996 exit polls, voters who wanted the federal government to do more voted for Bill Clinton by 72 percent to 20 percent. Dole voters wanted the federal government to do less by a margin of 76 percent to 20 percent.
As Ruy Teixeira has written, independents and Perot voters fall somewhere in between. In 1992, 73 percent of Clinton voters wanted government to do more, compared with 36 percent of Bush voters. Perot voters demanded a third way: 72 percent were willing to accept less in services in return for lower taxes, but 50 percent wanted government to do more to solve national problems.
Call it the Wal-Mart Effect. Independents and Perotistas pointed toward the kind of government Americans would get under Clinton: more for less.
Bush's approach has been just the opposite—less for more. The federal government has gotten visibly bigger, with deficits that squandered the surplus and have added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt. A study by Paul Light of the Brookings Institution shows that the number of federal contractors has ballooned by 2.5 million over the past four years, a 50 percent increase. After shrinking by 400,000 under Clinton, the federal work force is growing again as well.
Bush would dearly love to blame the return of big government on Congress, Democrats, and the terrorists. But a big government that costs more and succeeds less is at the core of Bushism. Bush ran a campaign that promised not to cut government and runs a government that doesn't try to solve problems. Where the president has expanded government's reach—from Medicare to the Department of Homeland Security—it hasn't gone well. Where we needed government to succeed—from managing Iraq to responding to Katrina—the Bush administration did a Hack of a job.
So nobody should be surprised that independents—the bargain shoppers of American politics—are breaking overwhelmingly against Bush this year. Back in 1994, Republicans won the Congress by courting independents with the promise to make government a better deal. This year, those same independents are standing in line at the return desk, convinced that Bushism is no bargain.
If Democrats win, we'll inherit the same challenge we faced in 1992: a host of national problems that cry out for action and a government that the electorate doesn't yet trust to fix them. Back then, after 12 years out of power, Democrats tried to make up for lost time by setting out to solve every problem at once. Not until we passed welfare reform four years later did voters start trusting us to do more and do it well.
The first job of a Democratic Congress—and the next president—will be to face up to this paradox. If we want to do more to solve the nation's problems, we need to prove all over again that we can do more for less. ... 2:36 P.M. (link)
Monday, Oct. 30, 2006
The Potato Rebellion: Earlier this month, the NRCC scrambled to make a $375,000 ad buy in Idaho's 1st Congressional District, a contest Democrats in our wildest dreams never expected to win. The results so far: A new Mason-Dixon poll shows it's a dead heat.
State Sen. Bill Sali, whom fellow Republicans describe with two words—"fricking" and "idiot"—has 39 percent; Democratic businessman Larry Grant is at 37 percent. In 2004, the district voted 68 percent for Bush.
The same poll also shows the Republican candidate for governor, retiring Rep. Butch Otter, in a dead heat with Democrat Jerry Brady, who lost by 15 points when he ran for governor in 2002. Otter and Brady are in a statistical tie in a state where one county voted for Bush 9-1.
Otter is the former son-in-law of 97-year-old potato billionaire J.R. Simplot, who made his fortune selling frozen French fries. Two years ago, Simplot gave the state his spectacular hilltop palace overlooking Boise so that Idaho would finally have a governor's mansion. His only condition was that future governors would have to continue flying his enormous 30-by-50-foot American flag, which on windy nights keeps the entire county from sleeping.
In a widely mocked bid to raise private funds to renovate the Simplot home, the state offered naming rights to the governor's mansion. Much to Republicans' chagrin, it looks like naming rights to the statehouse and the First Congressional seat are still up for grabs. ... 1:31 P.M. (link)
Mr. Brightside: Even as Bush's stock plummets, a Washington Post look at Karl Rove's legacy manages to find only one tepid Republican blind quote at Rove's expense. Meanwhile, very smart people like Bill Kristol, Josh Bolten, and Aspen Institute president Walter Issacson vouch for what Bolten calls Rove's "massive brain." At Intrade, however, the futures market is betting 2-1 that the era of Rove genius is over.
Mr. Brightside: Even as Bush's stock plummets, a Washington Post look at Karl Rove's legacy manages to find only one tepid Republican blind quote at Rove's expense. Meanwhile, very smart people like Bill Kristol, Josh Bolten, and Aspen Institute president Walter Issacson vouch for what Bolten calls Rove's "massive brain." At Intrade, however, the futures market is betting 2-1 that the era of Rove genius is over.
