Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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The one point of solace Republicans find today in the polls is this fact: despite how egregiously bad 2004 has thus far gone for President Bush, and regardless of the broad deterioration in the president's poll numbers, John Kerry is still, at best, only a few points ahead of him. And in some cases he's not ahead at all.

This leads to the conclusion -- their conclusion -- that Kerry is a terribly weak candidate, or is running an awful campaign, because he cannot even open up a serious lead against a president whose presidency seems on the verge of collapse on so many fronts.

There's a related line of criticism from Kerry's Democratic partisans. Why is he so silent? With the mix of poor values and incompetent leadership that is at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, why isn't he out there affirmatively making the case against the president?

I've been listening to these criticisms for some time. Indeed, in a pretty prominent venue last month, I made an argument that was at least partly along these lines.

But I've begun to think that all of this is misguided, that whether by design or accident -- and I'm not at all sure which it is -- Kerry is doing more or less exactly what he should.

There are a number of ideas I want to air along these lines. But for now let me start with just a few.

First, what to make of the head-to-head numbers, which show the two candidates close to neck-n-neck down in the mid-to-low 40s? Nothing bad for Kerry, I'd say. Presidents who can't even get near 50% approval going into an election end up losing. It's that simple. In fact, presidents who are a lot closer to 40% than 50% end up getting crushed.

Bush's low numbers are almost infinitely more significant than Kerry's in that regard. Kerry hasn't even been officially nominated yet. He doesn't have a running mate. And the intensity of the news cycle makes it hard for him to get too much face time with the American people.

Now, here's the point I'd like to discuss in a bit more detail: the fact that Kerry can't get a lot of attention to himself right now or that he's not seizing the opportunity to make the case against Bush. I don't think this is a bad thing at all. At least not for now.

Let's think of this battle as a prize fight, with both men in the ring. If you're up on points and the seconds are ticking down on the final round, what do you do?

Simple: stay out of his way.

Trying to land punches when he's desperate and going down gives him the opportunity to hit back. And in such a dire moment that may be all he has. Why give him the opportunity?

With all we're seeing in Iraq right now, does anyone really need to 'make the case'? I'd say the case is making itself. For anyone who can't see it, the case probably can't be made.

The boxing analogy doesn't work perfectly. But let me explain what I'm getting at and get this back to concrete points.

The most salient fact about the contemporary American political landscape is its profound political polarization. And that is almost the last thing the president has going for him. There are forty-plus percent of the electorate on both sides that will stick with their candidate, and fight for him, simply because he opposes the other side. I think that that's one of the few things keeping the president's approval ratings as high as they are.

Further injecting partisan political sensibilities into this current moment will, I think, steady the president and perhaps even help him in his current state.

Of course, that moment can't be avoided. By the late summer and into the fall, the political climate will become intensely polarized as the two campaigns and all their official and unofficial surrogate organizations start pouring money into paid advertising, after the conventions run, and then eventually when the debates are held.

But for now it's salutary for the Democrats to have President Bush the focus -- near exclusively -- of attention. There is, I think, a coalescing sense that President Bush is a failed president -- that key and grave decisions he has made have been the wrong ones and that his leadership and management have been deeply flawed on many fronts. The public mind -- though in a sense a fiction to describe the individial cogitation of three hundred million individuals -- is a powerful reality. And if we look into the 'internals' in these recent polls I think we can see it turning against the president.

Take the president's declining numbers on terrorism.

For more than two years this has been the president's strongest number -- one that stayed strong even after support for his policies on Iraq or the economy declined. I've long thought that this number -- more than any other -- was a measure of public confidence in the president's strength and fortitude.

I say this because, what is confidence in his ability to fight terror a measure of? To judge the president in this regard, all we can really go on is the fact that no other major terrorist incident has occurred within the US.

The other signs are in most cases hidden from the public eye -- or if not hidden, not easily seen. Policy wonks may get into studies about money put into security at America's major seaports or what the president is doing to get the FBI into shape to combat terror. But that's deep in the weeds where few non-policy wonks venture.

