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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

How well do most reporters and Sunday morning talking heads understand the Social Security debate? Consider this example from this past Sunday's Meet the Press. Commenting on the Social Security surplus debate NBC's Lisa Myers said:

Tim, one thing, though, we should add about the Social Security surplus, until two years ago, Congress and the president spent every dime of that money ... including the Democrats. And it is--now, it's being treated as though it's politically sacred. But economically, it makes almost no difference.
Myers' first point is accurate enough. But the second? No difference? Does Myers understand this debate? Or did she just get off the phone with Mitch Daniels?

Normally, I'm not a big fan of David Broder. But in this case, luckily, Broder was there to chime in (and gently correct Myers' foolery) by providing at least an outline explanation of why it actually does make a difference.

Well, the big fact is that 10 years from now, the boomers are going to be retiring. And unless we are saving money in this next decade, we are not able to afford the retirement and health care for that generation. That's the big fact which people need to keep in mind.
Maybe Myers should stick to the Juanita Broderick interviews.

As you'll see in this article, Condit lawyer Abbe Lowell is now saying that Condit's aides lied to the press without Condit's permission or knowledge.

Congressman Condit did not tell his staff to go out and lie," Condit's attorney, Abbe D. Lowell, said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "Congressman Condit did not authorize those statements to be made. Those staff people spoke about what they hoped was the truth and what they thought the truth was.
Now obviously this is a proposition so inherently ridiculous as to not really be intended to be believed. But I've been feeling a bit sorry for Lowell so let's play along for a moment, shall we?

The problem with what Lowell is saying is that, at the time, Mike Lynch -- the staffer in question -- was telling reporters that he was talking to Condit regularly and getting his go-ahead and direction about statements to give to the press. In fact, I've even got an example of it in an article I wrote in Salon two months ago.

When I asked Lynch, Condit's press secretary, whether Levy had ever spent the night at Condit's apartment, he responded that Levy didn't spend the night at Condit's apartment "that night." No press account has ever discussed a specific night that Levy spent at Condit's apartment. When I pointed this out, and asked if Levy had ever spent the night at Condit's apartment, he fell back on Condit's denial of having told anyone of a Levy visit.

"I asked him directly," Lynch said, "is this story true? Did you tell the police that? And he said, 'Absolutely not.'"

When I pointed out the obvious fact that denying only that he had told police the story implied that Condit would not, or perhaps could not, deny the underlying allegation, Lynch said, "To the best of my knowledge she never spent the night."

When I asked if he had asked Condit that question directly, he said, "I won't go there."

Is Lowell exploring the outer regions of ridiculousness? Or am I missing something?

In Mike Isikoff's Newsweek interview with Gary Condit, the California Congressman said:

I never had a cross word with her. The kind of conversation we had would be—[when Timothy] McVeigh was executed and Juan Garza was executed. She seemed to have a lot of interest in those two things and a lot of more interest in them than I did. So she would talk about that.
That's hard to figure, since Levy disappeared on May 1st and McVeigh and Garza were executed on June 11th and 20th, respectively.

Mike, maybe a follow-up woulda been a good call on that one.

Well, I hate to say I told you so. But, my God, I told you so. The real debate today seems to be (and bear with me, because this is technical insider political talk) over whether the magnitude of Condit's public relations catastrophe is more appropriately compared to the 12.5 kiloton blast that leveled Hiroshima in 1945 or the 15 megaton hydrogen bomb which gouged a mile wide whole in Bikini Atoll in 1954.

I was gonna call Condit spokeswoman Marina Ein to get comment on whether they're officially in the Hiroshima or Bikini Atoll camp. But as far as I know, she's no longer returning my calls.

For those who've followed the Condit case closely this is likely the most revealing passage from the congressman's letter to his constituents.

Some suggest that not talking with the media could mean I had something to do with Chandra's disappearance. I did not. I pray that she has not met the same fate as the other young women who have disappeared from the same neighborhood.

-- Gary Condit
Aug. 22nd
Letter to Constituents

This sounds a bit like he's looking for the real killers. Perhaps it's just because I live in the aforementioned neighborhood and thus feel oddly defensive about this. But it's important to keep in mind that there is not the slightest bit of evidence that Levy's disappearance is connected to the disappearances of two other young women in the DuPont Circle neighborhood during the late nineties. In fact there is plenty of evidence pointing to their not being related.

