Still crazy after all these years.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Nov. 10 2006 12:52 PM

Still Crazy After All These Years

The nuttiest congressional district in America keeps its reputation intact.

80_thehasbeen

Friday, Nov. 10, 2006

One-State Strategy: Now that Republicans have won lost houses of Congress, the political totem pole is clear: Rovism may beat Shrumism, but it will never beat Schumer-Rahmism.

But take heart, Karl! The good news: Rovism is not dead, after all. The bad news: The only state where it still works is Idaho.

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While red-, purple-, and blue-state Republicans were falling everywhere else Tuesday night, Idaho Republicans enjoyed a historic night. They held both congressional seats and the governorship with ease and won every statewide office for the first time since the Hoover landslide in 1928. Rove has a bright future out there, and if he needs help getting his foot in the door, I'd be happy to make a few calls.

The rest of America may be hungry for common-sense centrists who'll change the tone and solve the country's problems. But in Idaho, voters looked at the extremism of the last six years and said, "Bring it on," "Stay the course," and "Full steam ahead!"

Kipling once began an ode, "If you can keep your head when all about are losing theirs." Idaho is out to prove that the converse is also true.

For all those despondent right-wingers who think the GOP lost Tuesday because Bush and the Republican Congress weren't conservative enough, we've got a fresh face who will never let you down. Congressman-elect Bill Sali had to overcome a vicious smear campaign—from fellow Republicans, who attacked him as mean, wacky, and none too bright. But he still won a majority, 50-45 percent.

One Republican called Sali "an idiot's idiot." When Idaho's other Republican congressman, Mike Simpson, was House speaker in the state legislature, he once got so angry with Sali for mouthing off that he threatened to throw him out of a third-floor window in the state Capitol.

Idaho voters decided that's just the breath of fresh air Washington needs. "I can't keep my mouth shut and neither can Bill Sali," one supporter told the Associated Press. Sali boasts that he's one guy who'll have the backbone to stand up to Nancy Pelosi. Visitors might want to avoid the Capitol grounds beneath her window.

Across the country, Republican candidates bent over backward to look reasonable and still lost. Maryland Senate candidate Michael Steele ran one ad of himself saying, "I like puppies," and another of a woman defending his stem-cell position and insisting he cares about sick people: "I should know. I'm his sister, and I have M.S."

When Mr. Sali goes to Washington, you won't see him running around with his tail between his legs. He's famous for bringing a breast cancer survivor to tears by insisting that abortion and breast cancer are linked. If an ad firm ever calls your puppy in for an audition, make sure it's with Michael Steele and not Bill Sali.

Several members of the class of 1994 bit the dust on Tuesday, so Sali could rapidly emerge as the most colorful wingman in the Republican caucus. His official campaign biography on the Government is Not God Political Action Committee looks promising. Over the years, he has performed in a number of successful local rock bands: "Willard and the Rats," "Cimarron," and "Idaho the Band." The last one appeared on national TV in the finals of TNN's True Value Hardware Country Showdown. Sali has won awards from Oliver North, pro-life groups, and his late predecessor, Congress member  Helen Chenoweth, the gold standard of beyond-the-pale conservatism.

If Sali wants to be in Chenoweth's league, the rookie will have to prove he can hold his own on a national stage crowded with Ann Coulters. But already, the craziest congressional district in America has kept its reputation intact—and the Black Helicopter Caucus can count on at least one member. ... 12:52 P.M. (link)

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Thursday, Nov. 9, 2006

Thumper on the Right: At Wednesday's news conference, President Bush took responsibility for Tuesday's defeat, then generously shared it with Republicans in Congress. He explained not once, but twice, that the election was "close" and that voters had given him a "thumping." On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post ran two headlines side by side: "Bush Urges Bipartisanship" and "Bush Makes Push for Approval of Bolton."

If this seems like erratic behavior, get used to it. The White House is in shock, and it may take awhile for the president to find his bearings.

All eyes are on Bush to see whether after six years of partisan shock-and-awe, he can chart a new direction for himself, if not America. His side says, no problem—he loved working with Democrats in Texas, he always wanted to be a uniter, not a divider, and he's glad to finally have the chance to change the tone in Washington. Soon the White House will be telling us that when the president said last week that a win for the Democrats was a win for the terrorists, that was just the campaign talking. He meant to say a win for Democrats is a win for bipartisan cooperation.

