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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I love steamed Chesapeake Blue Crabs. On a wonderful evening about exactly a year ago I had them for the first time out where you're supposed to have them, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Then last week some friends of mine had me over for steamed crabs and I got to watch the chamber-of-horrors process of cooking these guys unfold. The doomed, angry crabs would get tossed into steamer, hop around for a second, and then just as they were about to give up the ghost one or two of their claws would start to fidget and vibrate in a chilling -- though admittedly rather appetizing -- death spasm.

I couldn't keep that image out of my mind this evening when I was doing some new reporting on the John Thune for Senate campaign in South Dakota.

It's been a hard several weeks for Thune. President Bush recruited Thune -- who is currently in the House -- to get into the race. And his candidacy was premised on getting lots of support from the president -- who's extremely popular in the state.

But the plan hasn't come off just as expected. Last month, Bush stiffed the state on drought relief -- a serious embarrassment for Thune, since his campaign is based on proximity to the president. And recent polls suggest that Tim Johnson, the incumbent, who long trailed Thune by significant margins, is opening up his first, albeit very meager, lead. At a minimum, Johnson has erased all of Thune's big lead.

The Thune campaign has been trying to get the campaign on to issues more favorable to their candidate. And now the Thune campaign -- or some mysterious, unknown forces trying to aid the Thune campaign -- seem to be getting desperate.

John Thune is pro-life. Tim Johnson has a mixed record on the issue, basically on the rightward edge of pro-choice. In a rural, Republican state like South Dakota you can imagine that Johnson probably doesn't make all that big a thing of his position on the issue. No campaign fly-ins from Barbra Streisand, Cybill Shepherd, etc.

This last Sunday at churches -- mostly Catholic ones -- in Souix Falls a flyer appeared on congregants' car windshields. The flyer (which has just been added to the TPM Document Collection) reads: "You Can Help Keep Abortion Legal, Vote Tim Johnson for US Senate." The first three words and the last three are in smaller letters so it basically reads 'Keep Abortion Legal, Vote Tim Johnson.'

In still smaller letters below the flyer says "Call Senator Johnson at 605-339-9700. Thank him for his endorsement of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion."

According to today's Argus Leader, Mario Sassani of Holy Spirit Church attended Mass early Sunday and then found out about the flyers when he returned later in the morning for a 'respect life' meeting. He was a bit upset.

Now, if nothing else, Johnson's known to have a pretty sharp campaign staff. So it's hard to figure how they would have thought it was a good call to leaflet cars at Catholic Churches on Sunday morning asking parishioners to "thank" Johnson for "his endorsement of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion." Possible, I grant you. What's not possible in this world we live in? But just rather hard to quite imagine.

Now questions are circulating about whether the flyers were some sort of political dirty trick.

So I asked Thune Press Secretary Christine Iverson about the flyers.

"I think the Johnson campaign," Iverson told me Tuesday evening, "has made a move in extremely bad taste which offended a number of South Dakotans and they're now trying to hide from their actions by attempting to put it on someone else. But I think their campaign's backfired and I think they realize that they've made a terrible, terrible mistake and offended a number of people very deeply."

But wasn't it a bit hard to figure, I asked Iverson, that even the most moronic member of the Johnson campaign would decide to leaflet a Catholic church on Sunday morning with pro-choice flyers?

"I agree," said Iverson. "It was appallingly bad judgment on their part."

When I asked if it could have been some outside group trying to embarrass the Johnson campaign, Iverson said, "I suppose that it's possible. But again the ads clearly mention voting for Tim Johnson in November. It's difficult to imagine how anyone who's not supporting Tim Johnson would have been responsible for those flyers."

Iverson denied the Thune campaign was involved in any way and added that "bad judgment and poor taste have long been hallmarks of the Johnson campaign and this recent incident is no exception. Someone who is attempting to help them or they themselves made a terrible, terrible error. And they have deeply offended a number of people. They realize they made a horrible and grave mistake."

When I asked Dan Pfeiffer at the Johnson campaign about Iverson's remarks, he said: "That is the craziest thing in the world. It's ludicrous to assume that we did this ... It's a political dirty trick. There's no question about it. And we believe very strongly that it was John Thune's campaign or someone trying to help John Thune's campaign that did this. It's such a ludicrous assertion that it's hard to know what to say. What do you say to insanity? To say that we did this is dishonest, disingenuous and incredibly desperate."

