Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006
Dangerous Liaisons: If you're tired of buying presents for the people you work with, be glad you're not Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. This holiday, he has to find white-elephant gifts for 180,000 employees.
From the beginning, the Bush administration has never wavered in its message about the true meaning of homeland security: keep shopping. So it's fitting that Chertoff chose the holiday rush to deliver his own State of the Union's security speech.
From Katrina to the Dubai Ports World fiasco, Chertoff has endured a rocky tenure at DHS. You have to feel for a guy who gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal appeals court judge for a four-year stint as America's least successful management consultant. On Thursday, he talked about "total asset visibility" and "metrics of progress." If only America's borders could be as impenetrable as our speeches.
#1: Look out for "dangerous people."
#2: Look out for "dangerous things."
#3: Resist an attack if we fail to stop dangerous people with dangerous things.
#4: Respond to disaster if we fail to prevent an attack by dangerous people with dangerous things.
#5: "Unify the department into a seamless whole, one in which people are both parts of proud components with real legacies, but also working together to build a visionary new 21st century government organization." In other words, look out for dangerous departments who are supposed to protect us from dangerous people with dangerous things.
Chertoff lavished praise on most of his agency. But like Cinderella's cruel stepmother, he berated his unhappy stepchild, FEMA. "We have to make sure that FEMA does not become so enmeshed in its own bureaucratic processes sometimes that they lose sight of the need to have simple common sense," Chertoff said. "We've embarked on a very ambitious program of retooling FEMA to make it a 21st century response organization."
Chertoff has it backwards: FEMA's whole problem is that it was swallowed up by the bureaucratic processes of a 21st century response organization. Back in the late 20th century, when FEMA was independent and capable, director James Lee Witt could call the White House about an impending disaster and speak directly with the president. After FEMA was swallowed by the DHS whale, director Michael Brown's calls to the White House might as well have been forwarded to a call center in India. Or as Chertoff would say, "a 21st century response organization."
The trouble with DHS is that its primary mission is now responding to its own size. Something is wrong when the need to "unify the department into a seamless whole" is as urgent as the need to "protect Americans against dangerous people." If Osama bin Laden runs out of caves in Afghanistan, he might try hiding in a cubicle at DHS.
The sheer size of the department suggests that our survival strategy is modeled on the way the penguin masses endure winter storms in Antarctica – huddle together by the thousands, then move those at the outer edges to the middle when they've been exposed for too long.
Chertoff touted 20 new "intelligence fusion centers," which for a mere $380 million will bring us "embedded DHS analysts in state and local offices and also state and local analysts at DHS, improving the flow of two-way information and fusing our intelligence - not only horizontally across the government, but vertically at all levels, as well." We have embedded the enemy, and it is us.
On the same day Chertoff spoke of his dream of a seamless whole, the Government Accounting Office released a survey of the 1,800 agricultural specialists who became DHS employees as part of the merger with Customs. Earlier this year, the GAO issued a report on the ag specialists entitled, "Management and Coordination Problems Increase the Vulnerability of U.S. Agriculture to Foreign Pests and Disease."
In this week's report, the agricultural experts complained more about the domestic pests they're embedded with at DHS. The GAO asked the specialists what was going well. Their second most frequent response was, "Nothing is going well."
DHS has succeeded in streamlining one mission: handing out contracts. A tab on the front page of the DHS website declares, "Open for Business." Presumably, that message is meant for prospective contractors, not terrorists, but the jury is still out. Chertoff's speech was overshadowed by this week's decision to ditch a costly system to track the departure of foreigners at U.S. borders. Since 2004, the program has recorded 61 million foreigners entering the country, and only 4 million people leaving. That means DHS spent $1.7 billion to lose track of 57 million foreigners in two years. In the Bush administration, these are called metrics of progress.
Sadly, all his organizational jargon makes Michael Chertoff sound more and more like Michael Scott with a really big branch of "The Office." At least the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin doesn't pretend to be a seamless whole. When it comes to shaking things up at DHS, Michael Scott's management philosophy might make him the better choice as Secretary:
"I'm friends with everybody in this office. We're all best friends. I love everybody here. But sometimes your best friends start coming into work late and start having dentist appointments that aren't dentist appointments, and that is when it's nice to let them know that you could beat them up." … 12:02 P.M. (link)
Snowflakes on Falling Leaders: Donald Rumsfeld's last memo enjoyed quite a run, from lead story in Sunday's New York Times and Washington Post to Slate Hot Document to welcome harbinger of a leaky new era. Amid all that attention, one aspect went overlooked: After half a century in the nation's service, Donald Rumsfeld still can't write a memo to save his political life.
