Reformist Democrats have many, many reasons for believing (rightly I’d say) that time is on their side. Demographics, ideological propensity … many, many reasons. But the biggest and probably most obvious sign is the one sitting right under our noses.

That is this: on pretty much every major question of domestic policy these days you have one piece of legislation, supported largely by Democrats, and enjoying pretty broad popular support. Then on the other side you have a phony-baloney piece of legislation put forward by Republicans (more or less entirely reactive to the Democratic legislation) intended to scuttle the effort to pass the original reform. Is the Republican approach better? Sure, maybe. Would they ever have thought to propose it on their own without heat from the Dem bill? Of course not.

In most cases you’ll find some deer-caught -in-the- headlights backbench Republican Rotarian you’ve never heard of before hustled up to affix his name to the bill.

The latest example of course is in the campaign finance debate, and the new bill-killer in the House sponsored by Rep. Bob Ney (OH-R) and (regrettably) Rep. Albert Wynn (MD-D). But pretty much the same logic applies to Patients’ Bill of Rights, prescription drug benefit, and a slew of other current debates.

It didn’t used to be this way. Remember welfare reform? Nor does it mean the Democrats are right and the Republicans wrong. But it gives a clear sense of the trajectory of our politics today.

It may not be the Dems’ time. But time is on their side.

Just a quick note on the Condit front. The story that’s only starting to get a touch of play in the reporting is how much orchestration is taking place on the part of the public relations operatives working for the Levy family.

One hesitates to use the loaded word ‘orchestration’ since these people are desperately trying to find out what happened to their daughter; and the chances of finding a happy answer seem bleak. Still it’s a point worth noting since it speaks to a broader issue of how the media functions today, and specifically how this story is being advanced.

Reporters I’ve spoken to who are covering the Levy camp (if I can use that word) say that the Levy supporters (would it be too cheeky to call them Levites?) are quite open about their strategy, which is to day-after-day drib and drab out more information on Condit-Levy relationship, both to squeeze Condit and keep pressure on the police. Yesterday’s revelations from Chandra’s aunt are of course part of this effort. These days even feeding frenzies and personal tragedy apparently can’t do without professional management.

I’m not saying this is good or bad necessarily; just that much of it is very, very thought out in advance, and planned for greatest impact and effect.

Of course, Condit too now has an anti-feeding frenzy consultant on hire. But her job seems a touch more challenging than theirs.

And by the way, for you real Talking Points loyalists out there, I’ll be on CNN’s Reliable Sources (Sat. 6:30 PM; Sun 11:30 AM) this weekend making what (if I remember correctly) were some fairly vacuous media criticism type comments about you know what.

You hear a lot these days about how the Bush administration is starting to heed the polls and buff up its image on the environment and Big Oil lackey fronts. But developments like these reassure me that the Bushies are going to stick determinedly to principle. This from today’s Wall Street Journal ‘Washington Wire’ …

Climate-change treaty foe Philip Cooney is the new chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which helps formulate the U.S. position on global warming. At the American Petroleum Institute, he helped develop the oil lobby’s opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse-gas emissions.

Which reminds me, I’ve still got to get in my application for this year’s oil studies fellowship over at the ‘Institute.’

I never, never, never want to hear you tell me that Talking Points doesn’t give you an utterly unique take on the news of the day!

Needless to say, things are sort of heating up today on the Condit-Levy front. You’ve got Mrs. Condit’s interview with authorities in suburban Virginia. Then you’ve got the DC police chief saying that the police consider it unlikely Levy committed suicide. They believe she was either the victim of foul play or simply went into hiding. And if you have a brain, of course, that sounds a lot like they think it was foul play.

Condit’s attorney Abbe Lowell issued this statement to the press and announced that henceforth Marina Ein will be handling press matters for the Condits, presumably to give a break to the hapless Mike Lynch, Condit’s press secretary who probably didn’t know quite what he was getting into when he signed on to handle media for the obscure California congressman.

Now, sitting here at my desk writing out a draft of my soon-to- be-published article on foreign lobbyists, I couldn’t help but wonder: Marina Ein? Marina Ein? Where do I know that name from?

Oh, right! She’s the one who signed on back in the Spring of 2000 to do media relations work for General Wiranto of Indonesia at the time when he was coming under intense scrutiny for his role in alleged crimes against humanity in East Timor in 1999.

According to Ein’s April 4, 2000 Foreign Agents Registration filing (reg.# 5369), she:

agreed to provide media outreach services — including editorial services — to General Wiranto. We are providing these services for a monthly retainer of $20,000 for an open-ended period …. We will draft editorial material for use in a “by-lined” or op-ed piece(s) and work to secure interviews and other speaking opportunities. We will seek such opportunities in print and electronic formats.

I guess the real question is, who will Ein have a harder time defending, Wiranto or Condit? And does Condit have to pay her 20Gs a month too?

P.S. Late Update: One TPM secret informant tells me Ein also used to do PR work for The New Republic. But I’ll bet you third world strong man-types pay better than center-left opinion mags. Trust me, I should know.

The shrewdest analysts of the Balkan tragedy have always seen Slobodan Milosevic as a cynic, a pragmatist, a deft tactician, if a rather bad strategist.

So it makes sense that Milosevic should be taking this rejectionist stand toward the Hague tribunal. After all, it’s not like there’s anyone he can roll on; and not like anyway he’s going to beat the rap. So why not go out with a flourish? And maybe inflict a little pain on his enemies along the way.