In story after story, Rove's message for the midterms comes down to one word—optimism. Isn't that exactly the wrong message to send? Clearly, Rove wants to stave off Republican panic. But hasn't the whole point of Rovism been that fear is a better motivator that hope? On the subject of panic, conservatives might be better off listening to Ronald Reagan: "If not now, when? If not us, who?"
The most revealing line in the Post story is the kicker, which comes from Rove himself: "1938 was a huge wipeout for the Democrats—do you think that was the end of the New Deal?"
In 1938, the party in power lost six Senate seats and 71 House seats—perhaps the worst midterm defeat in history. And in GOP circles, Rove is the optimist!
As conservative historian Andrew Busch points out, the 1938 election brought the New Deal "to a screeching halt":
"Congressional investigations began to embarrass the administration; Congress passed the Hatch Act (limiting political activity by federal employees) and Smith Act (cracking down on internal subversion) over FDR's objections. For his part, Roosevelt offered no major new reform proposals in 1939 for the first time in his presidency."
Busch and others note that the 1938 election emboldened a conservative coalition between Republicans and Southern Democrats that shut down Congress for the next 20 years, until Democrats' midterm sweep in 1958.
Fortunately, "that massive brain of his" enables Rove to take the long view. A 71-seat blowout and two decades in political limbo might darken others' spirits, but to Rove, they're mere bumps in the road to Rushmore. Look on the bright side, conservatives: The 72-Hour Project is only going to take 20 years. ... 10:42 A.M. (link)
Sunday, Oct. 29, 2006
The Recriminator: One reason political parties rarely learn from defeat is that they don't really want to. That's why in politics – unlike other sports – most post-game analysis happens before the game is over. For most partisans, examining the actual results might be too threatening. It's much more comforting to look for excuses and play name-that-goat than to deal with the possibility that Americans might have fundamental problems with your way of thinking.
Both parties have a long history of ignoring inconvenient electoral truths. Democrats learned little from underperforming in 2000 and 2002, and came up short again in 2004. Republican ran a tired campaign in 1992, and replicated it in 1996.
If you're going to misread an election, it's important to start early, before the votes are actually cast. Otherwise you might learn something.
Lately, Republicans have had the recriminations race to themselves. After six straight years of non-stop misery and self-hatred, Democrats' only current complaint is that the election hasn't happened yet. Republicans, by contrast, have been at each other's throats for months. If Election Night goes badly, Republican talking heads won't have to scramble for talking points. A pre-season of pre-criminations has honed them for the internecine battle ahead.
At least three competing theories have emerged as early frontrunners in the Republican blame game. All have the same fall guy: George Bush.
The first and most persuasive school of thought is the Drunken Sailor theory, which John McCain (a Navy man) has been pushing from the outset. According to this theory, the Bush administration's original sin was forgetting that once upon a time, in a Republican Party far, far away, conservatism meant fiscal conservatism. Then Bush and Tom DeLay greased the skids to fiscal ruin with tax cuts and budget earmarks, luring Republicans to spend like drunken sailors and pig out on pork.
The Drunken Sailor theory has the virtue of truth. McCain made the same case against Bush on the campaign trail in 2000 – that big tax cuts would cause deficits and make it hard to strengthen Social Security. Fiscal prohibitionists like McCain (as well as the last surviving Northeastern Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, and the last known Ohio Republican, George Voinovich) aren't quite sure what to do about the budget-busting Bush tax cuts. But they think any Republican who still buys the Cheneyist nonsense that "deficits don't matter" deserves a "dunk in the water," which in one form or another is what drunken sailors often get.
A second and much more counterintuitive Republican recrimination is the Squealer theory, named for the spokespig in Animal Farm who talks so persuasively, other animals forget their own firsthand memories of history and accept his version instead. Newt Gingrich is playing that role brilliantly as he lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Ten years ago, Gingrich – not Bush – was the vote-losing face that Republican congressmen morphed into in Democratic attack ads. Today, he wants conservatives to remember the mid-90s as the good old days, back before the only ones certain of Republican convictions were federal prosecutors.
Dick Armey offers the same view in a compelling and deliciously judgmental Outlook piece in today's Washington Post. Armey says, "Republican lawmakers forgot the party's principles, became enamored with power and position, and began putting politics over policy." It's a familiar lament of disillusioned revolutionaries: We were doing great till we took office.
Armey and Gingrich are right – the revolution of 1994 was betrayed by the arrogance of power. But by overreaching in the heady days after that election, they wrote the book on how to go too far. The corrupt, spendthrift compassionate conservatism that helped dig the deep hole Republicans are now in was the only way out of the last hole Gingrich and Armey had dug the party. After 1995, Republicans were so desperate to prove they wouldn't shut down the government again, they made it so big they couldn't shut it if they tried.
