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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I believe we're in need of a new word. I've been wondering today how and why numerous scandals just seem to roll off the backs of the president and his many flunkies.

Some have gotten a bit of attention. There's Karl Rove's sharing his expertise on antitrust doctrine with executives at Intel, the late news that Vice President Cheney's former company Halliburton was doing business with Iraq during the 1990s, using $23 million in government money to send out a smiley face postcard from George W. about the tax cut, John Ashcroft's decision to settle the Tobacco suit in an obvious payback to the Tobacco industry, firing the Senate Parliamentarian when he refuses to shine Trent Lott's shoes on command, the White House vandalism story that I talked about so much before I got obsessed with Gary Condit.

Hell, there's even stuff like the Pentagon's hiring a Russian cargo firm with close ties to the Russian military to bring back our mangled spy plane from China.

But this last instance especially spotlights the need for the new word. If President Clinton hired the Russians to bring back our plane people would be going nuts. If one of Clinton's guys pulled a Karl Rove we'd be hearing very serious calls for his resignation. They'd both get added to the list of the dreaded 'Clinton' scandals and be treated accordingly. You know the drill: Dan Burton announces hearings; Andrea Mitchell gives it some establishment cred with a few blurbs on the nightly news, Chris Matthews pops a vein, and then the whole thing slithers off into a bizarre and languid quasi-life at NewsMax, FreeRepublic.com, and Regnery Publishing.

Of course the problem here is that most of these 'Clinton scandals' were just puffed up exaggerations for imbeciles and oafs. They never should have been scandals in the first place. Just as the Russian plane thing is not, and should not, be one today. And the same is true for a lot of these things with the Bushies.

So why talk about them? It's not really that some of these lapses should be scandals. It's just too galling for Clinton supporters to see the Bush folks skate free for the kind of stuff they got endless crap for.

One of the things this shows is that scandals don't just require a bad or ambiguous act. They also require lots of folks who just can't seem to get a life to huff and puff over them. And for better or worse there's just a whole lot more of those folks on the right then on the left. If you don't believe me just drop by the next annual Conservative Political Action Conference and you'll see what I mean.

Anyway, if you're a Dem with a brain this puts you in a tough spot because you want to give the Republicans as good as they gave. But you don't want to end up seeming like a pitiful doofus like Dan Burton. You know a lot of these 'scandals' by any sane standard should never have been scandals but you still don't want to give the Republicans a pass. Maybe the 'scandal' is just the double-standard. Who knows?

So you need a word, a literary shorthand, for these non-scandal scandals like the Karl Rove thing, the Senate parliamentarian firing, and so forth.

Let's call them woulda-shoulda scandals (or maybe just 'wouldashouldas' for short). That would mean: if this were under Clinton, such-and-such woulda been a scandal and if there were any justice such-and-such shoulda been a scandal under Bush. But we're just not as whacked as you guys. So we're going to note it and move along and wait until we catch you actually doing something really bad.

This allows you to make your well-merited point, let off a little Clintonian rage, and get on with life.

It may not help us politically but at least we'll have our self-respect.

P.S. Up next week, two potential scandals that aren't wouldashouldas and do deserve some real looking into. (One clue: it's tied to the oil industry.) Talking Points also defines "clintonian rage." Now Talking Points leaves for 24 hours of much needed R-n-R outta town. So no more posts till the end of the weekend. Or until Gary Condit hires Johnnie Cochran. Whichever comes first.

Part of the strangeness of the Gary Condit story is the way that everyone who gets involved on Condit's behalf gets pulled into the orbit of his ridiculousness. Here's Condit's new lawyer Abbe Lowell explaining the repeated delays in the police's requested second interview with the congressman. "As to the time, the place, the circumstances, it's going to be some way that we can avoid all this because that's not helping to find Chandra," said Lowell, referring to the surrounding media firestorm. The idea seems to be that interviewing Condit too quickly might make it more difficult to solve the mystery of Levy's disappearance.

Apparently matters have escalated for Gary Condit passed the point where Joseph Cotchett can do him much good from San Francisco. Condit has now retained veteran DC Democratically lawyer Abbe Lowell to represent him. You may remember Lowell as Chief Counsel for the House Judiciary Committee during Impeachment or more recently as Bob Torricelli's criminal attorney.

Lowell will apparently hold a news conference later today.

Cotchett, according to the Condit folks, is being kept on to handle the media. I'll let that one speak for itself.

