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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

A few weeks back I reported -- and took a little heat for reporting -- that South Dakota's closely-watched Thune-Johnson Senate race might be looking a bit better for Tim Johnson than some people in DC realized. The upshot of the post was that key Republicans in DC weren't entirely sure Thune's team was up to snuff, or at least up to taking on the campaign team Tom Daschle ... errr, I mean, Tim Johnson had put together.

One of DC's sharpest political observers subsequently told me that he thought it was less that Thune's team was weak than that Johnson's team was just so strong, the strongest campaign team in any Democratic campaign in the country, perhaps any campaign in either party. But, whether in relative terms or absolute ones, I stick by the story.

In any case, since then there have been a run of small news items in the state that have make it look like the Johnson campaign might be a bit stronger than some outside the state realized. In recent weeks the Thune campaign has opened up with a fusillade of negative ads. The Johnson folks ran them too. But mainly stuff from outside groups and in any case, not to the same extent.

More recently rumors have spread through the state that the Thune campaign's most recent internal polling had him behind Johnson for the first time ever. Not by much. Well within the margin of error. But behind.

Now, I haven't been able to get to the bottom of those rumors. Republicans officials have denied it to me flatly, if not altogether convincingly. But today the Sioux Fall's Argus Leader reports that a new Johnson campaign internal poll (which of course they've obligingly released) has Johnson up by two points -- 49% to 47%. That's the first poll that's ever had Johnson ahead in this race, to the best of my knowledge.

Now, a few necessary points. This a hardly a big lead. In fact, it's statistically insignificant, since it's in the margin of error. But put it together with the run of polls over recent months and it's hard not to get the impression that Johnson has the momentum in this race. That may explain that round of negative ads from Thune.

One other point about the poll deserves mention. More striking than the tightness of this race is the extremely small percentage of undecideds. Here's why this is important. Many Republicans have looked at this race and said that Johnson's in trouble because he's not over 50%. Normally, this would be true: Incumbents who poll under 50% are by definition in trouble because the voters know the incumbent and polling under 50% means most voters don't think the incumbent deserves reelection. They're just not sure they're willing to take a chance on the challenger. But history says most opt to take that chance.

Democrats have argued that this logic doesn't apply in this case. Their reasoning is that Johnson and Thune are really both incumbents since Johnson represents the whole state in the Senate and Thune currently represents the whole state in the House. That's a pretty good argument. And this poll, I think, tends to show that it's also true.

Isn't it obvious why Al Gore blew off the DLC cattle-call in New York last week? I suspect it has nothing to do with Nader or cross feelings about Al From. Gore's the eight hundred pound gorilla of the Democratic field. The most important question about the 2004 primary race is whether or not he runs. Gore was able to dominate the event simply by blowing it off.

Going to the event only would have pulled him down to the level of the other half dozen chirping monkeys who did tricks for the attention of the New Dem faithful. That would have generated news stories about how the one-time heir-apparent had to duke it out with the likes of John Edwards for another go at the presidency.

Going to the event would have diminished him. Simple as that.

America's political leadership is about to face a devilishly difficult question. Assume that you believe, as I do, that deposing Saddam Hussein by force is in America's national interest. Under the present circumstances, believing this forces upon you a second question which is in many ways more difficult than the first.

Here is how I would frame the question: Is it possible that regime change by force is the right thing to do, but that this administration is inclined to do it in such a reckless, ill-conceived and possibly disastrous manner that, under these circumstances, it is better not to do it at all?

This is a question I've recently been asking myself. And I don't find it easy to answer.

There are many problems in how the administration is approaching this. My chief worry is how they would handle the aftermath, specifically the nation-building. Everyone who's thought this through believes that success will require a long-term committment of a robust and quite American peace-keeping force. The phrase peace-keeping really doesn't quite do it justice. What you're talking about is really an army of occupation and reconstruction -- more on the order of post-war Germany or Japan, than Bosnia or Kosovo. Ideally a substantial number of these troops would come from NATO and other well-situated Muslim countries. But a dominant US presence would be required to make the whole thing work.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to suppose that the Bush administration has the stomach for an operation of such scope or duration. Very difficult. In what has to be one of the best -- perhaps the best -- piece written on the Iraq questoin, Fareed Zakaria makes the point eloquently. "The administration’s actions in Afghanistan are not an encouraging sign, where an ideal, moderate, pro-Western leader, Hamid Karzai, is being slowly destroyed largely because the Pentagon will not extend security protection outside Kabul." If the administration won't deign to nation-build in Afghanistan, where it could be done with little expense in lives or treasure, how likely would it be to do so in post-war Iraq where it would be expensive by almost every measure? The question answers itself.