The third widely held excuse for Republican demise is the Hack-of-a-Job theory: that there's nothing wrong with Bushism that getting rid of the Bushies won't fix. Under this theory, the Bush administration and the Republican congressional leadership are the Hacks that Couldn't Shoot Straight. Donald Rumsfeld botched the war; Michael Brown botched Katrina; Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, and now Dennis Hastert botched the Congress; and Mark Foley botched the election.
For all those self-evident truths, the Hack-of-a-Job theory is a dangerous delusion for Republicans, because it ducks the unpleasant matter of whether conservative ideas actually work, when for a very long time they haven't.
Mitt Romney will try to endear himself to conservatives with this unreflective message that Republicans' problem is incompetence, not ideology. We had a Massachusetts governor like that once. He lost in a landslide – but on the bright side, he made for great recriminations. ... 11:55 P.M. (link)
T-Minus 10: With just 10 days and counting until the midterms, there is nothing left to say about this election. Here at the Has-Been, that can only mean one thing: say it more often. From now through Election Night, the entire Has-Been team will be working round the clock to come up with inane commentary, falsified insider intelligence, and preposterous predictions.
Here at Slate, we recognize that you have a choice in how you kill time until the election is over. Over at TimesSelect ($), the New York Times offers a daily feature called "Midterm Madness." At Slate's sister publication, the Washington Post, you can win an American Express gift certificate by making your own predictions in a contest called "Midterm Madness." If you want more Midterm Madness, you can read the book or see the movie.
We're not going to pay you to waste time with us. That's what your employer is for. But in the spirit of the season, we will make you all kinds of promises we can't possibly deliver—including an advance copy of the actual election results, which Diebold was kind enough to share with us last week.
You can help! If you have a tip about what to expect on Nov. 7, send it to email@example.com, where it will quickly be blown out of all proportion. Just the other day, a young political whiz named Jay sent me one of the best lines of the political season:
"The same week the Mark Foley scandal broke, several Republican congressman called for another investigation into Sandy Berger for pocketing classified documents from the National Archives. This just proves that Republicans are more concerned about the pages in Berger's pockets than about . . . ."
Well, you get the idea. … 11:58 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006
You Bet: Not long ago, Bill Frist rushed to the Senate floor with legislation to curb an Internet practice that "threatens our families by bringing addictive behavior right into our living rooms." No, the Senate majority leader wasn't talking about curbing IMs from drunken sexual predators in Congress. He was pushing through a bill to ban Internet gambling.
Just as Jacob Weisberg anticipated in July, Congress passed and the president signed a law making it a crime to bet online. Frist tucked the measure onto a port-security bill as a late-night rider, hoping it would boost his presidential stock with Christian conservatives. Now Republicans will have to turn to Ralph Reed and Bill Bennett if they want to field a pro-God, pro-gambling ticket.
After Bush signed the bill earlier this month, the online gaming giants shut down their American operations almost overnight. Sportingbet Plc, a British company, took a $391 million loss and sold its U.S. arm for $1.
Other companies are betting the law won't stick. Trade Exchange Network, an Irish firm that runs Tradesports.com and Intrade.com, continues to welcome American customers. But here's the real irony: At the same time the Republican Congress is trying to throw them out of the American market, the briskest business at Tradesports and Intrade is taking bets on whether Americans will throw out the Republican Congress.
Political futures markets are nothing new. For years, they've been a staple of the caucuses in Iowa, where presidential candidates are just pork bellies by other means. But in the run-up to this year's midterms, Intrade futures prices are everywhere. RealClearPolitics offers "Live Intrade Quotes" alongside its polling summaries. HuffingtonPost now posts them on the front page in a snazzy, multicolored bar graph.
The HuffPo graphics won't help with Tradesports/Intrade's defense. The headline shouts "Midterm Betting Odds," and the caption adds, "Odds based on people betting real money on the Tradesports website."
Is betting real money on the midterms a form of online gambling? If so, perhaps Congress should ban online campaign contributions as well.
At the moment, the Intrade market is far less bullish (and more Rovish) on Democrats' chances of recapturing the Senate than Slate's "Election Scorecard." In the House, the Intrade over-and-under looks to be about 20 seats—about 10 fewer seats than Kausfiles' favorite, Majority Watch.
With each new set of polls and each won-or-lost news cycle, the Intrade futures market bobs up and down. Yesterday, SUSA and Rasmussen polls sparked a GOP Senate futures rally. The latest race revelations from George Allen's youth should send them back down today.