Across the aisle, Democrats say they'll try to work with Bush but doubt that he will ever stop being a my-way-or-the-highway man. His party won't let him break with conservative orthodoxy, and he won't be able to bring any votes with him if he tries.

The political world will have to stay tuned, because we won't find out the answer any time soon. The president and his White House scarcely know what hit them. They must feel like they've been losing a house of Congress every day this week.

What makes the blow even harder for the White House to take is that the election was such a personal rebuke of the president. In 1994, voters were upset about what Bill Clinton and the Democratic Congress had (and hadn't) done together. This time, the fault lies almost entirely at Bush's feet.

Two years ago, Bush's approval rating in the exit polls on Election Day was 53 percent, and Republicans won 53 percent of congressional seats. This year, Bush was at 43 percent, and Republicans won 46 percent of congressional seats. That would be tough medicine for anyone to take—and it can't be easier for a man who can't think of a mistake, doesn't believe in do-overs, and remembers happier bullhorn moments after 9/11.

As someone who worked in a White House that grieved over the loss of Congress, I feel Bush's pain—although, admittedly, not as much as I enjoy it. The president watched a number of friends fall on the political battlefield on Tuesday, many solely because of their ties to him. For many of them, their political careers are over—and his will be soon, too. There's not much he can do to make it up to them.

When Democrats lost Congress in 1994, we were able to channel our grief and frustration into finishing the job we had come there to do and helping the Democratic Party recover to fight another day. Within a year, Clinton had knocked Republicans back on their heels. A year after that, he became the first Democratic president to be re-elected since FDR. And in both 1996 and 1998, Democrats made back a good deal of lost ground. By 2000, with a strong economy and a winning governing formula, the majority was ours to lose—which Democrats promptly did.

It's too late in Bush's presidency for such a rebound. Instead, all his options look like Iraq, trying to keep things from going from bad to worse.

Considering all that's on the president's shoulders, we should give him the space to grieve. With only two years left in his presidency, it doesn't matter how Bush feels about do-overs. He doesn't get one. ... 4:59 P.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006

The Botcher-in-Chief: While a majority in the Senate may hang on recounting Jim Webb's victory in Virginia, the worst numbers for Republicans are not subject to recount. National exit polls provide graphic detail of what happened Tuesday to Karl Rove's dream of a Republican majority: The middle fell out.

In 2004, the GOP had the Democratic Party on the ropes. Democrats lost people over 30, high-school grads, college grads, and voters in every income category over $30,000. The Democratic coalition was down to two groups with nothing else in common: dropouts and post-docs.

What a difference two years make. In 2006, Democrats won or tied every age group, every education level, and every income group below $100,000. Nearly half the electorate identified themselves as moderates, and Democrats won them by a whopping 61 percent to 38 percent. After a long, six-year vacation, the voting bloc Democrats have always needed to be a majority party—the middle class—finally came home.

That translates into roughly a 53 percent to 45 percent margin in the national vote. As Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues must have thought waking up this morning—quite a majority, Madam, if we can keep it.

Will Democrats recognize what it takes to hold onto that middle-class majority? Will Republicans recognize that it's gone missing? For both sides, that's harder than it looks, and more important than many on either side will want to admit.

For Democrats, the first crucial step is that while millions of Americans on Tuesday bought a Democratic House (and maybe two), voters bought it on spec. Democrats will need to post two good years—in the Congress and the presidential race—in order to close the deal.

Democratic leaders in Congress got off to a good start Tuesday night and Wednesday morning in doing what an overreaching White House keeps failing to do: defining their mission and giving clear benchmarks for success. Michael Kinsley may find Democrats' campaign agenda wanting—he should read the book instead!—and Jacob Weisberg is right that too many Democrats have forgotten that the United States can't create jobs without trade. But the Democrats' 2006 agenda has one great virtue: It tries to promise a handful of sensible steps (ethics reforms, a minimum wage increase, pay-as-you-go rules, the 9/11 Commission recommendations) that a new majority can actually deliver. Each of those promises is an opportunity to make a modest repayment on the trust that has just been given them.

For Republicans, 2006 can be a crushing blow—or, under the circumstances, the best thing that could have happened to them. As a governing philosophy, Bushism has been doomed to failure from the outset. The math never worked, because you can't keep spending the same money you're giving away, especially when you never had it in the first place. The theory never worked, either. Bush promised to be a reformer with results, but you'll never be serious about reform or results if you're not serious about government in the first place.

