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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Indulge me in a hypothetical, will you?

Let's imagine Bill Clinton was trying to scrunch together the nation's budget numbers while avoiding dipping into the Social Security surplus -- that is to say, without busting open the hallowed 'lock-box'. He realizes he has to dip into the Social Security funds. But instead of coming clean and admitting what he's doing he comes up with a new way to calculate the numbers which -- surprise, surprise! -- resolves the problem for him.

How do you think the press would report that story? (Okay, yes, David Maraniss would probably bang out a quick new book on the tie-in because personal morality and fiscal morality. But I mean, beside him. How would everyone else play it?)

And how will they report it now that that's exactly what George W. Bush is doing?

Ask not for whom the box locks, George. It locks for thee!

Two quick notes on the ensuing battle over fiscal policy (taxing and spending) which will likely consume political debate this Fall.

From the moment Jim Jeffords ditched the Republicans and handed Senate control to Tom Daschle, the more perspicacious strategists in both parties realized that the switch had at least one silver lining for Republicans.

No, it wasn't the endless pundit-consensus blather about Democrats needing to 'get something done.' It was rather different.

When Fall rolled around and it became clear that the Bush tax cut had lurched the budget back into deficits (or at least back into dipping into the Social Security and Medicare surpluses), who would take the blame? So long as the Republicans controlled the White House and Capitol Hill the administration could not escape taking the hit for the inevitable fiscal breakdown. On the other hand, if the Democrats controlled one chamber -- the Senate -- then the White House could say the problem was that Democrats were spending too much.

This may strike you as a flawed argument. But often in politics it's not a matter of having a persuasive response to an allegation or even a plausible one. It's just about having something to say. The Democratic takeover of the Senate advanced the White House's argument from ridiculousness to mere disingenuousness -- and in Bush terms that's no mean feat. President Bush trotted the argument out yesterday and you'll be hearing it a lot more.

The other part of the story is the White House's move to reconfigure the way that the Social Security revenue numbers are calculated in order to free up another $4 billion or so more. The implication of this move is clear: the new surplus numbers (already delayed for political reasons by the CBO) are either going to dip into the Social Security trust fund or come perilously close to doing so. Rather than take the heat for this, they're changing the way the numbers are calculated. They're cooking the books, etc.

As is always done in these cases the argument will be that this is actually a more accurate way of scoring the numbers (just one that hadn't occurred to anyone else for the last sixty-five years.) But those of us who aren't as dumb as doorknobs will realize that this is not only probably false but, more importantly, irrelevant since this is really just an example of, to quote Ted Olson, "changing the rules in the middle of the game." And if you'll think back to last year's recount, that's something Republicans really aren't supposed to like.

Is it too early to start calling for Walter Isaacson to resign as head of CNN? Or should we wait until next week when he'll probably head up to the Hill for another round of bitch slapping at the hands of Tom DeLay? Isaacson has managed to lose more credibility for CNN since the beginning of August than the previous management of the network was able to pull off in twenty years.

(And I'm including in the tally the Operation Tailwind debacle and the six-month run of Spin Room!)

Let's review. On August 2nd, as one of his first acts as head of CNN, Isaacson went to the Hill to meet with House Republican leaders to find out how the network could be seen more favorably by conservatives. "I was trying to reach out to a lot of Republicans who feel that CNN has not been as open covering Republicans, and I wanted to hear their concerns," Isaacson told Roll Call a few days later. That was the line; but the reality wasn't hard to decipher.

Now we have reports that Isaacson's CNN is trying to woo Rush Limbaugh into the CNN fold either by rebroadcasting his show, a la Don Imus on MSNBC, or by creating a new show specially for the network. (This would presumably be to balance the pervasive left-wing bias of Larry King Live.)

