Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Paul Krugman today touches on a crucially important point about Thursday night's presidential debate. If 2000 was any indication -- and there's every reason to think it is -- the winner of the debate won't be determined during the 90 minute encounter itself but during the spin war that will follow it. And with the advantage the Republicans have on the cable nets, talk radio and chat TV shows, the odds are stacked in their favor.

(As Krugman alludes to, the initial public reactions to the first Bush/Gore debate had the then-veep coming out on top, if narrowly. It was only after several days of pundit churn that Bush became the winner. The Bush team won the post-debate debate.)

More than just these built-in advantages, though, Democrats, I think, have seldom really appreciated that there is such a thing as a post-debate debate. I don't mean that they don't know about putting out surrogates or trying to spin the results. Of course, they do. But in 2000 at least (a certainly in analogous situations in this cycle) the effort was very reactive and scattershot. And that inevitably leaves the Democrats trying to parry or deconstruct the ways that Republicans are trying to define what happened. In that way, they're fighting at best for a draw.

Republicans are already leaking hints and taunts about whether Kerry will sweat profusely under the lights, whether he's too tanned and other similar nonsense. But the antic nature of these taunts doesn't mean they won't be effective. They're meant to throw the other side off balance and, in a related manner, to provide grist for a catty and frivolous press corps.

So what's the Democrats' plan going into this debate? You can see what the other side is planning from visiting Drudge or listening to the GOP surrogates on the chat shows.

But what do the Dems have in mind?

It's easy to predict that there will be several exchanges in the debate where the president will describe the situation in Iraq in ways that are entirely belied by the reality of the situation. Perhaps he'll mention the situation in Fallujah where his intervention in the battle planning had such disastrous and feckless results. Will the pundits and talking heads be primed for those moments? Or only for Kerry's moments of over-fancy rhetoric?

Will the Dems be ready to hit on these issues and focus the post-debate debate on the president's recklessness, lack of a plan and inability to level with the public about what's happening in Iraq?

There are many other possible examples. But the point is that we have a pretty good idea what the president is going to say. And what he'll almost certainly say will open up a number of solid lines of attack. But if the Democrats don't hit the ground running with a plan in mind they'll be overwhelmed by the GOP spin machine -- no matter how many fibs the president tells or how many times he says up is down.

Take a look at what "New Donkey" (i.e., a sharp Dem politico from Georgia) has to say about who's winning the ground game going into the election.

As ND says, the ground game only really comes into play if the election is within a few points, tops. But if it does -- and there's certainly reason to believe this one will -- the ground game can be decisive.

At the same time a good ground game -- at least the voter registration part of it -- can be hobbled mightily if opposing elected officials find ways to disqualify or throw out lots of new voter registration applications, as they seem to be doing in Ohio.

So now we get some <$Ad$>details about how the Rove treatment works -- and not just speculation, but with descriptions from former Rove staffers who helped organize some of his trademark whispering campaigns.

An article out this week in The Atlantic Monthly focuses specifically on a series of races Rove ran in Texas and Alabama in the 1990s.

The Alabama races in particular haven't gotten that much national press attention in the past. And one of the most lizardly passages in the article describes how Rove launched a whispering campaign against one Democratic opponent suggesting that the candidate -- a sitting Alabama state Supreme Court Justice, who had long worked on child welfare issues -- was in fact a pedophile ...

When his term on the court ended, he chose not to run for re-election. I later learned another reason why. Kennedy had spent years on the bench as a juvenile and family-court judge, during which time he had developed a strong interest in aiding abused children. In the early 1980s he had helped to start the Children's Trust Fund of Alabama, and he later established the Corporate Foundation for Children, a private, nonprofit organization. At the time of the race he had just served a term as president of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect. One of Rove's signature tactics is to attack an opponent on the very front that seems unassailable. Kennedy was no exception.

Some of Kennedy's campaign commercials touted his volunteer work, including one that showed him holding hands with children. "We were trying to counter the positives from that ad," a former Rove staffer told me, explaining that some within the See camp initiated a whisper campaign that Kennedy was a pedophile. "It was our standard practice to use the University of Alabama Law School to disseminate whisper-campaign information," the staffer went on. "That was a major device we used for the transmission of this stuff. The students at the law school are from all over the state, and that's one of the ways that Karl got the information out—he knew the law students would take it back to their home towns and it would get out." This would create the impression that the lie was in fact common knowledge across the state. "What Rove does," says Joe Perkins, "is try to make something so bad for a family that the candidate will not subject the family to the hardship. Mark is not your typical Alabama macho, beer-drinkin', tobacco-chewin', pickup-drivin' kind of guy. He is a small, well-groomed, well-educated family man, and what they tried to do was make him look like a homosexual pedophile. That was really, really hard to take."

This is just one snippet from the piece. But when you read the whole thing, what happened in South Carolina in 2000 and what's happening now with Kerry and the Swift Boat business will all seem a lot more clear.

I was just here talking on the phone and watching Meet the Press on mute. Seeing their end-of-show commentary panel really drives home the state of affairs in what now goes for balance in DC conventional wisdom.

Of the four panelists, one is the profoundly middle-of-the-road David Broder, a paragon of Washington's establishment assumptions. For the sake of discussion, let's call him balanced or neutral.

Two of the other four are Bill Safire and Bob Novak, two of the most prominent and conservative columnists in the country.

Finally, you have Doris Kearns Goodwin. In her personal views, it's probably fair to call her a liberal. But, as you might say, she doesn't play one on TV. She goes in for high-minded commentary, which is fine in itself but makes her little balance for Safire and Novak.

