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Ive had a bunch

I've had a bunch of readers write in to ask why I haven't had anything to say about Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 and whether there's anything to be read into my silence.

In a word, no.

I've been out of the country for the better part of the last two weeks. And I simply haven't had a chance to see it yet. Thus, my comments or thoughts on it would seem of vanishing little significance.

I plan to see it soon.

For all its many

For all its many discontents, and there are certainly many, I enjoy Washington's cadences and tempo. I don't mean Washington as a metaphor or a power center, but the particular place that I live, the way that the early evening sunlight gleams off the building fronts. If for no other reason than the slow accretion of time in the place, it feels like home. And with the exception of a few 24 hour or 36 hour stays, I hadn't been here in many weeks.

I just landed at Reagan National about an hour ago from New York and immediately raced over to my local Starbucks, which seems to emanate some cosmic force which makes TPM posts glide off my fingertips.

One point, before more posts later.

Yesterday I noted a CBS/NYT poll, highlighting a pick-up for President Bush on the horse-race numbers and the seeming advantage he was gaining from a rebounding, if not fiery, economy.

That was, I must admit, a quick post. And looking at the results a bit more closely, I think I got the emphasis wrong. President Bush's approval rating rests at 42%. Meanwhile, 60% say the Iraq war has not been worth the cost. In other words, that it was a mistake.

(See my Hill column out this evening for more on that latter point.)

Those two numbers, particularly the first, are really close to the whole story. Incumbent presidents who fall short of 50% approval are in some danger. Those who aren't much over 40% are fighting for their political lives, with a poor prognosis.

The economy does continue to be an advantage for the president. But Iraq -- and the myriad of assumptions, policies and repercussions it represents -- is what this election is all about. I take it as a given that virtually no Gore voters from 2000 will pull the lever for Bush. But how many lightly-committed Bush voters from 2000 will hold him to account if they believe he gambled big and gambled unwisely with America's honor and safety, and came up short? I think more than a few. And since there were more Gore voters than Bush voters last time anyway, well ...

Who would have thought

Who would have thought that this year's presidential race would turn on whether a rebounding economy could save President Bush from the public's congealing sense that his entire Iraq venture was a mistake?

CBS/NYT has a new poll out showing a Bush rebound and a neck-and-neck race, with the president's rise due to public perceptions of an improving economy?

One sounding means little in itself, of course. But this does seem to be the general direction -- a slow upward drift based on a recovering economy contending with the majority's belief that the president's foreign policy is fundamentally flawed.

We are all up

We are all up in arms right now, it seems, about Vice President Dick Cheney, and the fact that Cheney told one of the more irenic of Democratic senators to "f--k off" in a brief exchange on the Senate floor last Tuesday because the senator in question, Pat Leahy (Democrat of Vermont) had earlier had the temerity to raise questions about lucrative no-bid Iraqi contracts secured by his former employer Halliburton.

Certainly, Cheney and his partisans deserve the knuckle-rapping they're now getting. And it's entertaining to watch avatars of dignity, good order and responsibility like Bill Frist and the folks over at the White House call Cheney's antics good clean fun and politics as usual.

But for those who have few good things to say about the vice-president, I think, the correct response is less outrage than the sort of grim (or perhaps not so grim) satisfaction one feels when a malign character unwittingly reveals himself to a larger audience. Because even if Cheney "felt better" after his outburst, this wasn't a show of strength but one of desperation or, perhaps, impatient impotence.

I think Joe Klein has it right in the title of his new column in Time -- ("Plenty More to Swear About: Bush's security team faces a barrage of criticism as the facts about Iraq come to light"). As Klein writes, last week's "assorted temper tantrums appeared to be a leading indicator of a gathering summer storm confronting this presidency."

Consider for a moment. Who is Dick Cheney? What do we know of him? None of us like being questioned or critized. But in him the disinclination runs particularly deep. He prefers to act in secrecy and is a man to whom government transparency has all the allure that a shaft of sunlight has to a vampire. When challenged, violence seems always to be his preferred method of response, that of first resort --- often a literal sort on the world stage, but with bureaucratic (viz. Plame) and what we might call verbal violence at home. By verbal violence I mean specifically tough talk and threats meant to frighten people away from challenging him further, to knock them on their heels. Even this new case -- saying Leahy et al. had it coming -- is but another example. When that doesn't work, he gets sloppy.