For years conservatives have been knocking CNN for liberal bias. Roger Ailes -- one-time Republican media impresario and currently head of FOX News -- took to dubbing CNN the 'Clinton News Network.' In other words, conservatives have been mau-mauing CNN because it doesn't have an editorial line closer to that of the transparently conservative FOX News. And now that CNN is losing a ratings war with FOX, Isaacson has decided to play ball and curry favor with prominent conservatives to solve the problem.

Even if you think CNN really is biased toward the left, Isaacson's antics still don't pass muster. If he really thought CNN tilted too much to the left the answer would be elementary -- shift the editorial line further to the center. Isaacson's a smart guy; he doesn't need outside advice from Trent Lott on how to do this. On the other hand, if he wanted to curry favor with right-wing pols to blunt their criticism, pander to conservative viewers, and compete more effectively with FOX then you'd expect him to be doing pretty much what he's doing right now.

Worse than practicing bad journalism, Isaacson seems intent on achieving what can only be called a tour de force of pitifulness. Nominally, Ailes and company are praising Isaacson's efforts, but they make little attempt to conceal that they really think he's pathetic, a chump, someone who's easy to roll. They're patting him on the back just like the wise-ass high schooler pats a push-over teacher on the back after he's cowed him by mouthing off a few times in class.

It's sad to see Isaacson pull CNN (which could have been the BBC of the 21st century) down this dignity-scrapping path. FOX has nothing to be ashamed of; they're conservative. They are what they are. CNN just looks desperate and pitiful.

As a keen admirer of Winston Churchill I was sad to see this article in today's New York Times announcing that William Manchester will probably never finish the third installment of his three-volume Churchill biography.

Actually it's probably wrong to say I'm a Churchill admirer. Admiration is too equivocal a disposition. Confronting Churchill, one is quickly forced to a rash and drastic decision: either bow down before him or find him an archaism and a pompous fool. Probably a combination of the two responses is the most sensible, but I've always inclined toward the former. In any case, Churchill doesn't engender sensibility. Too moderate a virtue.

There are stacks of Churchill biographies, including a seemingly endless (but quite good, in its own way) official one by British historian Martin Gilbert. There are fascinating books on out-of-the-way aspects of his life or very detailed, even belabored narratives of key periods in it. But of the full-fledged biographies none captured my imagination quite like Manchester's The Last Lion. A few years back I read the first and second volumes which bring Churchill up to the brink of his moment of greatness when Neville Chamberlain's government falls and the King calls upon Churchill to form a new government.

Here the second volume ends. And since the first two volumes were a gift to me from some friend or relative -- I can't remember who -- I assumed finishing the story was simply a matter of heading to the bookstore to find the anticipated final tome.

But no such luck. I quickly determined that no third volume existed. And after confirming that Manchester was still alive I assumed that he was laboring away on the last volume.

According to the Times article, I wasn't the only one. And the expectation was accurate. But after completing perhaps a third of the last volume, Manchester suffered a series of strokes which have left him not incapacitated but seemingly too diminished in acuity and mental functioning to finish the task.

It's hard to describe how frustrating it is to read a masterful Churchill biography and have it leave off as the clouds are darkening in 1939, never to continue. I could illustrate the predicament with a sexual analogy but -- don't worry -- I won't.

There is apparently some chance that the final volume will still be completed, with the aid of a collaborator. But Manchester -- I guess understandably -- seems unwilling to let another writer finish, or help finish, what he himself apparently cannot. He's agreed to the idea of a collaboration in principle, but has turned away each potential collaborator.

Today's article included a link to what was to me a surprising 1983 review of Manchester's first volume by Michiko Kakutani. The essence of the review was that Manchester used heady, grand rhetoric -- somewhat in the manner that Churchill himself did -- but that Manchester was no Winston Churchill. "Perhaps such passages," Kakutani wrote, "represent a kind of homage to Churchill's own heady language, but an important distinction should be made: whereas Churchill's luxuriant use of words was capable of stirring an audience to great passion, Mr. Manchester's simply produces a yawn."