In the case of Iraq, the public has something to look at: Iraq. The president's numbers were once very strong on Iraq. But they've fallen dramatically as visible reality has overwhelmed whatever people's assumptions about the president's leadership may have been. Same with the economy.

But, again, on terrorism there's much less concrete for the public to look at. So I think that measure is much more an intuitive sense, a general gut sense of the man himself. And that number -- so long so high -- is now falling and falling fast.

The new CNN/Time poll has Bush leading Kerry on this question by a mere 7 points -- his highest spread on any question.

Why is it falling? There hasn't been a terrorist attack. There were the Clarke revelations, yes. But I don't think these account for the change, at least not in themselves. I think they're falling because Iraq and other failures are eroding the public's belief that the president knows what he's doing and making people believe that his 'toughness', if it exists, is not directed in any productive or beneficial direction.

Now, as I say, the partisan polarization will intensify in the coming months. And that will help the president in many ways, getting some of the attention off him and on to Kerry. But a judgment about the president like the one I've described above, once made, can be hard to unmake. And for the moment, with so many of the president's actions delivering abysmal dividends to the nation he's led, that judgment is being made against the president. So, for the moment, I'm not sure having Kerry give Bush center stage is such a bad thing.

As I said earlier this morning, here's the latest <$NoAd$>update from my friend in Iraq, a retired military intelligence officer, now working as a security contractor in Iraq ...

Hey Josh,

Sorry about the delay but I have been out on the streets more than usual these days despite the micro-Intifada in the South.

Let me answer your questions:

Q1. From on the ground, how would you rate the effects of Abu Ghraib on the population at large and on the morale of Iraqis who are at the moment working with us?

A1: Abu Ghuraib just confirmed what we have been hearing here for a long time. I am amazed that the ICRC didn't push this forcefully. It is very easy to find people who have been in the prison and could make statements to that effect. What I am sure amazed the ICRC was the callousness of the Bush administration blowing off eye-witness testimony of ICRC delegates in the prison. It had to be done with pictures and I applaud and honor the men who blew the whistle ... If I was the NCOIC of that place I would have been filing courts martial papers just to make sure it was indestructibly document that things were going on ... Someone obviously did something official for General Taguba to be sent there.

The Iraqi people, even my 150 staff think the Americans are essentially not welcome anymore. They fear for their security but would rather go through a cataclysm with a new Iraqi police and army as their security force, rather than be occupied by the Americans. Then they could work through the system and know that their security was in their hands ... Trust me I am training 40 Iraqi bodyguards and the demand is getting serious. Listen Josh, EVERYONE outside of the Green Zone, Iraqis Westerners and Americans alike refer to the CPA and the US Army as "The AMERICANS" as if they were a third-party nation.

No one sees them as part of the solution anymore but as a foreign entity that does as it likes and pisses everybody off in the process. The thinking in the usually suspicious Iraqi mind is that this is still being staged to seize control of their oil... Well that's been done but now they think the domestic troubles like the bad electricity (3 hours on, three hours off) the major Dysentery outbreak in the tap water this week (all of us have been ill due to our cooks washing with tap water) and the inability to drive down the street without having a Hummvee point rifles at you (or worse yet explode next to you) is punishment or, more accurately, incompetence.

Abu Ghuraib was always part of their belief that the Bush Administration would "do anything" to defeat the Baathists. One guy said "you hired the Baathist Intelligence back and now you are doing as they are doing." Well that's not exactly true. We're more open about it. But as long as we are seen as occupiers we will never earn the trust of the Iraqi people. Turning over in a month to a new set of lackeys (here they call them Lougies ... Iraqi Arabic for "fawning Brown-noser") and asking them to invite us to stay and continue our ways is absolutely laughed at.

Q2. I’ve heard rumors that the DOD had instructed Halliburton or other contractors to cut off internet access to troops, at least for all but non-essential stuff. Heard anything about that?

