My dear friend Mickey Kaus says on his site today that
Antonio Villaraigosa may have lost the LA Mayor’s race yesterday because of a
letter that he wrote to Bill Clinton in support of a pardon for Carlos Vignali,
the drug mini-kingpin who Bill Clinton did pardon in January.

“Do you doubt,” Mickey writes, “that
if Clinton hadn’t commuted Vignali’s sentence, Villaraigosa would today be
mayor-elect of L.A.? In this sense, Villaraigosa isn’t the victim of racism.
He’s the latest (last?) victim of Bill Clinton.”

I’m inclined to think that every pol is responsible for his or her own
actions. But this seems to me like an example of how normally shrewd and
insightful folks often somehow lose possession of their reason when talking
about Bill Clinton. If Villaraigosa wrote a letter (which unbeknownst to him
actually included false information) encouraging Bill Clinton to issue an
ill-considered pardon then it sounds to me like, if anything, Bill Clinton is
the victim of Villaraigosa, not vice versa.

Or am I missing something?

For those of you who are only familiar with Zell Miller as
the Democrat who endorsed the Bush tax cut, his OpEd in
Monday’s Times is well worth reading.

As I learned when writing this article on Miller
a couple months ago (the title is “Zellout,” but authors seldom pick the titles
of their pieces, and I definitely wouldn’t have chosen that one), Miller is a
fascinating, often very annoying, captivating, and in many ways admirable pol.

Miller looks at the fact that Al Gore got completely shut out in the South
last year and says that the Dems will never elect a president until they
reconnect with Southerners politically, regain their trust, etc. Miller says he
thinks that there should be, and one day will be, “universal access to health
care” (which if you read closely is not the same as universal health care) but
that before they can do that Dems have to pay down what he calls a ‘trust
deficit’ — in essence show that Dems are trustworthy custodians of the public
moneys before voters will trust them to enact various progressive reforms.

He also has some interesting, and I think valid, things to say about how in
the South the gun control issue functions as a proxy for values and cultural and
inter-regional condescension.

There’s a lot of good and valid information in his piece. But here’s the
problem, summed up in the following paragraph:

Al Gore became only the third Democrat since the Civil War to lose
not only every state in the old Confederacy, but two border states as well.
George McGovern and Walter Mondale were the others. But they had an excuse: They
were crushed in national landslides. They didn’t just lose the South. They lost
from sea to shining sea.
For Miller, the fact that Gore did so well
in so many other parts of the country makes his rout in the South more
blameworthy, problematic, etc. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that these
two developments are intertwined. Democratic dominance of the Northeast and West
Coast is just the other side of the coin of Democratic debility in the South.
Gun control, social liberalism, and cautious but activist government aren’t just
some bizarre outriders that can be tossed aside to pick up a few states in
Dixie. They’re key to the Dems revival in other parts of the country.

Miller makes the point that Democrats have to prove their trustworthiness in
managing the public fisc with tax cuts and fiscal discipline before voters will
trust them again to use government for activist means. This was a common
argument by New Democrats and other party reformers in the 80s and early 90s.
And there was much truth in it. Yet to voters in many parts of the country that
case has already been made.

Miller is right that Democrats will have a difficult time winning the
presidency so long as Republicans can easily lock down every state in the South.
And this is a serious question for Democratic strategists. Where he’s wrong is
to ignore the broader regional and cultural polarization of our national
politics, the connections between Democratic dominance in their new core
regions, and their difficulties in the South.

Those who make Miller’s sort of argument run the risk of sounding like those
Republican naifs and rubes who used to say, ‘hey, if we could just get the red
necks AND the blacks, then we’d be cookin’ with gas, then the Dems would
never have a chance!’

Well, yeah. But that’s not how politics works.

Many Southern Democrats are accustomed to thinking that they’re in possession
of a sought-after jewel which Dems in the rest of the country must cater to and
kneel down before to get a chance at holding. But this is an outdated view which
made much more sense when the Dems were only at parity in places like the
Industrial Midwest, the West Coast, and the Northeast. Democrats do have a
Southern problem — which we’ll be talking more about in relation to John
Edwards — but Miller doesn’t have a national solution.

When I turned aside the academic life for this writing racket I think
I had visions of Edmund
Wilson
and Walter
Lippmann
. Analyzing these pictures of alleged White House vandalism makes me
a feel a bit more like a low-rent Johnnie
Cochran
. Anyway, I guess you’ve got to sleep in the bed you’ve made. So
let’s have at it.

The White House has now released at least two pictures to substantiate their
accusations of White House vandalism. And apparently they’ve agreed to give
their “list”
to the GAO for another investigation of the whole thing.

I can’t say that I know precisely what they’re going to find. But what I do think is pretty clear is that this
vandalism story is quickly becoming a real tar baby
for Ari Fleischer. And I have to think he must be starting to realize that.

Could the White House really have the goods to put this story to rest? Maybe.
But if they did, the thing to do would be to silence the critics with a
knock-out blow. And even if you believe all they’ve alleged in their “list” it’s
still a far cry from the vandalism that was originally alleged.

More important, getting into a back and forth with their critics about piddly
stuff like whether ten slashed phone cords were slashed by resentful
twenty-somethings in the Old Executive Office Building or accidentally by movers
just makes them look stupid and petty.

I mean, listen: can you really say that “in an attempt to
deprive the incoming White House of office supplies the previous administration
threw out vast quantities of paper, pens and pencils and three-ring binders,
which we recovered
” and not consign yourself to Dante’s
seldom-discussed tenth ring of hell — that reserved for pitiful morons?

As nearly as I can tell, this photo released by the White House shows a
disheveled office with some boxes of folders and binders knocked over on the
ground. Certainly not tip top shape. And I hope every office in the place didn’t
look like that. But is this it? This is the smoking gun?



My understanding is that both these photos are from the White House Counsel’s
Office in the Old Executive Office Building. So what’s surprising is that we
haven’t seen the following conclusion already drawn: we know from sworn
congressional testimony that the folks in the Counsel’s Office were working
early into the wee hours of the morning of President Clinton’s last day in
office working over those pardon applications.