I have to disagree. I thought Manchester was particularly well-suited to the job.

As a keen admirer of Winston Churchill I was sad to see this article in today's New York Times announcing that William Manchester will probably never finish the third installment of his three-volume Churchill biography.

Actually it's probably wrong to say I'm a Churchill admirer. Admiration is too equivocal a disposition. Confronting Churchill, one is quickly forced to a rash and drastic decision: either bow down before him or find him an archaism and a pompous fool. Probably a combination of the two responses is the most sensible, but I've always inclined toward the former. In any case, Churchill doesn't engender sensibility. Too moderate a virtue.

There are stacks of Churchill biographies, including a seemingly endless (but quite good, in its own way) official one by British historian Martin Gilbert. There are fascinating books on out-of-the-way aspects of his life or very detailed, even belabored narratives of key periods in it. But of the full-fledged biographies none captured my imagination quite like Manchester's The Last Lion. A few years back I read the first and second volumes which bring Churchill up to the brink of his moment of greatness when Neville Chamberlain's government falls and the King calls upon Churchill to form a new government.

Here the second volume ends. And since the first two volumes were a gift to me from some friend or relative -- I can't remember who -- I assumed finishing the story was simply a matter of heading to the bookstore to find the anticipated final tome.

But no such luck. I quickly determined that no third volume existed. And after confirming that Manchester was still alive I assumed that he was laboring away on the last volume.

According to the Times article, I wasn't the only one. And the expectation was accurate. But after completing perhaps a third of the last volume, Manchester suffered a series of strokes which have left him not incapacitated but seemingly too diminished in acuity and mental functioning to finish the task.

It's hard to describe how frustrating it is to read a masterful Churchill biography and have it leave off as the clouds are darkening in 1939, never to continue. I could illustrate the predicament with a sexual analogy but -- don't worry -- I won't.

There is apparently some chance that the final volume will still be completed, with the aid of a collaborator. But Manchester -- I guess understandably -- seems unwilling to let another writer finish, or help finish, what he himself apparently cannot. He's agreed to the idea of a collaboration in principle, but has turned away each potential collaborator.

Today's article included a link to what was to me a surprising 1983 review of Manchester's first volume by Michiko Kakutani. The essence of the review was that Manchester used heady, grand rhetoric -- somewhat in the manner that Churchill himself did -- but that Manchester was no Winston Churchill. "Perhaps such passages," Kakutani wrote, "represent a kind of homage to Churchill's own heady language, but an important distinction should be made: whereas Churchill's luxuriant use of words was capable of stirring an audience to great passion, Mr. Manchester's simply produces a yawn."

I have to disagree. I thought Manchester was particularly well-suited to the job.

Asides, ripostes and humorous comments often tell you more about the direction of someone's thoughts than their more considered pronouncements. That's why I was intrigued by the intentionally comical secret list of right-to-sue provisions Marshall Wittman 'found' hidden away in the hastily slapped together bill-killing Bush-Norwood Patients' Bill of Rights.

Here are faux right-to-sue provisions numbers 2,3,4,5 and 10:

2. Certification by the Florida Secretary of State.

3. Exhaustive personal investigation by an Independent Counsel.

4. A peer review by Senior Advisor to the President, Karl Rove.

5. A large certified check made payable to the Katherine Harris for Congress Committee.

10. Unanimous concurrence of the United States Supreme Court.

Florida, the OIC, Katherine Harris, oblique reference to the Supreme Court's Bush v. Gore decision? Aren't these Dem Talking Points? Our mantra of grievances? The tell-tale signs of the corruption of contemporary Conservatism?

What gives? Is there something you want to tell us, Marshall?

Wittman is certainly no liberal Democrat. Not any kind of Democrat really, at least not yet. But there are a number of us here on the other side of the aisle who believe in a progressive nationalism which isn't that far removed from what Wittman calls National Greatness Conservatism. And the valence of this sort of McCainite reformism seems to inevitably trend away from traditional Conservatism and the Republican party -- except on defense policy (which actually ain't such a bad thing.)