Rumsfeld is not alone—for a variety of reasons, most Cabinet memos aren't very good. Cabinet secretaries are busy people, so their memos are often written by committee. A Cabinet member's world revolves around his or her agency; a memo is an attempt to make the president feel the same way. As a result, Cabinet memos are almost always too long. No president could read 20-page memos from two dozen Cabinet members, but the Cabinet churns them out anyway—and the White House staff secretary dutifully boils each down to a one-graph summary.
Two other flaws plague the Cabinet memo genre. First, White House advisers usually have a better idea what the president needs to learn from a memo, because they spend more time with him—and hear back from him whenever their efforts don't measure up. Cabinet members often have to guess what the president knows or thinks and, unless they really screw up, rarely hear an honest appraisal of what he thinks of their work.
Second, White House advisers can afford to be candid. Their advice is privileged, they can't be hauled before Congress to testify about it, and internal presidential memos rarely leak unless the White House does so on purpose. A presidential memo from a Cabinet member is privileged, but an agency's internal memos are less protected. At a more basic level, the White House hates Cabinet memos because they are usually unsolicited and always a risk to leak. That's a deadly combination, and not unrelated: the less the White House wants a memo in the first place, the greater the chance they'll see it on the front page.
Aside from the leak, Rumsfeld avoided some of these problems. His memo is short, and written in his own pull-up-your-socks tone of voice. But it's still a lousy memo, and a telling one. If, as the Duke of Wellington once said, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the war in Iraq may have been lost on the memo pads of the Pentagon.
Consider another famous "leaked" Rumsfeld memo, which made headlines in October 2003. That memo didn't exactly sneak out the secretary's door; as USA Today reported, Rumsfeld sent it to top defense officials and handed it to congressmen. In the span of 13 paragraphs, the memo asked 16 often-unrelated questions, including this impenetrable gem: "Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection and confidence in the US?" I don't begin to understand the question, but I'm pretty sure the answer is "no."
"Memos have one purpose in life," according to the award-winning Online Writing Lab at Purdue University, "Memos solve problems."
As a former White House chief of staff, Rumsfeld should know that most basic of rules. Presidents don't read memos for pleasure; for that, they have Albert Camus. A memo reaches the president only when the stakes are high, the choices are difficult, and all other means of resolution have failed.
That makes Iraq a good topic for writing the president. But the Rumsfeld memo doesn't do the one thing a presidential memo is supposed to do—help the Decider decide. Instead, Rumsfeld's "recommendations" are more confusing than the Iraq debate itself.
The Post called it an "unusually expansive memo," but national security adviser Stephen Hadley's term—"laundry list"—seems more on point. Rumsfeld offers 15 "Above the Line" options, and six "less attractive" ones. He says many of the above-the-line options "could and, in a number of cases, should be done in combination with others"—but he doesn't say which ones, or why. He doesn't make a case for the above-the-line options, or against those below the line.
Not only does the memo fail to give the president any clearer idea what to do in Iraq, it doesn't give a clear idea what the secretary of defense thinks. Rumsfeld's memo is a blue-ribbon commission report gone bad—the septuagenarian without the executive summary.
In contrasting Rumsfeld's memo with "the lawyerly memo" from Hadley, the Times says:
At the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld has been famous for his "snowflakes"—memos that drift down to the bureaucracy from on high and that are used to ask questions, stimulate debate and shape policy.
Friday, Dec. 1, 2006
Republicans have been practicing all week long. On Iraq, James Baker has generously offered to hold the sword; all President Bush has to do is fall on it. Bill Frist changed his mind about doctor-assisted suicide, pulling the plug on his presidential bid rather than pretend a miracle would revive his chances. Yesterday, it was RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman's turn, in a speech to GOP governors about how Republicans had offed themselves in the midterm elections.
Mehlman is a master of apologies. Last year, he told the NAACP how sorry he was for Republicans' divisive, racist Southern strategy of the last three decades: "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." In yesterday's speech, he was so busy atoning for Republican losses, he forgot to apologize for the divisive, racist Southern ad that helped Republican Bob Corker hold the Senate seat in Tennessee.
