Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

In Tuesday morning's Times, David Brooks has a column summing up Bush administration fiscal policy. The gist of his argument is that the president's policies stack up pretty well in a short-term calculus, though not so well over the longer-term.

The key, however -- and here Brooks provides a crucial explanation -- is that the president's budget planners did a reasonably good job given the adverse circumstances they confronted after the president's inauguration.

The key two grafs are these ...

Their first answer, not surprisingly, is that you have to understand the reality that confronted them when they took office in 2001. Business leaders were calling in to say that economic activity was falling off a cliff. The dot-com bubble was over, manufacturing was getting hit, business confidence was plummeting. Before it became a general concern in the papers, administration folks were worrying that the U.S. might go through a Japanese-style stagnation. Deflation was an unlikely but scary possibility.

They decided to do what was necessary to head off any immediate catastrophe. As Stephen Friedman, director of the National Economic Council, sums it up, "We didn't want to err on the light side when it comes to stimulus." Hence, the large tax cuts.

Hence? Actually, not so hence?

Brooks' column breathes an air of fair-minded, even-handed perusal. But here in this short passage we <$Ad$>have the hinge of mendacity on which the whole column turns. To be fair, what Brooks is describing is the administration's response to criticisms of their economic stewardship. So let's give him the benefit of the doubt and call it their dishonesty rather than his, though he says not a thing in the piece to challenge this disingenuous argument and implicitly affirms it throughout.

In any case, to our point ...

Did the Bush White House face the sort of incipient economic catastrophe described above? The White House went to great lengths at the time to argue that it was. I'll leave it to people who actually have a solid grasp of macro-economics and statistical analysis to get to the bottom of that question. But we needn't get to the bottom of it to answer the question we're dealing with here.

The signs of economic downturn the country faced in the spring of 2001 weren't the reason the Bush White House pushed through such massive tax cuts. They were simply a convenient rationale the White House chose for a policy embraced for entirely different reasons.

The evidence for this claim is, I think, inescapable.

The Bush tax cut was passed in the spring of 2001. But the policy was promulgated more than a year earlier, at the beginning of December 1999 -- long before the warnings signs Brooks mentions appeared, and while the dot.com bubble had yet to burst.

For the first year after the president introduced his tax cut plan, he argued for it with two basic propositions.

One was equity -- people were simply paying too much in taxes, and cutting taxes would help people get into the middle class, etc.

The second argument was about the surplus. Then-candidate Bush argued that the federal government simply couldn't be trusted with the hundreds of billions of dollars which were then thought to be piling up in the federal treasury. The answer was to refund the sum back to individual taxpayers.

Those are the arguments the president focused on in the speech he gave introducing his plan on December 1st 1999. Only deep down into the speech did he add another argument -- that tax cuts would keep the boom going and protect the surplus ...

Yet I also believe in tax cuts for a another practical reason: because they provide insurance against economic recession. Sometimes economists are wrong. I can remember recoveries that were supposed to end, but didn't. And recessions that weren't supposed to happen, but did. I hope for continued growth – but it is not guaranteed. A president must work for the best case, and prepare for the worst. There is a great deal at stake. A recession would doom our balanced budget. It would leave far less money to strengthen Social Security and Medicare. But, if delayed until a downturn begins, tax cuts would come too late to prevent a recession. Putting more wealth in the hands of the earners and creators of wealth – now, before trouble comes – would give our current expansion a timely second wind. Our times allow a substantial tax cut. Integrity requires that it also be a realistic and responsible tax cut. My plan is realistic because it avoids meaningless 15-year budget projections. It is not based on inflated growth estimates.

We could go on about this at length. But the point, I think, is clear. The White House wasn't forced into deep tax cuts with destructive long-term consequences because of an economic emergency they found when they came into office. They came up with the plan when the economy was roaring.