This is just a canard, pure and simple.

P.S. By the way, if you can't wait to read the People Magazine article, here it is.

Many people are raising an obvious and regrettable point about the current brouhaha over the shrinking budget surplus. Democrats can pin the blame on President Bush for causing this problem with his extravagant and improvident tax cut. But at the end of the day they still find themselves in precisely the position Republicans wanted to put them in: either take the politically dicey tack of scaling back the tax cut, push for spending which puts the budget further into deficit, or live within the fiscal straightjacket Bush created -- precisely what the Bushies had in mind from the start.

The answer I think is that the Democrats will not, indeed cannot, win this debate as a matter of fiscal policy -- at least not at first. But that's not really so problematic as it may seem. Why this issue is potentially devastating for Republicans and the Bush White House is that this is at heart an issue of values and responsibility.

Democrats shouldn't look at this as a fall-back from a more promising debate over fiscal policy number-crunching. This is actually just the sort of debate they should want to be having. The values and responsibility front is the Republicans' strong suit and a point of vulnerability for Democrats -- as the last election demonstrated. This renders vulnerable one of the Republicans' strongest selling points to voters. That's what makes this so potentially devastating for the GOP -- if it's handled correctly.

Okay, let me say that I'm a bit conflicted. I'd rather leave the post below as the headline post for Thursday morning, seeing as it explains a case of the Bush White House really getting caught with its metaphorical hand in the cookie jar. Especially since the press has thus far shown distressingly little interest in the story.

Having said that, though, look: I don't think I can resist the temptation of another Condit post. So here goes.

Yesterday I said that logic and experience told me that Condit was going to, if not blow this interview, at least put in a very weak performance. It's just his MO. I'm not going to prattle on about how this provides some insight into his character or that it shows that he thinks the rules don't apply to him or anything like that. But what it does show is this: Condit and his advisors seem to lack a sense for what looks good for him to do and what looks imbecilic and offensive for him to do. And tonight's news reports seem to confirm it. According to those reports, Condit will not even admit to having an affair with Levy -- which tends pretty strongly to confirm the pattern.

There's no reason in the world that Condit needs to go on TV and spill his guts about any affair he had, at least as far as I'm concerned. But if he is planning to go on the air and deny even what amounts to the innocent explanation of his recent behavior then obviously he could scarcely be a bigger moron.

Pundits continue to assume he's holed up somewhere with a clutch of media wizards who are spinning him into prime form. The truth is that he has no wizards. And I don't think he's even taking the advice of the wanna-be wizards who've flocked to him since this mystery began.

You'll remember that on the 19th I noted Mike Isikoff's Newsweek article on the Bill Clinton-Ehud Barak phone conversation transcripts. And I made the point that the real story was just how Dan Burton's committee managed to get hold of confidential transcripts of phone conversations between the President of the United States and the then-Prime Minister of Israel only months after the conversations occurred.

To put it mildly, the executive branch doesn't turn over this sort of information to congressional committees easily. It's classic executive privilege territory. And for good reason: How easy would it be in the future for the president to have frank discussions with foreign heads of state if the foreign heads of state knew that Dan Burton would be releasing transcripts of their conversations only a few months later?

You think the White House will be releasing transcripts of Bush's conversations with Ariel Sharon? Jiang Zemin? Tony Blair? As Phil Schiliro, chief of staff to Burton's Democratic counterpart Henry Waxman, told me today, "Given the secrecy of the Bush-Cheney administration, it's inconceivable that they would turn over this sort of information if it affected President Bush."

In any case, the transcripts in question are currently in the custody of the National Archives, where they were deposited after Bill Clinton left office. However, it's still up to the current occupants of the Executive Branch to decide what gets released and what doesn't.

So here's how it went down, according to my sources. Staffers from Burton's committee, the House Government Reform Committee, didn't receive copies of the transcripts. They were given access to them at the National Archives. They were allowed to take notes, but not get actual copies.

