Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

When they put together the anthology or college class source book of early 21st century popular political discourse they may include this column by Deborah Orin as the template example of the product of the right-wing agitprop machine, with all the familiar tactics and methods bundled together in one place.

In its own dark way it's almost irresistible, like slowing down on the highway to take in a really bad car wreck. You should really read it, with particular attention to the familiar tactic of using one discredited or unproven claim to add weight to another discredited or unproven claim -- something we might call the probabilism of innuendo.

Amazing. President Bush isn't even man enough to answer a straight question about these Swift Boat ads. (You'll have to pardon my antiquated and gendered language. But I'm not sure English has any more presentable way to convey the same meaning.) Not only will Bush not answer them. He won't even let his press secretary do so.

As we've noted, these ads are funded by the president's financial backers, put together by his political associates from Texas, and obviously meant to support his campaign.

Just one example from the Austin American-Statesman may serve to illustrate the point ...

The [Swift Boat] group was organized last spring with the assistance of Merrie Spaeth, a Republican public relations executive from Houston, who also was a public relations consultant to independent counsel Kenneth Starr during his investigation of former Democratic President Bill Clinton. Her late husband, Tex Lezar, ran for lieutenant governor of Texas on George W. Bush's GOP ticket in 1994.

Obviously folks he's never <$Ad$>had any contact with at all.

In any real world sense, this is a front for the president. And for the saps who are willing to give the president the most improbable benefits of the doubt -- that this is something he has nothing to do with and is utterly beyond his control -- well, he won't even toss them a bone by making even the most innocuous statement of disassociation. (Talk about being someone's ... well, you get the idea.)

In addition to this, as we noted yesterday, the president now goes around the country with his 'Ask the President' town hall meetings and uses them as a forum where questioners repeat these slurs without, again, his making even the most perfunctory statements of disassociation. ("Well, I respect your views, sir. And I appreciate your support. But I don't want to question Mr. Kerry's service.")

The example we noted yesterday evening from Oregon a week ago ...

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, sir. Q On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours.

Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?

Now, today Scott McClellan got asked about these ads again and again. And he kept refusing to answer the question, insisting on reframing the question as one about unregulated soft-money (that is, 527s) and all the "shadowy groups" that are out there attacking president. (In other words, this is no different from the Moveon ads that say Bush has piled up a deficit for our grandchildren or accusing him of misleading the country about Iraqi WMD) After hitting on the question again and again, that led to this exchange in which the Oregon incident finally gets brought up ...

Q Well, the charge, though, has been made not just in advertisements, but it has now been made directly to the President.

MR. McCLELLAN: And there have been a lot of false, negative charges made against the President by these shadowy groups. So if he would join us, we could get rid of all of this unregulated soft money activity.

Q Let me ask it this way: The President has said and believes that John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, he's made that very clear. We've made it very clear that we will not make his -- will never raise questions about his service. We haven't, and we won't.

Q This advertisement raises questions about his service, and in fact concludes that he served dishonorably. So the President thinks this ad is false, right?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the issue here is these unregulated soft money groups that exist. The campaign finance reforms were passed in order to get rid of this kind of activity. Yet there is a loophole in the law, and the FEC has refused to address it. We think that all of this activity should be stopped.

Q Could I follow on that? Because what Terry seems to be getting at, what's clear from this event that Bush had last week --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let's not be selective here. Let's look at the overall activity that's going on by all of these shadowy groups. I think we're being a little selective right now. And Senator Kerry is being -- is trying to have it all ways, yet again. He says one thing, while his campaign goes out there and does another thing.

As I said, afraid to answer the question. Afraid to stand up. Just ... afraid.

Maybe pops can pull some strings. Remember, he used to be a congressman from Houston.

Well, it seems there wasn't something in the air.

I didn't know the Kerry campaign was finally going to return fire today over this Swift Boat nonsense. But this morning, in a speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters in Boston, he responded squarely to the attacks. You can see complete text of the speech and the new response-ad they're running. But the key point is that he aimed his remarks at precisely the right target ...

Over the last week or so, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been attacking me. Of course, this group isn’t interested in the truth – and they’re not telling the truth. They didn’t even exist until I won the nomination for president.

But here’s what you really need to know about them. They’re funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas. They’re a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the President won’t denounce what they’re up to tells you everything you need to know—he wants them to do his dirty work.

Thirty years ago, official Navy reports documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Thirty years ago, this was the plain truth. It still is. And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam.

As firefighters you risk your lives everyday. You know what it’s like to see the truth in the moment. You’re proud of what you’ve done—and so am I.

Of course, the President keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: “Bring it on.”