Milosevic now seems intent on putting the international community on trial with him, and attempting to make them appear complicit in his crimes. According to this BBC report, he plans particularly to target the British, especially two Tory Foreign Ministers from the early and middle nineties.

In any real sense, of course, this claim is utterly bogus. But it’s not an entirely idle threat.

At various points over the last dozen years, the West saw Milosevic as useful, or at least someone they had to deal with. Most famously, at the Dayton peace talks, he was treated as something of a peace maker, and to a degree he actually delivered — knocking the heads of Bosnian Serb chieftains and forcing them to get on board.

For the Europeans and the Brits there is even more awkwardness. After his retirement, for instance, Douglas Hurd, Tory Foreign Secretary in the early-mid 1990s, got involved with all manner of debt restructuring and telecom work for Milosevic’s government. This of course was during one of Milosevic’s ‘good-guy’ phases.

Again, the point is not that NATO governments share any real complicity in Milosevic’s crimes; nor did various prime ministers and foreign ministers — faced with few good options — lack good reasons for dealing with Milosevic, and even in some sense propping him up.

But Milosevic can throw light on the West’s back-and-forth positioning over the course of the 1990s — sometimes denouncing him as an arch-war criminal, at other times giving him a good cleaning and dressing him up as a potential peace partner. He could embarrass Western leaders by highlighting their often erratic and cowardly stance toward the Balkan tragedy for much of the decade, their own crimes of omission, and their own connections to him.

A quick thought. Anne Marie Smith says that on “approximately May 5 or 6” Gary Condit called her and said he was “in trouble” and might have to “disappear for a while.”
According to the Levys, they first called the DC police on May 5th. They again called on the 6th and reported her as a missing person. Only then — concerned that the police were not giving the matter sufficient attention — did they call Condit. That was on the evening of May 6th.

Clearly, the question is which of these conversations occurred first. If conversation (A) occurred prior to conversation (B) — that is to say, if Condit told Smith he was “in trouble” before he found out from Levy’s parents that she was missing — that would be rather damning, no?

With phone records, this should all be rather easy to nail down. As police presumably are trying to do.

Here is a worthwhile article on the bizarre afterlife of the one major Clinton-era Independent Counsel investigation still chugging along. Appropriately enough, it’s David M. Barrett’s investigation of Henry Cisneros — which was just given yet another extension to continue its work. Needless to say, Cisneros himself is no longer even at issue. Not only was he investigated, he was investigated, indicted for lying to the FBI about how much money he gave to his one-time mistress, prosecuted, copped a plea and paid a fine, and for good measure got pardoned by Bill Clinton.

(As long as we’re at it, Cisneros’ crime — that of low-balling the amount of money you paid to your former mistress when the FBI asked you about it during your background check for becoming a cabinet secretary — is a pretty good example of the sort of bogus crime I referred to earlier.)

In any case, of all the Clinton-era IC appointments, Barrett and his subsequent investigation always had the strongest hint of political payback about it. Rather than a career prosecutor, Barret is best described as a career GOP activist, DC lawyer, lobbyist, rain-maker, and influence peddler — a common species in the Washington ecosystem. Most particularly, Barrett was knee-deep in the multifarious doings of the notoriously corrupt Reagan-era HUD department. As the Washington Post gently put it a couple years ago “Barrett was part of an interconnected group of lobbyists, consultants, and current and former HUD officials who benefited from high-level access to HUD at a time when corruption in the department was rampant.”

So the three judge panel which appoints ICs thought Barrett, an oily crony from HUD’s corrupt days, would be a judicious pick to head up an investigation of the reforming HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros. Now Barrett has gotten yet another extension to continue investigating whether various government officials tried to criminally obstruct his probe.

Barrett’s endless investigation, though, was always less grand conspiracy or perversion of justice than some pale echo of Arendt’s banality of evil. There’s less Vast Right Wing Conspiracy here than marquee time-serving, a third-tier DC influence peddler, perpetually on-the-make, unwilling to give up his roving commission to kick up trouble for fun and profit.

Alright, here’s the July 4th Talking Points quiz … Ready?

Read the following copy and tell me if it’s really our 43rd president answering a couple questions during an impromptu visit to the Jefferson Memorial or just the words in the bubble in today’s Doonesbury cartoon strip …

Questioner: What does the 4th mean to you, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, it’s an unimaginable honor to be the President during the 4th of July of this country. It means what these words say, for starters. The great inalienable rights of our country. We’re blessed with such values in America. And I — it’s — I’m a proud man to be the nation based upon such wonderful values.

I can’t tell you what it’s like to be in Europe, for example, to be talking about the greatness of America. But the true greatness of America are the people. And it’s another reason we’re here, is to be able to say hello to some of our fellow Americans who are here to celebrate.

It’s good to see everybody. John, when are you getting married?

Questioner: Three weeks, sir.

Still stumped? Maybe this link will help.

Of late, for a number of reasons, I’ve tried to make these virtual pages a Condit/Chandra free zone. But let me add one note regarding today’s developments.

A flight attendant, who alleges an affair with Condit, says he asked her to swear out a false affidavit denying an affair, etc. To rebut the charges, Condit released the following statement:

I have repeatedly urged anyone who has any information that could help police find Chandra Levy to come forward, tell all they know, and be as forthcoming as possible. I have not asked anyone to refrain from discussing this matter with authorities, nor have I suggested anyone mislead the authorities.