As Bush's former campaign manager, Mehlman was careful to honor his role as presidential apologist. He praised the Republican ground game for winning 13 of the 22 closest races, even though the dismal performance of the president and Congress deserve most of the credit for making what should have been cakewalks so close.
Mehlman also repeated the White House line that they'd beaten the historical spread: "Since the 1860s, the party of the incumbent President has lost an average of 45 House seats and five Senate seats during the second midterm." Don't despair, Mr. President: Ulysses S. Grant lost 96 seats in his sixth year, but he still got to be buried in Grant's Tomb.
But after running through the customary excuses, Mehlman made a damning admission: "If 2006 taught us anything, it is that a good ground game alone cannot be depended upon to push us over the top. We need to remember … all of us … that it is good policy that makes good politics." From a longtime disciple of Bush and Rove, that is the ultimate denunciation of the Bush administration and Rovism: Bush and the Republicans lost because their policies didn't work.
Mehlman claimed that Democrats, not Republicans, are supposed to be the ones who think government is the answer to every problem: "We Republicans don't believe that … but sometimes, over the last few years, we've behaved as if we do. What does that lead to? It leads to defeat, and it leads to temptation, and it leads to a government that is bigger and more intrusive than any of us would like."
The saddest part of Mehlman's speech, in fact, was his struggle to name a single Bush accomplishment worthy of Republicans' own mythical tradition. Reagan, he says, made Republicans "the party that would change government, not sustain it." Gingrich offered "a detailed list of congressional and governmental reforms that took power away from the smoke-filled rooms and returned it to the people."
And what has Bush done to make Republicans the party of reform? Mehlman's answer:
"President George W. Bush reorganized our entire security system, creating the Department of Homeland Security."
No wonder Republicans feel like killing themselves. The only hope their own chairman can give them that they're not the party of government is that Bush created the largest, costliest new federal bureaucracy in American history.
When the GOP's cheerleader thinks a bloated bureaucratic nightmare with 170,000 employees is a shining example of "limited government" and "our Party at its best," even Republicans seem to be saying sayonara to conservatism. Stick a sword in it—it's done. ... 1:48 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006
Traitor to His Class: As they survey the ruins of the conservative movement, Republicans ponder what might have been, if only Bush hadn't blundered so often and Congress plundered so much. A study in today's New York Times provides shocking evidence of the latest conservative betrayal. According to the latest available IRS data, the richest Americans have fared worse under Bush than any other income group.
If the Republican revolution promised anything, it was that after years of oppression and neglect, rich people would finally have the chance to get ahead. But the Times reports that life is tough on Easy Street:
"Incomes after 2000 fell the most among those at the top of the income ladder. The top one-tenth of 1 percent, about 130,500 taxpayers, reported their average income fell almost 17 percent, to just under $4.9 million each in 2004."
Even Bush's harshest critics would have to concede that the president has done everything in his power to help the rich. He cut tax rates for the upper brackets. He cut the capital gains rate from 20 percent to 15 percent. He gutted the estate tax and virtually eliminated the tax on dividends.
From 2001 to 2004, Bush gave the rich a new tax cut every single year. Yet as the Times points out, even with all those trillion-dollar tax cuts, the richest Americans saw their after-tax incomes plunge by 12.1 percent.
In his 2004 campaign, John Edwards called Bush's economic theory "the most radical and dangerous economic theory to hit our shores since socialism a century ago." It's now clear that for the very rich, even socialism might have been a better deal.
This is shattering news for Democrats and Republicans alike. What is the point of supply-side conservatism if it can't even make the rich richer? For that matter, where is the joy in railing against it? Supply-side economics never made any sense to begin with, but now its logic isn't worth the napkin it was written on. Trickle-down theory turned out to be no trickle, just down.
President Bush is famous for setting big goals and failing to meet them. Now we know he can't meet the easiest of goals, either. The rich have been getting richer for centuries. Moreover, in contrast to its other pursuits, the Bush administration's efforts to help the rich were a model of persistence and consistency. No pesky resistance tried to stop them; no clumsy Rumsfeld botched the execution. They did their best, yet still they failed.