I've had a lot of e-mails over the transom asking whether the Democrats should take a confrontational stance toward the president on the Patients' Bill of Rights, and perhaps take a veto over a piece of legislation. For many pieces of legislation that will come up over the next eighteen months this is a very important question. Tom Daschle's mentor George Mitchell famously used this veto-inducing strategy against Bush's father and greatly contributed to Bush's eventual defeat in 1992.

In any case, many legislative battles will raise this question. But in this case there really isn't much of a question over what stance to take.

As the recent CBS-New Times poll showed, President Bush is already beginning to appear to a majority of Americans as someone who either doesn't care or isn't interested in the issues which matter most to them in their daily lives. What's more, the Democratic position is overwhelmingly popular with the public. And the Republicans themselves are seeing a slow hemorrhage of defections as moderates and even some conservatives don't want to get stuck carrying water for the president's unpopular position. The president's hand on the domestic policy front is extraordinarily weak.

The real question would have been this: If president Bush had come to the Democrats, should they have kept upping the ante on him to force a veto which they would then take the public in the next election? But that's not what's happened. The president's new threat to veto the Patients' Bill of Rights legislation is either a hollow threat or a political gift.

There's really no reason -- either on substance or politics -- for the Democrats to give one bit.

We don't even really know that Gary Condit was having an affair with Chandra Levy, let alone knows anything about her disappearance. But if double-talk were punishable under the DC code they would have carted him off weeks ago. As noted here yesterday the DC police have been asking for a second interview with Condit for almost two weeks now. And yesterday the congressman released this statement:

I met with police officials as soon as Chandra Levy was reported missing and answered their questions ... I have spoken with police again, and have reached out to Miss Levy's parents. If there is any new information I can provide, I will do so without hesitation.
But according to the police, the second meeting Condit appears to be referring to must be nothing more than a phone call.

According to ABC News, police went to Condit's condo on June 13th but were turned away because it was "not a good time." They went to his Capitol Hill office on Monday the 18th but were told he was out of town.

According to the Post, investigators then tried to set up interviews with Condit on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, each time without success. They plan to try again today.

Now one thought which has occurred to me is that things are really heating up on the Patients' Bill of Rights front. And maybe Condit just can't manage to break free? Maybe the cops should talk to Gephardt and see if they can him to free up some time for Condit to talk?

If you've been following Talking Points' coverage of the Condit-Levy story you don't need me to tell you that I haven't been particularly sympathetic to Condit's handlers' allegations that he's been getting a bum rap from the press. But could this be an instance where he has?

As I noted in this earlier post, today's Washington Post reported that DC police had asked for a re-interview with Condit a full ten days ago. This wasn't from an anonymous source, but an on-the-record quote from DC Commander Jack Barrett, head detective on the case. That left the pretty obvious impression that Condit had been dodging a re-interview with the cops.

However, in later editions of the paper, and in the current one online, that quote from Commander Barrett about ten days is gone.

That left the obvious question of whether the line was just cut in a subsequent edition of the paper for editorial or space reasons, or whether it had in fact not been true.

I spoke late this afternoon with Petula Dvorak, the co-author of the Post piece, and she assured me that the line in question was merely "trimmed for space." As far as they're concerned the quote stands.

The new CBS-New York Times poll described in this article contains a lot of pretty bleak news for President Bush. His approval rating of 53% actually masks a series of more ominous 'internals' contained in the poll.

For all the good the 'energy crisis' was supposed to do for the administration, only a pitiful 33% of the public approves his handling of energy policy. Almost two-thirds of the public believes Bush and Cheney "are too beholden to oil companies, and that they are more likely to formulate policies that favor the industry." In fact there doesn't really seem to be any domestic policy issue on which the administration's positions don't run against the majority viewpoint (and in case you're wondering, that's not good.)

There is something else striking in these numbers -- something which has become increasingly apparent in the last month or so. President Bush really is the anti-Clinton, only not quite in the way his supporters and flacks probably intended. And not in a way likely to do him much good.

Bill Clinton was notoriously weak in how the American people judged him as a person -- at least in the narrow way pollsters ascertain such information. But a broad majority of Americans consistently and persistently believed he cared about, understood, and was working on issues and problems which were important in their daily lives. I've called this the politics of empathy -- an idea which figures prominently in a book I'm working on -- and it was something that Clinton mastered and in some respects invented.

