Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

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I'm still marvelling at how tendentious and, in at least some cases, sloppy Slate's scorecard of Kerry's "waffles" is.

Kerry's been in the Senate for twenty years. He has shifted on issues. And he has, in recent years, shifted toward the center. A friend of mine who I respect as much as anyone in this business -- and who is a confirmed opponent of President Bush's -- expressed concern over just this point a few days ago, calling Kerry a "positioner" and basing that on experience dealing with him as a reporter.

But some of these "waffles" are really pretty weak. Let's start with one under the header "Social Security" ...

Kerry's Original Position

During the 1996 campaign, when I was a Globe reporter, Kerry told me the Social Security system should be overhauled. He said Congress should consider raising the retirement age and means-testing benefits and called it "wacky" that payroll taxes did not apply to income over $62,700. "I know it's all going to be unpopular," he said. "But this program has serious problems, and we have a generational responsibility to fix them."

Kerry's Revised Position

Kerry no longer wants to mess with Social Security. "John Kerry will never balance the budget on the backs of America's seniors," his Web site promises.

Let's take this apart.

Is Kerry saying that any consideration of means-testing or raising the retirement age is off the table? I'd say someone should ask him. <$Ad$>Because if he's now making a categorical statement ruling this out, that would be a shift in his position. And going into a presidential election he might not want to be entirely clear.

But all the author includes is a website bromide about not "balanc[ing] the budget on the back of America's seniors."

(Here's the page on the Kerry site where it says this. The full statement is: "John Kerry will never balance the budget on the backs of America’s seniors. Many politicians have supported major cuts that cause premium increases and cutbacks in benefits. John Kerry won’t.")

All the author is doing here is comparing a specific statement with a broad and essentially meaningless statement. He should have called up Kerry and tried to see if he still thinks those things should be on the table.

The rest of the before and after makes even less sense.

The author recounts how Kerry told him that it was "'wacky' that payroll taxes did not apply to income over $62,700." The author then says this contradicts the later website pledge about not balancing the federal budget "on the backs of America's seniors."

In this latter case the author may just be confused. I'm honestly not sure.

What Kerry is talking about here is raising or removing the cap on payroll taxes, which was then $62,700 and is now, I think, over $80,000, because of fixed yearly increases.

Getting rid of the cap is something usually put forward by people who don't want to touch benefits because this is a change on the support side rather than the pay-out side.

So, for instance, if you wanted to balance the federal budget and get Social Security in check without touching so much as a hair on Social Security's balding head, the most obvious thing to do would be to remove the payroll tax cap because that amounts to a payroll tax increase on upper income people to put more money into Social Security and thus avoid benefit cuts.

There are all sorts of policy-wonkish arguments for why this would probably be a good thing. But for the moment, suffice it to say, that the author simply seems to have confused a tax increase for upper income earners who pay into Social Security with a benefit cut for those who are recipients of the program.

Phrasing it that way, of course, assumes that we grant the author's seeming premise that the website bromide amounts to forswearing any benefit cuts to Social Security. It can hardly be an example of trying to "balance the budget on the backs of America's seniors" when it's actually a demonstrable example of trying to balance it on the backs of the young, the middle aged and the wealthy.

A new Associated Press poll out today has President Bush's approval rating at 48%. He polls 46% versus 45% for John Kerry. But the real stunner is that Ralph Nader is pulling 6%.

My gut -- and a lot of other evidence -- still tells me that Nader will prove to be far less of a factor this year than he was in 2000. The scope of opposition to President Bush tells me that, as does the fact that I don't think Nader will even appear on the ballot in many states since he's not running on the Green party ticket.

Still, I find that 6% number pretty surprising, and a little worrisome.

I said a couple days ago that a <$Ad$>briefing of sorts that I heard last week gave me the sense that the White House political operation was in serious denial about the state of their political fortunes.

My point wasn't that the president is heading to certain defeat. Far from it. With all the bad news the president has had so far in 2004 he's still barely running outside the margin of error against Kerry in most polls.

But when you're in denial about what might be manageable problems that can be the same as having problems which are in fact unmanageable.