This is a good thing -- and not simply because Kerry has to respond to the president's surrogates who are trying <$Ad$>(and, to an extent, succeeding) in damaging his candidacy with scurrilous and discredited attacks.

There is a meta-debate going on here, one that I'm not sure even the practitioners fully articulate to themselves and one that I'm painfully aware the victims don't fully understand.

Let's call it the Republicans' Bitch-Slap theory of electoral politics.

It goes something like this.

On one level, of course, the aim behind these attacks is to cast suspicion upon Kerry's military service record and label him a liar. But that's only part of what's going on.

Consider for a moment what the big game is here. This is a battle between two candidates to demonstrate toughness on national security. Toughness is a unitary quality, really -- a personal, characterological quality rather than one rooted in policy or divisible in any real way. So both sides are trying to prove to undecided voters either that they're tougher than the other guy or at least tough enough for the job.

In a post-9/11 environment, obviously, this question of strength, toughness or resolve is particularly salient. That, of course, is why so much of this debate is about war and military service in the first place.

One way -- perhaps the best way -- to demonstrate someone's lack of toughness or strength is to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves -- thus the rough slang I used above. And that I think is a big part of what is happening here. Someone who can't or won't defend themselves certainly isn't someone you can depend upon to defend you.

Demonstrating Kerry's unwillingness to defend himself (if Bush can do that) is a far more tangible sign of what he's made of than wartime experiences of thirty years ago.

Hitting someone and not having them hit back hurts the morale of that person's supporters, buoys the confidence of your own backers (particularly if many tend toward an authoritarian mindset) and tends to make the person who's receiving the hits into an object of contempt (even if also possibly also one of sympathy) in the eyes of the uncommitted.

This is certainly what Bush's father did to Michael Dukakis and, sadly, it is what Bush himself did, to a great degree, to Al Gore.

In other ways, Bush's bully-boy campaign tactics play to his strengths, albeit unstated and unlovely ones. Many of the polls of the president have shown that while people don't necessarily agree with the specific policies he's pursued abroad many also intuitively believe that there's no one who will hit back harder. There's some of that 'he may be a son-of-a-bitch but he's our son-of-a-bitch' quality to the president's support on national security issues.

This meta-message behind the president's attacks on Kerry's war record is more consequential than many believe. So hitting back hard was critical on many levels.

"Let's get some things straight here. There is a right-wing slime machine. It has kicked into gear with this phony attack on Kerry's military record. Bush benefits from the ad and condones it. And if Kerry doesn't hit back harder, it could cost him the election."

That's a quote from Jacob Weisberg, Editor of Slate, from an exchange he has with his colleague Will Saletan today about the Swift Boat ads and a contending ad from Moveon.org which questions President Bush's military service.

The exchange is quite worth your while to read for several reasons.

First of all, Saletan takes the Swift-Boat ad and in a few crisp paragraphs shows how all the charges are either unfalsifiable claims about Kerry's character (i.e., he sucks, isn't a good guy, isn't trustworthy, etc.), ones that have no basis in available evidence, or -- in more cases -- are specifically contradicted by the available evidence.

Will likely would have been aided in this work of demolition by this new front page article from tomorrow's The Washington Post. Larry Thurlow is one of Kerry's most vocal critics. He's a member of the Swift Boat group; he's in the group that put out the ads, etc. Thurlow's claim to fame is his contention that Kerry's boat wasn't actually under fire in a 1969 incident for which Kerry was awarded a Bronze Star.

The Post asked Thurlow to release his records. He refused because "he was unwilling to authorize release of his military records because he feared attempts by the Kerry campaign to discredit him and other anti-Kerry veterans." It seems he had some reason for concern. The Post got the records from a Freedom of Information Act request; and they back up Kerry's version of events.

On the one hand it's tempting to smile or take some grim satisfaction in seeing this character hoisted on his own petard. But doing so would give these guys too much credit. Catching a liar lying isn't a coup; it's a definition. Indeed, these aren't just lies. The whole campaign is probably literally libelous -- an effort coordinated between various parts of the right-wing slime machine, as Weisberg aptly calls it.

What Weisberg also makes clear is how ridiculous it is to even compare the Swift Boat ad with those now being run by Moveon.org. One has demonstrable falsehoods, while the other contains two statements which are certainly true and have been reported by newspapers around the country (viz, that Bush got into the Guard with family connections and was later grounded) and another that is almost certainly true but not provable from available evidence (viz, that he 'went missing').

There is a great desire among journalists to appear even-handed in such cases and create equivalences where there simply are none. And this is a great case of that. This is the sort of character assassination that our domestic Falange specializes in, the sort of effort that the standard Washington types usually lament as a grievous wrong several years after it happens, but never at the time. The effort is being put together by the president's supporters. He is benefitting greatly from it. And he and his aides have gone out of their way not to criticize it in any way.

