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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Thumbing through my host's copy of the latest New Republic, I find the following line in Andrew Sullivan's TRB column: "Not long ago, Democrats claimed they wouldn't agree to any tax cut."

When was that exactly? Al Gore ran on a program of tax cuts. Most Senate Democrats did too. Bush's was much larger. And he'll get one much closer to his liking, at least in terms of size. Gore's were targeted; Bush's weren't. And Bush largely won that argument. (Unless of course you count targeting the bulk of the cuts at the top marginal rate bracket -- but that's another story.) But they were both tax cuts.

Sullivan's point in the column is that a certain degree of BS can serve a benign purpose. ("Yes, some of the time he is full of it on his economic policies. But a certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state.") So don't think so badly of Bush when he fibs. He's got his heart in the right place.

Does Andrew want us to cut him the same slack?

This is very, very strange. Whatever you may think of National Missile Defense (NMD), the idea has very little support outside the United States. The only other country which is open to the idea is America's closest ally, Great Britain.

In fact, a week ago British Prime Minister Tony Blair surprised many by issuing what appeared to be an endorsement of the Bush administration proposal. Later Downing Street backed off in response to fierce criticism from within Blair's ruling Labour Party. The salient point however is that the UK is the closest the US has to a friend on missile defense.

Today, however, The Daily Telegraph, a conservative-leaning British paper, published an interview with Bush administration adviser Richard Perle, in which Perle attacks Blair as "wishy-washy and ambivalent" and "dodging the issue" on NMD.

One more bit of info: Blair's about to kick off Labour's campaign for the parliamentary elections which will be held on June 7th. And these charges of wishy-washiness will certainly be used -- they seem almost designed to be used -- by Blair's Tory opposition.

Now, a few points. The British and American governments simply don't speak to each other like this. It's just not done. During an election campaign it's almost a provocation. True, there is an inherent awkwardness in the relations between the Bush and Blair governments since the Blair and Clinton governments were extraordinarily close -- sharing advisors, consultants, political theorists, various personal friendships, etc. But the bonds between the countries still put this sort of jaw-boning beyond the pale.

What's more striking is the broader context: No one expects Blair to lose this election. Blair has already been bending over backwards to keep the door open to missile defense. And, most important, no one is more open to missile defense than the Brits.

There's simply no logic to this.

What's troubling about this isn't so much that it's mistreating an ally as it shows the continuation or even quickening of two troubling trends in Bush administration foreign policy.

Fist is the over-reliance on braggadocio over diplomacy or policy -- even to the point of isolating us from our closest ally.

Second is the Bushies' increasingly chaotic foreign policy, with what looks very much like administration in-fighting being played out in public in the form of apparent gaffes ("whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan ... then maybe not) and quickly switched policies (sever military ties with China ... no, sorry, drop that).

Isn't this what's happening? Who's in charge here exactly? Who's exercising control? There's only one thing more dangerous than effective and able war-hawks: it's incompetent ones.

Let's be honest: President Bush's apparent passage of a budget outline for a $1.3 trillion tax cut is a very big and very important victory. Only his early insistence on the $1.6 trillion dollar number gives the Democrats some thin reason to crow. But let's not fool ourselves. The president got what he wanted.

This isn't the Democrats fault exactly. They just don't have the votes. But here too let's have a little perspective. President Clinton had a similar moment like this in 1993 when he got his budget outline through Congress. Very hard fought. Big accomplishment, and so forth. But then the Democrats had towering majorities in both chambers. Not George W. Bush. His party essentially has legislative parity in both chambers. So again, don't gainsay the accomplishment.

(There is a sidelight here: Republicans seem to have fiddled with the numbers a bit at the last moment when putting the House and Senate plans together. And now John Breaux and Jim Jeffords are saying they may no longer be on board. But this is quibbling; the big picture is still the same.)

As one friend from the Hill told me last night -- rightly I think -- from this point on the legislative terrain changes quickly in the Democrats' favor. And the president is moving ahead with a raft of ambitious plans which I feel confident will backfire. But the budget is a special kind of victory. It defines the playing field that every other battle gets played on, particularly how much money there is to work with for prescription drugs, Social Security, etc.