Like many others in this case, this really isn’t the denial it purports to be. A straightforward look at the syntax tells you that the antecedent of “this matter” is Chandra Levy’s disappearance; Condit is thus denying telling anyone to withhold information they may know about the whereabouts of Chandra Levy, not anything having to do with some alleged affair he may have had with the other woman. With regards the flight attendant’s allegation, this statement is, as the lawyers would say, non-responsive.

Having said this, though, let’s make very sure this alleged other relationship does have some conceiveable tie-in with the Chandra Levy case. The rationale for looking into Condit’s relationship with Levy is its proximity to her disappearance. We certainly don’t know they are connected. But that proximity, I’ve always thought, at least requires Condit to be forthcoming about anything which could shed light on her disappearance.

But the Chandra relationship doesn’t give reporters a roving commission to open the books on all the pitiful back pages of Condit’s life.

One might say that the possibility of a crime — tied to the affidavit — makes this new relationship a public matter — just as Chandra’s disappearance makes the relationship with her a public matter.

But this doesn’t wash to me.

What makes the Chandra relationship different is that something very serious and tragic seems to have happened to her. It may or may not be a crime. But something happened to her. But when we talk about a crime, to my lights at least, we mean a real crime, not the sort of bogus crime that only lawyers recognize as a crime — like lying about, or trying to get others to lie about who you’ve had sex with.

In the abstract, I agree that perjury and obstruction are serious offenses. But in these cases, they are also weapons with which you can put someone in a very tight position, where you bend them over the barrel of public opinion and then pull in the law for a squeeze play. The crime isn’t the justification for rummaging through someone’s private life. It’s something wrenched out of them once you’ve already got into their personal affairs and you’re using the info to squeeze them.

Come to think of it, something like this happened with another guy I know a few years ago.

In any case, the point is that the circumstances of Levy’s disappearance really did change the rules in the case of media questioning of that relationship — legitimately so. But it’s not a reason to tie Condit to a pole and play Lord of the Flies with this man’s pitiful private affairs.

If Condit really did call this other woman at the beginning of May and tell her he was “going to have to disappear for a while” that’s a pretty big deal. And it would bear directly on some sort of connection to Levy’s disappearance. I’m just saying this is a slippery slope.

P.S. Mickey Kaus responds to the above and says I was tying myself “in gratuitous knots.” Perhaps so. It’s part of the weblog philosophy that you don’t pull down posts once they’re up. But suffice it to say that what’s always struck me about this case, and the media’s curious early reaction to it, is this: In the Clinton case, the media used largely bogus ‘crimes’ as an excuse to get at sex. In the Condit case, the media used the excuse of sex to ignore what was potentially a crime of the highest order. The contrast, I have always thought, speaks volumes. Anyway, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ with it. (Update July 4th, 2001, 1:38 AM)

President Bush’s poll numbers do keep slipping. Today’s CNN-USA Today poll has him at 52%. But Democrats would be foolish to get too excited by this drift downward. After all, until the crazy years of the late 1990s ratings over 50% were considered pretty good.

“If he had these kinds of numbers in October of a re-election year he’d be on his way to a smashing victory,” Ari Fleischer told USA Today.

Comments like that make you hope Fleischer has a very prominent role in Bush 2004. A president can certainly win reelection with 50% approval. But if he’s got a brain he’d go into election day shaking in his boots.

A better way to look at the president’s difficulties is to consider just how well, relatively speaking, this first 5 months have gone. Just from the perspective of a moderate to conservative Republican you could scarcely imagine a better record Bush has put together. He’s put through a big tax cut with compromises only at the margins. He’s stood by tough nominees, and without exceptions gotten them through. He’s had clear sailing abroad. And there is really no big domestic screw up or embarrassment you can point to coming out of the White House.

In short, you could hardly ask for better.

And still the numbers are falling.

The implication is that the product — even packaged deftly and pushed expertly — just isn’t one that voters want to buy.

Early Clintonian incompetence at least made plausible the idea that the problem was in the delivery, that better packaging could seal the deal.

Despite all the not-unreasonable speculation that the California energy crisis would spike Governor Gray Davis’ political career this new poll says otherwise. Even Richard Riordan, the quirky liberal-to -moderate former Mayor of Los Angeles, who Republicans are begging to get into the race, only manages to pull 35% of voters versus Davis’ 49%. The key here, of course, is that California seems to be turning the corner in its struggle to get its electricity house in order. And thus there is good reason to think Davis will grow stronger, not weaker, than these current poll readings suggest.

Apparently Surgeon General David Satcher was growing impatient at how long it’s taking George W. Bush to fire him. How else to explain his decision to issue a report noting the incontrovertible fact that there is no evidence “abstinence-only” programs work?

Like any self-respecting, New Dem-leaning Democrat under thirty-five I’ve greeted the charges of energy company price-gouging and price-fixing with a mixture of nostalgia and disbelief. I’ve got no affection for energy producers. It’s clear they are reaping windfall profits from supply shortfalls which have dramatically ramped up prices. And I think it’s well worth considering temporary regulatory interventions to prevent a massive transfer of wealth from consumers to energy companies over the next months and years.

But it’s always been difficult for me to believe that energy companies had intentionally rigged the situation of constricted supply and inflated prices we currently face.

Until now.

Today’s Paul Krugman column on the Times OpEd page sets forth some of the reasons why you don’t have to be a wild conspiracy theorist to believe that price manipulation and intentional supply shortfalls by energy companies had a lot to do with the California energy crisis. He also explains why political pressure to end such skullduggery has likely been a strong factor in the surprising, but little reported, turnaround in California in recent weeks.

