Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

With the president descending to the most shameless sort of attack politics to save his presidency, there's an understandable desire on the part of Democrats to reopen every political vulnerability he has that has yet to be fully explored or dissected: his failure to show up for military service in the Texas Air National Guard, personal indiscretions from his 'lost years', insider deals from the various failed companies. All of it.

I have no argument with any of this. I think it makes perfect sense. To pick up on the military language that is now so ubiquitous, I think Democrats need to open up on all fronts.

But fighting fire with fire isn't a compelling message. Nor will getting into a tit-for-tat about what each of these guys was doing in 1969 or 1970 or 1971 win this race for the Democrats.

Look at the wrong direction/right direction poll numbers and you see pretty clearly that the country is looking to fire George W. Bush. The president's only hope is to get the debate on to issues like these, shift the dynamic of the race, and convince voters that, whatever their dissatisfactions with his administration, John Kerry isn't an acceptable alternative.

When this stuff comes down the pike, Kerry has to fight back mercilessly. And he can win those fights. But, fundamentally, every day of this campaign that isn't spent talking about the sluggish economy and the president's debacle in Iraq is a day wasted, a strategic failure for the Kerry campaign.

But Democrats don't have to choose between hard-hitting lines of attack on the president himself and focusing on the main issues that are facing the country today. The most damning attacks turn out to be the most compelling, the most relevant for what the country faces, and the most difficult for the president to combat.

I've said several times over recent days that it is an example of the president's moral cowardice that he has such a long record of having others savage his opponents -- for sins of which he is usually more guilty than they -- and then denying any responsibility for what's happening. It's like the moment captured in that recent Kerry campaign spot where John McCain tells Bush to stand by his attacks or apologize, and the now-president is painfully caught off guard, bereft of the protective phalanx of retainers.

He's not used to having to stand behind what he's done. And when McCain comes at him one on one he's jelly. His life has always been a matter of others doing his dirty work for him, others bailing him out. And in that moment it shows.

The current debate about these two men's military service has put the spotlight on physical courage. But that really is a side issue in this campaign, if we're talking substance. The real issue isn't physical bravery but moral cowardice.

President Bush is an examplar of that quality in spades. And it cuts directly to his failures as president. Forget about thirty years ago, just think about the last three years.

Before proceeding on to that, one other point about the two men's service. On the balance sheet of moral bravery, as opposed to physical bravery, the two men are about as far apart as you can be on Vietnam. On the one hand you have Kerry, who already had doubts about whether we should be fighting in Vietnam before he went, and put his life on the line anyway. On the other hand, you have George W. Bush who supported the war, which means he believed the goal was worth the cost in American lives. Only, not his life. He believed others should go; just not him. It's the story of his life.

That is almost the definition of moral cowardice.

We have a more immediate sense of what physical bravery and cowardice are. In fact, when we speak of bravery and cowardice, the physical variety is almost always what we're talking about. It's whether or not you can charge an enemy position while you're be fired at. It's whether you're immobilized by the fear of death.

Moral cowardice is more complex. A moral coward is someone who lacks the courage to tell the truth, to accept responsibility, to demand accountability, to do what's right when it's not the easy thing to do, to clean up his or her own messes. Perhaps we could say that moral bravery is having both the courage of your convictions as well as the courage of your misdeeds.

As I've been saying here for the last couple days, the issue isn't that Bush ducked service in Vietnam. It's that he tries to smear other people's meritorious service without taking responsibility for what he's doing. He gets other people to do his dirty work for him. Again, that image of McCain calling him on his shameless antics and his look of fear, his look of feeling trapped.

The key for the Kerry campaign to make is that the president's moral cowardice is why we're now bogged down in Iraq. It's a key reason why almost a thousand Americans have died there. President Bush has set the tone for this administration and his moral cowardice permeates it.

Consider only the most obvious examples.

The president didn't think he could convince the public of the merits of his reasons for going to war. So he lied to them. He greatly exaggerated what was thought to be the evidence of weapons of mass destruction and completely manufactured a connection between Iraq and al Qaida. He couldn't get the country behind him on the up-and-up. So he took the easy way out; he took a shortcut; he deceived them. And now the country is paying a terrible price for it.

He and his advisors knew that if they levelled with the public about the costs of war -- in dollars, years, soldiers -- he'd have a very hard time convincing them. So he didn't level with them. He took the easy way out.

The sort of forward planning that would have made a big difference in post-war Iraq was scuttled or attacked because it would make the job of selling the war harder. Those who sounded the alarm had their careers cut short.

Once we were in Iraq and it was clear that we had been wrong about the weapons of mass destruction -- a judgement that's been clear for more than a year -- he wouldn't admit it. And he still hasn't. A year and a half after we invaded Iraq and he still can't level with the American people about this. He still relies on his vice president to try to fool people into thinking Hussein was tied to al Qaida and the 9/11 attacks.

More importantly, once it became clear that the president's plans for post-war Iraq were producing poor results, he refused to shift policy or to reshuffle his team. He refused to demand accountability from his own team because of how it would have reflected on him. He's preferred to continue on with demonstrably failed policies because to do otherwise would be to admit he'd made a mistake and open himself to all the political fall-out that entails. And that's not something he's willing to do.