In response, the rich are voting with their feet—or perhaps their footmen. In 2004, Bush carried voters with incomes above $200,000 by 63 percent to 35 percent. This year, the Republican margin shrunk 20 points, to 53 percent to 45 percent. That was the sharpest Democratic gain of any income category. More and more rich people are coming around to Bill Clinton's view that "if you want to live like a Republican, you have to vote like a Democrat."
While the very rich keep seeing their incomes go down, the cost of being rich keeps going up. The PNC Christmas Price Index, which tracks the price of everything from 12 drummers drumming to a partridge in a pear tree, reported this week that the cost of the 12 days of Christmas has jumped to an all-time high of $18,920. PNC says that a tight labor market means wages for piping pipers and other skilled workers are up, while the burst in the housing bubble "has dampened demand for luxury goods, such as gold rings."
Ronald Reagan used to say that in the 1960s, Democrats fought a war on poverty, and poverty won. In this decade, Republicans fought a war on rich people's poverty, and poverty won again.
Once upon a time, the United States was the world leader in making people rich. Not anymore. The annual World Wealth Report keeps track of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs), otherwise known as millionaires. According to the 2006 report, South Korea, India, and Russia are producing new millionaires three times faster than we are. Last year, the United States even fell behind Canada.
By examining "how much it costs HNWIs to live extremely well," the World Wealth Report shows just how hard it can be to keep up with the Gateses:
"HNWIs around the world have two things in common: a deep concern about preserving their wealth and an abiding desire to ensure growth of their wealth for the benefit of future generations and benefactors. … The 'admission and maintenance charges' to a life of privilege cannot be overlooked when discussing impacts to HNWI wealth."
While the gap has shrunk in the past two years, the report says that in 2003, the inflation rate for luxury goods was 5.5 percent higher than the Consumer Price Index. The report monitors an annual basket of luxury goods—including "5-star hotels, spa visits, and boarding school tuitions." As a percentage of wealth, rich Americans pay 60 percent more to live like Paris Hilton than Asian-Pacific millionaires do.
As they look toward 2008, that gives Republicans a new mantra: Stop the class warfare! Let Democrats whine about the middle-class squeeze. The upper-class squeeze—now that's an issue that Bill Frist and Mitt Romney can run on. ... 4:33 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006
Crystal Ball: Move over, Mort Kondracke. You heard it here first: as predicted, Flyer and Fryer held on to defeat Plymouth and Rock, 27 percent to 22 percent, in this year's White House turkey naming contest. Corn and Copia, the other food item on voters' menu, finished third with 21 percent, ahead of deserving founder Ben and Franklin at 18 percent. Washington and Lincoln ended up first in war, first in peace, and last in the turkey standings, with 12 percent.
In what may be an early glimpse of a kinder, gentler Bush, the president dispensed with his annual neck-and-neck joke. He has given up pretending the election was close. Instead, Bush joked that it was probably better to be called Flyer than Fryer. He said the turkeys' owners "did a fine job raising these birds," then petted Fryer's neck and called it "a fine-looking bird."
Bush also revealed that although Barney had enjoyed chasing Flyer around the Rose Garden, his favorite toy is a soccer ball. That makes the president an honorary soccer dad, too late to win back any suburban swing voters.
Bates Motel: Flyer and Fryer have flown off to greener, Barney-free pastures in Disneyland. They don't know how lucky they are. With no help from Washington, some states are finding their own ways to reduce the turkey retiree burden. The Montgomery Advertiser reports on Alabama's solution: coyotes.
Every November, Bill Bates, a leading Republican who runs the largest turkey farm in the state, brings the best bird from his flock of 20,000+ to Montgomery for the governor to pardon. Bates, who has been doing this since segregationist days, doesn't need an online naming contest. He gives his best bird the same name every year: Clyde.
While a pardon may be the dream of every turkey worth his salt, the Advertiser's account suggests it's not easy being Clyde. The paper reports that many of Bates's prized turkeys "ate so much and got so fat that they had a hard time even waddling around the farm." Others apparently "have been known to drown during storms when they lift their beaks to the open sky."
But the pardon of Clyde '05 proved to be the cruelest hoax of all. After being honored by the governor, Clyde '05 went on display at a farmers' market in Montgomery. PETA complained about his shabby treatment, so Bates brought him back to the farm. A few months ago, a coyote got into his pen and had an early Thanksgiving dinner. "Poor Clyde never had a chance," Bates told the paper. "There wasn't much left but feathers and bones."