But what really opened my eyes on this question was a report released almost two weeks ago by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden which included internal energy company memos detailing plans to reduce refining capacity to pump up profit margins. If that’s true it’s extremely damning because the argument from the oil companies and their supporters in the Republican party has been that our big problem is a dearth of refining capacity due largely to restrictive environmental policies and the lack of that oil man’s holy grail A National Energy Policy — and of course some miscellaneous screw ups by Bill Clinton.

Wyden’s argument is that oil companies conspired (that’s an inflammatory word, I grant you, but technically correct, at least) to close down refineries to prevent oversupply and low prices — partly by running independent operators out of business. The evidence provided by Wyden isn’t dispositive. But it’s impossible to dismiss out of hand. What seems quite clear is that a number of oil company execs were thinking along these lines. What you’d want to know is just how widespread it was and how large a role it played in our current predicament. Wyden’s findings were striking enough that I’m surprised they didn’t generate more attention. These questions definitely call for holding hearings and investigations and Democrats are planning to do just that.

Here’s the kicker though. A few days ago I said that despite the numerous wouldashoulda scandals coming out of the Bush White House today there are some potential scandals that very much deserve looking into — both on political grounds and just on the merits.

This is one of them.

In case you’ve forgotten our new president comes out of the oil industry. Just as important, our new vice-president (and the architect of administration energy policy) spent the last half dozen or more years running a major oil industry concern. If the charges in the Wyden report bear out, that is, if it turns out that there were widespread efforts to reduce refining capacity in the middle 1990s to drive up prices, it’s very hard to believe an oil industry executive like Dick Cheney wouldn’t know anything about. If he did know about it, his energy plan isn’t just ill-conceived, it would be premised on a massive deception, and a utter disregard of the public interest. That would be politically devastating for the administration and deservedly so.

The New York Post leads today with news of more shameless power-grabbing, or rather office-grabbing, by that evil-doer Hillary Clinton (“Hillary Hijacks Senate Offices“). “The Democrats have had the gavel for two weeks and the first thing they do is give Hillary more space,” one fuming Republican aide tells the Post. The piece gives short shrift to Chris Dodd’s explanation that the extra two offices in question were supposed to go to Hillary in the first place because she comes from a large state.

Oddly though, there’s no mention of this March 8, 2001 letter Mitch McConnell sent to Hillary saying exactly what Dodd is saying now:

Dear Hillary:

Pursuant to the authority delegated to me as Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Administration, I am writing to inform you that in addition to your basic office suite, New York is entitled to additional space as a large state. In accordance with this policy, you are also assigned:

Rooms 470, 473, and 475 in Russell Senate Office Building.

Please have a member of your staff contact the Superintendent of the Senate Office Buildings to arrange for the details and time for locating to these new rooms.

Sincerely,

Mitch McConnell

Chairman

Hmmmmm…

According to several published reports Gary Condit basically refused to get into the nature or details of his relationship with Chandra Levy in his second sit-down with the police over the weekend — and police didn’t press him on it. In fairness to Condit, it’s worth pointing out (as the Daily News does today) that if he did admit to an affair in a meeting with police it would almost certainly be leaked to the press and appear the next day in the Daily News, New York Post, and Washington Post. So there is certainly a reason beside covering up other bad acts for Condit not to come clean to the DC police on the nature of his relationship with Levy.

That said, it’s a little difficult to see how Condit could really have told the police much of anything or been at all forthcoming if he refused to get into his relationship with Levy since that is the whole point of talking to him in the first place.

The New York Post says police aren’t satisfied that Condit told him everything he knows and are planning what the paper calls “further investigation into his activities.” They also want to interview Condit’s wife Carolyn.

It’s again worth noting that the police continue to say Condit is not a suspect in Levy’s disappearance. But of course they also say they have no reason to believe a crime has occurred. So take that for what it’s worth.

Next up, Talking Points responds to Bull Moose’s recent comments about Joe Lieberman, “a Democratic national greatness agenda,” and campaign 2004. Unless of course we’re preempted by more shocking developments on the Condit-Levy front.

A reader writes to ask if I was too harsh in my previous post arguing that “Bush and the Rumsfeldian wing of administration foreign policy have been lazily, stupidly, arrogantly indifferent” to the crisis now boiling over in Macedonia.

First, Talking Points is sometimes hyperbolic. That’s one of the things I like about it. And the site itself is a different genre of writing from that in which I or others might write in say Slate or The New Republic. Sites like TPM or Kausfiles or AndrewSullivan.com are an evolving form, but I at least think of them as having the parameters and conventions of verbal conversation as much as magazine writing — even though they only exist in written form.

This is actually just one of the many reasons writing Talking Points is actually a rather weird and perplexing experience. Today for instance I was invited to a foundation-sponsored lunch for the release of a new book by one of DC’s marquee, establishment pundits. This is a pretty standard sort of thing where a cluster of bigwigs, and a few smallwigs like Talking Points, get together for a free lunch, a free book, and a lot of questioning and answering which may or may not have about the same value.

In any case, I’m there in my Sunday finest waiting for things to get under way, wondering whether it’s okay to start eating my sandwich or not, when I see out of the corner of my eye the event host and another familiar face from the Cable TV airwaves standing at the edge of the room calling me over. I hop up to see what they want. And the fellow calling me over says to me with a mix of schadenfreude, irony, and furtiveness: “Josh, we’ve only got a few minutes before we’ve got to start, but tell us, what’s the latest about Chandra?”

In almost two years in DC I’m not sure I’ve ever had a time when I felt quite that equal measure of affirmation and utter mortification at precisely the same moment.