If you don't feel like betting on politics, Intrade lets you bet on more trivial matters—like survival. So far, nobody's buying futures contracts on a U.S. military strike against North Korea. But trading volume is high for bets that the United States or Israel will launch a military strike against Iran in the next six months. The latest odds: 1 in 10.
Never mind the current Congress—the real value of political futures markets like Intrade is their potential to put someone else out of business: pundits. Intrade's predictions are erratic, unreliable, and meaningless—in other words, a perfect market in the conventional wisdom. Most Washington talking heads are just day traders in political gossip. Thanks to Intrade, you no longer have to listen to all the pontificators, because the market does it for you.
In politics, it's often hard to tell the difference between the conventional wisdom and "the wisdom of crowds." One man's CW is another man's WC. As further proof that the market works, this wisdom is now available for free—which is exactly what it's worth.
When it comes to the future, the present is always the last to know. Back in July, Intrade introduced a futures contract on whether an internet gambling law would be passed. On Sept. 30, the market was betting with 78 percent certainty that it wouldn't happen. The next day, Frist's late-night rider made that same bet worthless.
So before your addictive behavior leads you to bet your living room on Bill Frist's 2008 nomination at the current long-shot odds of 70-1, don't forget that in predicting political events, there's a reason the market is clueless—because we are. ... 1:08 P.M. (link)
Monday, Oct. 23, 2006
Book Him:In a White House melting faster than the polar ice caps, one figure maintains the confidence of the American people: First Lady Laura Bush. Her approval rating is roughly double her husband's. On the campaign trail, Republican incumbents embarrassed to be seen with him routinely welcome her. Most Bush advisers consider themselves lucky not to be fired or indicted, and many are unpopular even within their own party. But according to a recent Harris poll, 83 percent of Americans said Laura Bush was a good influence on the president's decisions.
America is probably right that this administration would do better with more Lauras and fewer Don, Dick, and Karls. But that's a very low standard. And while Laura Bush may be a good person, what little we know suggests that she has also given her husband some very bad advice.
If Mark Foley is the last straw for Republicans' chances next month, the first straw may well have been Harriet Miers. Laura Bush had a hand in pushing the nomination of her fellow SMU alum and infuriated conservatives by implying that they were sexist to question Miers' credentials.
For the right, the Miers nomination was the crash of 2005—the moment when thinking conservatives began to ask themselves, "Had Enough?" But Bush's 2006 strategy has been even worse—and while the trail is sketchy, the circumstantial evidence once again points to Laura Bush.
Going into 2006, many political experts thought the Bush White House's strategic motto would be Reductions in Force—a limited drawdown of troops in Iraq, along with a concerted effort to cut domestic federal spending. The first would allow Bush to claim the United States was turning the corner in Iraq; the second would signal conservatives that after five spendthrift years, the administration was coming home.
We were right that the White House game plan for 2006 was RIF. We just didn't realize it would stand for Reading Is Fundamental.
Instead of spending the sixth year of his presidency globe-trotting to solve the mess in Iraq or poring over options memos on how to address middle-class families' economic concerns, Bush seems to have dedicated every waking, nontreadmill moment to one cause: reading books.
Two months ago, Ken Walsh of U.S. News reported that Bush had already read a staggering 60 books in 2006. Quick reads like Albert Camus's The Stranger and three plays by Shakespeare drew most of the scorn, but plenty of weighty doorstoppers made the list as well.
Admittedly, the list itself is suspect. The same U.S. News article suggesting that Bush was on a two-book-a-week pace marveled that "the commander in chief delved into three volumes in August alone."
But if the list is for real, it's evidence of presidential dereliction of duty and perhaps an outright threat to national security. Two books a week is an uphill battle for a graduate student whose responsibilities don't even include showering. For a president, who lives at work, reading and comprehending two serious books a month takes a Herculean effort.
In the same way his father played speed-golf, Bush seems to have embraced speed-reading. That's Republicans' whole problem this year: too many pages, too little comprehension.
Lest anyone mistake his newfound literary interest as a summer fling, this weekend Bush revealed his latest read: The History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, by British historian Andrew Roberts. Any title with the word "peoples" is a Bushism waiting to happen, and sure enough, the president stumbled over the title, calling it The History of the English-Speaking Peoples From 1990.(CliffsNotes synopsis: up and down.) Asked on ABC's This Week what he had learned from the book, all the president said was, "Sometimes, history gets distorted."
The book won't even be released in the U.S. until next February. That means Bush has read so many books this year, he had to start importing them from other English-speaking countries.