As I wrote in the second post ever to appear on TPM, one of the most dangerous things you can do in politics is to fall for your own spin. And the Bush political operation, as I noted in that post from November 2000, has a history of doing just that.

In any case, Bob Novak has a column today which doesn't say the same thing as I've said above. But I think it's consistent with that read of where the White House is right now.

If Slate is going to run a scorecard of "Kerry's waffles" -- many of which are painfully tendentious -- shouldn't they run a similar scorecard for the president?

In Slate's defense, they did run this excellent, must-read Fred Kaplan piece on the RNC's serial deceptions about Kerry's defense votes and the gullible, journalist goofs who gobble them up.

Still, a Bush flipflop scorecard is really in order, so long as Microsoft has the bandwidth to serve up a very long file.

As we noted earlier, Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole was reported to have compared voting against President <$NoAd$>Bush this November with supporting Hitler during World War II. An Oklahoma news radio station also quoted him as saying that a Bush loss would be a bin Laden win.

We called the congressman's office this morning for comment and confirmation. And now they've sent us this press release responding to the published accounts.

We're publishing the press release in full ...

Congressman Cole Corrects Inaccurate Portrayal of Comments

WASHINGTON, D.C. - "The Yukon Review mischaracterized my remarks in the opening lead of their story published yesterday. However, they did accurately quote parts of my speech during the Canadian County Republican Convention held last Saturday."

"I do believe that if President Bush is not re-elected, the United States' enemies around the world will take comfort and strength in the fact that such a strong war time leader would be out of office. I never said and do not believe that a vote against President Bush is equivalent to a vote for Adolf Hitler. The patriotism of candidates and voters who oppose the President is not in question," Congressman Cole said.

During the Canadian County Convention, Congressman Cole did say the following:

"I promise you this, if George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election, it's that simple. It will be interpreted that way by enemies of the United States around the world."

"What do you think Hitler would have thought if Roosevelt would've lost the election in 1944? He would have thought American resolve was [weakening]."

"What would the confederacy have thought if Lincoln would have lost the election of 186[4]?"

"I stand by these statements and do believe that this November is again another important time in history, just like Lincoln's victory in 1864 and Roosevelt's victory in 1944. President Bush has proved that he will stand up to our enemies and I believe that is his most important job as Commander in Chief," Congressman Cole said.

Frankly, I think these comments are still pretty outrageous, even in Cole's version of them. But they're not quite as bad as the original reports. And we wanted to bring you Congressman Cole's response in full.

What to make of this flood of news about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi?

It is now being treated almost as a given that Zarqawi was behind the horrific wave of attacks that struck Baghdad and Karbala on Tuesday. Today, however, there is an unsubstantiated claim that Zarqawi was in fact killed during the war in early April. And on top of all this there's the report -- potentially explosive in a Washington context -- that the White House passed on several opportunities to take out Zarqawi and his group before the invasion because doing so would have weakened their case for going to war.

Let's take up the last point first.

According to this NBC News story, the Pentagon drew up plans to strike Zarqawi's outpost in the North several times. And each time those plans were rejected at the White House even though each appeared to hold a solid prospect of success and despite the fact the US was receiving increasing signs that Zarqawi and Ansar al-Islam posed a serious terrorist threat.

Now, on his site today Andrew Sullivan writes: "I wonder how killing Zarqawi could have conceivably impeded our bid to topple Saddam."

Though Andrew and I often trade brickbats on our sites, that's not my intention in this case because I think he's giving this story just the seriousness it deserves. But I think there's a pretty obvious reason why eliminating Zarqawi could have slowed or impeded the drive for war.

To understand why, we've got to go back to the role Zarqawi and Ansar played in the administration's case for war.

As we've noted here many times, there was always a category difference between the White House's case on WMD and its case on Iraq's ties to al Qaida.

In brief, the first may have been debatable and exaggerated, but the second seldom rose above the level of ridiculousness. Yet to the extent that the White House had any argument about terrorist ties, Zarqawi and Ansar were at the center of it.

Let's remember what the argument was.