The true reason and impetus for the Bush tax cut was not economic -- in the sense of reactions to cyclical developments in the economy -- but ideological. For the authors of the plan, the tax cut was a justification in itself; the White House simply grasped on to whatever explanation made most sense at the given moment to advance it. That's why a plan devised at the height of a boom -- to cull an oversized surplus -- made equally great sense when the economy was in free-fall. The policy was driving the rationale, not the other way around.

This new argument -- that the White House pushed through big tax cuts because of the economic slow-down of early 2001 -- is simply an effort to retrospectively exonerate reckless and dishonest behavior which was demonstrably reckless and dishonest at the time. Columnists should challenge that sort of mendacity, not abet it.

A real front in the war on terror, and virtually a one-sided battle ...

President Joseph Kabila ordered the zone <$NoAd$>closed three months ago amid growing concerns that unregulated nuclear materials could get into the hands of so-called rogue nations or terrorist groups. Yet 1,000 miles away from the capital, Kinshasa, thousands of diggers are still hacking away at a dark cavity of open earth in this southeastern village, filling thousands of burlap sacks a day with black soil rich in cobalt, copper and radioactive uranium.

The illegal mining provides stark evidence of how little control Africa's third-largest nation has over its own nuclear resources, highlighting the government's weak authority beyond the capital in the aftermath of Congo's devastating 1998-2002 war.

"They're digging as fast as they can dig, and everyone is buying it," John Skinner, a mining engineer in the nearby town of Likasi, said of the illegal freelance mining at Shinkolobwe. "The problem is that nobody knows where it's all going. There is no control."

See the rest here.

Up-is-downism <$NoAd$> ...

The Washington Post, May 30th 2004 ...

Scholars and political strategists say the ferocious Bush assault on Kerry this spring has been extraordinary, both for the volume of attacks and for the liberties the president and his campaign have taken with the facts. Though stretching the truth is hardly new in a political campaign, they say the volume of negative charges is unprecedented -- both in speeches and in advertising.

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt, May 31st, 2004 ...

John Kerry never misses an opportunity to deliver a political attack.

Two recommendations.

First, a book recommendation. I used to do a lot of these on the site. And then, late last year, I stopped. But here's another: Napoleon: A Political Life by Steven Englund, a near-exquisite work of popular history. It's a big book for a big subject, running just over five hundred pages with notes.

Two centuries later, Napoleon still generates sharp views for and against. Not a few biographies of Napoleon portray him as a megalomaniac (for which there is real evidence in the later years of the empire) and even a bumbler. But such a sour portrayal leaves it very hard to understand how this man held not only the states of Europe but also many of its greatest minds in his thrall for the better part of twenty years.

Englund, on the contrary, clearly loves (perhaps doesn't always like him, yet loves) his subject, but not in a way that compromises critical perspective. He starts with the man's improbable beginnings as the scion of the most threadbare near-to-non-noble nobility on the small Italian-speaking island of Corsica, his military victories in the service of the Revolution, the Consulate, the Empire, and finally his six years as an exile on a tiny island -- St. Helena -- almost literally on the other side of the planet.

If there's any criticism I have of the book -- and it's a minor one -- it is that it loses some of its force, crackle and verve toward the end. But that may be an accurate reflection of book's subject rather than a criticism of the book itself.

What really captivated me about this book is what I can only call its expansiveness, its sense of literary grace and play in the telling of history.

As some long-time readers know, my only formal training in anything is as an historian. And there are a host of reasons why I decided to leave the profession -- professional, intellectual, neurotic. But one of the many reasons was what increasingly struck me as the constrained nature of so much historical writing, the deeply grooved, patterned, conventionalized nature of the craft itself, as it is often practiced today. Academics talk about this endlessly. And this isn't meant as a criticism of the profession; it just wasn't for me. Yet I still read lots of non-academic history. In fact, that's about all I read. And I'm always looking for works of history which are both serious but also engaging and dipped in some bit of wonder -- which is not always a natural combination. And this is definitely one that fits that bill.