Since then, Bates has installed a new security system—barbed wire. But if more coyotes had time to read blogs, they might have left Clyde alone and followed this hot tip from Huffington Post:Tofurky. Made with "organic, non-genetically engineered soybeans," Tofurky has been "America's Leading Turkey Alternative Since 1995."
The 2007 "Gobble the Vote" naming contest is 364 days away, but we already have a frontrunner: Tofurky and Clyde. You heard it here first. … 1:27 A.M. (link)
Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006
Fed and Up: As soon as he sets foot on American soil, President Bush will get back to the people's business: Wednesday's annual Rose Garden ceremony to pardon the Thanksgiving turkey. Last year at this time, the White House was thick with turkeys looking for pardons. This holiday season, it's the president who needs one, and neither the country nor his party is in a forgiving vein.
Every Thanksgiving, the president actually pardons two turkeys—the official Thanksgiving Turkey, who poses for the cameras in the Rose Garden, as well as an alternate, who remains in an undisclosed secure location, ready to take over if the Thanksgiving Turkey is eaten by terrorists. The two turkeys then retire to the Elysian Fields of Disneyland, where they will serve as Grand Marshals for Disney's Thanksgiving Day parade, and be free to volunteer as mascots for California Rep. Duncan Hunter's 2008 presidential campaign.
A few years ago, Bush aides launched an online contest to name the turkeys. That was back in the days when the Bush White House enjoyed elections.
The turkey naming contest has been more successful than other administration experiments in democracy, like Iraq. But like the administration itself, the contest may be fading away for lack of interest.
In 2004, nearly 20,000 people voted, lifting the names Biscuits and Gravy to a 27 percent to 22 percent win over Patience and Fortitude. Last year, turnout dropped by a third, to a mere 12,726 voters, as Marshmallow and Yam beat Wattle and Snood by only 27 percent to 26 percent. The Wattle and Snood campaign is still whining that with a shift of just 65 votes, Marshmallow would have been stuffed and the press would be writing about a Wattle comeback.
This is an election year, so turnout ought to be higher. But the choices in this year's "Gobble the Vote" contest won't help. Each year, the race attracts four types of candidates: Famous Founders (Lewis and Clark in '03, Adams and Jefferson in '04), enduring values (Stars and Stripes and Hope and Glory in '03, Patience and Fortitude in '04, Democracy and Freedom in '05), turkey parts (Gobble and Peck in '04, Wattle and Snood in '05), and Thanksgiving favorites (Pumpkin and Cranberry in '03, Biscuits and Gravy in '04, Marshmallow and Yam in '05).
The race usually comes down to a choice between food and values, and food almost always wins out. Stars and Stripes won on a values mantle in 2003, when the nation was still in shock from 9/11. But Pumpkin and Cranberry finished second that year, while Biscuits and Gravy and Marshmallow and Yam won the last two contests. Turkey parts nearly pulled an upset last year with Wattle and Snood—but without exit polls, we'll never know how many voters thought those were Republican values, nor how many regions consider those parts prized holiday fare.
This year, the White House faces the same challenge in naming turkeys that it had defending them in the midterms: No values are on the ballot. The Founders have three candidates: Washington and Lincoln, Ben and Franklin, and Plymouth and Rock. The other two entries are Fusion candidates: the Food/Founder hybrid Corn and Copia and the Turkey-Parts/Food combo Flyer and Fryer.
Even lifelong political bird-watchers don't know how to handicap this race. Washington and Lincoln, who dominate the nation's currency, will have a tougher time with turkey voters, who have never given a Founder more than 10 percent. The same bias against historical figures will hurt Ben and Franklin, despite their namesake's impeccable credentials as the father of Thanksgiving and champion of the turkey as the national bird.
For once, the Founders may have a contender in Plymouth and Rock. Unlike Lewis and Clark and all those ex-presidents, it actually reminds people of Thanksgiving. Of course, if Plymouth could carry the top of the ticket, Lee Iacocca would have won the presidency in 1988, and we could have avoided a pair named George and George W. Bush.
While nobody ever lost money betting against the Food candidates, this year's entries are more kitschy than appetizing. Like Wattle and Snood, Corn and Copia will leave many voters scratching their heads—although a holiday built around birds stuffed with bread and drenched in cranberries is enduring proof that Americans will eat anything.