A2: No, Internet seems to be humming along ... Now, at some of the more remote field camps they may have them off but not at the CPA. That place would shut down without Internet because they NEVER leave the Green Zone.

Q3. Was any of the AbuG stuff known on the street, as it were? Was this stuff an open secret, even if people hadn't seen the pics?

A3: As I said above, it was an open secret because guys were being released and complaining ... The ICRC was inspecting the place and dropping hints. Al Jazeera had done pieces on torture there and had interviewed people. Here in Iraq it was an anecdotal-evidence-supported ASSUMPTION. Until confirmed by photos we didn't know the depth of it. Remember, they chose a really high ranking General (Taguba) to documented this, which means it burned hot in the craw at Central Command when they found out it was true. Taguba showing up meant that they probably intended to court martial or dismiss the General in charge. Also it is no secret that ON THE STREET the US Army was and remains openly kicking Iraqi asses whenever and wherever they want to.

About the Army - Man, it hurts my heart to write this about an institution I dearly love but this army is completely dysfunctional, angry and is near losing its honor. We are back to the Army of 1968. I knew we were finished when I had a soldier point his Squad Automatic Weapons at me and my bodyguard detail for driving down the street when he decided he would cross the street in the middle of rush hour traffic (which was moving at about 70 MPH) ... He made it clear to any and all that he was preparing to shoot drivers who did not stop for his jaunt because speeding cars are "threats."

I also once had a soldier from a squad of Florida National Guard reservists raise weapons and kick the door panel of a clearly marked CPA security vehicle (big American flag in the windshield of a $150,000 armored Land Cruiser) because they wanted us to back away from them so they could change a tire ... as far as they were concerned WE (non-soldiers) were equally the enemy as any Iraqi.

Unlike the wars of the past 20 years where the Army encouraged (needed) soldiers, NGOs, allies and civil organizations to work together to resolve matters and return to normal society, the US Forces only trust themselves here and that means they set their own limits and tolerances. Abu Ghuraib are good examples of that limit. I told a Journalist the other day that these kids here are being told that they are chasing Al Qaeda in the War on Terrorism so they think everyone at Abu Ghuraib had something to do with 9/11. So they were encouraged to make them pay. These kids thought they were going to be honored for hunting terrorists.

Best, [Name Suppressed]

More soon.

Hmmm. I noted last night that the DOD Statement from Pentagon spokesman Larry Di Rita about Sy Hersh's article in The New Yorker was a classic non-denial denial. The statement posted at the Pentagon website is dated May 15th, 2004.

This afternoon I got an email from TPM reader MM, pointing to parts of the statement which seemed more specific and definitive than I'd let on. I didn't remember those parts of the statement. So I went back and read it again. And when I did I realized that the statement had changed.

Yet, it's not listed as a new statement. It still carries the same May 15th, 2004 date, implying that the current version of the statement at the DOD website is the one that ran originally.

Specifically, the revised version adds a new first sentence and a new final sentence, both of which appear to go further in denying Hersh's claims than did the original.

Now, I didn't copy the original. But GlobalSecurity.org did copy it. So you can compare the original archived at their website and the new embroidered version, both carrying the same post date.

To follow up on this afternoon's post, various news outlets are reporting that the Pentagon steadfastly, firmly, or -- put in your tough-sounding adverb here -- denied the claims Sy Hersh makes in his new piece in The New Yorker.

But read the actual statement by Pentagon Spokesman Larry Di Rita, posted at the Pentagon website. This is not a denial of anything. It's a classic non-denial denial -- a bunch of aggressive phrases strung together to sound like a denial without actually denying anything.

The one thing Di Rita terms an error is, I believe, largely a matter of semantics rather than one of substance.

I don't fault Di Rita. This program Hersh says exists is even more secret than the normal classification system allows. So even if Di Rita had wanted to come out and say Hersh got everything right, he probably couldn't.

But reporters who characterize Di Rita's words for their readers should read them a bit more closely before describing them as any sort of blanket denial.

People who analyze polling data will often take a group of polls, toss out the outliers on either side, and then focus on the cluster of data in the middle which seems overlapping and confirming.