In any case, back to the subject at hand: whether “Bush and the Rumsfeldian wing of administration foreign policy have been lazily, stupidly, arrogantly indifferent” to the burgeoning crisis in the Macedonia.

For all I’ve said above about the unique weirdness of Talking Points, I think these tough words are actually entirely appropriate. Here’s why:

For years, Republicans have complained about Bill Clinton’s allegedly promiscuous use of American soldiers, putting them here, putting them there, and so forth. They’ve made snarky jabs about the administration using our soldiers as ‘social workers,’ doing all sorts of unmanly, unsoldierly duties, as though our Balkan deployments were simply some international equivalent of corporate diversity training workshops.

(The US did allow the American troops serving in the UN contingent to escort Albanian rebels in the operation that triggered the recent unrest. And the willingness to involve us, in that case, deserves credit. But the overall policy is pretty clear.)

As the Bushies have in so many other arenas, they’ve come to the White House with the standing assumption that everything Bill Clinton did should be undone — righting the wrong in some sense of Bill Clinton’s very presidency. This isn’t the only reason certainly that the Bushies have taken a jaundiced view of our Balkan deployments, but it’s an important part of the equation. And Don Rumsfeld has openly spoken of his desire to pull back our troop commitments in the former Yugoslavia.

This is a lazy, stupid and arrogant viewpoint. The new administration with its neo-Blimp political appointees in the Defense Department want global preeminence and geopolitical stability on the cheap. They’ve indulged an arrogant anti-Clintonism, a lazy retreat to neo-Cold War verities, and thinking about our interests and responsibilities in the Balkans which I think is properly called stupid. Our involvement in the Balkans was at best a wash politically for the Clinton administration; but it was the right thing to do, despite the messy outcome. Those who carped on the sidelines, either irresponsibly or foolishly, deserve no mercy when their facile maxims bear fruit.

Well that sounds like the other shoe dropping. Or if not a shoe then at least a very heavy sock. According to this late report from FoxNews, in his interview with police over the weekend Gary Condit told investigators that he “broke off his close friendship” with Levy two days before she disappeared. Apparently Condit used the placeholder of a “close friendship” to describe the events of the April 29th and 30th, while strongly implying, though not saying, that they were lovers.

Sources tell Fox that when Condit “broke off his close friendship” with Levy she “was extremely disappointed and distraught, refusing to take no for an answer and even becoming obsessed with him.”

As we’ve noted before, consider the time line. On the 28th, Condit’s wife arrives from California. Early on the 29th Condit talks to Chandra and breaks off their “close friendship.” This is followed by two days of pager messages from Chandra to Condit which, according to FOXNews, Condit says he never returned.

This is like a jigsaw puzzle beginning to fit together.

So many events come across our radar which are really insignificant. And not (pace media bluenoses) just the Gary Condit story.

But the events spinning out of control in Macedonia over the last 48 hours could scarcely be more important or grave. As anyone remotely familiar with 19th and 20th century history knows, Macedonia is a latent hotbed of overlapping irredentisms and a firecracker folded into the creaky joints of Balkan stability.

From the outset of the greater Yugoslavian war, American diplomats have recognized this importance and Macedonia’s relative placidity over the last decade has been a marked success as other parts of Yugoslavia skidded into destruction. As a recognition of that importance Americans soldiers have made up roughly half of a thousand strong UN peace-keeping force along the Macedonian border for most of the 1990s — placed there by Bush’s father long before Americans seriously considered deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The reasons for Macedonia’s centrality and importance are complex. But briefly, at least four countries would quickly be pulled into the fray if Macedonia were to spin out of control — Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece — and the last two of those are NATO member states. In short Macedonia’s implosion could trigger the regional Balkan war which it has been the aim of American foreign policy for the last decade to avert.

The Bush administration comes late to this problem. But if things do go bad they’ll share a large measure of the blame. It’s not at all clear that America could defuse this situation. But Bush and the Rumsfeldian wing of administration foreign policy have been lazily, stupidly, arrogantly indifferent to this building crisis. And those who are in a position to do good and do nothing bear great blame when things go bad.

It’s at times like these when Mr. Rumsfeld’s ugly, Blimpish foolery becomes a very serious matter.

I’ve had several questions about what I think of Bill Safire’s handicapping of the Democratic presidential contenders in Monday’s New York Times.

There’s a separate question which Andrew Sullivan raised about what to make of the Times poll itself — whether it should be taken seriously, considering it seemed to have Bush a bit lower than recent Gallup and Zogby polls.

But for the moment let’s stick to the Safire handicapping (which I’ve included below sans commentary).

Tom Daschle (4-1)
Joe Biden (5-1)
Richard Gephardt (15-1)
John Edwards (9-1)
John Kerry (4-1)
Pat Leahy (6-1)
Joe Lieberman (5-1)
Chris Dodd (4-1)
Russell Feingold (8-1)
Al Gore (2-1)

Actually, by and large, I think he’s got it about right. Gore, Kerry, and Lieberman seem about right, though Lieberman should be at least as high as Kerry, and probably a touch higher. Daschle is maybe a touch high; Edwards maybe a touch low; but neither too far off the mark.

Feingold makes no sense. Dodd at 4-1 is so ridiculous that you have to wonder what Safire is smoking (and I’m a Dodd fan). And Leahy unfortunately also seems pretty overdone even at 6-1 (though I’m a fan of his too).