Cheney et al. can see all sorts of bad business coming down the pike in the next few months -- much of it already on the public radar screen, some of it still clogged up no doubt in back channels, newsrooms and new rounds of dirty-tricksterism. It seems clearly to be getting to them.

By the time you

By the time you read this post you'll likely already know that today's Financial Times makes stunning new claims about alleged sales of uranium from Niger to Iraq.

In brief, the main article in the FT makes two points ...

First, that there is much more information than the forged 'Niger-uranium' documents backing up the claim that Iraq (and other countries) sought to clandestinely purchase 'yellowcake' uranium from Niger.

(I think point two is the real point of the FT story, not point one. But we'll get to that in another post.)

The second assertion requires a touch more explanation.

If you're up on the arcana of the 'Niger-uranium' story you'll remember that they first came to light when a source -- an unnamed Italian businessman and security consultant -- gave copies of them to an Italian journalist named Elisabetta Burba.

(For more on the tick-tock of what Burba did with them and how they eventually got into US hands, see this piece by Sy Hersh from last year in The New Yorker.)

There has been endless speculation about who this mystery man was and who actually did the forging. Was he the forger? And if so, what were his motives? If not, who put them into his hands? And what were their motives?

According to the Financial Times article, that business man is likely himself the forger of the documents and he has a long history of bad acts which, they say, discredit him as a source of information. That last tidbit plays a key part in the FT story because, in their words, the provider of the documents is "understood to be planning to reveal selected aspects of his story to a US television channel."

That's what the FT says.

I hear something different.

In fact, I know something different.

My colleagues and I have reported on this matter extensively, spoken to key players involved in the drama, and put together a detailed picture of what happened. And that picture looks remarkably different from this account which is out today -- specifically on the matter of the origins of those forged documents and who was involved.

I cannot begin to describe how much I would like to say more than that. And at some later point in some later post I will do my best to explain the hows and whys of why I can't. But, for the moment, I can't.

Let me, however, offer a hypothetical that might help make sense of all this.

Let's say that certain individuals or organizations are responsible for some rather unfortunate misdeeds. And let's further postulate that such hypothetical individuals or organizations find out that some folks are on to them, that a story is in the works -- perhaps more than one -- and that it's coming right at them. Those individuals or organizations -- as shorthand, let's call them 'the bad actors' -- might well start trying to fight back, trying to gin up an alternative storyline to exculpate themselves and inculpate others. If that story made its way into the news, at a minimum, it might help the bad actors muddy the waters for when the real story comes out. You can see how such a regrettable turn of events might come to pass.

This is of course only a hypothetical. But I thought it might provide a clarifying context.

So read the FT article. But also keep your ears open. It is, I'm quite confident, not the last word you'll hear on this story.

Let me start back

Let me start back by thanking my three friends and colleagues who sat in for me here at TPM during my ten day absence: Spencer Ackerman, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira. Everybody takes a slightly different approach to this medium. And I couldn't have been happier about what each of them did with the site. I hope you enjoyed their work as much as I did. If the trickle of email I got while I was away was any measure, you did indeed.

(I was able to get online here and there from abroad, so I managed to see most of what got posted. Actually, it was an odd, wholly unaccustomed and somehow deeply relaxing feeling to be able to type in the TPM address to see if anything new had been posted.)

A special thanks too to my out-going assistant, Zander Dryer, who handled all the logistics of the site in my absence as well as working with the guest hosts to make sure everything went smoothly.

As you must know by now Spencer (IRAQ'd) and Ruy (DonkeyRising) both have their own blogs. And John has a new book out The Folly of Empire. John's book isn't quite out yet I don't think -- I think a couple weeks. But I strongly recommend it to you on the basis of my knowledge of the author and recent discussions with him of this topic.