On the campaign trail President Bush makes no effort to distance himself from it at all. Quite the contrary, in fact, as in this exchange from an 'Ask President Bush' session last Friday in Oregon ...


Q On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours.

Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?

What a stand-up guy ...

In any case, Kerry does need to hit back harder. Probably not directly, as that might exacerbate the problem, but with surrogates who will hit back much harder and start putting into play the president's record if he doesn't relent. Really, though, this comes back to the press, whether they'll allow the president to play the silent accomplice in this character assassination and pay no price for his actions.

As Weisberg puts it, "The ad is a carefully crafted lie ... beyond vile."

Unfortunately, lies like this, once uttered, are impossible to counter in their entirety, just as mud thrown against a wall makes a terrible mess even though it doesn't stick. The only way to counter such misdeeds is to shine a light on those cynical and deceitful enough to seek to gain from them. That would be the president and his supporters. But on this front most of the media are content to act as indifferent bystanders to the offense.

In the department of races I've been watching, let me mention a new poll out from Connecticut's 2nd District, where incumbent Republican Rob Simmons is facing Jim Sullivan.

The 2nd District is basically the eastern half of the state (see here), an area that I can fairly call myself an expert on, as long as we stick to how things were in the 1600s. About the area's more recent history, I know pretty little.

That ignorance aside, however, a new poll out, commissioned by the Sullivan campaign and the DCCC, has Simmons up by two points over Sullivan, 41% to 39% among likely voters. The poll was taken on August 11th and 12th and had a sample size of 504 likely voters.

Now, that's a relatively small sample size, though not so small for a congressional district poll. And the poll was commissioned by the challenger. Still, it shows a basically dead-even race and an incumbent that is deep down in the danger zone at 41%. Add in the fact that the most recent Quinnipiac poll put President Bush's approval rating in the state at 37% and you've got a very winnable race for the Democrats.

Give this race a look. Here's Sullivan's site.

What exactly did the Iranians tell European diplomats last month in Paris at talks about Iran's nuclear program?

Yesterday Undersecretary of State John Bolton spoke on the Iran issue at a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute in Washington. I wanted to be there. But I wasn't in town.

According to press accounts, Bolton said that the Iranians told their German, French and British counterparts that they could produce enough uranium for a bomb within a year, and that they'd do so if the Europeans didn't back down in their demands that the Iranians dismantle their nuclear program.

In other words, the Iranians threatened that they'd make a bomb within a year if the Europeans didn't back off.

The Post says, delicately, that "there were discrepancies between Bolton's account and those of European and U.S. diplomats, who said that Iran's deputy negotiator, Hoseyn Moussavian, said Iran could start enriching uranium within a year, but it would take longer to enrich enough for a weapon."

In a small note on page A4 in USA Today Barbara Slavin puts the point a little more squarely, saying that "two diplomats from two of the European countries at the Paris talks said they were unaware of such a threat. The diplomats ... were not present at the talks but were briefed on them..."

(Slavin, at least according to the invitation, was one of the panelists at the Hudson event.)

Now, my point in noting this discrepancy (to use the Post's delicate phrasing) is not to gainsay the seriousness of the challenge of Iran's nuclear program or to paint them with white hats. But US and European officials seem to be saying, about as clearly as they can, that what Bolton says happened did not happen. And that fact should have everyone's attention.

Mr. Bolton is probably more guilty than any other member of this administration of repeated, public mistatements, exaggerations and distortions of intelligence about Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba and other countries regarding weapons of mass destruction and proliferation issues.

The big story here is not what Bolton said -- at least not in the sense of considering it presumptively factual. It is rather that while we're in the midst of the administration's passing off its past sins on admittedly blameworthy intelligence agencies, it is continuing to practice the same sort of manipulative and deceitful practices that have already caused the nation such grief.

Tough words? Sure. But given what we've witnessed to date I cannot see how they are not fair. Nor can I understand how such repeat performances don't garner more attention.

Quote of the day.

"I've never been a press hound."

Rep. Katherine Harris (R-FL), explaining her lack of public appearances in <$NoAd$>her congressional district, which includes some of the hardest hit counties in the state.

Writes a columnist today in the local paper ...

Harris hit those counties on Tuesday for the first time. She said she was in Sweden over the weekend attending a family wedding. When she heard about the destruction, she cut short her stay in Europe and headed home.

Although she wasn't visible to the public the past few days, Harris said she and her staff have been working behind the scenes to help victims.