[ed.note: Rereading the paragraph above, I realize that what I wrote is probably open to some misinterpretation. And it's probably a subject I should return to. But suffice it to say that many of the discontents noted above stem from the hyper-specialization which is an all-but-inescapable feature of contemporary academic history.]

The writing is fresh, the analyses incisive -- all the things that are necessary for a good work of history. But Englund, in his writing, also lets you see into his engagement with the material. And that gives the book magic. There's nothing here of the author as an anonymous, omniscient voice -- a hidden presence who is both everywhere and nowhere.

He's right there; he's talking with you about his subject, not only telling you the facts, shaped as they must be by his interpretations, but looking at these major events and great personages with you, sifting different possible viewpoints, dipping into the magic of the moments he's describing, waters in which he's clearly long and happily immersed himself. This is history which not only captures the narrow facts of the matter, but the origins of the era's mythologies, what they meant in their time, and how they've echoed into the present. This is history, in the very best sense, as story-telling.

And now, for something completely different, a restaurant recommendation of all things. If you live in Manhattan, or are nearby, check out El Cocotero, a new Venezualan restaurant on 18th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues (228 West 18th).

The food is delicious but reasonably priced. With seven or eight tables, the place is only a little bigger than a hole-in-the-wall, but just enough to make it very much more than that. The atmosphere is casual, but intimate and somehow it manages to pull off a fresh and uncannily convincing Caribbean atmosphere, even though the gritty urbanity of Chelsea is right outside the front door.

Anyway, I'm not much when it comes to writing restaurant reviews so let's just say the food's great and the atmosphere's great. They've been open for about six weeks. And I recommend it highly.

Monday's Post has an article by Milbank and VandeHei entitled "From Bush, Unprecedented Negativity: Scholars Say Campaign Is Making History With Often-Misleading Attacks." After recounting a series of broadsides against Kerry the authors write, "Scholars and political strategists say the ferocious Bush assault on Kerry this spring has been extraordinary, both for the volume of attacks and for the liberties the president and his campaign have taken with the facts."

By all means, read the article, which, if following the dictates of Strunk & White, might be titled "Bush Campaign Lies with Unprecedented Frequency". But if you'd like a more immediate and tangible read on the sorts of campaigns the two are running, stop by the campaign sites of President Bush and John Kerry.

Now, look at how often, candidate A's face appears on the front page of candidate B's website, and vice versa. For instance, as of the early morning hours of Monday, John Kerry's face appears 6 times on the front of the Kerry website, while President Bush's face appears not once. On Bush's website, Kerry's face appears 4 times. Bush's face, not once.

And one last point: volumes, which the authors leave largely implicit, if not overlooked, are contained in this graf down a ways into the piece ...

But Bush has outdone Kerry in the number of untruths, in part because Bush has leveled so many specific charges (and Kerry has such a lengthy voting record), but also because Kerry has learned from the troubles caused by Al Gore's misstatements in 2000. "The balance of misleading claims tips to Bush," Jamieson said, "in part because the Kerry team has been more careful."

So the Kerry campaign is watching its back because the Washington press corps swallowed the GOP's anti-Gore, 'invented the Internet' mau-mauing hook, line and sinker. And the Bush campaign lies with impunity because even in the rare instance when caught red-handed in a front page piece in the Post, they can still be confident that the blow will be cushioned by plenty of paraphrastic padding, such as the Post's description of the Bush campaign's lies as "wrong, or at least highly misleading" or the "liberties the president and his campaign have taken with the facts."

In other words, 'working the refs' pays off.

Monday's Times runs a revealing follow-on by Dexter Filkins on the selection of Iyad Allawi as the new Iraqi premier.

A key graf: "One person conversant with the negotiations said Mr. Brahimi was presented with 'a fait accompli' after President Bush's envoy to Iraq, Robert D. Blackwill, 'railroaded' the Governing Council into coalescing around [Allawi]."