A similar procedure seems in order with the various information we're getting about the situation at the Abu Ghraib prison. All attention is now focused, and rightly focused, on Sy Hersh's latest installment (who says there are no second acts?) on the story in The New Yorker, in which he reports that the situation at Abu Ghraib was the result of a highly-secret 'black operation' intended for use against select, high-value al Qaida operatives, which tumbled out of control when expanded for use against the Iraqi insurgency -- which Pentagon and administration officials were understandably desperate to get under control.

Then there is another important Newsweek article which quotes a memo White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales wrote to the president in January 2002, saying the following: "As you have said, the war against terrorism is a new kind of war. The nature of the new war places a high premium on other factors, such as the ability to quickly obtain information from captured terrorists and their sponsors in order to avoid further atrocities against American civilians ... In my judgment, this new paradigm renders obsolete Geneva's strict limitations on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders quaint some of its provisions."

I've been away from regular Internet connectivity for the last couple days (one of the reasons for the lack of posts) so I haven't had the chance to dig into the rest of the news coverage in quite the depth I'd like to. And I think we'll need to wait a few days, and for follow-ups from other sources, to render a full judgment on Hersh's piece. (Rumsfeld spokesman Larry Di Rita's widely-quoted statement -- "Assertions apparently being made in the latest New Yorker article on Abu Ghraib and the abuse of Iraqi detainees are outlandish, conspiratorial, and filled with error and anonymous conjecture." -- isn't a denial, it's splutter -- a classic non-denial denial.)

But to go back to my analogy about analyzing polls, even if we set aside the issue of whether there was this specific black operation -- noted by Hersh -- the basic story seems more and more clear, and increasingly confirmed from multiple sources. That is, that irregular methods originally approved for use against al Qaida terrorists who had just recently landed a devastating blow against the US, were later expanded (by which mix of urgency, desperation, reason, bad values or hubris remains to be determined) to the prosecution of the insurgency in Iraq.

In the words recently attributed to Gen. Miller, they Gitmo-ized the counterinsurgency operation in Iraq.

In other words, methods approved for use against the worst and most dangerous terrorists spread -- like ink through tissue paper -- to other military theaters that were, at best, only tangentially related to the war on terror. And this, I think we can say, is tied to the boundless, amorphous and ever-expanding definition which the administration has given to the war on terror.

Reed Irvine-in-Chief?

This is a passage from Tuesday's Washington Times, which is itself an excerpt from Bill Sammon's new insider account of the Bush presidency, Misunderestimated: The President Battles Terrorism, John Kerry and the Bush Haters. (emphasis added)

"I get the newspapers — the New York Times, The Washington Times, The Washington Post and USA Today — those are the four papers delivered," he said. "I can scan a front page, and if there is a particular story of interest, I'll skim it."

The president prides himself on his ability to detect bias in ostensibly objective news stories.

"My antennae are finely attuned," he said. "I can figure out what so-called 'news' pieces are going to be full of opinion, as opposed to news. So I'm keenly aware of what's in the papers, kind of the issue du jour. But I'm also aware of the facts."

Those facts are extracted from news stories each day and presented to the president by a half-dozen aides, Mr. Card among them.

"Since I'm the first one to see him in the morning, I usually give him a quick overview and get a little reaction from him," Mr. Card explained. "Frequently, I find that his reaction kind of reflects [first lady] Laura Bush's take."

Indeed, the president often cites articles that Mrs. Bush flags for greater scrutiny, even when he has not personally slogged through those stories. Mrs. Bush routinely delves more deeply into the news pages than her husband, who prefers other sections.

"He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day," Mr. Card said with a chuckle.

'A clear outlook'

Mr. Bush thinks that immersing himself in voluminous, mostly liberal-leaning news coverage might cloud his thinking and even hinder his efforts to remain an optimistic leader.

"I like to have a clear outlook," he said. "It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true."

