Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Over on his website, Atrios speculates as to why Tom DeLay delivered such a measured response to the president's call today for a constitutional ban on gay marriages. His take is that maybe this won't go over that well in the Republican caucus and so DeLay and Hastert and Frist are moving cautiously.

I think he's got it basically right.

Now, obviously, DeLay's relative caution in embracing the president's position (so to speak) doesn't stem from any new-found concern for gay rights. And I'm sure we'll hear him soon enough saying rancid things about how gay marriages will end western civilization, and so forth.

But I have real questions about how many Republican members of congress were excited to hear this from the president. I have no doubt that many members of congress from the South and other conservative parts of the country will happily vote in favor of it. And I have no doubt that many others will vote in favor of it, happily or not.

But I bet you there aren't that many senators and representatives outside of the South and perhaps the Mountain West who are looking forward to this coming to a vote at all.

Think about it this way.

If you're an incumbent, you're more than likely to be cruising towards a victory in November. Why do you need the headache? In most parts of the country any vote on this -- yea or nea -- will instantly make you a lot of enemies. Gordon Smith, Republican Senator from Oregon -- does he want to vote on this? Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, the two Senators from Maine? How about Pete Domenici, Mike DeWine, George Voinovich, Arlen Specter or Kit Bond?

Now, again, my point isn't that all these folks or even any of these folks will vote against this, if and when it comes to a vote. My point is simply that I think the great majority of them would greatly prefer the whole issue never come to them for a vote. And the same applies to many, many Republican reps in the House.

The truth is that this is all for the president. Most politicians see this as a highly-charged, divisive issue best left to states and localities to hash out amongst themselves until some sort of rough consensus emerges either nationally or from region to region. That doesn't mean it's a position based on principle or scruple. They just don't want it in their hands. It's a hot potato.

Nor am I saying that gay marriage is popular. Far from it. I have no doubt that a substantial majority of the population is against allowing marriage rights for gays. But opposing gay marriage isn't the same as wanting to tear the country apart by trying to put this into the constitution -- where I think even many opponents of gay marriage don't think it belongs.

That is why I'm not sure this will even end up being good politics for the president. On the straight issue of gay marriage, yea or nea, I think there's little doubt a sizeable majority opposes this. But there is rising cynicism about the president's motives -- or rather, rising cynicism about the president's cynicism. And I think it's possible that more than a few voters who are uneasy about gay marriage or downright opposed to it won't appreciate the president's willingness to trash the country and the constitution just because his domestic and international policies are in a shambles.

It all reminds me of a line from a famous, or rather infamous, memo Pat Buchanan, then a White House staffer, wrote for Richard Nixon in, I believe, 1972 when their idea of the moment was what they called 'positive polarization'.

At the end of this confidential strategy memo laying out various ideas about how to create social unrest over racial issues and confrontations with the judiciary, Buchanan wrote (and you can find this passage on p. 185 of Jonathan Schell's wonderful Time of Illusion): "In conclusion, this is a potential throw of the dice that could bring the media on our heads, and cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have far the larger half."

And there you have it. Tear the country apart. And once it's broken, our chunk will be bigger.

Only this time I'm not sure it will.

I'm just not sure swing voters will fall for the president's opportunism.

What does President Bush's announcement today tell you about whether he thinks he can win reelection based on the record he's compiled over the last three years?

Look at the picture which leads this column in Newsweek on gay marriage. I think it helps explain what this issue is about.

What does it tell you when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) isn't sure he wants to be as reckless, extreme and divisive on gay rights as President Bush? This from a late story on the Associated Press newswire ...

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he appreciated Bush's "moral leadership" on the issue, but expressed caution about moving too quickly toward a constitutional solution, and never directly supported one. "This is so important we're not going to take a knee-jerk reaction to this," Delay said. "We are going to look at our options and we are going to be deliberative about what solutions we may suggest."

As I said earlier, like a cornered, wounded animal. What won't they do on the way down?

I don't think I really have anything to add to what Andrew Sullivan said with great eloquence and fury this morning about the president's decision to put the full weight of his office behind a constitutional amendment banning not only gay marriage but even the right of states to allow their citizens to enter into civil unions which would provide the legal benefits, protections and obligations of marriage.

(Scott McClellan seems to have fudged a bit on the civil unions issue. But my understanding is that the specific amendment the president is backing clearly rules out civil unions too.)

