Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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TPM Reader AR responds from the other side of the aisle ...

I must agree on at least one point that your Republican friend makes. There is a perception that Democratic politicians run when attacked that is rooted in a good bit of reality. My observations of the Kerry campaign (fairly up close) suggest that pusillanimous and risk averse consultants run campaigns. The are constantly polling the current situation and reacting. They rarely test how reframing the debate might change perceptions. You do not see ads attacking a messenger, attacking a message, using humor, using emotion and doing so on a sustained basis to build a brand.

I was not the least bit surprised by the attack on Murtha (remember how they attacked Kerry). I'll bet you a dollar that the Democratic response (if there is one) will be a) unorganized (from Biden through Dean), b) incoherent (or at least internally inconsistent), c) slow, d) measured, and e) cerebral. All the wrong things to do. What they need to do is show some blood and gore, use a couple of veterans, and ask the question -- is this worth it? If it is, why are the families of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Delay, Hastert, Rumsfeld et. al. not on the front lines? As we say in Marketing, an anecdote is worth a thousand data points.

As you can see from the last few posts, this topic is generating quite a bit of discussion. And it makes no sense to keep it just in the main TPM mailbox. So we've opened up this thread at TPMCafe to discuss it further.

Earlier this evening I was exchanging emails with a longtime Republican reader. And in the course of that exchange I mentioned that while I understood the pushback against John Murtha and the announcement he made last week I didn't understand quite the ferocity of it. After all, how many non-political junkies outside of his district have ever even heard of John Murtha? As I said, I don't quite understand the full measure of ferocity behind the response.

Here's how this reader responded ...

I do, Josh.

Instant response is what you do in a modern election campaign (unless you are way, way ahead). Discrediting a critic's argument isn't enough, because it takes too much time in an environment when time is everything. Campaign politics are the primary frame of reference for politicians in Washington today. Republicans of late have practiced this trade more aggressively, though I doubt that most of them are any more insensitive to non-campaign considerations than their Democratic colleagues.

Another factor, I think you'd agree, is that a lot of politicians tend to take cues from Presidents of their party. Reagan led a generation of GOP politicians to speak with sunny optimism; Clinton influenced Democratic politicians to project empathy in a somewhat ostentatious way. Bush, being more than a little insecure, tends to want to lash out at critics even when this is not politically necessary or productive, and this tendency has radiated downwards through his administration and outward to some Republicans, particularly in the House. Karl Rove's influence on GOP political operatives may be even more profound, and GOP political operatives have vast influence in Republican politics.

Finally and very frankly, Democratic politicians tend to be wimps. Anyone can see how easily they get pushed around by interest groups in their own party; when criticized aggressively, they tend to seek sympathy rather than hitting back. This encourages Republican political operatives to use rough tactics.

I don't think this is a matter of ideology. In fact I don't know what it is. I just know if I were a Republican politician there wouldn't be many Democratic politicians I would be afraid of. Maybe it's a reflection on my own personality that I take for granted the importance in politics of generating concern that one might be a very bad enemy to have. But of course I'm not actually in politics, something I don't expect to change.

Food for thought.

I was just reading over a news account of the president's speech in South Korea in which he said "We will stay in the fight until we have achieved the ... victory that our brave troops have fought for." In the speech, he describes the war as being fought in theaters in Beslan, Bali, Riyadh, Madrid, Iraq -- virtually every place in the world over the last four years where any Muslim fundamentalists have blown anything up.

The real problem though -- and this becomes clear listening to the president, and increasingly from his supporters -- is that the president no longer has any coherent idea of what the war he's fighting amounts to or what victory would look like.

He says we'll fight it out to victory or that "as Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But it's been a really long time since I've heard any coherent plan for what we're trying to do besides slogans like this.

If we're honest I think what the president is saying is this: We're going to stay in Iraq until the place calms down and we can leave with a sense that we've accomplished something.

Isn't that basically the idea?

We're not going to leave as long as the place is a slaughterhouse and a total mess because leaving then will look like we couldn't accomplish what we wanted to accomplish and got run out and thus, in whatever sense, got beat.

I think perceptions of national power and 'credibility' actually mean something. But a sensible fear of losing either was a good reason not to get into this situation in the first place.

And I don't see where, at the moment, we have any real or coherent strategy for calming the place down -- either a military strategy or a political one, though Ivo Daalder thinks there are some signs of progress on the political front.

