Here's a sneak-peek at my new article in next month's Washington Monthly about why the myth of Bush administration competence is fading fast.
Here's a sneak-peek at my new article in next month's Washington Monthly about why the myth of Bush administration competence is fading fast.
This is difficult. But how can I hold my tongue? There's no one I like better in this profession than Mickey Kaus, no one who's been kinder to me. But Mickey seems to have come down with a bilious fever of special pleading. Perhaps it's a milder form of West Nile Virus? I don't know. I just hope he recovers quickly.
Mickey deals with two issues on his site today: 1) Bill Clinton's comments about the war-on-terrorism blame game and then 2) this on-going matter about Paul Krugman and the OMB.
Let's try to deal with the introductory matters as quickly as possible. Clinton said the Bush administration -- which made such a fuss about 'responsibility' -- is quick pass the buck to him whenever anything goes wrong on their watch in the war on terrorism. On the contrary, says the former president, when our soldiers got killed in Mogadishu he didn't try to pin it on the first President Bush.
The Wall Street Journal said this was a lie, carting out the old right-wing canard that Clinton denied the soldiers the proper weapons, thus leaving them vulnerable and getting a number of them killed. The Journal editorialists are either too ignorant, too stupid or too dishonest to know that, as Mickey rightly points out, this charge is false. But Mickey goes in for an equally bogus, though more subtle, canard: that is, that Bush I went in purely to secure humanitarian relief and it was Clinton who later went in for (horribile dictu!) NATION-BUILDING.
This argument manages to be both accurate and also bogus. Here's why. The situation in Afghanistan is now beginning to get very dicey. Karzai's getting more dependent on US military protection; warlords and even sub-warlords (mere capos, in mafia terms) are starting to challenge him; things are getting tough. Imagine if we'd had a turnover of administration a couple months after we drove the Taliban from power. The old administration might say, hey, we fought a kick-ass war. Everything was going great and now you get into the nation-building phase and everything falls apart!
This would be a stupid argument since phase A rather inevitably leads to phase B, and B is in the nature of things the complicated phase.
The Somalia case isn't quite so clear cut. But not far from it. It was always going to be a rather simple matter to get in to a Somalia, rather more difficult to get out. The logic is elementary. You go into Somalia to force a degree of peace so that you can deliver some food. And then you see that when you leave it's going to degenerate back to the status quo ante. What do you do then?
This isn't to say that the Clinton team handled it perfectly, only to note that Bush made the feel-good decision to hand out the food, with the knowledge that he wasn't going to be around when the tough decisions had to be made later. You can imagine where Clinton might have felt like Bush left him holding the bag. Because, in a sense, he did.
Yet if you follow the logic of Clinton's remark, he must be saying that criticizing Bush in this way would have been invalid, unfair, and false, since clearly he's insisting the current administration's criticisms of him are invalid, unfair, false, etc.
But enough of these details.
It seems to me you can slice this a number of ways. But Clinton's point hardly seems unreasonable. One might look on this whole brouhaha and latch on to the Bush administration's penchant for blaming everything on Clinton. But Mickey latches on to Clinton's response to that penchant for buck-passing and finds it to be yet another sign of the former president's "alarming, mendacious self-pity."
Is there any logic to this statement? Or is it simply that one is supposed to look at such statements and see signs of the former president's "alarming, mendacious self-pity"? That's the storyline and why buck it? Seems mighty like the latter to me. Almost to the degree of parody.
Now to Krugman.
To get the whole story, the whole back and forth, go to Mickey's site. But the essence of the matter is that the Bush OMB came out with a statistic which vastly understated the role of the Bush tax cut in creating the deficits projected over the next ten years. Krugman called this a lie. They called it an honest mistake, which they say they later corrected. Again, if you want the details (of which there are many), go to Mickey's site. Mickey has latched onto Krugman's hide like a mountain tick, demanding apologies or recantations or clarifications. Perhaps a special Mass or a ritual sacrifice.
Krugman can defend himself. So can the Times.
If I had been writing the piece I might not have said "lie." I'm not sure. Here on TPM sometimes I cut to the chase like that. In print, I often hold back. I'm not sure which is better.
But indulge me in a thought experiment.