The name where I may surprise people by agreeing with Safire is Dick Gephardt’s. I think Safire’s exactly right. One of the next-yet- quite-told stories of Washington these days is the slow, inexorable fall of Dick Gephardt as a serious presidential contender. If Gephardt were just a goof it wouldn’t be such an interesting story. But he’s not. Not at all. In fact, in some ways, Gephardt’s decline as a possible presidential contender is directly related to his able leadership of the House Democratic caucus back from the wilderness years of 1995. I think 15-1 has it about right. Maybe a touch optimistic.

Well, a prophet is never known in his own time, as they say. Or at least not for a few weeks. Talking Points first started turning a jaundiced eye towards the Gary Condit’s non-denial denials way back on May 18th. And by now of course everyone’s gotten into the act. Yesterday The New York Daily News said:

It doesn’t help that Condit bears a striking physical resemblance to actor William Macy, who played a mild-mannered car dealer with the anxious grin whose murderous plot spins wildly out of his control in the movie “Fargo.”

But wait a minute! Didn’t Talking Points flag the Condit-Macy connection back on June 19th! I mean, God!!! What is journalism coming to nowadays when a young, up-and-coming writer can’t even get credited for his own semi-libelous riffs on the events of the day!?!?!

Anyway, enough of this lameness.

We’re clearly into the phase of the Condit story where most of the developments are meta-developments, or perhaps better to say para-developments — events which tell us nothing really new about the underlying question but add embroidery around the edges and interesting but extraneous information from which we can at best infer new insights.

In this category we have Condit’s second interview with the police, his hiring of Abbe Lowell, his meeting with Levy’s mother and so on.

As nearly as I can tell the only significant new detail we have is the Washington Post’s report that in the second police interview Condit said he last spoke to Levy on April 29th.

As your more experienced Conditologists will remember, the 29th is the day before Levy disappeared. It is also the first day on which she was making repeated calls to Condit’s private pager (Time Magazine said Levy’s mother found “about 20 calls” to the number on Chandra’s cell phone bill — but the Time report left unclear how many of those were on the 29th and 30th.)

So what does this tell us?

As nearly as I can tell this is what we know: on Saturday April 28th, Condit’s wife Carolyn arrived in Washington for a visit — something she only does two or three times a year.

The next day, Sunday the 29th, Levy began sending repeated pages to Condit trying to get in touch with him. Some time that same day (either after or before the flurry of pages, we don’t know) Condit spoke to Levy for what was apparently the last time.

After speaking with Condit on Sunday, Levy continued to try to get in contact with him the next day, paging him again repeatedly on Monday the 30th. Also on Monday the 30th, Levy went to Washington Sports Club and cancelled her membership, and sent a final email to her parents about travel plans (which arrived the following day).

One issue that seems very worth clarifying is whether the Condit-Levy conversation of the 29th occurred before or after she started ringing up his pager. If it occurred before the pager calls began, that makes you think something of real importance occurred in the final conversation, leaving Levy extremely eager to talk to Condit again. If the conversation occurred in the midst of those pager calls, the picture is a little more ambiguous.

I believe we’re in need of a new word. I’ve been wondering today how and why numerous scandals just seem to roll off the backs of the president and his many flunkies.

Some have gotten a bit of attention. There’s Karl Rove’s sharing his expertise on antitrust doctrine with executives at Intel, the late news that Vice President Cheney’s former company Halliburton was doing business with Iraq during the 1990s, using $23 million in government money to send out a smiley face postcard from George W. about the tax cut, John Ashcroft’s decision to settle the Tobacco suit in an obvious payback to the Tobacco industry, firing the Senate Parliamentarian when he refuses to shine Trent Lott’s shoes on command, the White House vandalism story that I talked about so much before I got obsessed with Gary Condit.

Hell, there’s even stuff like the Pentagon’s hiring a Russian cargo firm with close ties to the Russian military to bring back our mangled spy plane from China.

But this last instance especially spotlights the need for the new word. If President Clinton hired the Russians to bring back our plane people would be going nuts. If one of Clinton’s guys pulled a Karl Rove we’d be hearing very serious calls for his resignation. They’d both get added to the list of the dreaded ‘Clinton’ scandals and be treated accordingly. You know the drill: Dan Burton announces hearings; Andrea Mitchell gives it some establishment cred with a few blurbs on the nightly news, Chris Matthews pops a vein, and then the whole thing slithers off into a bizarre and languid quasi-life at NewsMax, FreeRepublic.com, and Regnery Publishing.

Of course the problem here is that most of these ‘Clinton scandals’ were just puffed up exaggerations for imbeciles and oafs. They never should have been scandals in the first place. Just as the Russian plane thing is not, and should not, be one today. And the same is true for a lot of these things with the Bushies.

So why talk about them? It’s not really that some of these lapses should be scandals. It’s just too galling for Clinton supporters to see the Bush folks skate free for the kind of stuff they got endless crap for.

One of the things this shows is that scandals don’t just require a bad or ambiguous act. They also require lots of folks who just can’t seem to get a life to huff and puff over them. And for better or worse there’s just a whole lot more of those folks on the right then on the left. If you don’t believe me just drop by the next annual Conservative Political Action Conference and you’ll see what I mean.

Anyway, if you’re a Dem with a brain this puts you in a tough spot because you want to give the Republicans as good as they gave. But you don’t want to end up seeming like a pitiful doofus like Dan Burton. You know a lot of these ‘scandals’ by any sane standard should never have been scandals but you still don’t want to give the Republicans a pass. Maybe the ‘scandal’ is just the double-standard. Who knows?