All that kept Bushism alive was the illusion of political expediency—and Democrats' willingness to walk into the traps Karl Rove was setting. In the long run, Republicans are better off finding out that their failed governing theory is a political flop, too. This election will force them to go back to the drawing board and try to come up with a plan that is good for the country, not just a couple elections.

In contrast to Democratic leaders, who succeeded in striking measured tones at their post-election press appearances, President Bush's news conference didn't do much to contain yesterday's damage. To escape being pinned, he probably needs to follow Schwarzenegger's lead and pursue bipartisanship with gusto. Today wasn't even a half-Arnold.

The president even stumbled when he tried to tell John Dickerson's joke about Democrats and their drapes, blowing his chance at self-deprecation by rushing the punch line. Last week, John Kerry said botching a war is worse than botching a joke. Now Bush has really hit bottom: He has done both. ... 5:20 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006

Painkiller: Going into tonight, Democrats had celebrated a grand total of three truly happy Election Nights—1986, 1992, 1996—in the past three decades and three truly miserable ones in this decade alone. So, for Democrats, an election in which we were destined to win back the House and a majority of governorships for the first time in 12 years is more than a good night. It's a new lease on life.

On Election Night six years ago, my long-suffering wife and I stood in the rain in Nashville. I had just broken my shoulder playing touch football, but that was what hurt the least. Two years ago, we stood in the freezing cold in Boston. I'd just lacerated my wrist but had to share all my painkillers with the Kerry-Edwards staff. This year, we skipped the emergency room and spent the evening at the happiest place in town—the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's victory party on Capitol Hill. No painkillers necessary: Democrats were partying like it was 1992.

After six years during which the Democratic Party lost two straight presidential elections it should have won, lost the Senate, and lost ground in the House, tonight's triumph felt like the weight of a giant Rovian albatross finally being lifted off our necks. Democrats are so accustomed to having the football snatched away at the last minute, this year we actually ran a congressional candidate named Charlie Brown—and we still can't believe we finally get to watch the other side kick the dust and mutter, "Good grief."

For a party that had been on such a cold streak, tonight's victory provided clues to two of political life's eternal questions: How come we won this time? And what can we do to make sure it happens again?

In one sense, the answer to the first question is easy: Democrats never had a chance to blow this election because Republicans blew it first. Nancy Pelosi and Rahm Emanuel won't thank Bush by name, but they could. The president and his party have dedicated his entire second term to electing a Democratic Congress, from Iraq to Katrina, Schiavo to Miers, Ney to DeLay. It now looks like Bush, not Iraq, is the one who's just a comma—a presidency that was on the brink of failure before 9/11 and in the voters' eyes has now officially found its way back there.

But give Democrats credit. Apart from a foolish summer fling with Ned Lamont and a late Laugh-In cameo from John Kerry, Democrats did just about everything right and ran their best campaign in a decade. Field marshals Rahm Emanuel and Chuck Schumer ignored the virtual industry of self-help nonsense that has paralyzed Democrats' chattering classes and went back to a simple, proven formula: From the suburbs to the heartland, elections are won in the center.

Emanuel and Schumer went out of their way to recruit candidates that could put the party's best face forward in otherwise-hostile territory. Despite pressure from various interests, they refused to impose ideological litmus tests. The result? Democrats did the opposite of what Republicans have been doing (and what losing Democratic campaigns usually do). Instead of shrinking their tent, Democrats made their big tent a lot bigger.

Winners like Heath Shuler of North Carolina, Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, and Gabby Giffords of Arizona are straight out of centrist casting—candidates with broad appeal who have put Democrats back on the map in red districts that the party hasn't won in years. With mainstream Democratic candidates who weren't vulnerable on values and weren't afraid to hit back when attacked, Republican social issues were the wedge that didn't bite.

Against Bob Casey, Rick Santorum spent more than $20 million to lose a swing state by almost 20 points. (Santorum did, however, get one of the biggest cheers of the night at the DCCC party—for his concession speech.)

In fact, the best news of the 2006 elections is the opportunity it gives Democrats to earn the lasting support of the independents and disgruntled Republicans whose votes just dropped in our laps. Tuesday was the death knell for Rovism—the quaint and now fully discredited theory that majorities are built not by expanding support with ideas that work but by mobilizing extreme minorities with ideas that aren't meant to be enacted and wouldn't work if they did.