Now, the substance of what they were working isn’t on the top of my list of
things to talk about. But what seems logical to assume is that the staffers in
the Counsel’s Office worked into the morning and had little time to put things
away and throw things out before they left around noon on inauguration day. Not
that they ‘trashed’ the place about of mindless permissive liberal rage.

It would have been the better part of wisdom for Fleischer to say that he
never repeated the wildest allegations of vandalism (which would have been very
misleading but not technically untrue), that rumor and emotion got the better of
some people in those early days, and that it’s just over and be done with it.
His new round of threats have just dug him deeper.

I must admit that the decision to call the cops on the
Bush daughters always seemed a bit over the top to me. From my personal
experience /research as an underage drinker (circa 1984-1990) my understanding
was that the prescribed punishment for this infraction was ritual humiliation by
the bartender /waiter, confiscation of the ID with a condescending look, and
summary expulsion from the premises. But apparently, as the death penalty thing
shows, they’ve got a more punitive mentality down in Texas. So who knows?

In any case, the folks at the White House said the decision to drop a dime on
Jenna and Barbara was actually political. “One senior administration official”
told reporters that Chuy’s, the restaurant in question “is owned and operated by
liberals.”

Well, apparently not. According to this ABCNews.com article,
Michael Young, co-founder and president of Central Texas Chuy’s Inc. is actually
a relatively big ticket Republican donor.



Now who does that “senior administration official” sound like to you?

P.S. You got evidence on this, or just suspicion? Pure suspicion. But it
sounds like him to me.

Nothing like finishing up with a bang, they say.

Yesterday Anthony Nelson, a Treasury minister in John Major’s government and
an MP for twenty-odd years (1974-1997) announced he was defecting to
Labour
. Certainly not a crushing thing in itself, but it doesn’t exactly set
the right mood heading into election day.

Today Marney Swan, chairman of the Conservative Women’s National Council, the
Conservative Party’s women’s
organization, said William Hague had blown it
with the women’s vote with his combative anti-Europe campaign stance. She also
said she’d be calling for an inquiry after the election to find out how things
got so screwed up.

Meanwhile in a perhaps necessary, but still
humiliating and pathetic ruse
, William Hague has announced a detailed
20-point action plan for his (mythical) first two weeks as Prime Minister,
including his plan to halve the number of ‘spin doctors’ in the government.

‘Spin doctors’ being the party hacks who pen bamboozling speeches and action
plans that have no relation whatsoever to reality.

You can find the Talking Points’ run down on
the Washington Post White House vandalism story below. But another
question. The White House keeps talking about this “list” it’s released
— which apparently formed the basis of the Post story.

Here’s my question: does only the Post get to see the list? Isn’t it
going to be released to the rest of the media, so we can actually see it and
evaluate it?

And the snapshot of the trash-strewn office in the White House counsel’s
office? Can’t we see that? News reports at the time said folks at the White
House were “informally documenting” (in the words of CNN’s Kelly Wallace) what
happened. And Drudge, for what’s is worth, was told by someone at the White
House that “photographic and audio evidence” was being compiled.

Can we see those pictures?

With the vandalism story turning so clearly against
them
, the White House has now decided to strike back.

According to this
story
in the Washington Post, someone at the White House went around
late last week collecting “recollections of officials and career government
employees” and wrote up a list on Friday. (This was in response to queries from
the Post.)

A few points seem worth making. Presumably this is the maximal argument,
considering that this is the best news-cycle moment for the White House to turn
the tide on the story. Even at that, it’s pretty weak stuff. And at the
risk of stating the obvious, none of this is any more substantiated than it was
before. Ari Fleischer has a list. None of the people who saw the stuff have come
forward to make the claims and answer questions. With the exception of two
snapshots of the White House counsel’s office which the Post said showed
the place with “lot of trash but no discernible damage,” they have produced
no evidence.

In fact most of the accusations are worded in a broad and inflammatory
fashion — but in a way that is quite short of specifics.

There was “obscene graffiti in six offices.” Well, just what did it say? Are
they talking about the Office of Strategery signs?

Or what about the “Pornographic or obscene greetings … left on 15 telephone
lines”? Just what did they say? Were these just harmless jokes? Like the stuff
the Bushies left for the Clinton’s eight years earlier? Or things that were
actually nasty or obscene?

Many of the accusations seem at least as easy to explain in terms of
disorganization and confusion as intentional mischief. Fleischer reported that
75 phone lines were tampered with. But this meant “having the number plates
removed and the lines plugged into the wrong wall outlet.”

What we have here are accusations and, truthfully, most are either vague to
the point of meaningless or just too pitiful to even mention. In this latter
category you’d have to include the mention of the “two historic doorknobs [that]
were missing.”

(Note To Mike Allen: did Ari say that line about the historic doorknobs with
a straight face? Did you ask for any more details? Is this “doorknob-gate” now?
Or, given that it centers on Fleischer, maybe just knob-gate?)

For my part, nothing in the Post article changes the essential facts
or merits of the case. It only shows Fleischer and company’s willingness to
compound the original slander. “We tried to be gracious, but the last
administration would not take graciousness,” Fleischer told the Post.

Fleischer’s explanation for why they didn’t tell any of this to folks at the
GAO also sounds fishy:

Bernard L. Ungar, the agency’s director of physical infrastructure
issues, said in an interview that White House officials had told him some items
“had to be repaired, such as telephones and computer keyboards, but that there
was no record of damages.”

Fleischer said the agency had only “asked us if we had anything in writing to
provide.”

“The answer is ‘no’ because we did not keep track in writing — consciously
so, because the president wanted to look forward and not look backward,”
Fleischer said.

Yeah. Right.