Ansar was a Sunni Islamist terrorist group operating from Iraqi Kurdistan which had ties of some sort and degree with al Qaida. Zarqawi, a Jordanian national and accomplished terrorist bad guy, had set up shop with Ansar and he too was affiliated with al Qaida -- though again the degree and closeness of the connection is a matter of some controversy . To add to the storyline, Zarqawi had apparently been to Baghdad for medical treatment.

So Zarqawi and Ansar were in Iraqi Kurdistan. Thus they were 'in Iraq'. And they were linked to al Qaida. So al Qaida was 'in Iraq'. That was the argument.

Now, there was a pretty big problem with this argument. Namely, the US and the UK had made Iraqi Kurdistan into a virtual Anglo-American protectorate through its no-fly zones which kept not only Iraqi air power but basically all of Saddam's forces out of the region. The Kurds themselves had already set up a de facto government, though the region where Ansar was operating from was one they didn't control.

In other words, saying Ansar was operating out of Iraq was deeply misleading in anything other than a narrowly geographical sense since Ansar was operating from area we had taken from Saddam's control. Saddam might as credibly -- perhaps more credibly -- have charged us with harboring Ansar as vice versa.

(A side note: various Iraq hawks have alleged that Saddam's secret police were in contact with or even controlling Ansar. And it's true that Saddam and Ansar had a common enemy: the pro-American Kurdish parties. But I've never seen any credible evidence to persuade me of such links.)

In any case, to review, using Ansar and Zarqawi as proof of a Saddam-al Qaida link had serious evidentiary and logical problems. But that didn't stop the White House from making it a centerpiece of their argument -- as Colin Powell did during his presentation at the UN.

In the immediate lead-up to the war there were various parts of the White House's argument for war that were becoming weaker by the day. That, after all, was what was happening with the inspectors themselves who were, in the weeks and months just before the war, generating lots of new evidence that threw many of the earlier suspicions of WMD into real doubt -- particularly on the nuclear front.

The reports we have now about the White House's refusal to move against Zarqawi are still incomplete. And I think we've got to keep open the possibility that there were military or diplomatic restraints we were operating under that are not yet clear.

But if the reports bear out, the White House's reasons for not moving against Zarqawi when we could have don't seem to require much explanation. If we got rid of Zarqawi and Ansar the much-trumpeted Iraq-al Qaida, already so profoundly tenuous, would have collapsed altogether. To put it bluntly, we needed Zarqawi and Ansar.

That would mean it was a political decision -- one intended to aid in convincing the American people of the necessity of war -- for which we are now paying a grave price.

Later, we'll discuss why I'm still not entirely convinced that Zarqawi is behind all these recent attacks.

So now Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole is telling constituents that voting against President Bush this November is like supporting Hitler during World War II.

He also apparently told a Republican audience recently that "If George Bush loses the election, Osama bin Laden wins the election."

Presumably, we need to vote for President Bush because otherwise we'd be saddled with those hateful, hating, hating, hating Democrats who have no understanding of what civility in politics is all about.

The report about these statements comes from the website of news radio station in Oklahoma City (Newsradio 1000 KTOK). And they appear to be going from an article in a local newspaper, The Yukon Review.

This morning I called Congressman Cole's office in Washington to get some confirmation on these quotes and see if Cole stood by them.

The press aide I spoke to in Cole's office noted that KTOK's reference to Cole's Hitler comparison was in fact a "paraphrase" rather than a direct quote, and that the office was trying to find out more about precisely what the congressman had said.

A new poll out from Pew: Kerry 48%, Bush 44% among registered voters. There's an extensive discussion of the internals from the poll here.

Two weeks ago, I shared with you the<$Ad$> possibility that the long-brewing controversy over those pilfered Democratic Judiciary Committee staff memos could lead to an investigation of the White House Counsel's office. (The earlier post covers all the details of how this could come to pass.)

Now, last week four Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee (Durbin, Leahy, Kennedy and Schumer) wrote White House Counsel Alberto R. Gonzales with a series of detailed and pointed questions all of which focused on whether the White House had any knowledge of the pilfering or involvement in it and whether they had made use of those pilfered memos in any way.