What the Times poll shows is that President Bush is almost the mirror opposite. Despite some falling numbers on the personal approval level, most voters think the President is a decent enough fellow. But substantial majorities of them don't think he cares about the issues which matter to them, or doesn't understand them. As the Times piece notes, this is ominously similar to the problems Bush's dad faced in office. And it points to a basic structural problem in the sort of politics Bush is trying to pursue.

Today's Washington Post runs an article which raises a whole series of new questions about the Chandra Levy case.

Let's note two.

The first is that Congressman Gary Condit seems to have been a little less cooperative with the police investigation than he and the police themselves have let on. News reports yesterday said that the DC police had decided to reinterview Condit on Wednesday evening. Yet the Post story says the police first requested that second interview about ten days ago. Is there something more important going on for Condit that kept him from scheduling a time to sit down with the cops? Late word is that there's yet another delay -- and apparently the interview will again have to be rescheduled.

The other point touches on the competence, or perhaps the aggressiveness, of the police investigation. It appears that it was the Levys themselves who found the conspicuous pattern of Chandra's calls to Condit in her cell phone records -- not the police. The Post article also reports that DC Commander Jack Barrett, head detective on the case, told the paper that they hadn't known Condit's wife was making a relatively rare visit to DC during the crucial week of April 28th to May 3rd until Condit's press secretary and lawyer said so publicly last week.

How can that be? Wouldn't the initial interview have covered such obvious ground? If it did, did Condit withhold that information? Obviously, these are purely speculative questions. But since Condit's wife was in town for an official function (a meeting of the Congressional Wives Club hosted by Laura Bush), the fact that the police didn't find out she was in town can't help but call into question the thoroughness of their investigation. And their apparent (and I stress apparent) failure to come up with the cell phone information points in the same direction.

The New York Times has, for better or worse, been almost entirely silent on the Chandra Levy - Gary Condit matter. But this column by Maureen Dowd -- not one of my favorites normally -- gives a decent run down of the facts and an apt characterization of the dark, tragic nature of the story.

The Post reports this morning that Levy's parents have hired DC attorney Billy Martin to represent them. Martin, you may remember, also represented Monica Lewinsky's mother -- and emerged after a time as the de facto chief legal advisor to Monica too.

This brings almost full circle the bizarre Lewinsky-Levy parallelism. But reading Dowd's column makes it bitterly clear that this time DC has managed to stand Marx's famous dictum on its head: if this is history repeating itself, the first time was farce, the second tragedy -- not the other way around.

With all those years of carping about the horribly politicized Clinton IRS, you'd sorta think the Bush Treasury Department would keep its own nose clean for more than a few months.

Apparently Not.

The New York Times reported today that the IRS will soon begin sending letters out to scores of millions of Americans. The letters are essentially a political advertisement for President Bush in the guise of a tax announcement.

"We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed — and President George W. Bush signed into law — the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes ... The new tax law provides immediate tax relief in 2001 and long-term tax relief for the years to come ... [it is] just the first installment of the long-term tax relief provided by the new law."
A career employee at the IRS apparently leaked the letter to congressional Democrats. The article includes some quotes from government watchdogs rightly skewering this as a transparent effort to use the IRS to fund a massive 'thank you President Bush' ad campaign, as well as quotes from Frank Keith, a flack at the IRS, saying this was just a public service with information "the taxpayer needs."

A few points about this blinding display of Bush team hubris seem to have escaped mention, however.

The goodie the letter is taking credit for (an immediate tax rebate to a fairly wide cross section of taxpayers) is the one aspect of the tax bill which President Bush didn't want, and Democrats had to force on him.

Also, the contention that this is just an informational letter is rather belied by the fact that the text is cribbed directly from talking points generated by the White House political operation.

As attentive Talking Points reader will remember, the Bush White House long sold the tax plan on its universality -- a tax cut for all Americans. That is, until critics began pointing out that income taxes are only one kind of taxes Americans pay. Most Americans pay more payroll taxes than income taxes. And Americans who only pay payroll taxes don't get jack from the Bush plan.

The administration cavilled over this detail for a bit, but finally conceded the point and this Spring added a short blurb to end of the standard Bush boiler plate -- making 'tax relief for all Americans' into 'tax relief for all Americans who pay incomes taxes.'

And surprise, surprise, that very line is now part of the IRS letter. How'd that happen?

The IRS spokesman told the Times that the letter was "a collaborative effort between the agency and its parent, the Treasury Department." That's actually not to surprising, since Paul O'Neill -- once praised as refreshing moderate on the Bush team -- has of late emerged as a strikingly political and ideological Treasury chief. Of which we'll be saying more soon.

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