I'm a pretty big small-'c' conservative on all matters of amending the constitution. In almost all cases it should be reserved for structural revisions to the architecture of the state, not as a means to hardwire policy changes or litter it with silliness about congressional pay raises. But it really is a sad day when we consider using the amendment process to turn back the widening gyre of equality and emancipation which has always been this document's role in the American state.

(The White House will try to say that this is in response to what is happening in San Francisco. But I don't think that will pass close scrutiny since, if recollection serves, they started signalling this before that happened.)

We should also note a few things about what this means about the president.

The White House didn't want to have the president out last night making a slashing campaign speech in late February. They also didn't want to start hitting the airwaves this early with their campaign commercials. And they definitely did not want the president jumping off the high dive into a gay rights culture war.

The strategy was to bank the president's rock solid support from Republicans and spend the year above the political fray with soft sounding proposals aimed at the political middle.

But it hasn't worked out that way.

The support among conservatives has taken some real hits. The White House has decided that the long-predicted rising economy won't float them through this election. The situation in Iraq looks wobbly and likely to get worse before it gets better. So deprived of the ability to run on his record he's decided to save his political hide by trying to tear the country apart over a charged and divisive social issue which is being hashed out through the political process in the states.

It's his dad and the flag burning amendment all over again. Is there really anything that tells you more about a man's character than this?

A couple weeks ago I said we should be on the look out for stuff like this -- not just the move on gay marriage, but the whole descent into scurrilous attacks and divisive wedge politics as the president's popularity drifts downward. (Isn't the White House a bit worried that their line about the Democrats being negative and haters will be a little undermined by these tactics on their part?)

One might suggest that the idea we should have in mind here is that old line about judging a man's character and mettle by what he does when the seas get stormy rather than what he does when they're calm. But I think the real metaphor to keep in mind is how dangerous and unpredictable an animal becomes when he's cornered.

E.J. Dionne has an excellent piece in Tuesday's Post, the heart of which is this passage ...

What's forgotten is that Bush has a pattern throughout his political career of staying above the fray while others tear his opponents to shreds. The Republicans are trying to weave a clear narrative about Kerry. The above-the-surface part is about his voting record, which Kerry will, indeed, have to defend. The below-the-surface part will paint him as a Vietnam-peacenik-Massachusetts-liberal weirdo.

What he might have added is that almost exactly the same could be said about the president's father. It's a family MO.

From TPM reader Rich D. ...

Bush accused Kerry of waffling on the issues today:

What about Bush:

1) Job projection numbers change within a week or two. 2) The cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit dramatically rise within a few weeks of passage. 3) The timetable and procedure for a transition government in Iraq changes weekly. 4) His statements on who is responsible for the poor WMD intel change weekly. 5) He now denies that Sadddam let the UN inspectors in Iraq.

Dubya stands for Waffle.

Does Kerry have a "Rapid Response" Team?

Now, I like this list. And I thank Rich D. for sending it. But I'm <$Ad$>not sure these are waffles exactly. They seem more like examples that, for this administration, all facts are fungible or perhaps infinitely malleable.

Indeed, I'm really not sure you can say the president is a waffler at all. His policy positions remain fairly consistent over time. It's not his positions that change, but his facts.

I'd almost say that the president -- or the White House, more broadly -- is something like the inverse of a waffler. He continues with policies even after the factual arguments upon which he initially justified them collapse entirely.

I got into this issue -- the Bush administration's belief in the utter malleability of facts -- in an article last summer in The Washington Monthly. And we'll be returning to it presently.

Could this be what Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot <$Ad$>was talking about?

We're still trying to get to the bottom of what mystery article in a 'national publication' Racicot was referring about when he told Juan Williams that President had volunteered for service in Vietnam but had not been 'selected'.

The only thing we can come up with is this.

At a few points over the last decade President Bush has claimed that he tried to sign up for something called the Palace Alert program, which would have taken him to Southeast Asia.

Now, it seems odd on the face of it that the president's family would pull all these strings to help him jump the queue for a safe spot in the Texas Air National Guard only to have him take the first chance to go to Vietnam. But, as this 1999 interview in The Washington Post makes clear, even the dates don't add up ...

WP: Were you avoiding the draft?

GWB: No, I was becoming a pilot.

WP: You wanted to serve?

GWB: Yes I did.

WP: But when you were asked do you want to go overseas, you said no.

GWB: I didn't know that. But I actually tried to go on a Palace Alert program.

WP: That was later.

GWB: It was. After I became a pilot.

WP: Palace Alert program was being phased out.

GWB: Not really, a couple of my buddies got to go. ...

WP: ... But they'd already graduated.