Ever since watching Rove's success in 2002 and 2004, some on the left and in the blogosphere have been trying to persuade the Democratic Party to follow suit and develop our own smashmouth politics aimed less at persuasion and more at motivating our base. As Lamont discovered, that approach wins primaries—but as Joe Lieberman showed him, that's no match for pragmatic problem solving in a general election.

Today's elections, fought in territory where the Democratic Party needed to expand its reach, showed how many swing voters there are—enough to turn districts, states, and even entire houses of Congress. As Republicans found out the hard way, the elections also proved that parties can't count on any American's vote if they can't solve the country's problems. That's the most important lesson Democrats learned this year: It is better to beat Rove than to join him. ... 11:58 P.M. (link)

Webb Up Early in Virginia: Last Friday, the New York Times made one of the safer election predictions of this cycle. The article, "In Virginia, Women Make the Difference," went out on a limb to say, "This exceedingly tight contest, one of a handful that will determine control of the Senate, may be decided by how women vote." May be decided? Unless a million Virginia women stay home and let the men do all the work, how women vote seems likely to be, if not the deciding factor, at least one of the top two.

This just in:Slate has exclusive exit poll results from Virginia. A Democratic poll worker in northern Virginia emailed the numbers: "My early exit poll after doing visibility for Webb—14 middle fingers and 35 thumbs up." That means Webb is above 70 percent in northern Virginia, and winning among women, hands down.

The other early return from Virginia is less promising for Democrats. In his 2006 Crystal Ball predictions, famed University of Virginia pundit Larry Sabato is predicting that Democrat Larry Grant will defeat Republican Bill Sali in Idaho-1. Sabato makes clear that he's mainly gambling on the race for the thrill of beating history's long odds. But the fact that an Idaho Democrat is now favored to win a House seat suggests that expectations have gotten seriously out of hand. Grant's only hope is that it comes down to how women vote. Sali, the Republican, likes to tell women that breast cancer is their own fault. ... 2:29 P.M.

Worry Beads: Most of my Democratic friends planned their Election Day weeks ago: vote; knock on some doors; then spend the rest of the day worrying about electronic voting machines. Some went to the polls early so they could inspect the Diebold dragon firsthand; others voted absentee so they could free up an extra hour to worry about it.

Last month, the Miami Heraldtried to stir up similar anxieties on the right by pointing out that the third-largest manufacturer of U.S. voting machines is a Venezuelan company staked by the government of supreme Bush-hater Hugo Chávez. Palm Beach County, which wrecked the 2000 election with its infamous butterfly ballot, is using Venezuelan technology this time. For all we know, these machines could flash a subliminal devil next to Republican candidates and emit readings of Noam Chomsky in high-pitched tones only the subconscious could hear.

Alas, conservatives shrugged. While Democrats tend toward the latest in fashionable paranoias, right-wingers' taste in anxiety is more traditional. Conservatives worry about old-fashioned mainstays like the mainstream media. Even their helicopters still wear black.

Democrats aren't buying the Chávez conspiracy, either. We'd rather fear the devil we know than the devil-caller we don't know.

Based on my own experience at the polls this morning, tonight we will find out that the real voting-machine conspiracy is to deprive a weary nation of much-needed sleep. There were only five people trying to vote in my D.C. precinct at 7:30 a.m., and two of them were my underage children. But election workers said the fancy new electronic machine was already broken, and it was clear the three of us might have to stand in line for hours. We decided to vote with a number-two pencil instead.

In a boon for conspiracy theorists, one state has courageously resisted the modern era and held onto its punch-card voting machines: Idaho, where 13 counties will be vying to ensure that Katherine Harris's memory outlasts even her mascara. In elections past, Idahoans counted votes only out of civic duty, not because the outcome was in doubt. But this year, the House and governor's races could be close enough to come down to a few hanging chads. The state's old slogan: "Idaho Is What America Was." New slogan: "Idaho Is What Florida Was."

While Diebold and Chávez vie to steal higher profile races in places like Ohio, Tennessee, and Virginia, vote counters in Idaho are as honest as the state is long and can't imagine why something as unappealing as a seat in Congress would be worth stealing, anyway. If Republicans keep the House and the Democrat wins Idaho's 1st Congressional District, we'll know the Diebold conspiracy is for real.