Let's imagine we're dealing with the Clinton administration. The Clinton OMB puts out false numbers which just happen to exculpate the administration on a major public policy issue. In congressional testimony another administration economics official -- not the head of the OMB -- grudgingly concedes that the numbers are probably incorrect. Later, the White House is called out by a conservative think tank for using false numbers. Still later, folks at the White House go on to their website and simply change the number without telling anybody.
Here we have the same set of facts, just change the administrations.
Is it even remotely conceivable that if this were the Clinton OMB that Mickey would so bend over backwards to see the whole thing as just an honest mistake? When the honest mistake is so helpful to the administration? When it goes uncorrected for weeks? Of course, not. The question answers itself.
I think it's possible that it was an honest mistake, quite possible. But calling it a 'lie' hardly seems an unwarranted conclusion. It's a bit sharp, but hardly something that itself requires some sort of retraction.
The only explanation I can see is that since it's the Bush administration (and Paul Krugman on the other side) Mickey wants to hold open every door, make every excuse, refuse to draw any adverse conclusion. Precisely the opposite of what we see him do in the other case involving Bill Clinton. When it comes to the Bush administration, Mickey is so permissive you'd think he were Peter Edelman (that's a little welfare reform humor, there). The contrast is blinding.
P.S. As long as we're at it, did Mickey get taken in by the OMB representative's claim that they had made the correction to their numbers "weeks ago." [Note: from here on it gets mind-numbingly detailed. So only keep reading if you want to see the Bush administration caught in another lie.] The OMB came out with the erroneous statistics on July 12th. On July 31st, OMB flack Trent Duffy wrote the Times and claimed, among other things, that they had corrected the mistake "weeks ago."
I've never been great with numbers (those two Ds in high school math dramatize the point). But I think that means they corrected their mistake no later than July 17th, right? July 17th is also the day when Council of Economic Advisors chairman, Glenn Hubbard conceded that the number was probably wrong during congressional testimony.
So first it seems like maybe that's what they're talking about. But Duffy's letter to the Times is pretty clearly talking about a revised press release, since he refers to how the "first press release mistakenly [itals added]" screwed up the numbers. Now here's the problem. The people who really caught the OMB ought were the worthies at the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. They put out their paper on July 26th and in that paper they said the OMB "has yet to issue a formal correction on this matter." If OMB had really put out a retraction why didn't the folks at CBPP know about it? Did they get it wrong too? Like Krugman? Or is Duffy's July 31st letter to the Times itself a lie?
As long as we're all being sticklers, let's find out exactly when the OMB made the correction.
With Al Gore's Sunday Oped in the Times and Joe Lieberman's comments at the DLC conclave in New York, it seems we're now going to again revisit this question of just what role Al Gore's populist turn did or didn't play in the outcome of the election.
First -- I think this is fair to say -- was Will's unwillingness to take up the question of whether what Gore was saying might actually be true -- true, that is, in the sense of reflecting an accurate representation of the political and economic world we live in. Troubling to me on a deeper level, however, is how much what Will said represents a deep consensus among Washington politicos and journalists and why this should be so.
For my part, I think the 'evidence' -- if you can call it that -- for whether Gore's populism helped him or hurt him is ambiguous. His convention speech gave him a big and -- more important -- sustained bounce out of the convention. That fact is hard to square with his populist turn being a political loser.
On the other hand, he's not in the White House. And even if you believe, as I do, that he really did win the election, the results were still close to a tie. And one would figure that with a politically potent message (if that's what it was), a strong economy and all the rest, he should have won by a good margin. As I said, the evidence is ambiguous. But to Will, there's simply no question that it was a political loser. Not just that, either: to Will, the way Gore has stuck to the message reveals his various character flaws.
I'm very ambivalent about all of this: whether Gore's message makes for good politics, how I personally think that rhetoric sounds, all of these things. But one thing I am quite clear on is that hyper-educated, upper-middle-class folks -- i.e., almost all journalists -- have never, through the course of American history, been the people for whom Populist rhetoric resonates. That's an incontestable fact. It's one that's important to keep in mind. And I think it's seldom kept in mind.
I don't mean to pick on Will, who I consider a great writer and a good friend. I have to confess that when I read Gore column, I found it a touch jarring, even as I agreed with much of it. Another friend of mine who is quite sensible, but also rather left in her politics, told me last night that she found what Gore wrote grating and inauthentic.