GWB: That's true. I couldn't go until actually I'd gotten my –

WP: I was curious about the sequence. You got out of combat school on June 23, 1970. Palace Alert programs were all closed down overseas as of June 30. So could you have gone even if you signed up for it?

GWB: I guess not if that's the case, but I remember going to see [the supervisor] to try to get signed up for it. You just ask the commander to put you in. He said you can't go because you're too low on the totem pole. I'm not trying to make this thing any grander than it is. ...

D'oh! as Homer Simpson would say.

As far as I know, there's no documentary evidence that Bush ever tried to sign up for this program which, in the words of the Post, "dispatched qualified F-102 pilots in the Guard to the Europe and the Far East, occasionally to Vietnam, on three- to six-month assignments."

But, as the interview makes clear, even if he did, he seems to have tried to get on board about a week before they shut the program down.

That's sorta like when you show up a couple hours late to shovel manure. "Oh, you guys're d' ... Oh, I'm ... I'm sorry, man. I really wanted to come here and help out, but ... Wow, I feel terrible. Is there anything else I can ... maybe next time? Hey, I'm gonna go grab a sandwich, okay?"

As I said earlier, even the president doesn't even try to push this line anymore. Two weeks ago he told Tim Russert that he'd never volunteered to go to Vietnam.

Ahhhh ... the plot thickens.

We noted earlier that Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot went on NPR this morning and told Juan Williams that the president had volunteered to go to Vietnam, but hadn't been chosen. That is, of course, a demonstrably false statement, which even the president himself says is false.

Well, this afternoon Racicot held a conference call with reporters. And during that call, I'm told, he was asked just what he was talking about when he said that the president had volunteered to go to Vietnam.

According a participant in the call, Racicot said that he had read this in a 'national publication', but he couldn't remember which one.

One of Racicot's aides, who was also on the call, promised he'd later provide the mystery article to the reporter who had asked the question.

Now there've been a few articles I've seen in which friends of the president's from the time in question have said that at the time Bush expressed some interest in volunteering for service in Vietnam. But there is no evidence for this in his records. The one piece of evidence we have is that the president said on his enlistment papers that he did not want to serve overseas. And the president himself just two weeks said he didn't volunteer for service in Vietnam.

So, now we know that Racicot didn't mispeak. He's standing behind what appears to be a demonstrable falsehood and pegging his claim to some article in a 'national publication'.

Racicot is going around the country and hitting every media outlet around attacking John Kerry's record on national defense -- which he is certainly entitled to do. And at the same time, he's peddling blatant falsehoods about the president's military service that not one publication has yet chosen to call him on.

Go figure ...

Run it by the boss first?

This morning we noted that Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot tried to float the demonstrably false line that President Bush had volunteered for service in Vietnam, but hadn't been 'selected'.

Now, our first thought was that Mr. Racicot might be angling to be the next winner of the 'Heather Wilson "I think the American people are a bunch of god-forsaken idiots" Award'.

But this isn't just a blatant mistatement of the facts that Racicot apparently believes the press will be too timid to call him on. He's even contradicting what the president himself said only two weeks ago.

Let's go to the tape ...

"He (i.e. the president) signed up for dangerous duty. He volunteered to go to Vietnam. He wasn’t selected to go, but nonetheless served his country very well."

Marc Racicot
NPR Interview
February 23rd, 2004

Now, here's what the president himself said just two weeks ago ...

RUSSERT: Were you favor of the war in Vietnam?

BUSH: I supported my government. I did. And would have gone had my unit been called up, by the way.

RUSSERT: But you didn't volunteer or enlist to go.

BUSH: No, I didn't. You're right.

Meet The Press
February 8th, 2004

And here's an even more candid version of events from the president from fourteen years ago ...

"I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."

George W. Bush, 1990
as quoted in The Houston Chronicle
May 8th, 1994.

No doubt there are <$Ad$>other examples in which the president has conceded the undeniable truth that he didn't volunteer for service in Vietnam. And if folks want to send them in to me, I'd be obliged.

But let's just consider what Racicot is doing here.

This wasn't a slip of the tongue. This was deliberate. Now that the topic has been moved a bit to the back burner, they're trying to get back on the offensive by floating a deliberate and undeniable deception in the hopes that no one will notice. If no one does then the new false story will become the accepted version in the coming campaign debate.

You really can't let your eyes off them for a second.

Is anyone going to ask the campaign or the White House whether their new line is that the president volunteered to go to Vietnam but just never got picked?