I'm no fan of the insistent sinophobia and the vestigial attachment to National Missile Defense. But hey, a few years back he was working for the Heritage Foundation and even the Christian Coalition. So give 'em time, give 'em time.

Why hold back, Marshall? Take the plunge. The water feels just fine.

Here at Talking Points we seldom let a day go by without some pithy comment or note. But some events are beyond our control. Early Saturday evening a 'manhole explosion' several blocks from the Talking Points world headquarters in Washington, DC cut off power to our offices for some thirty hours. That not only made it impossible to upload new posts; it also spoiled pretty much all the food in the official Talking Points world headquarters refrigerator.

P.S. No, I have no idea what a 'manhole explosion' is either.

A number of us believe that the Democrats have still not placed sufficient emphasis on what has to be seen as the defining action of the Bush administration thus far: that it's taken only six months for the administration to squander the budget surpluses it took such hard work in the 1990s to achieve.

(Yes, the economic downturn has something to do with it. But economic downturns happen; it's called the business cycle. The real culprit is flawed fiscal policy.)

In case you missed it, this is from Jean Meserve yesterday on CNN's Inside Politics:

And now, some scoops from our sources. The Congressional Budget Office now says it will release new revenue numbers on August 28, a week later than expected. Sources tell us GOP leaders told the CBO to sit on the numbers until Republicans can return from their vacations and be on hand to diffuse the expected fallout. According to one leadership staffer, the new revenue estimates mean, quote, "we'll just barely miss having to dip into the Social Security trust fund."
First cooking the books. Now leaving them in the oven too long!

President Bush's speech last night was pitiful -- not in his delivery so much, as in the thinking of his communications staff, which went for a largely technical talk, when a more personal one was what the moment called for. Having said that though I actually thought that Bush's decision, politically, may have been about the best he could do in a bad situation.

Few seem to be making the point, however, that the president's decision simply fails to meet the standard of simple logic.

Everybody realizes that thousands upon thousands of 'extra' embryos now sitting on ice in fertility clinics are going to be destroyed. The principled pro-life stance says that even if good could come of destroying these embryos it's still wrong to exploit the good that could come of it. I, of course, completely disagree with this position. But it's not an incoherent one, if you buy into the principles of the pro-life argument.

The principle is not unlike that which makes us recoil from the alleged Chinese practice of scheduling executions to maximize organ harvesting. As ethicists would say, it's the fruit of the poison tree. It doesn't matter that some benefit may come of it. The underlying act is wrong, tainted, impermissible and thus benefiting from it is wrong.

Again, that's not an incoherent ethical stance. The only problem is that that stance also prevents using stem cells already harvested from embryos. Precisely what President Bush has now endorsed.

All politicians play the 'outside the beltway' card and talk about getting out and talking to real Americans. As well they should, since DC is a very weird place.

But President Bush is pushing the envelope a bit. It's not just outside the Beltway, but the "heartland." And it's becoming pretty clear that when Bush talks about the "heartland" he means the South and the rural and small-town Midwest, or in other words, the states he won. Here's the President from yesterday in Waco, Texas:

I've told the people of the nation's capital there that I was coming back to the heartland to herald the values of the heartland, the values that make America so different and so unique. And one of those values is neighbors helping neighbors ... I've had the honor of traveling the -- the world for our country -- or went to Europe. And we're different, in a positive way. We're unique in an incredibly positive way. It's important for our nation never to lose sight of that ... We're making great progress in Washington changing the tone of our country. We're making great progress reminding people that the values of the heartland are the values that make America unique and different.
I won't belabor the point that the Bush-defined heartland (especially the South) tops almost every recorded measure of social dysfunction and pathology -- murder, poverty, illegtimacy, etc. -- but I mean, what about the deracinated and cosmopolitan coastal strips? Aren't we Americans too?

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