Flyer and Fryer is another candidacy built on confusion—two appealing ornithological concepts ill-suited to this particular species. If Corn and Copia sounds like a Bushism, Flyer and Fryer sounds like the Bush Doctrine. Maureen Dowd is drooling at the chance to write up the father-son symbolism of a Flyer and Fryer win, as World War II flying ace Bush 41 sups with third-degree-electoral-burn-victim Bush 43.
Judging from the few open threads on the issue, the White House would have been better off entering the joke President Bush makes every year about the closeness of the race: Neck and Neck. If voters could write in, their choices would probably be None and Of the Above. MousePlanet shows the deep, unmet desire for Food nominees: Get In and My Belly, Lunch and Dinner, White Meat and Dark Meat. Although high elementary-school turnout could boost Plymouth and Rock, such a hungry electorate will probably save Flyer and Fryer down the stretch.
But if the president heard the voters on November 7, he would use Wednesday's Rose Garden event to usher in a long overdue era of belt-tightening. Like the holiday, the twin-turkey program is an apt symbol of national bloat. We don't need to pardon that extra turkey, and we'll pay for it later. It's only a matter of time before the population of retired turkeys will dwarf the number of working turkeys left to support them. Now that scientists have discovered anti-aging, anti-obesity compounds in red wine and peanuts, every bar in southern California will be overrun by drunk turkeys who think they have a get-out-of-jail-free card from on high. Mel Gibson, take a number. ... 4:59 P.M. (link)
Friday, Nov. 17, 2006
Cats:Democrats in Congress would do well to forget the last 100 hours and get back to work making the case for their "100 Hours Agenda." According to a new poll by the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans are not only glad Democrats won, but eager for them—not Bush—to take the lead in setting the agenda.
With such a welcome audience, the next month is a crucial time for Democrats to explain their ideas. Most Americans will like the Democratic agenda but don't really know what's in it. On Election Night, my 11-year-old son may have spoken for much of the country when we were half-listening to CNN crosstalk about Democrats putting caps on prescription-drug costs. In the spirit of Emily Litella, he asked, "Why do the Democrats want to put cats on prescription drugs?"
It sounds like a pretty good idea to me. But I'm a dog person.
Dogs: Yesterday's House leadership contest confirmed that the big winners in the midterm elections were the Blue Dogs. Other dogs were big losers.
Republican attack dogs had a bad year, led by New York Senate candidate John Spencer, who used his 15 minutes of fame to accuse Hillary Clinton of having undergone plastic surgery. Rick Santorum's overwhelming defeat in Pennsylvania suggests that the man-on-dog issue has no future, either.
The only things faring worse than attack-dog politics are actual attack dogs. Mel Martinez, take heart—at least you're not taking over the pit-bull-rights movement. Just before the election, pit bull owners marched in six cities to oppose "breed discrimination"—in other words, bans on pit bulls. An organization called ROVERlution sponsored the nationwide protest, its "second annual Luv-a-Bully March."
Dr. Paula Terifaj, who calls herself the packleader of ROVERlution, put candidates everywhere on notice: "Dog owners comprise 48 percent of the voting population, therefore politicians need to be aware of policies that affect us in a negative way."
If the marches are any sign, the ROVERlution has about as many true believers as the Gingrich Revolution has left in Congress. The Colorado Springs Gazette counted "about 15" marchers, in a state that has led the way in imposing urban pit-bull bans.
Still, every revolution has to start somewhere. Pit bulls may be an even tougher sell these days than George Bush and Tom DeLay. But Frank Luntz could have written the ROVERlutionists' Contract with America, the "Dog's Bill of Rights":
1. The Right To Have Their Lives Cherished and Protected
2. The Right To Social Integration
3. The Right To be Trained Humanely
4. The Right To a Fair Share of Public Resources
5. The Right To Act Like Dogs.
That fifth point cost Republicans the Congress. But the first four points are actually better than the House Republican agenda. Democrats have long argued for a Patient Bill of Rights to guarantee emergency room care. A pit-bull bill of rights might be the quickest way to get there. ... 1:37 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006
One Dog, No Vote: For the next week, President Bush will be on a forced march through the capitals of Asia, playing dress-up at the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference and trying to forget his troubles back home. As if he didn't have enough problems with his conservative base, this year Bush and the other leaders will be wearing silk Vietnamese dresses called ao dai.