There's your balance. Two against one -- and the one has one arm tied, voluntarily, behind her back.

In a startling development late in the presidential campaign cycle, editors of the satirical magazine The Onion have taken over the Bush-Cheney '04 Communications Office and seized at least operational control of Winger Central (WC), the office in downtown Washington near the corner of 17th and M, which sends out marching orders to conservative columnists.

The first sign of the overnight take-over came when Charles Krauthammer led off with this morning's column in the Post charging Sen. Kerry with being insufficiently respectful and supportive of America's traditional allies.

Confirmation of the scope of the takeover came later in the afternoon when President Bush denounced Kerry for dissing American allies.

"You can't lead this country" while undercutting a valued ally, the president said.

Rumors of a coming attack on Kerry for war-profiteering in connection with a secret no-bid ketchup contract for the Heinz Corporation could not be confirmed as this story went to press.

Don Rumsfeld said yesterday that elections in "three-quarters or four-fifths of" Iraq might be good enough.

In other words, run the place on Florida rules.

A generous way to put it -- the lede of Dana Milbank's piece in tomorrow's Post: "President Bush and leading Republicans are increasingly charging that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and others in his party are giving comfort to terrorists and undermining the war in Iraq -- a line of attack that tests the conventional bounds of political rhetoric."

Can we re-check the sprinkler system in the Reichstag?

An amazing exchange from Jim Lehrer's interview this evening with Iyad Allawi, which opens and shuts the case on the latter's credibility about anything.

JIM LEHRER: What would you say to somebody in the United States who questions whether or not getting rid of Saddam Hussein was worth the cost of more than a thousand lives now and billions and billions of U.S. dollars?

PRIME MINISTER IYAD ALLAWI: Well, I assure you if Saddam was still there, terrorists will be hitting there again at Washington and New York, as they did in the murderous attack in September; they'll be hitting also on other places in Europe and the Middle East.

So, if we hadn't <$Ad$>invaded Iraq we'd be experiencing repeated 9/11s, with similar events in Europe in the Middle East.

Is it necessary to say that, despite all the bad things Iraq's Baathist regime represented and did, there is no evidence (pace Laurie Mylroie) that it ever attempted, let alone succeeded in mounting, any sort of terrorist attack on the American mainland?

Presumably the dramatic loss of credibility suffered if the US had failed to invade Iraq would have led to a sudden reversal of Baathist policy and a sudden unleashing of a wave of Mukabarat terrorist strikes on the American mainland.

Every so often you just have to sit back and marvel at the Twilight Zone we're living in at the moment.

Here we have a US-installed foreign head of state, whose travel schedule is determined by the US State Department, visiting the US to buoy the president's election campaign and spouting demonstrable lies in order to support a retrospective rationale for war that the White House wants Americans to believe but lacks the gall to state explicitly.

Look at this very odd article on MSNBC.com.

It's a Nightly News 'reality check' with the headline: "Violence surges even as conditions improve."

It reads like a classic example of the media's desire to find balance in cases where there really isn't any balance to be found.

The piece starts by noting Iraqis' skeptical reaction to Prime Minister Allawi's speech today, specifically with regard to the fight against the insurgency and how successful it's been.

"What he's saying isn't true. I can't even name an Iraqi city where there aren't clashes," says one Iraqi man-in-street.

The piece then goes on to describe the spiralling level of violence and the fact that insurgents are now increasingly targetting Iraqis themselves, which is presumably not an improvement, especially if you're Iraqi.

The reporter even notes that a good deal of reconstruction money has had to be diverted to security.

Then come the improvements. First there's a bulleted list of updates on reconstruction ...

Electricity: There is more than under Saddam but demand is up 80 percent, so it's still rationed — four hours on, two hours off.

Water: U.S. officials say there's no clean drinking water in all of Iraq because of sewage contamination.

Oil: The biggest problem is sabotage, keeping overall production short of the three million target, at 2.6 million barrels a day.

Jobs: A major improvement — one year ago, 60 percent of Iraqis were unemployed. Today, it's almost half that — 30-40 percent.

So there does seem to be more electricty. And unemployment has come down.

Or has it?

As it happens, in a piece in the Washington Post today, Jessica Matthews -- who knows a bit about these things -- says the Iraqi unemployment rate still "may be 60 percent."

And just a few days ago the AFP said that estimates of Iraqi unemployment range from 20% to 60%. So perhaps no one has any really good idea.

In any case, the reporter then notes these improvements ...

Iraqis no longer live under the oppressive scrutiny of Saddam's government. The giant busts that once adorned Saddam's palaces have been torn down like his regime — giving Iraqis something unquantifiable — their freedom.

Another freedom — the press. There are now about 200 independent newspapers; under Saddam there wasn't a single one.

Setting aside the sculptural improvements, freedom, or here more specifically the overthrow of a brutal authoritarian regime, is unquestionably a good thing. But you can't call this an 'improvement' in this context since Saddam's government was overthrown 18 months ago. And it's not clear that Iraqis have become more free since then.

'Freedom', at least at this level of abstraction, must be seen as a post-Saddam baseline.

In some measure they've probably become less free since creeping Islamization has reduced the rights of women in certain areas and brought de facto bans on drinking alcohol.

But the real point is that the unquestionable good of the end of a dictatorial government can't be pointed to as a sign that conditions are improving at the same time that violence surges, right?

Take a look at the piece yourself and tell me if the reporter doesn't struggle to find a single measure by which conditions in the country are improving or a single anecdote that would justify his headline.