Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Having listened to the whole thing very carefully, I thought it was basically a draw.

President Bush was certainly more coherent and on-his-feet than he was a week ago. But then, that's a pretty low standard. I think the president's advisors will be happy that he hit Kerry several times with the 'most liberal Senator' line. As NewDonkey noted a couple days ago, that's BC04's new pivot: liberal, liberal, liberal. I also thought there were opportunities to wallop the president that Kerry didn't take. The president showed moments of temper and irritability, but nothing that bad. Having said all that though I didn't think either candidate made any serious errors. And both did a reasonably good job pushing the issues their campaigns wanted them to push.

If I'm right and this was basically a draw, I think that represents a victory for Kerry for two reasons.

First, momentum seems clearly to be on Kerry's side. The president needed to arrest that momentum and I don't think he did.

The other reason turns on something I said last week. The basis of President Bush's resurgence in late August and September was based less on confidence in him than in his campaign's effective effort to portray Kerry as not an acceptable commander-in-chief. Kerry's strong performance in the first debate undermined that impression and knocked the race back to parity. I don't think anything happened in this debate to change that.

What I do think you'll have from this debate is some steadying of the president's supporters. Even the president's most die-hard supporters were knocked for a loop by his stammering and wobbly performance last week. After seeing this performance I think they'll feel like they saw the candidate they expected. And that will steady them and buoy their morale.

Now, as I've said from the beginning, what matters in these debates is less the 90 minute encounter than the spin war that unfolds after it ends. That's even more so with this one since on a Friday night (and given it's the second debate) the viewership will be down. That means the impressions voters take from this one will be even more determined by the post-debate chatter.

And on this I think the president and the last questioner gave the Democrats a real opportunity. The fiscal health of the country is a wreck. The country faces an unfolding disaster in Iraq. And numerous examples emerge day after day showing how that disaster grew directly from bad decisions the president made. And faced with a questioner who asked for just three mistakes he thinks he's made over four years, he couldn't come up with one. His answer was to say that on each of the big issues he's gotten everything exactly right.

If the Democrats and the Kerry campaign are smart they can use that to cut right to the president's greatest vulnerability -- the sense that he's out of touch, won't face what's happening and more than anything else won't level with the American people.

This is the line for the Dems to hit again and again. Seeing all we see on our TVs, he can't think of one wrong decision? He won't level with the public. And if he can't think of one thing he's gotten wrong, reelecting him means four years of more of the same.

Can we get the straight story on these computer disks containing photos and layouts of schools in the United States?

According to reports that ran yesterday the disks came from an "Iraqi insurgent captured in Baghdad last summer [who] had allegedly downloaded floor plans of elementary and high schools in Florida, Oregon, Georgia, New Jersey, Michigan and California."

But this CNN report from late this morning says that Department of Homeland Security officials say "the material was associated with a person in Iraq, and it could not be established that this person had any ties to terrorism. He did have a connection to civic groups doing planning for schools in Iraq."

So the guy with the disks was involved in setting up schools in Iraq? Sounds a little less worrisome than finding them in Zarqawi's butler's knapsack, right?

Did everyone get scammed again on this one?

And what's with the school plans being mainly from swing states?

[ed.note: Special note of thanks to sharp-eyed TPM reader AK]

Will the canons of journalistic objectivity buckle under the weight of the president's lies?

That's the question raised, albeit implicitly, in an article in the Times today by Adam Nagourney and Richard Stevenson entitled "In His New Attacks, Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts."

The awkward generosity of that headline touches the essence of the problem. It's obvious to pretty much everyone watching these final weeks of the campaign that in response to the setback of the first debate the president's advisors decided that he would only be able to win by moving from harsh attacks and distortions of his opponent's record to straight out lies.

Yet by the rules of daily newspaper and television journalism it's not possible to quite say that -- a blind spot of the profession which Mike Kinsley has spoken about eloquently for many years.

So the Times frames the matter this way. After noting how the president dramatically ramped up his criticisms after last week's debate, the authors write: "in the process, several analysts say, Mr. Bush pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry's positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy."

'Several analysts say'.

They can't get themselves to say it, even though the authors of the piece, Nagourney and Stevenson, are seasoned political reporters who know the relevant facts perfectly well enough to make the judgment themselves.

This isn't an indictment of these two reporters. It's a recognition of the system they're working in, and the tactical advantages it gives to liars.

Give the piece a look and see the level of indirection they feel obliged to use in discussing the fact the Bush campaign has made a decision to completely toss aside any serious pretense of telling the truth. Like Sherman's Army cutting their supply lines in their March to the Sea, the Bush campaign is cutting itself free from any semblance of the truth with the expectation that they can live off the rhetorical fat of the land until November 3rd.

It ain't a pretty sight, Paul Bremer's OpEd in the Times Friday. And though it's a rough and grisly comparison, reading Bremer's column, and watching him try to gobble down his own words, I couldn't help thinking of the imagery of hostages, orange-jump-suited or not, reading out recantations or self-denunciations, on grainy film, on pain of their life.

The last couple days can't have been pleasant ones for Bremer. And the pressure to clean up his mess must have been withering. The point of Friday's column was to try to take his impolitic admissions about troop strength out of political circulation in time for Friday night's debate.

The key passage in Bremer's piece is the fourth graf ...