Bush gave another reason why he has to buy books overseas: He refuses to read books (pro or con) about his administration. That doesn't leave much to choose from on Amazon—memoirs by former White House correspondents, manifestos by former White House operatives, prick-and-tells by disgruntled former employees from other professions—and never more than one degree of separation from Bob Woodward.
Bush is right that it's myopic for a president to spend his time reading books about an administration in progress. The only thing a president might learn from an insider account of his own administration is something he should already know—which aides do the most leaking. If Bush were quicker on his feet, he would have put George Stephanopoulos on the spot about whether White House aides should write kiss-and-tell memoirs about an administration in progress, either.
But if Washington books are a particular waste of a president's time, are biographies and baseball books much better? Don't get me wrong—every president should have an active mind, and reading can do much to help a president understand (or temporarily escape) the history he's shaping. But the past year provides conclusive proof that a well-read bad president is no better—and may be worse—than a bad president who uses that time to dedicate himself to governing badly.
At least for the next two weeks, Bush's presidency is still a work in progress, if you can call it that. When the full story behind his speed-reading becomes known, historians can decide whom to blame. In August, U.S. News suggested that far from reading alone, the president was in a reading race with Karl Rove, one Bush brain against another. Without the benefit of an indictment, Rove had fallen 10 books behind.
But I find it hard to believe that a president best known for reading My Pet Goat would set out to read 100 books in one year just to impress the help. He couldn't find the time or the books without the help of his wife, the librarian.
Literacy is a great cause, but Laura Bush has taught us something else as well: You can't judge a president by his library card. ... 5:01 P.M. (link)
Friday, Oct. 20, 2006
Why abandon Karl for his evil twin Kim? Some reasons are obvious. Every good campaign needs a madman. Kim's colorful personal life and successful rehab will give him credibility with embattled Republican incumbents. Helping the RNC develop a credible nuclear threat would give it a powerful weapon to mobilize turnout in tough years like this.
But the real reason to hire Kim Jong-il is that he has stumbled onto what may be the only desperate strategy Bush has left: to say he's sorry. It's so crazy, it just might work.
Yesterday, Kim met with a delegation from China. According to a South Korean newspaper, Kim told the Chinese that "he is sorry about the nuclear test."
Saying you're sorry has become a staple of modern politics. But even in this apologetic age, Kim has set a new standard. Most apologies take years, decades, or sometimes centuries. Kim put North Korea in a position to start World War III and apologized just 10 days later. Doom today, oops tomorrow.
Of course, we don't know whether Kim is actually sorry. For that matter, the report appeared in the South Korean press, so he may never have even told the Chinese he was sorry. It may be some kind of passive-aggressive tic that will lead him to bomb Japan and then tell the world he was only kidding.
Still, President Bush could learn a thing or two from his crazed nemesis. Bush is cruising for a bruising from American voters in November. Conservatives have already begun their circular firing squad, but after Election Day, the only target will be George Bush. Even if Democrats don't take back both houses of Congress, conservatives will still blame Bush for a near-death experience. If Democrats sweep, Mark Foley will be the answer to a trivia question, but all sides will long remember how much they couldn't stand Bush.
The White House's current strategy—indeed, the political strategy of the entire Bush presidency—is the opposite of an apology. They plan to take their lumps and tough it out. Forget "stay the course"—Rove's survival plan is "keep smiling."
The Bush White House believes it must keep a stiff upper lip so the base doesn't lose hope for November. But the base is the one most convinced that the end is near. Elected Republicans openly predict an electoral debacle. Only Bush's inner circle, in the tradition of Katrina, acts like it can't see disaster at its door.
So, the president has a choice: He can eat crow now, or eat it later. While the crow might seem harder to choke down now, if Bush waits until after the election, there may be far more of it to swallow.
To be sure, the one thing harder than getting George Bush to apologize would be deciding where to start. He owes economic conservatives (and the rest of us) an apology for spending too much, social conservatives an apology for conning them into thinking he was one of them, and every American an apology for calling himself a war president when he had no clue how to actually win one.
Bush would do himself and his party the most good by showing genuine reflection, remorse, and openness to a new direction. But if the president isn't ready to apologize for his own mistakes, he could start by apologizing for crimes he didn't commit all by himself. If Kim Jong-il can tell the Chinese, "Sorry about the nuclear test," surely George W. Bush can tell Americans, "Sorry about the 109th Congress."