So you need a word, a literary shorthand, for these non-scandal scandals like the Karl Rove thing, the Senate parliamentarian firing, and so forth.

Let’s call them woulda-shoulda scandals (or maybe just ‘wouldashouldas’ for short). That would mean: if this were under Clinton, such-and-such woulda been a scandal and if there were any justice such-and-such shoulda been a scandal under Bush. But we’re just not as whacked as you guys. So we’re going to note it and move along and wait until we catch you actually doing something really bad.

This allows you to make your well-merited point, let off a little Clintonian rage, and get on with life.

It may not help us politically but at least we’ll have our self-respect.

P.S. Up next week, two potential scandals that aren’t wouldashouldas and do deserve some real looking into. (One clue: it’s tied to the oil industry.) Talking Points also defines “clintonian rage.” Now Talking Points leaves for 24 hours of much needed R-n-R outta town. So no more posts till the end of the weekend. Or until Gary Condit hires Johnnie
Cochran
. Whichever comes first.

Part of the strangeness of the Gary Condit story is the way that everyone who gets involved on Condit’s behalf gets pulled into the orbit of his ridiculousness. Here’s Condit’s new lawyer Abbe Lowell explaining the repeated delays in the police’s requested second interview with the congressman. “As to the time, the place, the circumstances, it’s going to be some way that we can avoid all this because that’s not helping to find Chandra,” said Lowell, referring to the surrounding media firestorm. The idea seems to be that interviewing Condit too quickly might make it more difficult to solve the mystery of Levy’s disappearance.

Apparently matters have escalated for Gary Condit passed the point where Joseph Cotchett can do him much good from San Francisco. Condit has now retained veteran DC Democratically lawyer Abbe Lowell to represent him. You may remember Lowell as Chief Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during Impeachment or more recently as Bob Torricelli’s criminal attorney.

Lowell will apparently hold a news conference later today.

Cotchett, according to the Condit folks, is being kept on to handle the media. I’ll let that one speak for itself.

I’ve had a lot of e-mails over the transom asking whether the Democrats should take a confrontational stance toward the president on the Patients’ Bill of Rights, and perhaps take a veto over a piece of legislation. For many pieces of legislation that will come up over the next eighteen months this is a very important question. Tom Daschle’s mentor George Mitchell famously used this veto-inducing strategy against Bush’s father and greatly contributed to Bush’s eventual defeat in 1992.

In any case, many legislative battles will raise this question. But in this case there really isn’t much of a question over what stance to take.

As the recent CBS-New Times poll showed, President Bush is already beginning to appear to a majority of Americans as someone who either doesn’t care or isn’t interested in the issues which matter most to them in their daily lives. What’s more, the Democratic position is overwhelmingly popular with the public. And the Republicans themselves are seeing a slow hemorrhage of defections as moderates and even some conservatives don’t want to get stuck carrying water for the president’s unpopular position. The president’s hand on the domestic policy front is extraordinarily weak.

The real question would have been this: If president Bush had come to the Democrats, should they have kept upping the ante on him to force a veto which they would then take the public in the next election? But that’s not what’s happened. The president’s new threat to veto the Patients’ Bill of Rights legislation is either a hollow threat or a political gift.

There’s really no reason — either on substance or politics — for the Democrats to give one bit.

We don’t even really know that Gary Condit was having an affair with Chandra Levy, let alone knows anything about her disappearance. But if double-talk were punishable under the DC code they would have carted him off weeks ago. As noted here yesterday the DC police have been asking for a second interview with Condit for almost two weeks now. And yesterday the congressman released this statement:

I met with police officials as soon as Chandra Levy was reported missing and answered their questions … I have spoken with police again, and have reached out to Miss Levy’s parents. If there is any new information I can provide, I will do so without hesitation.

But according to the police, the second meeting Condit appears to be referring to must be nothing more than a phone call.

According to ABC News, police went to Condit’s condo on June 13th but were turned away because it was “not a good time.” They went to his Capitol Hill office on Monday the 18th but were told he was out of town.

According to the Post, investigators then tried to set up interviews with Condit on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, each time without success. They plan to try again today.

Now one thought which has occurred to me is that things are really heating up on the Patients’ Bill of Rights front. And maybe Condit just can’t manage to break free? Maybe the cops should talk to Gephardt and see if they can him to free up some time for Condit to talk?

If you’ve been following Talking Points’ coverage of the Condit-Levy story you don’t need me to tell you that I haven’t been particularly sympathetic to Condit’s handlers’ allegations that he’s been getting a bum rap from the press. But could this be an instance where he has?

As I noted in this earlier post, today’s Washington Post reported that DC police had asked for a re-interview with Condit a full ten days ago. This wasn’t from an anonymous source, but an on-the-record quote from DC Commander Jack Barrett, head detective on the case. That left the pretty obvious impression that Condit had been dodging a re-interview with the cops.

However, in later editions of the paper, and in the current one online, that quote from Commander Barrett about ten days is gone.

That left the obvious question of whether the line was just cut in a subsequent edition of the paper for editorial or space reasons, or whether it had in fact not been true.

I spoke late this afternoon with Petula Dvorak, the co-author of the Post piece, and she assured me that the line in question was merely “trimmed for space.” As far as they’re concerned the quote stands.

The new CBSNew York Times poll described in this article contains a lot of pretty bleak news for President Bush. His approval rating of 53% actually masks a series of more ominous ‘internals’ contained in the poll.