Leaving aside Fleischer’s again-repeated, risible claim that was trying to
tamp down the story, not elevate it, here’s what we know: an administration
which campaigned on and flaunted its conspicuous honesty started its term in
office with a orchestrated campaign of lies. His press secretary (and numerous
White House officials and Republican operatives) started his administration job
off by deceiving the admittedly credulous White House press corps and
participating in an orchestrated campaign to slander his predecessors.

An administration which campaigned on and flaunted its conspicuous honesty
started its term in office with a orchestrated campaign of lies.

Coming from Ari Fleischer a mere list of accusations just won’t cut it.

Overshadowed by the furor of the Jeffords defection last week was
the surprising news that John
McCain
was one of only two Republicans to vote against the final Bush tax
cut. (The other was Lincoln
Chafee
.)

From the perspective of last year’s primary campaign this shouldn’t have been
surprising: McCain’s opposition to the Bush plan was a major part of his
message. But McCain seemed pretty on-board with the tax cut until fairly late in
the game. And voting against the final bill has a particular import: It was
going to pass anyway; it was a free vote. So voting against was not meant
to affect the outcome, but to send a signal.

This very
interesting article
in Saturday’s Washington Post says that McCain is
seriously considering leaving the GOP to become an Independent – not simply to
fiddle with the Senate calculus, but with a view toward a possible Independent
run against Bush in 2004. The authors also delve into McCain’s discussions with
Democratic Senators Daschle, Kennedy and Edwards about a possible party switch,
Daschle’s
trip
to McCain’s Arizona homestead this weekend, and McCain’s meetings with
various New Democrat policy types.

All of which again raises the recurring question: just what sort of pol is
John McCain these days? The best language the Post’s Edsall and Milbank
have for him is to call him the head of the “embattled progressive wing of the
Republican party.” And that’s well enough since that’s about all our current
political vocabulary allows. But is John McCain really like Jim Jeffords and
Linc Chafee?



They may come down similarly on a series of policy questions. But the basic
difference is clear even if it’s difficult to articulate. The best way to
describe it may be to says that there’s something ‘soft’ about the
Jeffords-Chafee sort of moderate Republicanism, something ‘hard’ about McCain’s.

So if McCain were to leave the Republicans and try to head up some sort of
third force in American politics, or try to run for president on that basis,
what exactly would that politics be? Especially considering that McCain’s policy
positions now seem very, very similar to those of the centrist-progressive wing
of the Democratic party?

Part of what’s going on here isn’t so much about public policy or political
strategy, as it’s a matter of political gestalt. And political
gestalt, or perhaps better to say the unifying principle of a politics, is often
much more important than the particular shopping list of policy positions a pol
endorses.

Clintonism, as it evolved over the course of the nineties, was rooted in a
politics of empathy. Wags made endless cracks about that line “I feel your
pain.” But that was an important line – and what was behind it was key to Bill
Clinton’s immense power and resiliency as president.

There’s a question that pollsters always ask voters when sizing up their
views about a given politician. The question is generally phrased something like
this: does politician X care about and/or understand the kind of problems
someone like you faces in their daily life. A pollster would put it more
artfully, but you get the idea.

Bill Clinton always scored very well on this question. Even when he did
pitifully on personal approval. Do you respect him? Is he honest? Etc. And that
was the key to his political strength – something Republicans never quite
grasped. The question measures the politics of empathy. And Clinton had it in
spades.

Clinton transformed the presidency and the nation’s politics along these
lines. Some of the theater of this was in the ubiquitous presidential rope lines
and the flying in to commune with disaster victims. But on a broader
programmatic level he crafted a politics of feeling and empathy, one which was
about crafting policies – small ones, usually – to address the mundane needs
people faced in their daily lives. This was a sort of retail politics which, as
Jacob
Weisberg
once noted, amounted to a governorization of the presidency. Your
parents can’t pay for their prescription drugs? We’ve got a program. Kids’ class
sizes are too big. We’ve got a program for that too. Need to learn how to run
some new machine to get a new job? We’ll hook you up!

This change goes far past Bill Clinton and now saturates almost all of our
politics. Republicans and Democrats alike have to play this game. One need only
look at the rhetoric of our new president, if not his actions, to see the deep
impress of Clintonism.

In any case, when Bill Kristol and
Company
started casting about for something they called National Greatness
Conservatism I suspect one of the things motivating them was the recognition
that conservatives could simply never beat Democrats at this game. If the
politics of empathy is a house, it’s floorboards tilt Democratic. Republicans
are never going to out-feel Democrats or be able to offer up more programs.
Compassionate Conservatism really just amounts to ‘I kinda feel your pain.’

What was necessary was not so much a different raft of policies, as a
different operating principle. And the logical conservative response to a
politics of empathy and feeling would be a politics of sacrifice, austerity,
assertion and perhaps also virility and masculinity. In many ways, that’s just
what National Greatness Conservatism is. It particularly explains the emphasis
on assertive foreign policy, military might, and national service.

Now, having said all this, McCain and the National Greatness folks both
started their journeys separately before meeting up and deciding that they might
be going to the same place. And one can start out moving in a political
direction for one reason and then get pulled in by other political gravities
along the way. That seems to have happened to both McCain and the Kristol crowd, though in
somewhat different ways.

So McCain may look similar to the Democrats on policy after policy. And
increasingly he is. But this difference of mentality or gestalt is just as much
what’s in play here as where McCain comes down on the patients’ bill of rights.

The big news next week will be the British Labour Party’s landslide victory over the
Tories (aka, the Conservative Party)
on June 7th.

This will be big news on a number of levels: First, in roughly eighty years
as one of Britain’s two major parties, Labour has never won two consecutive
elections. Or, to put this in American terms, a Labour Prime Minister has never
been reelected. Labour is also expected to substantially expand it’s already
massive majority in the House of Commons.

But the real story here isn’t so much Labour’s power as the complete and
utter collapse of the Tories — arguably the most successful small-“d”
democratic political party of the twentieth century.

This poll
out today
shows the first possible bad news for Labour in some time. Their
level of support has dipped to 43% — the lowest yet. But even this unexpected
late slide for Labour (likely a blip actually, earlier in the week they were
surging) underscores the pitiful position of the Tories — since Labour seems to
be losing votes not to them, but rather to the Liberal Democrats, the long-time puny third
party of British politics.