So I called the Bush National Security Council press office. They told me to speak with Bill Leary in their FOIA office. I called his number and got another man in the office who said Leary wasn't available. He told me that "the request for information went to the National Archives [and that] the National Archives had made all arrangements" for making the documents available, and that I should call the National Archives. The White House had no role, he said, except for "classification." (As I'll discuss in a later post, this reference to "classification" was a technically true statement which essentially admitted in one word, what he had denied with many a few moments before, i.e., that they had everything to do with the release of the documents. But more on that later.)

When I asked for his name, he hung up on me.

I then called back and in slightly more colorful language asked him why he had hung up on me and whether he would identify himself. He told me that he and his office "don't respond to press inquiries."

This may all seem rather technical. So let's review what this all means. These transcripts are the sort of documents that the executive branch is usually extremely resistant to handing over, and seldom ever does. Especially not so soon after the events occurred. In this case, it seems the Bush NSC changed the rules because the folks there thought they could embarrass the previous administration. In so doing, they also potentially created a terrible precedent for the ability of this and future administrations to conduct foreign policy, by breaching the confidentiality of the president's conversations with foreign heads of state.

The unnamed NSC staffer I spoke to denied that they had been involved in this. But, as a matter of fact, the Bush NSC was intimately involved in the decision to make these confidential transcripts available to the Burton Committee staffers. Do I know this? Yes, I know.

If it was a reasonable decision to make on the merits, why hide behind such juvenile tactics? And since this is an actual abuse of the powers of the executive to further a narrow partisan objective, why no more scrutiny to this aspect of the story by the press?

One of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's standard ploys is to whip out a few historical allusions, a few policy wonk names from the thirties or forties, to wow reporters and other listeners into thinking he's the master of some esoteric knowledge and not just another pol, and perhaps a pretty craven one at that.

Here's an article with some good examples of this tendency, and here's another.

Just now I was watching Moynihan and Bush Social Security Commission co-chairman Richard Parsons giving a little brief talk about their closed-door meeting today. In the course of that Parsons argued that the size of the non-Social Security surplus is really irrelevant to the reform effort since general revenue funds should not and will not be used for Social Security.

Then Moynihan chimed in with some hokum about some public policy worthies from the early days of Social Security, and Frances Perkins (FDR's Labor Secretary), and how they'd done a good job and now it was time to continue their work by reforming Social Security, yada, yada, yada. The implication seemed to be that these worthies would agree with what Parsons had just said. In fact, at earlier points Moynihan has said precisely that, that Perkins et.al, the founders of Social Security, would find using non-payroll tax money (i.e., general revenue funds) for Social Security a terrible thing, anathema, and so on.

The only problem is that this is completely false. Perkins herself believed that general revenue funds would likely eventually be needed to supplement payroll tax dollars. And if my memory serves she believed that point would come late in the last century.

In itself this a relatively minor and fairly technical point, I grant you. But there's an important lesson to glean from it: Moynihan's professor shtick is pretty much all shtick and no substance. He makes it up as he goes along.

Craven dishonesty, surprisingly enough, can actually be a good thing. No, not as personal practice, mind you. More as a tool of symptomatology. When you're taking aim at your political opponents and they start to lie wildly it's a good sign that you've really got them on the run.

Which brings us to George W. Bush and Mitch Daniels.

Let's be clear on what's in the works in this fast-approaching battle over the budget: The question is whether the Bush White House will be able to use the inherently pliable and slippery modalities of rhetoric to overcome the rather more fixed terms of mathematics.

Can they pull it off?

Let's look at one example (of which there will surely be many more to come) from Bush's speech yesterday at Harry S. Truman High School in Independence, Missouri:

Seven out of the last eight budgets submitted by the executive and passed by the Congress have raided the Social Security or used part of the Social Security to fund the budgets. One of the temptations is to use Social Security money for something other than Social Security.

Now the good news is -- is that both political parties and both bodies of Congress have declared that we're not going to do that. But I'm going to watch carefully, to make sure that the old temptations of the past don't come back to haunt us when it comes to budgeting your money in the year 2001.

How many distortions are wrapped together into these four sentences?

Oh,when will the buck stop?!?!?!?!?!

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