In a tearful, Checkers-style speech from the Oval Office, Bush could apologize for the earmarks, the indictments, and the Foley scandal, and pledge to make sure they'll never happen again. He could thank Dennis Hastert for his lifetime of service, and accept his resignation as Speaker. The president could then announce that John McCain has agreed to use his floor privileges as a former congressman to step in as caretaker speaker until the whole place is cleaned up.
"Only one in six Americans approves of the job Congress is doing," Bush could say. "Let me assure you: I am not one of those people. In fact, I have spoken to Hill Republicans, and I believe I can speak for every member of the Republican caucus when I say that they don't approve of themselves, either."
Democrats and disgruntled independents might not accept Bush's apology. But conservatives would love it. At Bush campaign rallies, the RNC could hand out thousands of buttons and hand-painted signs that said, "We're Sorry, Too!"
Why would Bush approve this message? Because he knows it works. Bush's entire 2000 campaign was built on that very premise of apologizing for the Republican Congress. He criticized the House for cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit and promised to unite the country after the partisan rancor House Republicans brought on with impeachment. That was the only real difference between Gingrich conservatism and compassionate conservatism: Bush sounded like he was sorry about it.
The great Canadian philosophers, Mike Myers and David Steinberg, once joked that it's hard to ride in a crowded elevator with their countrymen, because every time anyone moves, they all say "sorry." That has never been President Bush's problem. But these days, the Republican slate looks increasingly like an elevator full of hosers in free fall. It's going down fast, and there's no point waiting till it hits bottom. ... 5:07 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2006
The Face That Launched a Thousand Gunships: Not to brag, but over the last decade, my humble home district in Idaho may have elected more genuine extremists per capita than anywhere in America. These days, the national political scene is rife with pretenders like Ann Coulter who make outrageous statements just for effect. But Idaho's own Helen Chenoweth, who died this month, was the real thing—beyond-the-pale before beyond-the-pale was cool.
Chenoweth retired in 2000 after three terms, one of the few members of the 1994 class to keep her promise on term limits. But in her prime, she was without peer. She wondered how the Pacific salmon could be endangered, when she could buy canned salmon in the grocery store. She defended the militia, and insisted on being called "Congressman," because in her view, the white male was the real endangered species. She read French libertarians, not French existentialists. Perhaps most famously, Chenoweth popularized the far right's fear of a vast federal conspiracy of "black helicopter" gunships that were coming to take away our guns, our land, and our survival shelters.
Those are hard shoes to fill. If Ann Coulter ran for Congress in Idaho's 1st District, she'd be canned salmon. Five candidates to Coulter's right would say to her, "You're no Helen Chenoweth."
Chenoweth's successor, Rep. Butch Otter, said at her funeral that since he came to Congress six years ago, other congressmen have tried to convince him that "you'll never be as conservative as Helen, so quit trying." In his eulogy, Otter pledged, "I didn't quit trying, and I'll never quit trying."
Otter may have equaled Chenoweth's lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 95 percent, but he never came close to matching her extremist authenticity. After he led a House revolt against the Patriot Act, he became something of a liberal hero, which was tough to explain back home.
So like Chenoweth before him, Otter decided to leave Congress. He's heavily favored to be elected governor in November. With an open congressional seat, Idaho Republicans have spent 2006 playing a game of "Can You Top Helen?"
This spring, six candidates carved each other up in a bitter GOP primary. The runner-up, an anti-immigration candidate named Robert Vasquez, has already announced that in 2008, he will challenge Idaho Sen. Larry Craig, whose lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is a mere 94 percent.
The winner of the primary, with a commanding 26 percent of the Republican fringe, was a state representative named Bill Sali. Human Events calls him a "swashbuckling conservative." The leading political historian in the state, Randy Stapilus, dubbed Sali "one of the weakest Idaho state legislators in the last couple of decades." That's august company, indeed. Sali once testified that the "brain fade" he suffered after a car wreck hasn't hindered him, because "much of the time in the Legislature, critical-thinking skills are not necessarily needed."
Sali is an embarrassment, all right, but more of the Coulter than Chenoweth variety. Earlier this year, Sali brought the Democratic minority leader, a breast cancer survivor, to tears on the House floor by alleging that abortion could cause breast cancer. The Republican speaker of the House was so angry, he stripped Sali of his committee assignments and started fuming like Idaho's favorite son, Napoleon Dynamite. The speaker said of Sali, "That idiot is just an absolute idiot."
In a normal year, even a freakin' idiot could win the 1st District. Republicans held the seat in both of the last two Democratic midterm landslides, in 1974 and 1982. In 2004, Bush carried it with 68 percent against John Kerry, who considers Idaho a second home.