In any case, I want to write about this more. But not having more time tonight, let me reprint what I wrote the night of the convention speech itself in the now-defunct (and no longer able to be linked to) Feed Magazine. It captures much of what I still think about this topic.
IN THE DWINDLING aftermath of a major political speech, like the one Al Gore delivered Thursday night, journalists circle and buzz around one another comparing notes, trolling for insights: What did you think? Too fast? Too starchy? Too long? Too short? Brilliantly populist? Stupidly populist? Unvarnished first impressions can rapidly get turned on their head if the tide of opinion in these writerly conclaves runs too hard against them. But there's another complication. Most reporters, who have what amount to the ringside seats, actually watched Gore speak from a range of oblique angles off to the side of the podium. The only images that really count are the tight-in television close-ups, since, aside from the few thousand souls in the Staples Center, that's all anyone will see. And then one more complicating factor. Swing voters, those all-important voters whose votes are actually up for grabs, are notoriously haphazard and indifferent in their attention to politics. Many will only see the speech in the clips and sound bites filtering through the nightly news. And those who watch it in full will receive it with minds uncluttered by all the thoughts of political junkies. All of which is to say that professional observers often have a terribly difficult time grasping how such a speech will be received by its intended audience.More on this soon ...
Yes, the errors of the vice president's presentation and delivery were apparent. Gore often rumbles over well-crafted sentences and tramples all the poetry out of them. His boss can take even a hackneyed phrase and let it dangle suggestively in the air until a dozen meanings reveal themselves. Gore words don't float the same way. But like Clinton's State of the Union speeches, which were routinely panned by pundits but gobbled up by the public, Gore's speech will probably get a much better reception with swing voters than the critics expect.
In the end, Gore decided to go with what he is: serious (a bit over-serious), honorable, good intentioned, and committed -- as his opponent is not -- to pursuing a set of policies most voters support. As a politician so often accused of being phony and inauthentic, all he could do was be himself. And he did it pretty well.
In so doing, he gave a hint of how Gore-ism might differ from Clintonism. More austere. Less emotional, fulsome, and lachrymose. Though Clinton was endlessly ribbed for telling voters he would "feel their pain," it was actually the lodestone of his political power and resilience, the hallmark of his politics of empathy. Polls have consistently shown that whatever else they thought of him, a clear majority believed Clinton understood their problems and cared about solving them.
Gore had a handful of good lines in the speech. Saying he's his own man; poking fun at his over-seriousness but saying the election isn't a popularity contest; dismissing any thought that he deserves to win because of the successes of the last eight years -- these will all stand him in good stead. But most resonant and enduring was his line about the role of the president as the advocate and defender of the interests of everyday people.
What couldn't have been accidental (though I believe it went wholly unremarked) was that this line was almost identical down to the word, almost identical to the words of Andrew Jackson, the first Tennessean ever to become president, more than a century-and-a-half ago. In the early 1830s Jackson articulated the then-novel, even heretical, notion that the presidency, not the Congress, was the most representative branch of government, the first among equals in the calculus of democratic government. The presidency "is the only job in the Constitution that is charged with the responsibility of fighting for all the people, not just the people of one state or one district, not just the wealthy or the powerful, all the people; especially those who need a voice, those who need a champion." Those are Gore's words, but they echoed Jackson's almost exactly.
The fact that this historical and ancestral allusion is plopped down in the middle of the text, with no clear acknowledgement, is somehow typically Gore.
Truth be told, for better or worse, most journalists react to populist rhetoric like a shot of vinegar when they expected gin. But this may be the closest that Gore could get to Clintonian "feel your pain" and yet still be, in some sense, very much himself. Will voters find this hopelessly retro? Maybe. The weirdness and the promise of Gore are the contradictions at the heart of these populist inclinations. He's a New Economy technocrat, raised at the heart of government, with a privileged education. He also comes from poor Tennessee farm folk and he's the dutiful son of a man who was the most authentic sort of border-state Southern populist politician. From the start of his campaign, Gore has veered from making that combination the best of all worlds, or the worst. The next two months will decide which it will be. But this speech was a good start.