And it’s not like things are exactly hunky dorry in the UK. Last year the
country experienced a mini-energy crisis, recent months have been spent trying
to stamp out a horrific epidemic of foot and mouth disease, and the last week
has seen the worst race riots since the early 1980s. On top of all that, Tony
Blair and his second in command John
Prescott
have had some rough
moments
on the campaign trail.

So it’s not so much that Labour — or ‘New Labour’ as the Blairites style
themselves — are so strong or on top of things, though they are, but rather
that the Tories have all but ceased to exist as a political force.

At mid-week, Tory leader William Hague
was reduced to the pitiful necessity of arguing that a Labour landslide “would
be extremely dangerous for this country
.” In other words, Hague had been
forced to begging the voters for a crushing defeat rather than a
humiliating one.

In any case, what’s interesting from an American perspective is that the
Blairites are very close to the Clintonites in terms of ideology, political
style and strategy, and on a personal level as well. Clinton advisors give
advice to the Labour folks and vice versa. So, with all this, why has the
Third-Way model (embraced by Blair and Clinton) seemed to succeed so famously in
the UK while remaining at best stagnated and incomplete in the United States? Or
to put it in more concrete terms, why is Tony Blair going to spend the next five
years in 10 Downing Street while Al
Gore is … well, just where is that guy?

P.S. CORRECTION: As a one-time professional historian (who even did work in
English and British history) I am loathe to admit an historical error, but here
I must. My point above, that Labour has never won successive elections is broadly
true
, but technically inaccurate. Labour won power in 1945,
won an election in 1950, but then lost in 1951. They won narrowly in 1964,
expanded their majority in another election in 1966, but then lost in 1970.
Labour won two elections in 1974, but lost power in 1979. Here’s the story:
British governments can call elections at more or less any time they choose
within five years of a parliamentary election. In each period of power Labour
has either needed two quick successive elections to form a stable government,
or, as in 1950-51, won a second election narrowly, proved unable to gover! n
effectively and had to call another election, which it lost. What would be
accurate to say is that Labour has never been able to govern for two successive,
full parliaments. On the other hand, in the post-war era the Tories have twice
managed this, once governing for three consecutive parliaments (’51, ’55, and
’59) and more recently for four (’79,’83,’87,’92). Thanks to an attentive TPM
reader for noting my error.

Be sure to read this important tidbit on the Bush administration’s decision to cut by fifty percent funding for combating child labor around the world — a key part, no, a sine qua non, of what progressive free traders like Talking Points believe in. It’s neither as funny nor as saucy as the post below about the rapscallion Jenna Bush, but it’s a good deal more important.

Long-established political systems often have informal rules and traditions as persistent and important as the formal ones. So, for instance, in the British mixed-monarchy of the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a tradition of animosity and mistrust between the King and the Prince of Wales. This stemmed from the fact that the heir-apparent often had to live well into adulthood or middle-age before assuming the job he had been groomed for — and those opposed to the present regime would often cluster around him as an avenue to future power and preferment.

(The movie The Madness of King George plays somewhat on this tendency.)

In the United States there is a similar tradition in which the president’s brother must be a ne’er-do-well buffoon who episodically gets into scrapes and embarrasses his more successful sibling but also — and this is the kicker — humanizes him. (In apparent recognition of Hillary Clinton’s assumption of certain formal political duties, her brother Hugh Rodham also took on the role of presidential oaf-brother.)

But George W. Bush’s brothers are all either successful or WASPish enough to keep their shenanigans private and proper. So the chore has apparently fallen on his daughters, particularly the rapscallion Jenna.

As all the wires are reporting today, Jenna and her sister Barbara were picked up for trying to buy booze with a fake ID at Chuy’s Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas. This comes, of course, less than a month after Jenna pled no contest to alcohol possession, after she was picked up in sweep of nightclubs by the city police. And that after seemingly innumerable appearances on the front page of the National Enquirer.

Now one thing this obviously shows is that Jenna really, really knows how to party. And, trust me, that’s a virtue (or a vice, take your pick) that Talking Points can really appreciate.

But isn’t this sort of getting to the point where it goes beyond the rule that you can’t talk about the chief executive’s progeny? I mean, you’re the president’s daughter and you try to buy alcohol with a fake ID?

Excuse me?

Isn’t this sort of a nine strikes and you’re out kind of situation?

Here’s President Bush today at Sequoia National Park — text from White House press release:

My administration will adopt a new spirit of respect and cooperation, because, in the end, that is the better way to protect the environment we all share — a new environmentalism for the 21st century. Citizens and private groups play a crucial role. Just as we share an ethic of stewardship, we must share in the work of stewardship. Our challenge is to work in partnership. We must protect the claims of nature while also protecting the legal rights of property owners. We will succeed not by antagonizing one another, but by inviting all to play a part in the solutions we seek.

Here’s Newt Gringrich six years ago introducing the House Republicans’ environmental Vision Statement (a “new environmentalism . . . for the 21st Century”) — text copy is from “House GOP Releases Environmental Plans”, UPI, May 15th, 1996:

This document is the foundation of the new environmentalism, which will define the environmental agenda for the 21st century,” Gingrich said. Some of the “principles” of the one-page vision statement include: –“Americans should be assured that their air and water is clean and safe, that they will have access to outdoor public recreation areas, and that our historic and wilderness areas will be protected. –“Regulations should improve the environment by setting common sense standards without dictating the precise technologies for meeting those standards. The development and use of innovative technologies should be encouraged. –“Federal policy should, where appropriate, be based on incentives for individuals, state and local governments, and businesses to protect the environment, rather than setting down inflexible laws,” and, –“Private property owners should be assured greater certainty regarding the use of their property.”