In any case, a sincere thanks to each of them and to you (the readership of this site) as well -- readership held up remarkably well during my absence. Their efforts and your readership helped make my time away relaxing, contented and refreshing.

Well its been a

Well, it's been a blast but I'm heading back to Donkey Rising after this post. Please do come by and visit if you get a chance.

I also want to urge everybody to think seriously about contributing financially to Josh's site. It's not free to run a site like this and I think you'll agree that Josh's commentary and investigative reporting provide an invaluable service. So give 'til it hurts--and then give some more.

OK, I'm off to watch the Sweden-Netherlands game in the European Cup. The winner of that game plays Portugal. Go Portugal!

There have been two

There have been two major polls (I don't consider Fox a "major") since the middle of June--The Washington Post and Gallup--and in both of them Kerry leads Bush among registered voters (in the Post poll by 8 and in Gallup by 4). Not bad for John Kerry, not bad at all.

Some are dissatisfied, however. Why isn't he farther ahead? What about some of the minor polls where he isn't doing do well? Why does Kerry's lead sometimes vanish, even in the major polls (as indeed might happen tomorrow for all I know)?

Calm down. Say your mantra. And meditate on these recent words from Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of The Gallup poll:

Based on historical patterns, Bush's job approval rating is thus underperforming the pattern of presidents who have won re-election. In the broadest sense, Bush's job approval rating has generally been remarkably stable this year, averaging about 50% (which is a symbolic dividing line for an incumbent seeking re-election) since mid-January. The current downtick in his ratings puts him below the pattern of successful presidents. Having a rating below 50% (as is the case with his last four ratings) is not a good sign for an incumbent. If Bush wins this November, he would be the first president since Harry Truman to come from a below 50% rating to win re-election.

The fact that Bush has been behind the likely Democratic nominee, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, in several Gallup Poll re-election trial heat ballots this year, means that Bush's re-election probabilities are lower than those of his successful predecessors. None of the five presidents who won re-election were behind their eventual opponent in any trial heats after January in the year prior to their election. If Bush wins this year, he will become the first president to come from behind in election year spring polls to win.

The trial heat patterns of the three presidents who eventually lost were erratic enough, however, to suggest that fluidity is the norm rather than the exception in trial heat ballots at this point in the campaign.

Feel better (at least if you're a Kerry partisan)? Eventually, of course, Kerry does need to take and maintain a solid lead, but it is unrealistic to expect that to happen this early in the campaign. Perhaps after the Democratic convention such a pattern might begin to emerge, but that would be the earliest.

So expect fluidity to continue for awhile. As many have pointed out, deciding you want to fire the incumbent (where we are now) is a different decision than deciding you definitely want to hire John Kerry (the stage of the campaign we are moving into). Once we reach that stage, many swing voters will come off the fence and the political picture should be clarified.

And, make no mistake about it, despite apparent shrinkage in the swing voter pool, there are still plenty of these voters around. According to a just-released report by the Pew Research Center, about a fifth of voters can be classified as swing at this stage of the campaign--sizable, though still down 6-11 points from the proportions of swing voters at analogous points in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 campaigns.

In the Pew data, swing voters who currently express a preference are about equally divided between Bush and Kerry. However, their approval ratings for Bush on the economy (36 percent) and Iraq (34 percent) are notably low. In addition, swing voters in their June data are heavily moderate (49 percent) and independent/no party preference (45 percent) or Democratic (36 percent). Thus, John Kerry appears to be well-positioned to make headway among these voters over time.

Two other interesting notes from the Pew report. They pooled their data from April to June to get enough respondents to look at Bush approval ratings in some key battleground states. Generally, the rank order of approval rating follows from the 2000 results: Bush approval is higher in states he carried in 2000; lower in states he did not. But there is one important exception. Among the nine states they provide data for, Ohio is ranked dead-last in Bush approval, with just 41 percent approval and 46 percent disapproval..

Another intriguing finding is an apparent narrowing of the "religiosity gap"--that is, the tendency for those who attend church more often to vote Republican with far greater frequency than those who attend less often. According to the Pew data, the gap in Bush support between those who say they attend church every week and those who attend seldom or never is now 14 points, compared to 27 points in the 2000 VNS exit poll.