So at the moment, there's not even a reasoned fight between staying in and getting out. Getting out is the only coherent strategy or approach on the table. That doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. But it is clear and defineable. On the other hand, there is the president, who hasn't put forward any concrete description of what our goals are or any coherent (let alone, a good plan) plan for accomplishing them. Under President Bush's leadership, in Iraq, we've become the national embodiment of the eternal Mr. Micawber, always waiting "for something to turn up."

A note from TPM Reader ZG ...

I don't know if I am more angry or confused about this evening's congressional proceedings and, in a sense the everything going on with the Republicans. They won the elections; am I crazy to think they should, I don't know, do SOMETHING? What was the point of tonight's little stunt? Who let Rep. Schmidt make her remarks? How could anyone defend them? I'm having problems seeing what the big picture is (what a victory for us would look like), but I feel that so many Republican "leaders" have forgotten that a big picture even exists! (Aside, I hate the exclamation point. I've always thought it to be a pointless punctuation mark, but I've finally found a use for it.)

I'd have to imagine that even the most ardent Bush supporters, and I'd hope that Bush and Co., would agree that things aren't going perfectly in Iraq and hence, there's room for improvement. I am in no way a military expert, so I have almost no clue about what our Iraq policy should be. I'm certain, however, that the strategy of "Let's just say everything is going fine and maybe that will become true" is not the way to go. Seeing the way the government is currently operating makes me think the most hardcore Libertarians have a point. Why have a government if this is how they're going to spend their time?

Quite apart from all the policy particulars, can't you understand the exasperation?

Phony GOP Iraq withdrawal bill starts a bonfire this evening on the House floor. Check it out on C-SPAN if you have the chance.

Late Update: During the debate, Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-OH) came on the floor and read a letter purporting to be from a United States Marine which said something to the effect of "Please tell Murtha, cowards cut and run, Marines never do." The clear 'feel' of her statement was that she was calling him a coward. The House burst into yells and pandemonium. Schmidt was forced to come back to the House floor and ask that her remarks be stricken from the record. This is the woman, remember, who barely beat Hackett just months ago -- quite an auspicious start.

Here's what Schmidt said, word for word: "Yesterday I stood at Arlington National Cemetery attending the funeral of a young marine in my district. He believed in what we were doing is the right thing and had the courage to lay his life on the line to do it. A few minutes ago I received a call from Colonel Danny Bop, Ohio Representative from the 88th district in the House of Representatives. He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message, that cowards cut and run, Marines never do. Danny and the rest of America and the world want the assurance from this body – that we will see this through."

Very nice map of what's coming down the pike in the Abramoff case contained in the Scanlon indictment. Especially the references to Representative #1, aka Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH) ...

19. From in or about January 2000 through in or about April 2004, SCANLON and Lobbyist A [Abramoff], together and separately, provided a stream of things of value to Representative #1 [Ney] and members of his staff, including but not limited to a lavish trip to Scotland to play golf on world-famous courses, tickets to sporting events and other entertainment, regular meals at Lobbyist A's upscale restaurant, and campaign contributions for Representative #1, his political action committee, and other political committees on behalf of Representative #1.

20. From in or about January 2000 through in or about April 2004, SCANLON and Lobbyist A, together and separately, sought and received Representative #1's agreement to perform a series of official acts, including but not limited to, agreements to support and pass legislation, agreements to place statements into the Congressional Record, meetings with Lobbyist A and SCANLON’s clients, and advancing the application of a client of Lobbyist A for a license to install wireless telephone infrastructure in the House of Representatives.

Note the free meals at Abramoff's restaurant. He wasn't the only member of the House on that gravy train.

Flipped: Abramoff business partner Scanlon charged, ready to plea out and cooperate.

John Bresnahan picks up the story in Roll Call (sub.req.) ...

Michael Scanlon has agreed to testify against one-time business partner Jack Abramoff in any future criminal case involving the ex-lobbying superstar.

The Justice Department has filed a “criminal information” document in federal court related to Scanlon, and there will be a hearing before a federal judge Monday afternoon.

At that time, Scanlon is expected to plead guilty to one felony count of conspiracy. Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas), would then testify against Abramoff and anyone else indicted in the case, according to Justice Department sources.

Release the hounds.

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Some of the White House jabs against their critics these days are so fatuous and simple-minded that it's hard not to step back every so often and wonder if they're even serious.