One of the questions dealt with whether any outside groups had been the conduits for passing pilfered files to the Counsel's office ...

Did you or anyone who has served in your office or at the White House receive from C. Boyden Gray, Sean Rushton, Kay Daly, the Committee for Justice, the Coalition for a Fair Judiciary or any other intermediary any of the computer files of Democratic Senators or their staffs or information derived from those files?

Now, last week I called the Committee for Justice and asked Executive Director Sean Rushton whether he or anyone else at the Committee had known about the accessing of the Democratic staff memos prior to last November when the first published reports surfaced. He answered with a flat "no".

I also asked whether any of the memos had come into the Committee's possession prior to last November. And he again answered with a flat "no".

But yesterday Gonzales responded to the Democratic Senators' letter and he was far more equivocal when he spoke for the Counsel's Office and the White House staff. If it's not a classic example of a non-denial denial, it's definitely the well-chosen phrasing of someone who's far from ready to deny that his office was involved in the theft of these files.

The Boston Globe this morning reported Gonzales' response thusly ...

Gonzales, replying yesterday in a letter to Leahy, said he was aware of no "credible allegation" of White House involvement in the incident, so no investigation has been made. He said he "respectfully, but categorically, reject the statement in your letter" that administration actions contributed to the atmosphere around the files controversy.

But I think that doesn't do justice to the full measure of equivocation and obfuscation.

Here are the two paragraphs from Gonzales' letter in which he responds to the Senators' detailed questions about possible White House involvement ...

As I explained, I am not aware of any credible allegation of White House involvement in this matter. Consequently, there has been no White House investigation or effort to determine whether anyone at the White House was aware of or involved in these activities.

As I also advised you, I have no personal knowledge that any such computer files or the documents they may have contained were provided to our office or to others at the White House. So far as I know, moreover, neither my staff nor others at the White House were aware of activity by the Judiciary Committee staff or other Senate employees such as they alleged in public reports on this matter.

I have no personal knowledge ... so far as i know ... rather less than unequivocal, isn't it?

Maybe this gets added to the list of investigations hanging over the White House's collective head.

If you look at the TV ads the president just unveiled today, you quickly see a main -- probably the main -- theme of his reelection campaign: it's not my fault.

Yes, there are all sort of bad things going on. The economy's been rough. The deficit is deepening. Job growth is barely registering. There's all sorts of chaos on the international stage. But it's not my fault. When I got here there was a recession already, which I didn't have anything to do with. That was Clinton's fault. And the same with all the corporate scandals. And then Osama bin Laden got involved and that wasn't my fault either. And that Iraq thing didn't completely work out. But that's the CIA's fault. So if there's anything that's bad now it's not because of anything I did. It's because of 9/11. And if it's not because of 9/11 then it was already broken when I got here. So don't blame me.

Now, I think that does pretty much sum up what the president and the White House are telling the public. But it's important to draw back and recognize that up until this point that argument has largely worked. Now, however, I think people are beginning to question the argument.

By most objective measures, economic and international indicators of national well-being have been fair to bad for most of George Bush's term of office. But for much of that time we were in either the immediate aftermath of 9/11, building up to war, or in the aftermath of war.

If you were to plop down in late 1943, for instance, you could point to all sorts of negative signs -- rising deficits, crises abroad, etc. But Franklin Roosevelt would have said, quite plausibly, that we'd been attacked at Pearl Harbor, we were fighting a two front war across two oceans, and that things might well get worse before they got better.

Now, I don't think that's a remotely reasonably analogy. But it is the argument the Bush White House has been making for some two years. And it's had a lot of success with it. Everything that's bad has been framed as fall-out from 9/11 or our response to 9/11.

What we're seeing now is that these two things -- 9/11 and the current state of the country -- are coming unhinged in the public mind. If they stay unhinged, President Bush looks less like a 'war president' than a president who just won't take responsibility for anything that happens on his watch.

Thus the new ads, the message of which might fairly be summed up as "It's midnight in America. But if the Democrats were in, the sun might never come up!"