Republicans may well hold on to the seat again. As Randy Stapilus says, 1st District voters "don't embarrass easily." But a new robopoll last week showed the race still too close to call. The Democratic candidate, Larry Grant, is a centrist and former executive at Micron Technology, the biggest employer in the state. He recently won the endorsement of the influential Spokane Spokesman-Review, a Republican-leaning newspaper that serves the northern half of the district.
Bill Sali could be ultraconservatism's canary in the coal mine. But even if he loses, extremists should take heart. As the late Helen Chenoweth might say, if right-wing nuts were an endangered species, we wouldn't be putting them on the shelf. ... 10:14 A.M. (link)
** Update: Today's Roll Call agrees:
"The latest example of GOP worries about holding onto traditionally staunchly Republican seats was manifested in a new ad buy this week in Idaho's 1st district, where according to a Democratic source, the NRCC just bought three weeks' worth of TV time to defend an open seat that seemed safely in Republican hands."
Not everyone's brains are fading. ... 4:05 P.M.
Friday, Oct. 13, 2006
Family Ties: Any parent can understand why Mark Warner didn't want to leave home before his three daughters. Building a nationwide campaign that takes you to every county in Iowa: $100 million. Never missing your daughters' soccer games: priceless.
Running for president is a wrenching family decision for any politician, but especially for a governor. Senators, by definition, have already chosen to live part of their lives on the road. Some move their families to Washington and spend more weekends than they'd like politicking back in their home state. Some take an apartment in Washington and commute home to see their families from Friday to Monday (when they're not politicking). Only a lucky few, like Tom Carper of Delaware, live close enough to see their children every morning and every night.
Unlike the commuter's life of senators and congressmen, a governor's home life is remarkably normal. Governors work just as hard and campaign just as much, but they live above the store. In most states, the job comes with a mansion—so governors' kids not only still get to see their mom or dad every night, but the state gives them a bigger room and backyard in the bargain. With state helicopters at their disposal, no late votes, and state troopers chauffeuring them at 90 miles per hour, governors can almost always make it home for dinner.
That's one reason most governors wouldn't trade their current jobs for anything, and those who give them up because of term limits or to run for the Senate often wish they could have their old jobs back. When he announced his presidential campaign 15 years ago, Bill Clinton wasn't kidding when he said he was giving up "a life and a job I love." George W. Bush said the same in 2000. In a country suspicious of political ambition, both Clinton and Bush benefited as candidates from the sense that they'd almost rather be governor than be president.
So, John Dickerson is right: Anyone who has spent time around Warner can see why he would rather wave off a presidential bid than say goodbye too soon to his family.
In the first major spin scrum of the 2008 cycle, Warner's decision prompted a mad scramble to declare which other unannounced candidates gained the most from a race without him. Like most preseason handicapping, that's a silly question with no known answer.
The truth is that in the main, every potential candidate stands to lose from Warner's exit. A presidential race is not a cakewalk, where each departure automatically boosts the chances of all the remaining contestants. Nor is it a dinner party with assigned seating, liberals at one table and moderates at another, where one candidate can watch another leave and think, "More wine for me!"
No, the nominating contest is more like a friendly argument—a group effort to answer the same two extraordinarily hard questions: how to get elected president, and what to do for the country. Just as any group discussion suffers from the loss of a voice of reason, the whole Democratic field will miss the smart, sensible voice of Mark Warner.
The most successful presidential candidates, in fact, are those who learn the most from their rivals. In 1992, Bill Clinton gained a great deal from running against smart, sensible primary foes like Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey. In the general election, he even benefited from Ross Perot, a nut whose ideas made sense nonetheless.
George W. Bush won the Republican nomination in 2000 by pretending to be a reformer like John McCain and would have been a stronger candidate if he'd actually learned enough to mean it. After the 2004 primaries, John Kerry should have taken Will Saletan's advice to steal John Edwards' message.
At the end of his ill-fated 1988 primary campaign, Al Gore used his concession speech to thank each of his rivals, one by one, for the particular lessons they'd taught him. It was a classy move, only slightly marred by the fact that the field was so large, he forgot to mention one candidate's name and had to learn one last, painful lesson.
As a fiscally responsible governor who understood the importance of questioning orthodoxy, of going after every voter, and of the need to persuade both parties to do what he wanted, Warner had many strengths that would have made the whole Democratic field stronger. In the long run, the candidate who benefits the most from Mark Warner's departure from the race will be the one who best remembers what he would have brought to it. ... 1:02 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006
Can't Lose: Ask paranoid Democrats their innermost fears going into the midterm elections, and you'll hear two answers. First, that the Foley scandal will force another October surprise to come out of the Republicans' closet: Osama Bin Laden. Second, that on Election Night, Diebold electronic voting machines nationwide are secretly programmed to stop counting Democratic votes as soon as Democrats pull within one seat of taking back the House or the Senate.