Such quibbles can easily become the cavils of choice for those who don't quite want to be against an Iraq war but don't really want to support one either. But for those who do support the idea, the Bush administration's approach is a big problem.

More postcards from the responsibility era.

When President Bush was at the West Point commencement on June 1st he pulled aside Army Secretary Tom White and told him: "As long as they're hitting you on Enron, they're not hitting me. That's your job. You're the lightning rod for this administration."

So says a dynamite new article in the soon-to-be-released new issue of the Washington Monthly.

Ari, this is Houston. We have a problem ...

Saturday's Post has more disturbing information about the leaks probe on Capitol Hill. Everything about this probe shows why the FBI should never have been allowed to conduct even such a low-grade form of congressional witch-hunt. Leaks of classified information abound. The administration picked this one to become exercised about -- for no clear reason, or at least no distinguishing reason. The Chairmen far too quickly caved in to the administration's bullying.

John McCain seems to have it right. "What you have here is an organization compiling dossiers on people who are investigating the same organization," he told the Post. That's exactly right. And there is little, very little about the FBI that's gives you any confidence they can trusted with such a task.

There's something very wrong going on here. The attitudes the administration brought to handling criminals and alien detainees are seeping into the way it treats other branches of the government, even if it is now only slightly and at the margins. It's not simply that the administration is indifferent to civil liberties, there is a contempt for constitutional propriety. They seem to believe that 9/11 frees them from any concern with precedent or discretion.

Ouch! Paul Krugman's column in the Times today on corporate shenanigans certainly got the president's attention.

Every story needs a context. Every anecdote requires a broader narrative to give it meaning. And we're now being treated to a marvelous example of this fact.

Everyone who pays any attention to politics has long known that back in his days as a Texas oil man President Bush failed upwards through a series of business transactions -- at least one of which looks quite similar, albeit on a far smaller scale, to what WorldCom and Enron got caught doing. Only now, with all the dust kicked up over corporate malfeasance, does it fit into a larger framework with political bite.

As DC Democrats and Republicans are realizing, this has legs. And a soon-to-be-released article contains some as-yet-undisclosed and, I think, very embarrassing statements from the president which will give the story even more steam.

Check back with TPM tomorrow for some choice examples.

Is there anything else to say but Thank God those members of the Congress refused -- apparently to a person -- to submit to FBI lie detector tests to see who leaked 9/11-related information to the press? The story is being treated as one of those Friday afternoon oddity pieces. But it's very disturbing on a handful of levels.

For starters, this investigation never should have taken place at all. Federal investigations of members of congress are always a sensitive matter, even when the allegations involve garden-variety criminality. They have to take place, of course, because no one is above the law. But even then real prosecutorial judgment is required since the risk of political prosecutions or the perception of political prosecutions is always an issue.

Here though the question at issue -- the alleged infraction -- is inherently political. Having the FBI investigate it is a clear violation of separation of powers. Congress itself bears some real responsibility for that since Chairmen Bob Graham and Porter Goss gave in to administration pressure -- in the form of a bullying phone call from Dick Cheney -- and asked the FBI to investigate.

Letting the FBI request polygraph tests from the very congressmen and Senators who are now investigating the FBI's slapdash and incompetent intelligence and counter-terrorism work is outrageous -- so ill-conceived that it almost boggles the mind.

Perhaps if there were one member of congress who was clearly implicated as the leaker then that person would have been asked to clear himself or herself with a polygraph. Keep in mind, I think this would be unconstitutional and wildly ill-conceived. But at least it would be focused. The idea here was to test every member of the Joint Intelligence committee and let them prove themselves innocent.

A "law enforcement official" told the Associated Press that such exams "are always voluntary." But I at least find those words and that attitude chilling, not reassuring.

You have to ask: what was the FBI thinking? Aren't their hands too full leaving America vulnerable to murderous terrorists to make time to subvert the constitution? In all seriousness, we already have a serious problem with a lack of political accountability at the FBI. They're intractable. How much harder will it be to control them if members of congress have to worry that these characters can strap them up to a polygraph and ask them questions at will every time there is a leak of classified information which they might theoretically have been responsible for?