And Gingrich a month later — text copy from The White House Bulletin, June 18th, 1996:

[W]hat we’re offering is a new environmentalism that has private-property rights and has economic opportunity; but it also has better science, more creativity, more community involvement, more local initiative so that we really are doing a better job of having a better environment for our children and grandchildren.

Need I say more?

Republicans have clearly settled on the party line regarding Jim Jeffords: his defection had nothing to do with ideology. Rather, he saw that Strom Thurmond might not make it much longer and he wanted to be the one to put the Dems over the top, with all the fanfare and preferment that would decision would entail.

For my part, I never thought the ideological and self-interest theories of Jeffords’ defection were mutually exclusive. It makes sense to me that his motives were a mix of the two, that they flowed together.

But that aside, the Republicans’ argument amounts to an admission which has yet to receive much attention.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume Jeffords’ move was entirely mercenary and self-serving.

If there were any real prospect of the Republicans winning back the Senate in 2002 then Jeffords’ switch would make little sense. He’d just be trading a few months as a quasi-Democrat committee chair with no real chance of passing legislation for a return to minority status in eighteen months, and the prospect of mega-payback when the Republicans retook control.

Even if Thurmond did pass on to his great reward before 2002 the same logic would apply.

On the other hand, if the Democrats seemed likely to expand their majority in 2002, and again in 2004, then Jeffords’ hop would make a lot of sense on self-serving grounds.

In other words, the Republicans’ attack on Jeffords betrays their own unstated belief that time is not on their side.

Politics affords few examples of politicians whose predictions are always right or whose proposals always catch on with colleagues.

But for predictive purposes there’s something almost as good: the politician whose predictions are always wrong and whose proposals are always immediately derided and/or ignored by his or her colleagues.

Which brings us to Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has just been appointed to serve as the first official token moderate in the Republican Senate leadership.

Specter used to be a pretty stand-up Senator. But in recent years he’s become increasingly prone to unreliable predictions and bizarre proposals.

Let’s review some of Specter’s recent performances.

During the pardon scandal Specter says President Clinton could, and may well, be impeached again over the pardons. (Republicans privately — and in some cases publicly — say Specter is whacked.)

During the pardon scandal Specter proposes limiting or abolishing the president’s veto power. The idea goes nowhere.

Two days before Jim Jeffords’ defection Specter gives Dems agida and Republicans a sliver of hope when he tells The Chicago Trib’s Jill Zuckman that Jeffords isn’t going to bolt. “He indicated to me that he is not going to change parties,” said Specter. Jeffords changes parties.

After Jeffords quit the GOP, Specter takes the Senate floor and accuses Jeffords and Harry Reid of possible ethical misconduct over the negotiations preceding Jeffords’ defection and goes on to propose changing Senate rules to prevent the chamber from switching hands because of a defection like Jeffords. (Of course, one would think Republicans would really resist such a rule now, considering that another defection is their only hope of recapturing the chamber before 2002.) Predictably enough, according to the Washington Post, GOP leadership aides say they have no idea what Specter was talking about.

Harry Reid probably had it right when he told the Post: “It’s a silly proposal and it has no chance. It’s his [Specter’s] way of of showing everyone he was a lawyer.”

P.S. For more on Specter’s political career you can buy his new book Truth, Justice, The American Way, and Arlen Specter from Amazon.

(The title is actually Passion for Truth : From Finding Jfk’s Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton, but you get the idea.)

According to numerous columns and commentaries (echoed by grumbling Republicans), Tom Daschle really, really has his work cut out for him.

Yes, the Dems may have wanted the Senate leadership and they may be giddy at the moment. But now Daschle faces the challenge Trent Lott’s been dealing with: how to run the Senate with a slender one vote margin, how to stop the opposing party from gumming up the works with procedural shenanigans, and most importantly how to get things done.

Simply put, this is a moronic analysis of the current situation.

Daschle will certainly find his task challenging. But several factors make it far easier for the Democrats to run the chamber than the Republicans.

First, are the Republicans really going to bring the chamber to a halt with procedural delays? That’s what they seem to be threatening here unless all nominations are allowed to go to the full Senate whether or not they’re passed out of committee.

But this is surely an idle threat: it’s the Republicans who need the trains to run on time in the Senate, not the Democrats, because it’s their president who’s trying to move his agenda.

If the Democrats shut down the Senate with their majority control they might arguably be in for a backlash from angry, anti-gridlock voters.

But if Republicans are the ones doing the obstructing, would that really be such a bad thing for Dems? That shuts down the Bush agenda and leaves the Republicans taking the blame. That’s not a threat; for the Democrats that’s having their cake and eating it too.

On the ‘getting things done’ front, things are also very unequal. Democrats aren’t really in a position to get much of anything done, period.

Anything they pass on their own votes in the Senate can easily be vetoed by the president. And the Republican House obviously isn’t going to help much either. So ‘getting things done’ isn’t really in the cards for the Democrats. Their effective power with control of the Senate is to bring up popular issues which Republicans and the president feel the need to opppose: minimum wage, campaign finance reform, a real patients’ bill of rights, prescription drug coverage, etc.

In other words, don’t believe the hype: for the Dems, taking control of the Senate is every bit as good a deal as it looks like.

P.S. Next up, just what the hell is up with Arlen Specter?

As several readers have noted, the new importance of Bob Torricelli’s continued tenure in the Senate probably makes an indictment ever-so-slightly less likely. Because an indictment of a sitting Democratic senator by a Republican Justice Department, under these circumstances, couldn’t help but be seen as highly questionable, even if the decision was made entirely on the merits.

But none of this seems to be getting the ever-feisty New Jersey senator down.

At a DC fundraiser for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey on Tuesday night, Torricelli made a few remarks.

After praising McGreevey, recalls one attendee at the event, Torch said, “I’d like to thank everybody who I encouraged to come for being here. You’re probably going to be rewarded with a subpoena. But they’re a dime a dozen nowadays. I’ll autograph them if you’re interested.”

Brass, I tell you! All brass.

P.S. Senator Torricelli’s press office declined to comment on the Senator’s remarks at the McGreevey event.