The stubborn refusal ever to change course, which the president tries to pass off as a sign of leadership or devotion to principle, is actually an example of his cowardice.

For the same reasons, he runs from soldiers' funerals like they were burying victims of the plague -- because it's the easy way out. If there's a problem, he denies it or finds someone else to take the fall for him.

Everyone has these tendencies in their measure. No one is perfect. But they define George W. Bush.

The same sort of moral cowardice that led him to support the Vietnam war but decide it wasn't for him, run companies into the ground and let others pay the bill, play gutter politics but run for the hills when someone asks him to say it to their face, those are the same qualities that led the president to lie the country into war, fail to prepare for the aftermath and then refuse to take responsibility for any of it when the bill started to come due.

That's the argument John Kerry needs to be making. And he needs to make it right now.

Leave it to Knight Ridder to actually get this one right ...

Headline: Bush criticizes ads by outside groups

Washington - President Bush sought Monday to distance himself from ads attacking Sen. John Kerry's war record and suggested that voters "should be looking forward, not backward."

But he didn't directly condemn the ads, and the controversy over Kerry's service in Vietnam showed no signs of abating.

See the rest of the piece here.

Indeed, it's not just the headlines. Look at the lede on David Espo's piece running on the AP wire, the piece that will <$NoAd$>define the coverage in daily papers across the country.

President Bush on Monday criticized a commercial that accused John Kerry of inflating his own Vietnam War record, more than a week after the ad stopped running, and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House.


'and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House'?

That's all he said.

Okay, okay, I'll give it a rest ...

Reporters are endlessly getting upset with editors since editors invariably write the headlines that characterize their pieces. But clearly something has changed since I've been out of town because now apparently the sitting administration gets to write its own headlines, at least on the news wires.

The Post and the Times actually do reasonably well on this with "Bush Condemns All Ads By Independent Groups" and "Bush Urges End to Attack Ads by Outside Groups on All Sides", respectively.

But check these out ...

MSNBC: "Bush: Vets should halt anti-Kerry ads."

Yahoo News: "Bush Criticizes Anti-Kerry Television Ad."

Reuters: "Bush says Kerry ad should stop"

He said no such thing. As we noted earlier, he ducked the question, saying it's only a matter of independent expenditure ads -- a 'position' which happens not even to be his, which is a bit of a hat-trick in itself.

As we noted earlier, if someone asks me to denounce Joseph Stalin and I say, "I'm against all politicians who support the death penalty" then I haven't denounced Joseph Stalin. Or perhaps the better analogy is to pro-life zealots who refuse to denounce the murder of abortion providers directly, preferring instead to equate abortion with the shooting of those who administer them.

Great moments in headlines written with a straight face ... or, the never ending decline of CNN. Right now -- 5:59 PM -- CNN headline: "Bush urges Kerry to condemn attack ads."

From The Financial Times, left-wing rag, December 9th, <$NoAd$>2003 ...

The Bush campaign machine, well oiled and already rolling, should not be underestimated. The current president's father gained a formidable reputation as a nasty campaigner, though the presidential fingerprints were carefully wiped off negative blueprints administered by Lee Atwater, the first Mr Bush's ruthless chief strategist.

Karl Rove, a disciple of Mr Atwater, is similarly meticulous about keeping the president publicly above the fray. Yet it is an open secret in Washington that White House-blessed campaign strategists have been working quietly for months to compile potentially damaging background on all the Democratic candidates. In the early going, when it appeared Mr Kerry would emerge as the frontrunner, one senior Republican commented wryly: "By the time the White House finishes with Kerry, no one will know what side of the (Vietnam) war he fought on."

And from Bush campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, yesterday on Meet the Press ...

The fact is this campaign is unprecedented in our praise of our opponent's service during Vietnam.

There was a brief hubbub over the web earlier this afternoon when it seemed that President Bush had denounced the Swift Boat ads. Needless to say, of course, he had done no such thing. He simply repeated the line Scott McClellan has been peddling for days -- that he denounces all independent expenditure ads.

Here's the exchange ....

QUESTION: But why won't you denounce the charges that your supporters are making against Kerry?

BUSH: I'm denouncing all the stuff being on TV, all the 527s. That's what I've said.

I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Senator Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but to use for other purposes as well.

I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill. I thought we were going to once and for all get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising.

And so, I'm disappointed with all those kinds of ads.

QUESTION: This doesn't have anything to do with other 527 ads. You've been accused of mounting a smear campaign.

Do you think Senator Kerry lied about his war record?

BUSH: I think Senator Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record.

But the question is who best to lead the country in the war on terror? Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Who's got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces?

QUESTION: Some Republicans such as Bob Dole and some Republican donors such as Bob Perry have contributed and endorsed the message of those 527 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads.

QUESTION: When you say that you want to stop all...

BUSH: All of them.

QUESTION: So, I mean...

BUSH: That means that ad, every other ad.


BUSH: Absolutely. I don't think we ought to have 527s.

I can't be more plain about it. And I wish -- I hope my opponent joins me in saying -- condemning these activities of the 527s. It's -- I think they're bad for the system. That's why I signed the bill, McCain-Feingold.