After the Republican candidate for governor in Florida snubbed the president yesterday, the poor, confused voters of Palm Beach may once again not figure out how to cast their anti-Bush votes. But if Hugo Chávez is elected governor of Florida, we'll have solid proof that the devil is in our midst. ... 12:35 P.M. (link)

Tsunami or Not Tsunami?: Perversely enough, the nearer we get to finding out the actual election results, the more we obsess about the latest poll results—and as today wears on, the more we will wish we had exit-poll results we know will get it all wrong. In the same way, the closer we come to that blessed moment at 8 p.m. PST when we can put these campaigns behind us and once again watch TV in peace, the more we think each late-breaking campaign tactic matters, even though a few hours from now we'll find out in almost every race all those tactics didn't.

The spin we hear from all sides in the closing days of a campaign is like a bad poll that oversamples two demographic groups: people who have no idea what's going to happen, and people who wouldn't tell you if they did.

In recent weeks, one of Karl Rove's last sustaining hopes has been that unlike Democrats in 1994, Republicans in 2006 had a chance to prepare because they could see the tsunami coming. Whatever tonight's results, the GOP's preparation spin is wrong on two counts: That's not what cost Democrats in 1994, and it hasn't done the GOP much good in 2006.

To be sure, even now, many Democrats can't believe Republicans took Congress in 1994. On Sunday, David Broder passed along the recollections of Leon Panetta, the former congressman who was President Clinton's chief of staff in 1994:

"We knew the Senate would be close, but we thought we had enough margin in the House [258 seats, 40 more than a majority] to withstand anything -- and it had been ours for 40 years. The first we knew we might lose it was early on Election Day, when George [Stephanopoulos] got the early exit polls and said, 'We're in trouble.' "

Panetta described three stages of reaction -- something that may be a clue to what the Bush team will experience. "First," he said, "there were a few days of complete shock, glazed eyes, slow reactions -- what you saw in people after Hurricane Katrina. Then there was a period of anger, people asking, 'Why wasn't it anticipated? Why wasn't something done?' "

"And then," he said, "you get to the real question: How the hell do you make it work now?"

Panetta is right about the stages of grief that Democrats went through. Yet while both sides of the aisle were surprised by the magnitude of the Republican wave, Democrats had known all along that an ugly year was brewing. For one thing, a fierce anti-incumbent tide had been swirling for the past few cycles, stirred up by the House banking scandal and anger over congressional pay raises. Congress' low job-approval, which had been masked by Clinton's victory in '92, plunged lower in '94 when it went home empty-handed on political reform and health care—the way the current Congress went home empty-handed on the issue it deemed crucial, immigration.

Perhaps most important, and most forgotten, a huge number of Southern and red-state Democratic incumbents who had survived for years in hostile territory by steering clear of the national party had nowhere to go in a nationalized electoral downturn. Those members didn't get beat because they had gone fishing or forgot they had opponents. Most of them went into every campaign knowing it could be their last.

By mid-October of 1994, I knew plenty of Democrats who thought a Republican sweep was possible. But as the Bush crowd has learned this year, seeing a national wave on the horizon was no consolation when the principal political weapon in the White House arsenal is of little use—the ability to nationalize issues and elections.

There's one other way we knew a tsunami was coming, well before we got the network exit polls: We read about it in the newspaper. For example, here's the Page-One lede from the New York Times on the Monday before the 1994 election:

Republicans are poised to win more seats in the House of Representatives than they have held since Dwight D. Eisenhower was President. Indeed, after a strong campaign they could end 40 years of Democratic control in the House, history's longest period of one-party dominance there.

So much for the element of surprise.

The other reason to discount Rove's spin is that while a White House can do much over the long run to make a wave, it can do very little in the short run to break one. All fall, pundits have expressed surprise that the president and vice president are just as bad at disaster management on the campaign trail as in office. David Corn recently went so far as to wonder whether Bush and Cheney were losing on purpose.

But whatever the results tonight, it's not the Republicans' campaign that did it. They won or lost this election a long time ago. If they hold onto the House, it will be because the redistricting levees Republicans built over the past six years were strong enough to withstand the backlash their failed policies have built over the past six years. If they get ousted, it will be for running the country into the ground.

We'll find out soon enough whether Hurricane Anti-Bush is a Category 3, 4, or 5 storm, and whether it lost any force passing by last week's temporary low, John Kerry. If Republicans survive the storm, it won't be because they saw it coming. If they lose, it will be because they had it coming. ... 2:35 A.M. (link)

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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)

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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)

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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)

Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at thehasbeen@gmail.com. Read his disclosure here.

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