There are a host of wire stories out this morning with quaking Bushies pleading how little warning they had of Jim Jeffords’ imminent departure from the Republican party.

In fact, both Karen Hughes and Andy Card say they didn’t know anything was really up until they got a call from Maine Senator Olympia Snowe on Monday night and/or Tuesday morning.

Card looks especially vulnerable in all this. After all he’s a New Englander, a Washington hand, a moderate. You’d think he’d have known better, maybe would have had antennae for this.

Card added rather feebly that no one tried to muscle Jeffords or treat him badly. And that it’s not true that moderates have no place in the GOP today. (Of course, in a sense this is true: if you’re willing to squelch your already wishy-washy political views in the interests of absolute fealty to the Bush clan you can even become White House Chief of Staff!!!)

Anyway, enough about Andy Card. I take Card and Hughes at their word: that they really had no advance warning that this was going to happen. And frankly, that’s astonishing. Because this possibility was being pretty widely discussed almost a week before they say they found out about it. Olympia Snowe apparently needed to sidestep the machinery of legislative liaisons and the Senate leadership and get on the horn and tell Hughes, Card, et.al. just what hell was going on.

A little while back Jake Weisberg wrote a piece in Slate in which he canvassed several different possible explanations for the very conservative tack of Bush’s governance in the early days of his administration. One possibility was the effect of the White House echo chamber, the cocoon. For all the many streams of information which pour into the White House, it’s very easy (as Bill Clinton showed in 1993-94) to lose touch with what’s actually going on, how the political winds are blowing, and so on.

Presidents and their major advisors are surrounded, frankly, by lots of yes-men. And perhaps more important, they’re almost inevitably clothed in a triumphalist reading of their own recent political triumph. (This may be especially so with the Bushies since, as I’ve noted before, the Rove crowd has a history of getting hoodwinked by its own spin.)

In any case, this development points strongly toward this White House echo chamber conclusion.

Zell Miller now seems like a long-shot as a potential Democratic defector. And other moderates like John Breaux simply aren’t going to jump ship, period. Not gonna happen.

But there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

What about Bob Torricelli?

No, I’m not saying he’s going to switch parties. But what if he gets indicted? One of the first things a prosecutor does in a plea negotiation with a crooked pol is try to force the pol to resign his or her office. (The acting Governor of New Jersey is a Republican.)

And who do the US Attorneys work for? Right, John Ashcroft. And who does he work for … ? Well, you get the idea.

I grant you this may sound a touch conspiratorial. And if the Bush folks were inclined to play hardball at that level they’d have to build in a lot of “deniability.”

But you don’t have to believe in the possibility of any shenanigans to realize that the possibility of Torricelli’s indictment has just become a very, very weighty issue with immense and immediate political consequences. And even if such a decision were made by the straightest arrow career prosecutor the decision couldn’t help but be seen in a deeply political light.

It’s hard not to sit back and savor the recriminations and finger-pointing among Republicans over Jim Jeffords’ imminent defection from the GOP — expected in less than an hour. At a moment like this, good reporters can unpack such a family feud and get everyone to gripe about everyone else. This article in today’s Post by Mike Allen and Ruth Marcus is a good example.

It discusses various dopey, heavy-handed moves from the Bush White House — like Chief of Staff Andy Card (one of Bush’s New England cronies) calling a Vermont radio station to muscle Jeffords into supporting Bush’s tax cut.

(That would be the same Vermont that has a moderate- to-liberal governor, an independently-minded liberal senior senator, and a socialist congressman.)

Anyway, it’s a good read. (Here’s Frank Bruni’s more analytical look at the same question in the Times.)

But a few points come to mind. First is that Trent Lott is the most immediate, big-time loser here. Not just because he’s losing his job as Majority Leader — but because he was already quite unpopular in his caucus to start with. And he is the most clearly expendable person who has his fingerprints on the Jeffords screw-up.

All the reporting seems to agree that Lott (and thus the Bush White House) really didn’t know Jeffords might be serious about leaving until the beginning of this week, perhaps not until Tuesday. That’s weird — really weird — because a lot of other people seemed to have a pretty clear sense this was in the works late last week. How they got blind-sided by this deserves a lot of scrutiny.

Having said that, I think it’s right to see this whole situation less as a matter of bruised egos (or poor strategies) than the result of the structural changes in the capital’s politics in recent months. (Not that I want to cut Bush slack or anything, but …) Jeffords had never been in a situation where his party was in the majority in the Senate and had a conservative Republican president in the White House. This just brought out the contradictions of his position in the party to a degree he couldn’t ignore.

Many Dems still blame Bill Clinton bitterly for decimating the congressional Democrats in 1994. But this critique, though valid in some respects, was always a shallow and unsophisticated reading of the political history of the 1990s. The Democratic congressional majorities of the 1980s and early 1990s — particularly its underpinnings in the South — would never have survived the incumbency of a Democratic president. It was like a great old piece of furniture which would do well enough if left in place and used gingerly. But try to move it and it would fall to pieces.

As it did.

It’s hard not to fear that something is going to come along and jinx this for the Dems — given how tremendous their good fortune will be if Jim Jeffords gives them control of the Senate tomorrow, as expected. I mean, for all the hyperbole we so often hear about political happenings in Washington, this really is a huge deal.

You almost have to feel sorry for the Senate Republicans, offering Jeffords a bogus new leadership position as official Republican moderate. But I’m going to wait until Jeffords actually pulls the trigger to start making fun of them about it.

The one question I have is just when Jeffords’ switch, and thus the transfer of power, will become effective — and specifically whether it will happen before or after conferees are chosen for the budget/tax cut conference committee.

Of course, it’s not like Dem conferees are going to wrestle this thing down to $500 billion or something. But they could markedly change the final product and possibly generate all sorts of contention and heartache for House Republicans and the White House.

Maybe not such a Grand Old Party after all?

I can’t tell you whether James Jeffords is going to announce he’s switching to the Democratic party tomorrow. But it’s pretty hard to imagine he’d call a press conference to announce he’s staying a Republican.