Who knows if this will hold up in this year's election, but it's food for thought. After all, we have not always had the relationship observed in 2000 between church attendance and support for Republican candidates. For example, in the 1980's, there appears to have been only a weak relationship between church attendance and Republican support. But that relationship became quite noticeable in 1992, strengthened in 1996 and strengthened some more in 2000.

Who's to say that relationship might not start heading in the opposite direction? Despite Bush's best efforts, he has had little success inflaming the culture wars and we are now 4 years past the sex scandals that dogged the last years of the Clinton-Gore administration. Keep an eye on this one as we head toward November.

At last A poll

At last! A poll that Matthew Dowd can be happy about. While the Gallup folks were busy collecting their data (June 21-23), the fair and balanced folks over at Fox News were busy collecting theirs (June 22-23). To say the Fox News results differ somewhat from the Gallup results would be to considerably understate the case.

The Fox poll has Bush up by 6 points (48-42) among registered voters (RVs). As I discussed in my previous post, Gallup has Kerry up by 4 (49-45) in the identical Kerry-Bush RV matchup. Kind of different!

And check this out. Fox has Bush ahead by 20 points in the solid red states (Gallup had Bush ahead by 8), Kerry ahead by only 3 (!) in the solid blue states (Gallup: Kerry by 14) and Kerry ahead by an identical 3 point margin in purple states (Gallup: Kerry by 9). Huh?!? Kerry ahead by only 3 in the solid blue states--and up by no more there than in the battleground states?

Was Fox really polling the same country? You've gotta wonder. The survey dates of the two polls are virtually identical, we're talking about the same universe (registered voters) and the same matchup--and yet the results are starkly different.

So who do we believe? Well, if it's a choice between Fox News or the Gallup Organization, I don't find this a particularly difficult choice to make. To tell the truth, I rarely pay much attention to Fox News polls, which are invariably and significantly pro-Bush relative to other public polls, but this one seemed so egregiously off and so directly contradicted by the Gallup data that I just had to comment on it.

You might well ask: how on earth do the Fox News folks get such weird results? I don't really know, but one possibility is that they weight their data by party ID. Under this procedure, if you've got, in your view, too many Democrats (like in that pesky Los Angeles Times poll), you simply weight them down and weight the Republicans up so you get to the presumed proper distribution of party ID (those respondents can't really be serious about indentifying with the Democrats!).

I don't know that this is true of the Fox News poll. But it certainly would help explain why their horse race results differ so much from Gallup's (who, like good girls and boys, never weight by party ID--see this good article in the Los Angeles Times explaining why public polling organizations worth their salt eschew this practice). Or how Fox News--again, polling on essentially identical days--could find John Kerry's favorability rating at 42 percent favorable/43 percent unfavorable, while Gallup has it 58 percent favorable/35 percent unfavorable.

While we're on the subject of Fox News polls, it's worth mentioning their new polls of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, which also seem--well, a little surprising. Yesterday, I discussed the June 21-23 ARG poll of Ohio, where Kerry led by 6. Fox, polling on June 22-23, has Bush ahead by 4 in Ohio. Hmmm. Yesterday I also mentioned the June 21-23 ARG poll of Florida, where Kerry was ahead by 2. Fox's June 22-23 poll of Florida has Bush ahead by 9!

Curiouser and curiouser said Alice. Now, if it was anyone but Fox, I might be tempted to ascribe these differences to ARG's use of likely voters (LVs), rather than RVs, as Fox uses. But these are mighty big differences and this is Fox, so I don't buy it.

I especially don't buy it when we look at Fox's Pennsylvania results. Fox, polling on June 22-23, has Bush ahead by 3 among RVs in Pennsylvania. But, the highly reputable Quinnipiac University poll, polling on June 21-22 and also polling RVs, has Kerry ahead by 6. What a difference a day makes--or, considerably more likely, what a difference the Fox News treatment makes.

I have a new slogan for Fox News: "Pro-Bush Results Guaranteed". Unlike "Fair and Balanced", this would allow them to stick closely to their empirical record.