Neither campaign claims to have any actual knowledge of who put the flyers on the cars. You can be the judge.

We knew we'd have an election. We knew there might be war in Iraq. But who knew the Republican party would go to war against the English language?

Just to recap: Republicans long called their Social Security reform plan 'privatization' or 'partial privatization.' This Spring their polls and focus groups showed it was killing them with voters. So they decided the 'privatization' label was dreadfully unfair and that nobody should be allowed to use it anymore. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) sent out a memo instructing House candidates to demand that reporters never use the word 'privatization' because doing so would mean using "the power of the press to promote inaccurate Democrat spin and taking sides in the midterm elections ..."

(According to a May 11th article in the Washington Post, Republicans have even considered suing Democrats who accuse their candidates of supporting 'privatization'.)

Now an actual Republican House candidate is demanding that her opponent stop using the term 'privatization' once and for all. First-term Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) -- locked in a tough rematch with Democrat Jim Humphreys -- has demanded that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) stop airing a campaign commercial which claims that she supports 'privatization'.

The actual ad says "When Capito had a chance to help protect Social Security from privatization, she voted no..."

Capito calls the ad "false and negative" and claims that she had "never voted on the privatization of Social Security because no such vote has ever taken place." (Italics added)

The issue here isn't whether there was a vote or who voted which way. (The vote took place on July 25th, 2001 when California Democratic Congressman Bob Filner had the House vote on an amendment designed to put everyone on record for or against privatization). The issue is merely over the word 'privatization', Republicans' own once-preferred word.

At the time of the vote took place 'privatization' was still the word Republicans used: A week before the vote, conservative Washington Times columnist Donald Lambro called the policy 'Social Security privatization.' The whole issue is that the NRCC has now decreed that the 'privatization' label is beyond the pale. So it follows that no vote on 'privatization' ever took place.

Now, clearly this whole exercise can quickly degenerate into ridiculous word games. But that's precisely the point. House Republicans are afraid to discuss their Social Security policies. (As one of the NRCC's recent internal polling reports put it, "Successful implementation of inoculation and response strategy [on Social Security] serves only to limit erosion -- not going to get any sort of clear 'win'.") So they're resorting to a weird mix of game-playing and lies to muddy the waters and stop anyone from taking them to task over their support of an unpopular policy.

Every political reporter knows this is true. This same trick is going to be pulled in race after race. Will anyone call them on it?

This new article in the Weekly Standard by Stephen F. Hayes ("Democrats for Regime Change") is getting a lot of attention by tarring Democrats as hypocrites on Iraq. Hayes takes us back to February 1998 when President Clinton was ratcheting up pressure for military action against Iraq in the then-on-going struggle over inspections. He quotes the then-president extensively on the necessity of acting. And he quotes Democrats like Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt and John Kerry supporting the president and echoing his argument for action -- including military action -- against Iraq.

Hayes' argument -- first implicit, later explicit -- is obvious: what else beside partisanship would be preventing Democrats from endorsing the case against Saddam and the need for military action now when they did so so fulsomely four years ago?

The argument reads well. But it sets the Standard in a two-against-one battle against logic and the its own editorial line.

After all, just what sort of military action was being discussed? And with what aim? Even the most skittish Democrats today are full of talk about the necessity of confronting Iraq, the dangers of WMD, and so forth. But Hayes' argument only makes sense if what Democrats were inclined to endorse four years ago is at all similar to what they're hesitant to endorse today. But, of course, it's not. The entire discussion Hayes references refers to military action, but not the forcible overthrow of the Iraqi regime through military force.

Who says so? Why, the Weekly Standard. And virtually every other Republican politician and certainly every conservative publication. The conceit of Bush administration policy on Iraq is that it's fundamentally different from Clinton administration policy -- which is, by and large, true. At just the time Bill Clinton and the sundry Democrats Hayes' quotes were making their statements the Standard said, succinctly enough, that "Containment is the strategy this administration has chosen." (Weekly Standard, Editorial, March 2, 1998) In other words, the policy then on offer was fundamentally different from what's now being discussed. Supporting that one then and not supporting this one today means nothing.

Perhaps Clinton's policy was the wrong one. Pains me as it does to say, by the end of the second term I don't think the Clinton administration had a coherent policy on Iraq. But the logic of Hayes' argument collapses at the simple level of a mistaken apples and oranges comparison.