For all the good the ‘energy crisis‘ was supposed to do for the administration, only a pitiful 33% of the public approves his handling of energy policy. Almost two-thirds of the public believes Bush and Cheney “are too beholden to oil companies, and that they are more likely to formulate policies that favor the industry.” In fact there doesn’t really seem to be any domestic policy issue on which the administration’s positions don’t run against the majority viewpoint (and in case you’re wondering, that’s not good.)

There is something else striking in these numbers — something which has become increasingly apparent in the last month or so. President Bush really is the anti-Clinton, only not quite in the way his supporters and flacks probably intended. And not in a way likely to do him much good.

Bill Clinton was notoriously weak in how the American people judged him as a person — at least in the narrow way pollsters ascertain such information. But a broad majority of Americans consistently and persistently believed he cared about, understood, and was working on issues and problems which were important in their daily lives. I’ve called this the politics of empathy — an idea which figures prominently in a book I’m working on — and it was something that Clinton mastered and in some respects invented.

What the Times poll shows is that President Bush is almost the mirror opposite. Despite some falling numbers on the personal approval level, most voters think the President is a decent enough fellow. But substantial majorities of them don’t think he cares about the issues which matter to them, or doesn’t understand them. As the Times piece notes, this is ominously similar to the problems Bush’s dad faced in office. And it points to a basic structural problem in the sort of politics Bush is trying to pursue.

Today’s Washington Post runs an article which raises a whole series of new questions about the Chandra Levy case.

Let’s note two.

The first is that Congressman Gary Condit seems to have been a little less cooperative with the police investigation than he and the police themselves have let on. News reports yesterday said that the DC police had decided to reinterview Condit on Wednesday evening. Yet the Post story says the police first requested that second interview about ten days ago. Is there something more important going on for Condit that kept him from scheduling a time to sit down with the cops? Late word is that there’s yet another delay — and apparently the interview will again have to be rescheduled.

The other point touches on the competence, or perhaps the aggressiveness, of the police investigation. It appears that it was the Levys themselves who found the conspicuous pattern of Chandra’s calls to Condit in her cell phone records — not the police. The Post article also reports that DC Commander Jack Barrett, head detective on the case, told the paper that they hadn’t known Condit’s wife was making a relatively rare visit to DC during the crucial week of April 28th to May 3rd until Condit’s press secretary and lawyer said so publicly last week.

How can that be? Wouldn’t the initial interview have covered such obvious ground? If it did, did Condit withhold that information? Obviously, these are purely speculative questions. But since Condit’s wife was in town for an official function (a meeting of the Congressional Wives Club hosted by Laura Bush), the fact that the police didn’t find out she was in town can’t help but call into question the thoroughness of their investigation. And their apparent (and I stress apparent) failure to come up with the cell phone information points in the same direction.

The New York Times has, for better or worse, been almost entirely silent on the Chandra Levy – Gary Condit matter. But this column by Maureen Dowd — not one of my favorites normally — gives a decent run down of the facts and an apt characterization of the dark, tragic nature of the story.

The Post reports this morning that Levy’s parents have hired DC attorney Billy Martin to represent them. Martin, you may remember, also represented Monica Lewinsky’s mother — and emerged after a time as the de facto chief legal advisor to Monica too.

This brings almost full circle the bizarre Lewinsky-Levy parallelism. But reading Dowd’s column makes it bitterly clear that this time DC has managed to stand Marx’s famous dictum on its head: if this is history repeating itself, the first time was farce, the second tragedy — not the other way around.

With all those years of carping about the horribly politicized Clinton IRS, you’d sorta think the Bush Treasury Department would keep its own nose clean for more than a few months.

Apparently Not.

The New York Times reported today that the IRS will soon begin sending letters out to scores of millions of Americans. The letters are essentially a political advertisement for President Bush in the guise of a tax announcement.

“We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed — and President George W. Bush signed into law — the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes … The new tax law provides immediate tax relief in 2001 and long-term tax relief for the years to come … [it is] just the first installment of the long-term tax relief provided by the new law.”

A career employee at the IRS apparently leaked the letter to congressional Democrats. The article includes some quotes from government watchdogs rightly skewering this as a transparent effort to use the IRS to fund a massive ‘thank you President Bush’ ad campaign, as well as quotes from Frank Keith, a flack at the IRS, saying this was just a public service with information “the taxpayer needs.”

A few points about this blinding display of Bush team hubris seem to have escaped mention, however.

The goodie the letter is taking credit for (an immediate tax rebate to a fairly wide cross section of taxpayers) is the one aspect of the tax bill which President Bush didn’t want, and Democrats had to force on him.

Also, the contention that this is just an informational letter is rather belied by the fact that the text is cribbed directly from talking points generated by the White House political operation.

As attentive Talking Points reader will remember, the Bush White House long sold the tax plan on its universality — a tax cut for all Americans. That is, until critics began pointing out that income taxes are only one kind of taxes Americans pay. Most Americans pay more payroll taxes than income taxes. And Americans who only pay payroll taxes don’t get jack from the Bush plan.

The administration cavilled over this detail for a bit, but finally conceded the point and this Spring added a short blurb to end of the standard Bush boiler plate — making ‘tax relief for all Americans’ into ‘tax relief for all Americans who pay incomes taxes.’

And surprise, surprise, that very line is now part of the IRS letter. How’d that happen?

The IRS spokesman told the Times that the letter was “a collaborative effort between the agency and its parent, the Treasury Department.” That’s actually not to surprising, since Paul O’Neill — once praised as refreshing moderate on the Bush team — has of late emerged as a strikingly political and ideological Treasury chief. Of which we’ll be saying more soon.