The most salient point to emerge from the president's recent speech on Iraq was the new rationale he put forward for continuing to support him and his policies: effective management of his own failures.

Consider the trajectory.

Originally, the case for war was built on claims about the Iraqi regime's possession of weapons of mass destruction and its support for terrorist groups like al qaida. To a lesser degree, but with increasing force as these other rationales faded way, the case was made on the basis of democratizing and liberalizing Iraq.

As that prospect too has become increasingly distant and improbable, President Bush has taken a fundamentally different tack. His emphasis now is seldom on what good might come of his Iraq policy but rather the dire consequences of its unmitigated 'failure' or its premature abandonment.

In other words, the president now argues that he is best equipped to guard the country from the full brunt of the consequences of his own misguided actions, managerial incompetence and dishonesty.

Strip away the chatter and isn't that pretty much the argument? Who will best be able to avert the worst case scenario end result of my policy?

It has now become close to a commonplace that John Kerry's policies differ little from President Bush's. Where is the difference, we hear, since both candidates are for an openness to greater troop deployment, a fuller role for the United Nations and the country's traditional allies, and dropping support for the exilic hucksters who helped scam the country in the first place.

This is a weak argument on several grounds. But the most glaring is that what we see now isn't the president's policy. It's the president's triage -- his team's ad hoc reaction to the collapse of his policy, the rapid, near-total, but still incomplete and uncoordinated abandonment of his policy.

The president's actions, if not his words, concede that Iraq has become the geopolitical equivalent of a botched surgery -- botched through some mix of the misdiagnosis of the original malady and the incompetence of the surgeon. Achieving the original goal of the surgery is now close to an afterthought. The effort is confined to closing up as quickly as possible and preventing the patient from dying on the table. And now the 'doctor', pressed for time and desperate for insight, stands over the patient with a scalpel in one hand and the other hurriedly leafing through a first year anatomy text book.

Next up, what does 'failure' in Iraq mean?

Tomorrow's edition of This Week on ABC will have Tony Zinni debating Richard Perle on Iraq. That will definitely be worth seeing and, I expect in Perle's case, parsing.

Also note this article in Saturday's Times on the Iraq-hawk delegation which visited Condi Rice a week earlier (May 22nd) to demand an end to the administration's 'vilification' of Ahmed Chalabi. Among others, the group include Perle, Jim Woolsey and Newt Gingrich.

My kingdom to be a fly on that wall ...

I continue to think that something very important happened in this selection of Iyad Allawi. Precisely what, though, remains unclear. After all the twists and turns over the last 24 hours it seems to have been something very close to what I suggested early yesterday afternoon, a coup de main by the IGC. Or, more specifically, a coup de main launched by Allawi himself and either helped along, or facilitated or encouraged by the other members of the IGC.

Now, if the IGC were either a representative or popular body -- in other words, if it were perceived as legitimate -- that would probably be a good thing. It would be good to have them take the lead. For any sort of transition to be successful in any way, the people who become the new Iraqi government cannot simply be handed power in their own country. They must take it, assert it, probably even in some degree over and against us. If nothing else this is just a matter of national dignity, which is a key part of what we're dealing with here.

The problem is that the IGC isn't perceived as a legitimate body at all. Nor do the folks on it -- particuarly the ones most identified with us, like Chalabi and Allawi and others -- have any large followings.

So who is taking over here? And is their assertion a product of our disarray?

The Times and the Post are now out with two articles each on the still-obscure acclamation of Iyad Allawi as the soon-to-be-appointed Prime Minister of Iraq. With all the new facts contained in these four pieces, the real picture remains deeply muddled.

Some mix of Allawi himself and at least some actors in the US governmnet appear to have been behind the unexpected turn of events. The one thing that seems clear was that Brahimi was sidelined. And thus the Brahimi 'process' on which the White House placed so much importance only days ago is, if not out the window, then at least fundamentally changed.

More on this soon.