The dress may be all Bush has to show for his talks in Singapore, Hanoi, and Jakarta. If he really wants to salvage the last two years of his presidency, he should make a brave, surprise side trip to Beijing to take on the latest threat to global freedom: China's new policy to limit families not only to one child but to one dog.
Americans have been remarkably patient with China's emergence as a budding superpower. We've run a huge trade deficit to help fuel China's double-digit annual economic growth. We've saddled our children with nearly a trillion dollars in national debt that will go to make Chinese children better off. We bear their babies for them, then let China take those American-born away from us to spend the rest of their lives behind Communist bars.
While the United States was never thrilled with the one-child policy, we looked the other way, especially once we figured out that 30 years from now, China will have a far worse worker-to-retiree ratio than we will. But we have rolled over and played dead long enough.
As the Washington Post reported this week, China's new policy imposes a limit of one dog per household, prohibits owners from taking their dog to the park, and bans dogs from being more than 14 inches in height. Here in the greatest dog nation on earth, we simply cannot stand by and let a totalitarian regime restrict its people to one dog, and a tiny breakfast dog at that.
The ostensible purpose of the one-dog policy is to curb rabies, but the big-dog ban suggests darker motives. A bureaucrat told the Post that dogs more than 14 inches tall "make those who don't own dogs psychologically afraid." China is one of the most oppressive governments on earth, the largest authoritarian regime in human history—and it's worried that border collies make people quiver in fear?
According to the Post, the policy is the product of an aging ruling class that has lost touch with China's emerging middle class. Much of the old guard clings to the Maoist notion that dogs are a bourgeois symbol of corruption. Maybe that's what John Murtha meant when he pooh-poohed corruption as "crap."
China's action has split the American animal-rights community. Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society, makes the sensible argument that vaccinating dogs for rabies would do far more good than limiting each household to one (unvaccinated) dog. By contrast, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk's only objection is that there should be a "grandfather clause so that people who have more than one dearly loved dog don't now have to kill them." PETA's position doesn't sit well at dogpolitics.com—"The Political Blog for Dog Owners"—which attacks Newkirk for sending China the message, "Kill 'em but just don't eat 'em."
For Bush, the domestic politics of jerking China's chain on this are irresistible. The Pew Research Center reports that 39 percent of American households have dogs (only 23 percent have cats), and they're disproportionately the same middle-class families who ran away from Republicans last week.
No PETA sympathizers in that crowd; they're all hard-liners. Just look at the recent survey of 1,000 dog owners by a group called My Dog Votes. The group says "a startling 94.3% of dog owners ranked dog laws and policies as being an even more important concern than even property taxes." More to the point, the survey found that 97.9 percent of dog owners oppose size restrictions, 99.6 percent oppose limiting access to parks or downtown areas, and 92.9 percent "would cross party lines in a local or state election to preserve the right to own the dog of their choice." We're not in China anymore, Toto.
Bush told Bob Woodward that he would stay the course in Iraq even if Laura and his dog Barney were the last ones left to support it. Whatever Laura and Barney tell the Baker Commission, they'll never waver on China. For Barney, it's personal. Dog manuals list Scottish terriers' height as 10 to 11 inches, but that's just to the shoulders. Barney's adorable head and ears stick up another 6 inches—which would make him banned in Beijing. The Bushes have a second dog, so if the Chinese policy were in effect here, they'd be Drowning Miss Beazley.
Dogs have played a role in some of the great comebacks in American political history—from Nixon's Checkers speech to FDR's warning not to pick on his dog Fala. If George Bush wants to retrieve his presidency, he should follow the same foreign policy doctrine as Teddy Roosevelt: Speak softly and throw a big stick. ... 1:53 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2006
Open Season: A week after 9/11, Pres. Bush made headlines around the world when he proclaimed that Osama bin Laden was "Wanted: Dead or Alive." A week after the 2006 midterms, conservatives are applying the same phrase to the Bush presidency—except for the "wanted" part.
John Podhoretz weighed in first in last Wednesday's New York Post under the headline, "Lame Duck Bush Is Left Crippled by a Crushing Vote of No Confidence." Insisting that "the presidency of George W. Bush ended last night," Podhoretz said Bush is done as an activist and will now be at best a caretaker.