The authors of this Time article go to great lengths to be fair to the Bush administration. But the upshot of the story is still pretty devastating. In the early months of the War on Terrorism we heard a heroic tale: the Bush administration had inherited a dawdling and feckless anti-terrorism policy from their predecessors. Through 2001 they were in a headlong rush to bring the country up to speed but couldn't quite make up all the lost time before the terrorists struck.
Let's call this the Andrew Sullivan version of events.
The truth was rather different. By definition some things didn't get done that should have been done in the late 1990s. But the out-going administration left its successors with a fairly detailed action plan for attacking al Qaida. Presidential transitions are unavoidably disorienting affairs. But there were more specific reasons the plan didn't get acted upon. The Bush team a) was more concerned with missile defense than terrorism and b) was unwilling to adopt a Clinton era plan until six or seven months had been spent repackaging it as a Bush-era plan. And therein lies a tale.
Now to other matters.
Earlier this morning I came home from doing a short segment on Fox and flipped on the TV. On Cnn Robert Novak was reading Senator Carl Levin a quote from fellow Senator Rick Santorum in which Santorum was claiming that only a double standard was keeping former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin from being called before Congress to testify on his employer Citicorp's involvement in transactions which helped Enron hide losses.
It's time to say it: this is a stupid argument. It's being made by a) mau-mauing Republicans and their journalistic allies, b) morons, and c) chumps. Absent any new information those are really the only groups who can be involved. The first group I don't much begrudge. They're involved in a political fight and that's how the game is played. The second group requires no explanation. The rest are journalists -- largely, but not all, of vaguely liberal politics -- who have so long been slapped around and cowed by conservative complaints about liberal bias that the desired Pavlovian response has become second nature. In the seedy vernacular we call this being 'whipped.' The better analogy might be to the emotionally-damaged battered woman who perversely respects her abusive husband for keeping her in line.
It's not a pretty sight.
Unfortunately, through a grievous technical glitch, we lost the archived copy of the July 22nd through 31st TPMs. We are hunting around for a cached copy and will repost it as soon as possible.
Grievous, I tell you! Grievous!
One would think I'd been friendly enough to Al Gore over the months and years to avoid getting knocked in a blundering screed by Bob Somerby, the guy who writes the Daily Howler. But there's a deeper annoyance and foolishness here that I'd like to comment on.
A few days ago I made the point that with the economy in a tizzy and so much incompetence from the Bush team we might see a very different dynamic in a 2004 match-up between Gore and Bush. Bush's folksiness might count for much less than it did in 2000 and Gore's experience might count for much more.
Here's what I said.
In 2000 no one doubted that Al Gore was experienced and competent. But it almost ended up being a liability. People just never warmed to him. And they liked George W. Bush. Right now, who you'd rather hang with at the barbecue just doesn't seem quite as important. Competence and experience does.Here's Somerby's response (which comes in the course of a long post)..
âPeople just never warmed to Gore,â Marshall says, offering no thoughts as to why that happened. Of course, the fact that the press borked Gore for twenty straight months will seldom be mentioned in the press corpsâ narrations. In these renditions, the press corps itself plays absolutely no role; their effect of events is completely disappeared. In the case of Campaign 2000, the press corps is removing itself from the turrible tale as it concocts its group story about Gore.On one level this strikes me as a stupid comment because anyone who's even remotely familiar with my reporting and columns during the 2000 election knows that I was quite favorable to Gore and quite critical of the way the media covered him. Somerby is partly just at war with writerly brevity. One can't say that people never warmed to Gore because then one is lumped in with the anti-Gore, ass-covering media conspiracy. One has to make the prescibed genuflection, stating that people never warmed to Gore because the press bought into the right-wing's long-standing and well-timed attacks on Gore's character, held him to a higher standard than the bumbling governor of Texas, yada, yada, yada.
Be careful when you encounter that story. Trust us: This press corps never tells you the truth when its own conduct is part of the tale. Do you really think that Ambitious Al weirdly refused to acknowledge Vile Bill? If you believe that, we have a bridge to sell you. Itâs a bridge to the thirty-first century.
In a similar fashion one can never write the grammatically elegant sentence "Gore lost the election" without a hundred yahoos writing in to say, "No, no, no, Gore didn't lose. He got more votes. He won. Bush wasn't elected, he was selected!"