One senate staffer suggests the interesting possibility that Jeffords could become an independent but vote for Daschle for Majority Leader — much like his fellow Vermonter Bernie Sanders does in the House. But I think that’s just clever speculation — not a hint of what will happen tomorrow.

It’s hard to overstate the significance of Jeffords’ switch, if it happens. But if it does, what about Zell Miller?

P.S. Late Update … Between about 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM, the word circulated on the Hill that it’s a done deal. Jeffords is making the switch.

At least now we’ve settled the question of whether Ted Olson lied about his involvement with the Arkansas Project.

Haven’t we?

Even his official surrogates now concede the point. Their new gambit is simply to diminish the importance of the underlying question.

“What if he [Olson] did have an involvement in the Arkansas Project? Is there something illegal about that?” Trent Lott said yesterday on Meet the Press.

Or how about Ken Starr, on This Week, who dismissed complaints about Olson’s evasiveness as “flyspecking”? “This [the Arkansas Project controversy] is an awfully narrow part of a man who’s 60 years old, [with] a very long career.”

So let’s just review where we are on the Olson nomination.

As information in this article and many others have made abundantly clear, Ted Olson lied when he told Pat Leahy that he was not involved in the Arkansas Project, and had in fact been instrumental in shutting it down. (That his defenders now concede the point amounts to what the lawyers call a stipulation.)

And this is actually the second time Olson has intentionally deceived a congressional committee. In the first instance, an independent counsel found that Olson’s statements were technically true, and thus incapable of sustaining a perjury prosecution.

As I once wrote in a profile of Maureen Dowd, “there was always something odd and paradoxical about Dowd’s endless array of anti-Clinton zingers: if Clintonism was defined by an abundance of talent, appetite, and ambition at the expense of any real purpose or direction, then Dowd was the ultimate Clintonite.”

So too with Ted Olson. If ‘Clintonian’ is now shorthand for lawyerly evasion or lying to achieve a greater purpose, then Ted Olson was Clintonian long before they coined the term.

Trent Lott and company want to say: “So what if he’s lying. Look at the underlying question. It doesn’t matter.”

To which I can only say: hey, that’s our comeback to having our guy get caught fibbing. Get your own!

And besides, with Bill Clinton the question was whether he’d get indicted or removed from office — very high standards to meet. Ted Olson’s trying to get confirmed by Senate. He’s got no similar presumptions in his favor.

And, finally, let’s not forget about Ken Starr. Much of the justice of Ted Olson’s current predicament is seeing him hoisted on his own petard, skewered by his own sharp knife — on multiple levels. And so too with Mr. Starr.

The best defense for Starr’s zealousness during the independent counsel investigation was that he was a sort of truth fanatic. The mere hint of evasion or deceptiveness under oath was just too much for him to handle. And it drove him on a crusade for revelation.

Clearly that’s not true.

For Ted Olson, this may simply be ‘live by the sword, die by the sword.’ Play rough and your enemies hit back. Starr is a different matter. He’s defending Olson with an argument more or less identical to that which Clinton’s defenders used to defend him. Before you could say that Starr was just a prig, or an obsessive, or a hidebound moral absolutist. But no more. He’s now revealed himself as the rankest sort of hypocrite.

And that’s rather satisfying to see.

It almost makes up for the tax cut.

Almost.

“Able-bodied adults who have the ability to earn income have an obligation not to pass part of their own responsibility on to a broader population.” That’s Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill’s take on whether the federal government should have to guarantee Security Security and Medicare benefits to seniors, in an interview with the Financial Times which appeared on Friday.

Not only does O’Neill believe the government should no longer guarantee Social Security and Medicare. He also believes the corporate income tax and capital gains tax should be abolished, with the revenue shortfall apparently made up through higher income taxes for individuals.

Give O’Neill points for candor. But shouldn’t these statements be generating a bit more attention.

A few days back I pointed out an article from the New York Daily News which seemed to follow the sop-to-Bush story line almost exactly — finding countless anonymous members of the permanent White House staff who just can’t stop counting their blessings that they’re out of under the Clintons’ thrall.

When I wrote that post I professed surprise that Thomas DeFrank, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Daily News would go in for this sort of stuff.

But perhaps I was a bit too charitable.

It turns out that DeFrank was also the author of one of the more melodramatic and Bush-bowing articles on the now-disproven White House vandalism story.

As in most of these articles, DeFrank included the obligatory mentions of how the White House was trying to keep a lid on the vandalism stories, even as they were of course also leaking them to the reporter in question:

Nevertheless, the White House relentlessly soft-pedaled the vandalism, refusing to release estimates of property damage and denying that a formal investigation was underway. Press secretary Ari Fleischer downplayed his statement that aides were cataloguing the damage.

In fact, DeFrank didn’t just retail the standard vandalism anecdotes. He even had a few I hadn’t heard before. Like the “telecommunications staffer with more than a quarter-century of service [who] was seen sobbing near his office one night last week” because of all the destruction.

(You just can’t make this stuff up! Well, I mean, not unless your initials are AF or RB.)

Anyway, what I didn’t know before was that DeFrank is also a bit of a Bush family pal and has been friends with the president for years. He cowrote Jim Baker’s diplomatic memoir The Politics of Diplomacy. And perhaps most striking, while writing the first of these two pieces, DeFrank was also in the hunt for a job in the Bush administration. According to this article in the Weekly Standard, DeFrank was in the running for Defense Department Spokesman before eventually being passed over for Victoria Clarke.

Is DeFrank still looking for a White House job? If so, please let Talking Points know, because he’d totally be up for being a Washington Bureau Chief again. Especially a gig with so much editorial freedom!

My secret sources tell me that John McCain is the big target at this weekend’s NRA annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The combination of McCain’s support for campaign finance reform and his creeping support of moderate gun control just makes him too plump a target to pass up.