Attention, conspiracy theorists: The biggest conspiracy to steal votes already happened. It's called redistricting, and it offers Republicans' only real hope of holding onto the House this fall.
Democrats have never quite recovered from the anguish of watching Al Gore win the popular vote in 2000, only to lose the presidency in the Electoral College. Since 2004, many Democrats have become convinced that rigged voting machines in Ohio cheated John Kerry out of his chance to lose the popular vote and still win the Electoral College.
But you don't need a tinfoil hat to see how much redistricting could cheat an unsuspecting electorate this fall. In every national poll, Democrats now lead the congressional vote by a ridiculously large margin: Newsweek has it at +12 points (51-39), Washington Post/ABC at +13 (54-41), the New York Times at +14 (49-35), CNN at +21 (58-37), and USA Today/Gallup at an unimaginable +23 (59-36)—twice the lead Republicans had before the 1994 sweep.
The election is still four weeks off, and these generic ballot questions are of little value in actual races. Three weeks ago, the same USA Today/Gallup poll had Democrats and Republicans in a dead heat, at 48-48. Mark Foley and Bob Woodward didn't cost Republicans 23 points in one month; more likely, Gallup just happened to interrupt the dinners of a different mix of people.
Even so, the Election Scorecard average of those five polls, all conducted at the end of last week, gives Democrats a whopping 17-point advantage. In a presidential election, a 17-point win would produce a 500+ electoral vote landslide. In 1994, Republicans took back the House by winning the popular vote by seven points—51.5 percent to 44.7 percent—and picked up 54 seats.
Yet even after poring over this week's bleak poll numbers, Karl Rove isn't completely crazy to imagine his party holding onto the House in November. Democrats aren't likely to win the popular vote by seven points, let alone 17. But what's really keeping Rove's dark hopes alive is the Safehouse that Jack and Tom Built—the firewall of safe districts that could enable the Republican party to survive what would otherwise be a China-syndrome political meltdown.
If congressional districts were truly representative, a party that won a seven-point victory in the popular vote would walk away with a 7 percent edge in the 435-member House of Representatives, or roughly a 30-seat majority. For Democrats, that would represent a pickup of around 45 seats.
In a Category 5 political tsunami, anything is possible. But a cold-eyed look at the districts in play shows the tough slog Democrats have, even in a banner year, just to get to a simple House majority.
The RealClearPolitics rankings of the Top 40 House races show how steep the terrain has become. By RCP's count, in order to pick up 10 seats, Democrats will have to carry five districts that Bush won by 14 points or more in 2004, including three that Bush carried by more than 20 points. For a 30-seat gain, Democrats will have to carry 12 districts that Bush won by 10 points or more. Only one of those 30 districts gave a 10-point margin to John Kerry.
That's no reason to discount Democrats' chances of taking back the House in November. In each of the top 30-40 races, it's quite possible to see how the Democrat can win. But Democrats need to remember about the House what we learned the hard way about the Electoral College—even with a popular majority, we still have to run the table.
Tom DeLay traded his career for a mug shot in order to build the Republican majority's most formidable levee, the gerrymander of Texas's 32-seat delegation. In 2005, two big states—California (with 53 seats, more than the 20 smallest states put together) and Ohio (with 18, a number remarkably close to the incumbent Republican governor's approval rating)—trounced fair-redistricting initiatives that would have put more House seats in play.
California Democrats opposed redistricting in order to punish Schwarzenegger. As a result, House Republicans could well survive the worst political year in a generation without losing a single seat in the largest state (and one of the bluest). And because he got pounded at the polls, Schwarzenegger turned himself back into a centrist who's now riding the wave instead of drowning in the tsunami.
Rigged districts defeat the very reason we have a House of Representatives in the first place. The founders wanted one chamber that would be held accountable to the popular will every two years. When the Electoral College is wrong, at least it's a wrong the framers intended.
Thanks to DeLay, conservatives who now want their party to surrender Congress in November may find that they can't lose for trying. The irony is profoundly tragic: A Republican Congress that owed its existence to the term-limits movement went on to build the most absurd system of incumbent protection since the Great Wall of China.
If the GOP somehow holds on next month, voters will have every right to suspect the election was stolen. But it won't do any good to blame machines, when a conspiracy of incumbents did all the stealing. ... 1:54 P.M. (link)