What strikes me about this isn't the stuff <$Ad$>about the First Lady or the skimming of articles. It's that, at least from his self-presentation, the president seems to see his news reading largely, if not entirely, as an exercise in detecting liberal media bias. That, and he seems to see shielding himself from opposing viewpoints as a key to maintaining what he calls a "clear outlook" and what Sammon refers to as being an "optimistic leader".

I guess we can all relate to this, can't we?

How 'frustrating' it is to have to listen to "somebody's false opinion or somebody's characterization, which simply isn't true" (i.e., information that contradicts our assumptions and viewpoints)?

It (i.e., critical thinking) really gets in the way of having a "clear outlook", right?

Now, certainly no one is perfect when it comes to subjecting and then resubjecting their viewpoints to fresh facts or challenging their assumptions with intelligently stated contrary views. I can't claim to be. But it's one thing to fall short of the mark and another to work out a system of self-rationalization and denial to ensure you come nowhere near the mark. And this is it in spades.

He doesn't even need the yes-men who "extract" the "facts" from the news articles. He's his own built-in yes-man.

How could we have ignored so many warnings, so much expert advice, so many facts staring us in the face? The president just gave you the answer.

You know Marc Racicot's reputation as a liar is <$NoAd$>getting pretty widespread when the Post walks its readers through something like this ...

The Bush campaign has repeatedly accused the senator of "politicizing" Iraq. Bush-Cheney chairman Marc Racicot told reporters Wednesday that Kerry is relentlessly "playing politics" and exploiting tragedy for political gain.

Racicot, for instance, told reporters that Kerry suggested that 150,000 or so U.S. troops are "somehow universally responsible" for the misdeeds of a small number of American soldiers and contractors. Racicot made several variations of this charge. But Kerry never said this, or anything like it.

As evidence, Racicot pointed to the following quote Kerry made at a fundraiser on Tuesday: "What has happened is not just something that a few a privates or corporals or sergeants engaged in. This is something that comes out of an attitude about the rights of prisoners of war, it's an attitude that comes out of America's overall arrogance in its policy that is alienating countries all around the world."

What Racicot did not mention was that Kerry preceded this remark by saying, "I know that what happened over there is not the behavior of 99.9 percent of our troops."

Hats off to Jim VandeHei, the author of the piece, though Racicot has been at this for months.

An exchange with a reader<$NoAd$> ...

Josh-- I've been reading your blog now for some time, and while I'm in school and have no money now, I was fully intending on donating as soon as I could. The past few days though I've realized that I won't be donating and I won't be reading your site anymore. I am very disappointed that you've written nothing on the execution of an American citizen in Iraq by what looks to be al quada. I didn't expect much, but the fact that you've gone on a rant over Sen. Inhofe's comments (which is probably appropriate) and continued your assault on the the president and have neglected to give even one line to this guy who was brutally slain for being one of us just sickens me. I didn't always agree with you, but I respected what you wrote and enjoyed reading what you had to say, but not anymore. I know this is hardly a 'blow' to your site as I'm sure readers come and go all the time, but I just thought maybe you'd appreciate some respectful feedback.

Anyway, good luck with your site, I'm sure you will do very well in the coming years. Ellis D.


You've just misjudged how I run the site and why I do so. I don't write about everything I think. I don't write just to say that X is good or Y is bad. I write when I feel I have something I can add to a discussion, and only then. I could write a post saying that I thought Berg's execution was horrifying and awful and that I couldn't get to sleep last night because the ugliness of the images wouldn't leave my mind. But what would that tell you? That al Qaida is awful and that I think they're awful too? Perhaps I simply have nothing to add. The online world has lots of vociferous me-too-ism, going on record saying in fist-clenched tones things I think we all know we all feel. That's fine; I just don't like doing that. Once, when I wrote nothing about a rapid series of court decisions touching on gay rights issues, one reader wrote in and attacked me mercilessly for being homophobic since clearly, he reasoned, I had judged these to be of no importance. He was wrong; and you've made the same misjudgment. This isn't a publication of record. And you're not in a position to judge what I think based on my silence.