The charge against McCain apparently runs like this: McCain is a hypocrite because despite his support for campaign finance reform he is part of Americans for Gun Safety’s multi-million dollar ad campaign in support of closing the gun show loophole. (AGS was founded in July by Monster.com executive Andrew J. McKelvey.)

The ads — which you can read about and see here — prominently feature McCain and Joe Lieberman, the cosponsors of AGS’s favored version of the gun show loophole bill.

A friend of mine — a dissident conservative — once told me that soft money is the mother’s milk of the modern conservatism.

Case in point.

In my earlier post about the final collapse of the White House vandalism ruse, I wrote that the real story was how the majors had buried the story of the GSA Report or not reported it at all.

Now the Post website has rectified that lapse by posting this story by Charles Babington in which he reports the GSA findings and writes:

Many news organizations, including The Washington Post, reported on the alleged vandalism shortly after President Bush took office in January. The Post and other outlets soon raised doubts about the claims, and also reported on Bush’s statement that the allegations were false.

Honestly, that run-down comes up a bit short. The Post ran several stories pushing the phony vandalism stories and, if memory serves me right, a number of editorials similarly peddling the unfounded, and now disproven, misinformation.

The Post did run one quite good piece by John F. Harris on January 27th which chronicled the beginnings of the climb-down by the Bushies and the press (“White House Scales Back Prank Reports”).

But to the best of my knowledge the Post has never commented on what seems like the real story here: how the Bush White House played the press with anonymous leaks and preyed upon their credulousness about any and all forms of Clintonite wrongdoing.

But the Post can at least look down on the Times — which has yet to even mention the GSA story (at least online).

It’s not like me to crow obnoxiously when I’m vindicated in some prediction or accusation — okay, who am I kidding? of course it is. But this is an instance where I — and, much more importantly, the Clinton White House — have plenty of cause to feel sweet vindication.

As I’ve shamelessly mentioned on a number of occasions I was one of the first writers to question whether any of those White House vandalism stories were really true. I even got to go on Howie Kurtz’s media show to get knocked around by Howie for saying so.

At the time, Bob Barr requested that the General Services Administration do an investigation to catalog all the damage that had been done.

Well, now the report’s in. And, surprise, surprise, no vandalism.

“The condition of the real property was consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after an extended occupancy,” according to the statement released by the GSA.

The inventory made no effort to get into whether a few funny signs may have been hung. But as we noted at the time, this is done by pretty much every departing White House staff. The only difference is that not every incoming group has a clever media manipulator like Karl Rove to spin the thing, and few have the benefit of such a credulous White House press corps whose knee-jerk assumptions can be so easily played upon. Lucky them!

The only question remaining is this? Why’d the majors bury this one? The Washington Post ran a tiny wire story on report on A13 and it’s not even on their website, as of this posting.

I had to find original reporting on this from the Kansas City Star! Are they the new paper of record?

Howie, it’s a big media story. Jump on it! You can skewer your own paper. It’ll be big, trust me.

The news in Washington today was filled with the ominous search for the whereabouts a Chandra Levy, a 24 year old intern at the Bureau of Prisons. Levy was last seen on April 30th as she was preparing to return home to California after completing here internship.

Yet the investigation into Levy’s disappearance took a real turn for the bizarre when it started to pull in Levy’s hometown congressman Gary Condit.

The coverage in the Washington Post has touched upon this aspect of the case rather gingerly. But this article in Condit’s hometown newspaper, the Modesto Bee, strongly implies – without quite saying it – that Levy might have been involved in a romantic relationship with Condit (who is married and has two children) and discusses some of the evidence that is fueling the speculation.

According to this article in the New York Daily News, Condit told the DC police that Levy had spent time at his condo in DC’s Woodley Park neighborhood. As the Daily News article put it:

Condit, 53, who is married with two children, told cops he and Levy were friends — and then “refused to elaborate,” News4 quoted police sources as saying.

That doesn’t sound so good, does it?

So what’s going on here? No idea. But Condit’s press secretary can’t have had a good day.

The Tom Edsall article in today’s Washington Post contains all you need to know about the state of play of the Ted Olson question — especially Orrin Hatch’s statement, relayed through a senior aide, that “It comes down to what the definition of the Arkansas Project is.”

We could spend a few moments mocking this “depends what the definition of is is” sort of line. But let’s keep our eye on the ball.

Olson and his defenders, it seems, don’t really deny much of anything that has been alleged. They’re just playing on a very restrictive definition of the ‘Arkansas Project’ and the word ‘involvement.’ To most observers, the ‘Arkansas Project’ was the American Spectator’s organized effort, funded by moneys from the Scaife foundations, to dig up dirt and possible scandals on Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Now we’re told, however, that the term ‘Arkansas Project’ only applied to one portion of the American Spectator’s organized effort, funded by moneys from the Scaife foundations, to dig up dirt and possible scandals on Bill and Hillary Clinton. The ‘Arkansas Project’ was only a very tightly delineated enterprise which didn’t involve most of the people involved in what we all thought was Arkansas Project activity.

Still with me?

So when Olson himself was hired by the magazine in 1994 “specifically to determine the potential criminal exposure of the Clintons in light of the magazine’s reporting” this didn’t mean he was involved in the Arkansas Project. This was just “legal research” in Olson’s words, “not for the purpose of conducting or assisting in the conduct of investigations of the Clintons.” And by no means part of the ‘Arkansas Project.’

The Olsonites are telling us that their man is not lying because the question wasn’t posed precisely enough. Pat Leahy should have asked: “Were you involved in, or aware of, the Arkansas Project, or any similar activities conducted by the American Spectator magazine which might seem to us rubes on the outside to be part of the Arkansas Project, but which you and the employees of the Spectator know not to have been part of the ‘Arkansas Project’ because the term ‘Arkansas Project’ only applied to one portion of the magazine’s effort to dig up scandals on the former president?”

Or to put the point more baldly, Olson’s off the hook not because he knew little or nothing about the Arkansas Project, but because he knew quite a lot.

Do we really have to put up with this crap? It’s up to Pat Leahy.