In the view of many on the right, Bush isn't just a lame duck, but a Roboduk—a motorized decoy despised by purists. By constantly spinning their wings to seem authentic, Roboduks lure real ones to an untimely, unsporting, and unethical demise—just like the Republican Congress. According to the outdoor-sports section of the New York Times, the decoys come in such models as "The Wobbler," "The Thrasher," and "The Torpedo"—the very names now applied to Bush in conservative circles.
In the Weekly Standard, Fred Barnes counters that Bush "intends to be a very live duck in his last two years in the White House." Barnes says that as president, Bush still "has an unmatched set of political tools": He's still in charge of foreign policy, still has the bully pulpit, and will finally learn to use that veto pen.
That's all true, although as Bush has discovered, those tools don't work as well as they once did. The pulpit is far less bully for an unpopular president. If Democrats have their way, Bush will be using that veto pen to kill popular proposals, not pork-laden spending bills. Being in charge of foreign policy is what cooked Bush's goose in the first place. Bush may not like being sent to his room over the issue. But he'll be better off if he takes the voters' advice and shares the national security burden.
Far from uncovering any convincing signs of life, even Barnes seems to find what Thomas Nast once illustrated in a cartoon about Andrew Johnson—"a brace of dead ducks." Barnes rules out progress on entitlements, energy, or education. He says immigration reform will happen only if Democrats give Bush his guest-worker program. He expects Bush to cave to Democrats' demands on the minimum wage. His leading proof that this White House is alive and kicking is that Bush "instantly changed the story line from an Election Day repudiation of his presidency to his removal of Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld."
Of course, if Bush had fired Rumsfeld and accepted a minimum-wage increase before the election, Republicans might never have lost their majority. So, it might be more accurate to say the Bush presidency is alive and kicking itself.
Barnes is right that no matter how lame, the presidency is always relevant. But if Bush wants to be a live duck, not just a relevant one, his presidency needs a genuine rebirth. When Democrats lost Congress in 1994, Clinton still had a significant advantage: Voters had punished Democrats for not enacting the agenda they'd been promised in 1992, such as welfare reform. The 1994 election emboldened our White House to let Clinton be Clinton.
This White House can't simply let Bush be Bush, because being Bush is his biggest problem. Letting Bush be Gingrich won't work, either. Conservatives have been quick to point out that the 2006 election was a rejection of Bush, not of 1994-style conservatism. They neglect to mention that Bush's own election in 2000 was itself an explicit rejection of Gingrich-style conservatism. If Bush hadn't promised to be a different kind of Republican, voters never would have given him the chance to prove he wasn't one.
That leaves the White House only one real option: Let Bush be Arnold. Schwarzenegger tried Bush's way for the first two years of his term, but gave it up when he flopped at the box office. For his new role, he made a Democrat his chief of staff, charmed Democratic leaders, and embraced Democrats' agenda. Voters loved it and signed him to do a sequel.
Bush would be smart not only to copy Arnold's playbook, but to join the California governor in making climate change his new favorite issue. Schwarzenegger signed a Democratic bill that for the first time caps a state's greenhouse-gas emissions. For Bush and his party, endorsing a nationwide carbon cap might feel like finally giving that concession speech he owes Al Gore. But the country and the world would cheer for the first time in a long while.
Bush owes his sole truly bipartisan accomplishment, the No Child Left Behind Act, to a similar strategy. He took a good Democratic idea (education reform), added his own wrinkle (annual tests), and charmed leading Democrats into writing most of the bill. But once it became law, Bush couldn't take the heat from conservatives who oppose national support for education. He promptly broke his promise to provide the funds to make reform succeed and gave up on bipartisanship altogether.
That's Bush's problem in a duckshell: He can only reap the benefits of bipartisanship if—like Schwarzenegger—he throws himself into the role with gusto. Unfortunately for the president, his base now wants him to be more conservative, not less. If he tries to placate them, any Bush reclamation project will be doomed from the outset.
Conservatives may be wasting their time debating whether Bush's duck is alive or dead. If the president is too weak to stand up to his base, he might end up looking like the lamest duck of all: a girly one. ... 11:12 A.M. (link)
Friday, Nov. 10, 2006
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)