Yes, yes, I know. I too think Gore was robbed. But I'm content to let the language remain unmutilated and assume that right-thinking people remember all that.
The whole thing makes me think of someone who walks to the edge of the road, looks right, looks left, and then walks into the street and gets run over. As his ghost is rising up to heaven he's saying "No, wait, I looked both ways!"
Some things may not be your fault. But they're still your problem.
And this brings us back to the question of Gore and the press. It's stupid to criticize people who are sympathetic to Gore and yet don't muddle up their prose with explanations of why Gore had a hard go of things.
But there's a deeper issue too. Like Hobbes said with respect to life, most members of the press are nasty, brutish and short. And also not that sharp.
But, buddy, that's life! Or at least it's life in the political game. Most of the press was imbecilic in its treatment of Gore. But they were equally so of Bill Clinton and he managed okay. Democrats should mau-mau for press for their imbecility as successfully as whiny conservatives did for years about 'media bias', something that still has most of the press pitifully cowed.
I'm not saying to get over it. I'm saying to do something about it. Much of the political game is a matter of managing and dealing with a craven and shallow press corps. Like bad referees in sports, they may suck, but they're part of the game. Once you get that through your $%(@# head you're better equipped to deal with the situation.
For a while I've thought the coverage of the Democratic jockeying for 2004 has been reported with an air of unreality. For starters: Joe Lieberman. As nearly as I can figure, for reasons I outline in Thursday's New York Post, he never even enters the race.
I thought we might be able to go more than a few hours without another installment of (hands in the) Cookie Jar Watch. But it wasn't meant to be.
As you know healthcare is a very pricey commodity -- but one which veterans earn a right to by virtue of their service. But, think about, couldn't we save a few bucks if we just didn't tell these guys and gals about the healthcare services they're entitled to? A shameful attitude, you say? Well, the Bush administration apparently doesn't agree.
A couple weeks ago a Bush appointee at the Department of Veterans Affairs, Laura J. Miller, sent out a memo to local administrators telling them to stop healthcare outreach programs to vets so that the Department could save money.
In the memo (just added to TPM Document Collection), Miller notes the growing demand for VA healthcare services. But "against this backdrop," she notes, "is very conservative OMB budget guidance for 2004." In plain English that means we need more money to service all the vets who are applying for VA healthcare services, but Mitch Daniels and the White House says we can't have it.
Get more resources to serve the deserving vets?
Bite the bullet and say the budget requires cuts in VA health benefits?
No, no, no. Just order local officials to stop all efforts to tell vets what services they're entitled to. What could be easier?
In the memo, Miller orders local administrators to "ensure that no marketing activities to enroll new veterans occur within your networks." Efforts to get out the word about VA health services, the memo goes on to say, "with such activities as health fairs, veteran open houses to invite new veterans to the facilities, or enrollment displays at VSO meetings, are inappropriate."
At least they're pro-military.
Oh My ... I guess it's time for another edition of Cookie Jar Watch. As in 'hands in the ...' It seems no sooner was the president kickin' it with Paul Sarbanes and gettin' d-o-w-n with his regulatory self than the White House turns around and quietly announces its intention not to enforce a key provision of the law.
The new law included a whistleblower provision granting protection to any employee of a publicly traded company who take "lawful acts" to tip off or assist regulatory agencies, law enforcement officials or "any member of Congress or any committee of Congress."
If they get punished they can file a claim at the Department of Labor and get reinstated and possibly also get compensatory damages.
But then the White House announced that it plans to interpret the law as referring only to a properly constituted congressional investigation. In other words, if you know your company's books are getting cooked and you ring up a Senator before the investigation gets underway, then you're vulnerable. But of course it probably would be before the investigation got underway, wouldn't it? That's why you're dropping a dime on them in the first place! To let someone know what's going on so they'll start an investigation!
A special thanks to Nathan Newman for putting me on to this.
I spent most of June reporting on what the Bush administration has or hasn't accomplished on homeland security -- with particular emphasis on intelligence reform. Here's the result, in the new issue of Blueprint magazine.
Another major topic covered is the woeful unpreparedness of the FBI -- which was shocking to behold.