Ouch. Ouch. And Double-Ouch! It seems the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is finally getting nailed for its endlessly mendacious memo about Social Security privatization. You'll remember that this is the memo in which the NRCC instructed GOP House candidates to bully reporters out of using the term 'privatization' to describe Republican policy on Social Security reform, claiming the label was a misleading slur concocted by Democrats, when in fact it was the term all Republicans used until a few months ago.

Today Paul Krugman called them on it in the Times. This afternoon Tim Noah called them on it in Slate.

But perhaps most damning was a piece published on Wednesday by Ramesh Ponnuru in National Review Online ...

The Republican memo is a piece of brazen historical revisionism. It pretends that the word "privatization" was invented by Democratic spinners and then accepted by a gullible media. It makes no mention of the incontrovertible fact that "privatization" was the term used by many Republican (and other) advocates of personal accounts until it turned out that the word didn't poll well.
Now Ponnuru does argue that 'privatization' isn't really the best label to describe what Republicans want to do. It wouldn't be so bad, he says, if the NRCC flaks had "written a memo saying that a lot of people, including themselves, had carelessly used the word 'privatization' in the past but that it should henceforth be avoided by all participants in the Social Security debate."

So Ponnuru thinks 'privatization' isn't the best label. But he frankly identifies the rank dishonesty of the NRCC's memo.

Now, there area a few other points I've learned since writing about this earlier this week. This isn't the first time the NRCC has tried this scam. They tried it less energetically in May with a similar (or perhaps identical) memo. And The New Republic called them on it then. What's more, NRCC Chairman Tom Davis went on Meet the Press last Sunday, following up on the August 26th memo. And it seems that once you really get your 'lying about Social Security' groove on, it just comes really easy. Davis said, among other things, that "President Clinton embraced [private accounts] at one point as you recall." In this universe at least, that never happened. (A nice breakdown of Davis' Meet the Press appearance can be found here if you scroll down a bit.)

I don't like the frivolous use of the word 'lie' for what are merely misstatements or exaggerations. It's a cutting and harsh word. But these are lies. They are multiple and repeated and intentional. And they all come from NRCC Chairman Tom Davis -- who might fairly be called the Vin Diesel of public policy mendacity, or the first practitioner of Extreme spin -- or his subordinates.

Now, these recent zinging mentions by columnists are like so many banderillas, those innocuous but enraging beribboned darts that a matador ceremoniously slips into the bull's neck before he really lets him have it.

So the question is, which daily reporter with access to Davis will ask him what credibility he can possibly have on Social Security -- or anything else, for that matter -- when he has presided over a campaign of what liberals and conservatives both agree are lies.

I find it hard to imagine that this new revelation won't end Benjamin Netanyahu's political career once and for all. A tape has emerged in which Netanyahu's wife Sara tells another Likud activist, inter alia, "Bibi is a leader who is greater than this entire country, he really is a leader on a national scale. We'll move abroad. This country can burn. This country can't survive without Bibi. People here will be slaughtered."

"Where does the Times' confession leave its outright defenders, like Marshall and John Judis?" asks Mickey Kaus. Honestly? I'd say it leaves Judis and me with more self-respect than the news page editors at the Times.

It's always irksome to lean in to defend someone who's wrongly accused, only to see them buckle and beg forgiveness because they can't stand the heat. But that's precisely what's happened here. Say what you want about the Times, or anti-regime change bias, whatever. The Tyler/Purdum article's characterization of Kissinger was right on target. I've explained why several times already so I won't do it again here. (For a really good explanation see this new article by John Judis.)

In fact, see how Fox News of all places reported Kissinger's OpEd just a couple days after it ran -- that is, before the conservative party line got drawn up. They reported it just the same way as the Times did.

Even the Times' mea culpa has a touch of comedy in it since the editors seem to strain to find something to apologize for. The key passage reads like one of those loopy show trial moments when the victim has utterly given up the fight, can't wait to admit to something, but can't quite figure out what to confess to. So he looks inquiringly at his accuser for some hint or lead as to what crime he's supposed to cop to. It's about as uplifting as watching a black-eyed wife tearfully apologize to her husband after he beats her up.