As important as the security of classified information is, there are worse things that can happen than occasional breaches. And as we've seen recently the executive branch often keeps evidence of its own mistakes under wraps. Sometimes leaks serve a purpose.

One hardly need mention that until quite recently the FBI had a long and well-documented history of keeping dossiers on members of congress -- and presidents for that matter -- which they used to get their way and protect their turf.

The real question -- and one that really needs to be asked -- is, who approved this? I find it difficult, though not impossible, to believe that FBI agents asked congressman and Senators to take lie detector tests without approval from higher-ups. Did Robert Mueller sign off on this? John Ashcroft? I think we need to know the answer to that question.

Who is Richard P. Lawless?

A) Former CIA operations officer (circa 1974-85) with expertise in nuclear issues and Asia. After leaving the CIA, was widely accused of trying to buy the freedom of an American hostage in Beirut, Lebanon on behalf of then-vice-president George Bush, shortly before the 1988 presidential election. (see Robin Wright, LA Times, October 19, 1988, et.al.)

B) International businessman, consultant, and real estate developer. After leaving CIA became a major GOP contributor, particularly to the Bush family. Helped Jeb Bush make a substantial part of his personal fortune by cutting him in for sweetheart consulting fees on foreign purchases of South Florida real estate on which he did little work.

C) Chairman and Founder, US-Asia Commercial Development Corporation. Pro-China-engagement, Bush family associate, soon to be appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia, i.e., head of Asia policy at the Pentagon.

D) All of the Above.

More soon …

I don't normally have a soft spot in my heart for repeat-offending corrupt politicians or instances of recidivist venality. Or at least I try not to make a habit of it. But to every rule there's an exception and this one brings me to look with an admittedly bizarre regret on the recent corruption conviction of Providence Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci.

I'm not from Rhode Island and I don't live there now. But I spent the better part of my twenties living in the Providence -- specifically, from the end of 1992 till the beginning of 1997. And for a couple years I even lived a couple blocks from the Mayor's 'Mansion' down on Benefit Street. So I lived there long enough to get a feel for the place.

I didn't follow the case against Cianci at all or how good a case the Feds made against him. But frankly it hardly matters. It doesn't take too much effort to imagine what the bill of particulars likely was.

But the hilarious, bizarre and probably -- to anyone who hasn't lived there -- inscrutable truth is that Cianci was just an incredibly good Mayor. Not just for the entertainment factor but equally in terms of rejuvenating the city. Yes, yes, yes ... he had some previous run-ins with the law, no doubt over some troubling decisions about public contracts and okay, okay there was that incident in which, while serving as Mayor, he and a few of his goons kidnapped the lover of his estranged wife and knocked him on the head with a firewood log and did some unfortunate things to him with electrodes. But, really, didn't that just show that he felt things deeply?

Of course, later there were various public dramas like when Cianci's buxom peroxide blonde girlfriend jilted him, hightailed it to some island in the Caribbean with her new man, and left Buddy in a sorrowful funk which lasted, if I recall, for some time and left the residents of the three-hundred-and-fifty year old city worried about him for some time.

As you can no doubt see, some of this is tongue-in-cheek. But not all of it. Cianci was a great Mayor. Or at least a terribly fun one who did a lot of good things for the city. Certainly everyone in the city loved him. And he was disproportionately responsible for the renaissance Providence experienced in the 1990s. When I lived there he ran for re-election essentially unopposed.

Cianci was first elected Mayor as a Republican in 1975. He resigned in 1984 after pleading no-contest to charges stemming from the the wife's boyfriend incident. Then he took a turn at Talk Radio before staging a political comeback in, I think, 1990. He's been Mayor ever since. Later in his mayoralty he ran as an Independent, but in effect -- in terms of the coalitions which elected him -- as a Democrat.

There's really no way to explain to an outsider the sort of popularity Cianci enjoyed. (To say that he was a cartoonish or parodic figure is rather an understatement. I think the best I can do to describe him is as a mix with equal parts Ed Koch, Vito Corleone and Boss Hogg.) But much of it is rooted in the idiosyncratic and bizarre political culture of Rhode Island which somehow manages to compress all the cliches of the history of American urban machine politics into one medium-sized city in one miniscule state. To say that Rhode Island is corrupt is rather like saying that Washington, DC is political. But the state's politics is generally divided between mainly venal and predominantly ethnic machine-type pols like Cianci on the one hand and insufferable good-government blue-bloods on the other. And the state's electorate more often than not chooses the former.

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