It's no secret that during my time in Iraq I had tactical disagreements with others, including military commanders on the ground. Such disagreements among individuals of good will happen all the time, particularly in war and postwar situations. I believe it would have been helpful to have had more troops early on to stop the looting that did so much damage to Iraq's already decrepit infrastructure. The military commanders believed we had enough American troops in Iraq and that having a larger American military presence would have been counterproductive because it would have alienated Iraqis. That was a reasonable point of view, and it may have been right. The truth is that we'll never know.

So it was a small tactical <$Ad$>disagreement, focused on the immediate post-war period of looting. And Bremer's not even sure whether he or those he disagreed with were right.

But look at what the Washington Post says he actually said: "The single most important change -- the one thing that would have improved the situation -- would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout."

In the Times today, Bremer's only response seems to be: Even though I said what I said, I wasn't really saying it when I said it.

From there the column is a lockstep recitation of the full Bush Regime Change catechism.

"Progress is being made ... The press has been curiously reluctant to report my constant public support for the president's strategy in Iraq ... The president was right when he concluded that Saddam Hussein was a menace who needed to be removed from power ... President Bush has said that Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. He is right ... Our victory also depends on devoting the resources necessary to win this war ... These were vital resources that Senator John Kerry voted to deny our troops ...

A year and a half ago, President Bush asked me to come to the Oval Office to discuss my going to Iraq to head the coalition authority. He asked me bluntly, "Why would you want to leave private life and take on such a difficult, dangerous and probably thankless job?" Without hesitation, I answered, "Because I believe in your vision for Iraq and would be honored to help you make it a reality."

Viva Booosh!

Viva la Muerte!

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If it weren't so sad (and tragic), it would truly be funny to watch the White House scrounge around for even the most ridiculous retrospective rationales for war as the original ones collapse around them.

Today we have this line from the Associated Press: "This week marks the first time that the Bush administration has listed abuses in the oil-for-fuel (sic) program as an Iraq war rationale."

That's the new casus belli -- corruption in the oil-for-food program.

You can't make this stuff up.

Or, rather, I guess you can make this stuff. Since they are making it up.

In post-9/11 world, we can't stand idly by while third-world politicians take bribes and kickbacks!

The whole thing makes me feel not only sorry for my country but also sorry for the Kerry campaign's strategists and opposition researchers because what sort of supple and outside-box mind can possibly predict what arguments the president and his advisors will come up with next?

War was justified because not enough schools and hospitals were open before the invasion.

War was justified by back taxes owed to Kuwait by Iraqi occupation soldiers stationed in Kuwait during the second half of 1990.

War was justified by Iraqi mendacity in fooling Americans into thinking that they had WMD.

War was justified because the UN had to be freed up to work on East Timor and Sudan.

War was justified because Kuwait is still called Iraq's "19th province" in the Encyclopedia Iraqiana.

War was justified because Saddam was discriminating against faith-based organizations in handing out government contracts ...

Here's a question. Not a rhetorical question, but a real question.

Over the past several months we've several times discussed the charges that Iraq used oil-for-food money to bribe various international dignitaries and politicians, including Benon Sevan, the head of the UN office that administered the program.

The oil-for-food program was riddled with corruption, as was known long before the invasion. And if these charges are true as well, then heads should roll.

But, as I've noted repeatedly before, I remain skeptical since the documents incriminating these individuals came right out of the Chalabi operation in Baghdad. And, quite suspiciously, he and his assigns have repeatedly refused to hand those documents over to independent investigative authorities to authenticate them. Again and again, silly or nonsensical excuses were proferred for not doing so.

Needless to say, with Mr. Chalabi, ascertaining whether these documents are forgeries or not is hardly an academic exercise.

The story has again resurfaced now -- in large part because the charges are included in the Duelfer Report on Iraqi WMD. Not surprisingly, Vice President Cheney pounced on the story yesterday on the campaign trail. And in a virtual tour de force of inanity, President Bush today suggested that the invasion may well have been justified by Iraq's abuse of the oil-for-food program.

But has any independent observer -- most notably the Volcker Commission -- gotten access to those documents yet? As recently as August 10th, Judith Miller reported in the Times that Volcker still had not been allowed access to the original documents to ascertain whether or not they were forgeries.

This passage in an article in the AP suggests that hasn't happened ...

The lists, parts of which had been published previously, were compiled from 13 secret files maintained by former Iraqi vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan and the former oil minister, Amir Rashid.

But there was no independent verification. "We name those individuals and entities here in the interest of candor, clarity and thoroughness," the report said, adding that it did not "investigate or judge those non-Iraqi individuals."

Several U.S. firms were on the list but their names were not released because of privacy laws.

There's a separate question about why U.S. firms on the list aren't being identified, only foreigners. But, setting that aside, has any independent body yet reviewed those documents? And if not, why are they being given such credence considering Chalabi's record as a convicted criminal, forger of documents, producer of phony intelligence and, in all likelihood, someone who passed on American intelligence to Iran?

I think Media Matters has the Times dead-to-rights on this question of Catholic support for John Kerry. Very sloppy work.

On the other hand, Bill Keller isn't an "op-ed columnist and senior writer" as MMFA identifies him. He's the Executive Editor of the paper. He runs the place. Which, I'd say, makes it worse.