Times critics can jump up and down like monkeys because of their victory. And it is a victory: the Times caved. (They now refuse to report even the fact that Kissinger supports the inspectors-first approach.) But that doesn't alter the essential dishonesty of the attack. Kissinger dissents from key aspects of White House policy like inspections and he's a supporter of White House policy. Powell dissents on the same grounds but he's a dissenter who should be sent packing.

Kissinger's critique was different from Scowcroft's. But then Tyler and Purdum said it was different. But it turns out, says the Times mea culpa, they "should have made a clearer distinction between [Kissinger's] views and those of Mr. Scowcroft." Tyler and Purdum's error apparently was insufficient special-pleading on behalf of the neo-conservatives and warhawks.

The issue here of course isn't Kissinger. Who cares what Kissinger thinks about Iraq? But who knew it would be so easy for a few conservative columnists and their yahoos-in-waiting to bitch-slap the Times into saying that up is down or humiliate two good reporters who zigged when the neos were demanding a zag?

The new administration line is that Vice-President Dick Cheney was off the reservation last week when he said that inspections in Iraq were an irrelevancy. Andy Card apparently told Howard Fineman on the record that Cheney was freelancing when he ruled out inspections.

If this were true you would really have to marvel at the collision of incompetence and humiliation that would require the White House Chief of Staff to tell a reporter on the record on the president's behalf that the vice-president had made a statement that the president neither authorized nor agreed with.

The key part of that sentence, however, is 'if this were true.' Because it's pretty clearly not true. I can't tell you what was authorized or who said what to whom. Maybe the president didn't 'authorize' Cheney's remarks, whatever that might mean. But the premise of Card's remarks is bogus. Cheney didn't break any new ground in his remarks on inspectors. On the contrary, the irrelevance and insufficiency of weapons inspections has been administration policy for some time. The point has been stated repeatedly by Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and various other administration appointees.

This may be an embarrassment for the administration's slip-n-slide policy on Iraq. But it won't do to peg it on Cheney. This is just clumsy damage control, an effort to make sense of the fact that the vice-president and the Secretary of State flatly contradicted each other on the central point of the president's foreign policy agenda in less than a week.

Consider the administration's conceit: the president's leadership is so vaunted, they say, that when he makes up his mind the allies, who oppose us, will support us. The public, which is ambivalent, will overwhelmingly endorse his policy. But how will he bend the world to his will when he can't even get his own cabinet secretaries to endorse his policy?

Did the neos get the Times to buckle on the Henry Kissinger question?

When last we visited the deepest recesses of conservative media criticism insiderdom, a gaggle of neo-conservatives were charging the New York Times with bias against the president's Iraq policy. Their prime evidence was a series of Times' articles portraying Henry Kissinger as a critic of the president's policy when, in fact, said the neos, he was a supporter. This of course was based on an earlier Kissinger OpEd in the Washington Post.

Today's Times' article on Colin Powell by James Dao says Powell ...

believes that Mr. Bush should first press for a new round of weapons inspections and then seek international support for invasion plans. That view has recently been endorsed by three Republican foreign policy experts: former Secretaries of State James A. Baker III and Lawrence S. Eagleburger, and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft.
Now, as I argued earlier, I think the neos were simply wrong on this. To the extent that there is legitimate disagreement that's because the shadings of Iraq policy can be rather subtle and even more because Kissinger's column was laughably clotted and hedged and meant to give almost everyone something to grab on to.

But if Kissinger cavilled and hedged -- I'm sorry, qualified and explained -- on a lot of things, inspections policy wasn't one of them. He explicitly endorsed precisely what Powell is saying with regard to inspectors. Hell, even Fox News -- before the party-line got established -- could see that. Let's go to the tape, or rather, the text of Kissinger's column ...

the objective of regime change should be subordinated in American declaratory policy to the need to eliminate weapons of mass destruction from Iraq as required by the UN resolutions. The restoration of the inspection system existing before its expulsion by Saddam is clearly inadequate. It is necessary to propose a stringent inspection system that achieves substantial transparency of Iraq institutions. Since the consequences of simply letting the diplomacy run into the ground are so serious, a time limit should be set. The case for military intervention will then have been made in the context of seeking a common approach.
At any major metropolitan newspaper the details of a particular story will often reflect the information the given reporter had at hand rather than the paper's broader editorial line. But Iraq's a big issue. And this Kissinger matter has gotten a lot of attention. It's hard to see how this telling omission just slipped through. Much easier to imagine that the Times just got rolled.