Harris said if she had been in the country and toured the hurricane damage, she's convinced the newspapers and her critics would have accused her of having a political motive.

Another candidate for Rich Kids Who Can't Catch a Break.

Retiring Republican congressman says war was "a mistake", "not justified" and "a dangerous, costly mess."

Rep. Doug Bereuter of Nebraska made the statements in a four page letter to constituents detailed in an article in today's Lincoln Journal Star.

I wanted to pass on this passage from Charlie Cook's most recent 'Off to the Races' column in which he analyzes the state of the presidential campaign in various states ...

At this point, there remains 10 states that are too close to call: Florida with 27 electoral votes, Iowa (7), Minnesota (10), Missouri (11), Nevada (5), New Hampshire (4), New Mexico (5), Ohio (20), Pennsylvania (21) and Wisconsin (10). While too close to call, these states are not necessarily dead even. In Pennsylvania, President Bush, after holding a consistent lead over Kerry, finally slipped behind last month, but not far enough to warrant moving it into the "Lean Kerry" column. The same case exists in Florida, where a recent poll by a Republican firm for a private client put Kerry up by four points, but no one believes that the state is anything but a toss up. In Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico, Kerry seems to be up by a bit, but again not quite enough to move those into the Kerry column. Bush is ahead in Missouri, but it's a close call as to whether the lead is big enough to justify moving it into the "Lean Bush" column.

In adding up all the electoral votes that are in the safe and lean columns for each candidate, President Bush has a tight 211 to 207 lead in the Electoral College. Bush also has 120 votes in the toss up column. However, if you pushed each of the 10 toss up states to Kerry -- who seems to be ahead by a slight margin -- he would come out on top.

Two points on this. <$Ad$>

These numbers seem somewhat different from ones you can find on sites like this one that tally up all the different state-wide polls to give a read on where the electoral college numbers are. But I think it's worth noting that those tallies can be at least somewhat misleading for the following reason. Unlike people, all polls are not created equal. And when you get down to state-level polls the range of quality becomes much greater than it is at the national level. A veteran politics watcher like Cook can see through that smoke and take into account the poor quality in some polls and deeper trends at work in given states. For that reason, I put a lot of stock in Cook's opinion.

Still, he does seem to me to be understating Kerry's recent strength in Pennsylvania and Florida. In the case of Florida, what seems to have been a private GOP poll may have put Kerry up by 4 points. But the most recent independent poll, done by Quinnipiac, put him up by 7 points (6 with Nader added to the mix). And the poll before that, by ARG from the beginning of this month, also put Kerry up by 8 points (7 with Nader).

In fact, if you just go by the polls (which is not necessarily the best way to go) Florida is as solidly in the Kerry camp as Michigan -- and Cook doesn't put Michigan on his list of too-close-to-call states.

I agree with Cook to a degree. Some skepticism is warranted on the Florida numbers. One has to take the state's history into account, who the governor is, and what we might call the natural advantages the GOP has in the state, both legal and otherwise. If Kerry really ends up winning Florida by 7 or 8 points, it'll mean that President Bush was defeated in a blow-out.

In any case, these aren't criticisms of Cook, just possible points of disagreement. I'm posting his analysis because I put a lot of stock in what he says. Those are just my two cents.

I finally got a chance to talk to Chris Homan, Campaign Manager for Pete Sessions, about the sign war going on in the Sessions-Frost race down in Dallas.

Homan said he believed that the school sign incident (described below) was authorized by the Frost campaign and designed to "intimidate" Sessions and his disabled son. He called Frost's charges that the whole stunt was a Sessions dirty trick "delusional" and an example of the "near psychopathic level [Frost] is willing to drop to" to win the election.

It seems awfully hard for me to believe that the Frost campaign really authorized covering Sessions' kids school with Frost for Congress signs. On the other hand, Homan notes that Frost's campaign hasn't put forward any evidence to support its dirty tricks claims. And while I doubt very much that Frost authorized this little stunt, it certainly doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility that this is something that might have been done by over-zealous supporters.

Homan also said that the Frost campaign had a history of sign practices that were "sleazy at best."

Now, finally to the matter of the police report I mentioned earlier which showed Sessions getting questioned by a police office for personally removing his Democratic opponents signs late in the evening a few days before election day 2002. (According to the police report, Sessions was not cited.) Homan confirmed that it was a genuine police record but called it "more or less a police activity report ... a meaningless piece of paper."

According to Homan, Texas has a law against putting candidate signs on public roadways. And Sessions and his aide were merely "collecting yard signs ... that had been illegally placed along the road."

In other words, says Homan, Sessions was just doing his (rather late night) civic duty.