I've been disappointed that for the first, you know, six months of this year, 527s were just pouring tons of money -- billionaires writing checks. And, you know, I spoke out against them early. I tried to get others to speak out against them as well. And I just don't -- I think they're bad for the system.

He won't say it. He won't embrace it. He won't denounce it. He won't say he doesn't have an opinion. He won't say he won't get drawn into the debate. Nothing. He hides behind words and behind his friends.

As it happens, as <$Ad$>Atrios notes, this isn't even Bush's position -- at least it wasn't until it became political advantageous. He opposed the provisions he's now hanging his hat on.

But of course the bigger point is that President Bush won't denounce the ads. If someone asks me to denounce Joseph Stalin and I say, "Well, yes, I'm against all politicians who support the death penalty" then I haven't denounced Joseph Stalin, right? This is the same thing.

(MSNBC, of course, fell for it. Their headline -- as of 4:57 PM -- is "Bush: Vets Should Halt anti-Kerry Ads".)

Now, let's step back and consider where we are. Everyone in the country seems to have an opinion on this -- just go see the chat shows, the opinion columns and talk radio. Everybody has an opinion but George W. Bush, the man at the center of it all.

The reason, as we said earlier, is that the president is a coward -- a fact for which this dust-up constitutes merely an example. And as we'll discuss in a post later this evening, President Bush's moral cowardice -- not his physical cowardice or bravery, of which we know little and which is simply a side issue -- is the essence of this campaign.

Before we proceed to other matters, just a brief note on how the Republicans don't get tripped up over fastidious details.

Right at the top of Adam Nagourney's piece in yesterday's Times (in the second graf) is this ...

Mr. Bush's advisers said they were girding for the most extensive street demonstrations at any political convention since the Democrats nominated Hubert H. Humphrey in Chicago in 1968. But in contrast to that convention, which was severely undermined by televised displays of street rioting, Republicans said they would seek to turn any disruptions to their advantage, by portraying protests by even independent activists as Democratic-sanctioned displays of disrespect for a sitting president.

Now, let's pause with this for a moment.

No one believes that any of the protests scheduled for the Republican <$Ad$>convention are sanctioned by the Democratic party. Indeed, far from it -- if for no other reason than that implied in the article. Namely, that any violence or ugly scenes or anything really will tend to help the president, rather than hurt him.

It is probably true that most of the more vitriolic protestors don't even support Senator Kerry, let alone operate with his or his party's sanction. And I think I can guarentee you that the Democratic party and the Kerry campaign would vastly prefer that Kerry supporters among the demonstrators keep their heads down and their voices low or simply not show up at all -- again, for the simply reason I noted above.

There's no use in belaboring the point since everyone knows this is true. Yet here we have Nagourney's sources telling him they plan to make the case for a demonstrably false proposition.

Think about that ...

Yesterday, you'll recall, we noted that a guy named Jim Russell had written a letter to the editor of his local paper in Telluride, Colorado, saying he'd witnessed the Rassman episode and vouched for Kerry's version of events. It seems he was where he said he was. The Post mentions his account in this story today. And he was on a conference call today arranged by the Kerry campaign.

I've been pleasantly surprised that I've only received one email taking me to task over the use of the phrase 'bitch slap' to describe the meta-message behind the sort of attack politics Republicans are practicing today against John Kerry. I'm not indifferent to the coarse connotations of the phrase. But I believe that in such trying times as these precision of meaning trumps political correctness or delicacy of phrasing.

And I raise this again to draw your attention to what I believe is another example of it in Bob Dole's appearance today on Wolf Blitzer's show on CNN.

As the AP put it this afternoon ...

Dole told CNN's ''Late Edition'' that he warned Kerry months ago about going ''too far'' and that the Democrat may have himself to blame for the current situation, in which polls show him losing support among veterans.

So he went "too far" and now he has only himself to blame for the pounding he's taking.

I trust the parallels of language and <$Ad$>attitude here aren't too opaque. But my point is not to launch off on some critical studies discussion of the gendered nature of political rhetoric. It is to highlight again that the aim here is not primarily to shift blame for the current dust-up to Kerry (it's too implausible) but to use mock pity to portray him as powerless, impotent and, because of that impotence, as an object of contempt.

Now, before leaving this subject, let me touch on one other point.

In the last few days I've gotten various emails from critics (gleefully) and supporters (frettingly) of Kerry either wondering or simply asserting that Kerry brought this on himself by highlighting his service in combat in Vietnam. The point is echoed by reporters who sheepishly hang the attention they've given to the Swift Boat group on Kerry's having 'made his service an issue.'

For Kerry supporters or Democrats who think this may be true, I can only ask you, please, please do not be such chumps. And for his critics, please allow your punches to the groin the purity of their cynicism, without sullying them with any claims that Kerry forced your hand.

This was always in the cards. Always. Thus the need to get out early making the case in Kerry's favor. Since it was coming anyway, far better to hit it with the wind at your back than sitting still. The Kerry campaign's only mistake -- and it was no small one -- was not getting out ahead of it sooner.