One of the silliest goes like this. We invaded because Iraq was "a threat". And all the Democrats agree that Iraq was "a threat". And, heck, here's this quote from Bill Clinton saying that Saddam was "a threat". So clearly everyone agreed with the president. So what's the problem?

Perhaps it seems like I'm oversimplifying the argument. But I really must plead its inherently moronic nature.

Sure, lots of people thought Iraq was a threat. But North Korea is a very serious threat. And we haven't invaded North Korea. And Iran's no bed of roses either. But we haven't invaded Iran, though I guess perhaps I shouldn't speak too soon.

For better or worse there was a vast consensus within the American political establishment that Saddam Hussein was a threat to American interests and that he must at least be maintaining some stocks of chemical weapons. It is even true that in 1998 the Congress passed and the president signed the Iraq Liberation Act, which put the US on record as supporting 'regime change' in Iraq, though we should not forget that this law was intentionally foisted on the president at a moment of maximum political weakness by most of the same connivers that brought us the real war four years later.

All true. But not everyone thought we should invade Iraq. And that's the heart of this. You could easily substitute "WMDs" for "a threat" in the sentences above. The question is 'how much of a threat'? Do we need to invade? Do we need to invade right now? Do we have to invade right now before we even get a chance to see if the suspicions which are the premise of our invasion are even accurate?

Various people of different political stripes said 'no' to one or more of these questions. And that's the heart of the matter. It's almost comical when you take a moment to think about it. President Bush has spent most of his presidency swinging around the cudgel that he has the character and the strength to defend the country when his political opponents don't. Now suddenly we learn that all the Democrats he's run against for four years as not tough enough to defend the country actually supported all of these decisions and would have done everything the same way had they been in power. What an extraordinary development.

Yesterday I linked to this exceptional post Mark Schmitt did today over at TPMCafe. What Mark tries to do is get into the mindset that's governed this administration, something that I tried to do, though I think not that well, in this article from two years ago. What we have here with President Bush and his key advisors is something more complicated and deep-rooted than garden variety lying. As Mark puts it ...

the whole practice of evaluating all information going into the war not for its truth value, but for whether it promoted or hindered the administration's goal of being free to go to war. The President could have been given every bit of intelligence information available, and he and/or Cheney would have reached the same decision because they would have discarded, discounted, or disregarded most of it. Information that was Useful to that goal was put in one box, Not Useful put in another. Entire categories of information were assigned to the Not Useful box because their source was deemed an opponent of U.S. military action, or assumed to have some other motive.

This is a deep insight into Mr. Bush and his coterie.

Garden variety lying is knowing it's Y and saying it's X -- Lyndon Johnson at the Gulf of Tonkin. This is a much deeper indifference to factual information in itself.

People ask me sometimes whether I think the president thought Saddam did have big stockpiles of WMD or whether he knew Saddam didn't and lied about it. Or the same with Iraq's alleged links to al Qaida. This even leads to a sort of inverted conspiracy theorizing when people ask, "If he knew there was no WMD, why didn't they at least try to plant some to avoid the catastrophic embarrassment which ensued after the war."

The real answer, I think, is as banal as it is devastating: I don't think they ever gave it much thought -- not in the sense of trying to get to the heart of the matter. A lawyer assembles a case. Whether his client is innocent or not is sort of beside the point. He's trying to get him acquitted. Very similar here. The point was to invade. Non-conventional weapons made it a real possibility. A connection to 9/11 would make it a slam dunk. Some of each might get you just past the goal line. And if that didn't something else might.

This is why there was the bum's rush for the inspections process. I'm sure they figured there were some chemical weapons to be found somewhere. But why take the chance that there weren't, or more likely, why take the chance there wouldn't be enough? That would defeat the whole purpose.

Thinking through these points would be and someday will be an important, critical conversation for this country to have. Because it is a toxic approach to governance which has suffused this administration. It will also be important to understand and come to terms with how various other parties and players set the ground work for, facilitated and enabled what happened over the last few years. George W. Bush and his crew may be the bad actors. But bad actors can't accomplish bad acts on this scale on their own in a nation of 300,000,000 people. At the moment, though, we can't even get those debate started because simply discussing the heart of the issue -- that the administration recklessly and dishonestly gamed the country into war -- triggers a new hurricane of lies, distortions and attempts to confuse.