"You also mentioned what you call 'privatization' of Social Security," CNN anchor Judy Woodruff told House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt in an interview last Thursday. "The Republicans are crying foul. Your counterpart running the campaigns for the Republicans in the House are (sic) saying the Democrats are being false. They're being misleading, that they are not talking about privatizing Social Security."

We've previously noted how easy it usually is for conservatives to bully reporters with charges of media bias. There's a mix of poor judgment, poor memory, insecurity and low-grade cowardice which makes this possible -- a messy collision of conservative self-pity and journalistic self-loathing. But let's set aside that deeper issue for a moment to look at a particularly revealing example of the phenomenon.

Both parties try to tag their opponents' policies with phrases and labels intended to place them in the most negative light. The best recent example of this is the Republican rechristening of the estate tax as the 'death tax.' But it's an equal opportunity game. And both sides will lean on reporters not to start using these self-serving labels as straightforward descriptions of the issues being discussed.

It was in this vein that the National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a memo last Monday claiming, inter alia ...

Democrats are doing all they can to blur the very important distinction between 'personal accounts' and 'privatization.' They are employing the word 'privatization' for the specific purpose of eliciting negative reactions among seniors because it carries connotations of dismantling the publicly run Social Security system. 'Privatization' is a false and misleading word insofar as it is being used by Democrats to describe Republican positions on Social Security.

Despite this, some reporters -- even some national reporters -- continue to inaccurately describe the concept of personal accounts as privatization. To the extent that reporters are wittingly or unwittingly complicit in the Democrat strategy to make 'personal accounts' and 'privatization' one in the same, they are using the power of the press to promote inaccurate Democrat spin and taking sides in the midterm elections.

Reporters have historically rejected partisan spin phrases as descriptors of policy proposals. They have done this because semantics matter. In the past, reporters have not used inaccurate or politically loaded descriptions in reporting because it violates a critical component of the journalistic code of ethics - reporters must distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. That is precisely the reason that most newspapers use 'estate tax' as opposed to 'death tax' and 'minimum wage' instead of 'living wage.'

It is very important that we not allow reporters to shill for Democrat demagoguery by inaccurately characterizing 'personal accounts' and 'privatization' as one in the same.

Woodruff's question to Gephardt a few days later was clearly in response to this memo and a broader Republican campaign to mau-mau reporters out of using the word 'privatization' in this context.

No two ways about it: this argument couldn't be more stupid or dishonest. Why it's not one of Tim Noah's Whoppers of the Week I'm really not sure.

You can make a pretty good case that 'privatization', or more specifically 'partial privatization', is just objectively the most accurate description of Republican policy -- that is, diverting about a fifth of Social Security's funding base into private accounts for individuals.

But why bother with mere objective accuracy, especially since 'objective' descriptions are going to be hard to come by on such a charged issue? Why not just go with the word Republicans have always used? The simple truth is that 'privatization' has always been the word Republicans themselves used to describe their policy. That is, it was until they rather belatedly realized that their policy was killing them with voters.

Examples? My god, where to start? Grover Norquist, American Spectator, June 1998: "With $14 billion of the surplus, Congress could give every working American $100 in his own IRA. Americans will then be able to compare their return on their IRA with their negative rate of return on Social Security and this will highlight the case for partial privatization." In June 1999, again in the Spectator, Norquist lauded Steve Forbes' plan for "privatization of Social Security" and said Forbes had "convinced many Republicans that the flat tax and privatization were fit for polite company." Or conservative Washington Times columnist Donald Lambro, April 27th, 1998: "Mr. Moynihan's plan [essentially the plan noted above] would move toward partial privatization." Or Fred Barnes in The Weekly Standard, April 6th, 1998, again referring to the plan noted above: "[T]he White House may be ready to accept partial privatization as the price of a reform deal..." Bill Kristol, George Will, Larry Kudlow (just the ones I looked up) and probably every other conservative under the sun has long described the move to private accounts as privatization.

So friends and foes of the policy have always called it 'privatization' or 'partial privatization.' Now the term (and the policy, for that matter) is a political loser. So Republican operatives are cooking up lies to get themselves off the hook. Everyone has to change the name. And if they don't, they're biased against conservatives.

What reporter would be foolish enough or sorry enough to fall for this? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

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