So, as I said, let's not fool ourselves. This is an important and, in tactical and strategy terms at least, impressive victory.

If you buy the conventional wisdom, Tom Daschle really has his work cut out for him. Now he's got to coddle nettlesome moderates; he's the one responsible for getting something done. Daschle may get a cooler title come Wednesday morning, the pundits are saying, but being Majority Leader in this fractious, razor-edge Senate will be every bit as trying and thankless for him as it was for Trent Lott.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth.

Unless Daschle manages to screw things up royally he should have a much easier time of it and even be able to have the best of both worlds. The new Republican threat to shut the Senate down unless they get their way on judicial nominations illustrates just one of the reasons why.

Gumming up the works is the chief tool Senate minorities have to get attention for their causes. To get their way on the now-defunct power-sharing deal earlier this year Daschle's Democrats threatened to grind business to a halt if they didn't get their way. But are Republicans really in a position to do that? After all, they are the ones who need the trains to run on time in the Senate - because it's their president who's trying to move his agenda. If the Democrats were shutting things down they might face a backlash from anti-gridlock voters. But if the Republicans are the ones doing the obstructing, why should the Democrats really mind? That stops the Bush agenda in its tracks and has the president's own party taking the blame. That's not a threat; it's a twofer. The new Republican minority enters the legislative fray with one arm fastened firmly behind its backs because their threats of obstruction simply aren't credible in the way Democrats' were.

The Democrats' functional majority is also larger than it appears. Resisting the president's tax cut bill was politically difficult for at least ten Senate Democrats. But that debate's over. The issues likely to dominate the legislative calendar for the rest of the year (patients' bill of rights, prescription drug benefits, campaign finance reform, a minimum wage increase, environment and energy policy) cut into the Republicans' ranks much, much more than the Democrats'. For every John Breaux there are two Olympia Snowes. It's hard to think of one issue likely to come up this year that would put Daschle in the position Bush and Lott faced on … say, campaign finance reform. And Democrats will bring up several bills which will be hard for Republicans from the Northeast and the West to oppose.

Could Bush could pull a Clinton: race to the center, push the Democrats to the left, and reinvent himself as the voters' defender of common sense government? Maybe. But that would leave his presidency looking an awful lot like his father's - and almost certainly touch off a rebellion on the right. Besides, to pull that off, you need an emboldened and ideological opposition on Capitol Hill, like Clinton faced in 1995. And try as they might, it's going to be very hard for Republicans to paint Daschle and Co as some lefty equivalent of Gingrich's Republican Revolutionaries.

Those who believe that Daschle's going to have a tough go of it assume that he'll face pressure from the public and especially from his liberal Democrats to move significant legislation. But that's just false. With the White House and the House firmly in Republican plans, there's really no chance Daschle will be able to push through any significant legislation on his own. And, frankly, no one expects him to. What he can do, though, is bring up piece after piece of popular legislation which the president and his party are against and force them to oppose (and hurt their public standing) or go along (and inflame their constituencies). In other words, he can obstruct bringing up popular legislation Republicans are sure to oppose.

Daschle's goal for the next eighteen months is to thwart the president's program and score points for the 2002 midterms. The only question is whether he gets tagged as an obstructionist for doing so; and the political dynamics of the moment make that unlikely. Few positions in government give you the opportunity to have your cake and eat it too; but Daschle's new post comes pretty damn close.

I really didn't want to get into this Drudge/Blumenthal story again. But this new line being pushed by Drudge and echoed by Andrew Sullivan -- that the mainstream media is not reporting Drudge's 'vindication' -- really deserves some response.

What vindication? Obviously Drudge is going to crow about having extracted $2500 from Blumenthal. (Actually, the money went to Drudge's lawyer, Manny Klausner.) And it must have been mortifying for Sid to have to close this thing down with even a nominal payment to the other side. But, that aside, what vindication?

Drudge's story was a complete fabrication. And he published it with no evidence beside the word of a self-interested party with a clear agenda. These are simply the facts in evidence which even Drudge conceded. It was self-evidently libelous. But libel law is rightly limited in this country and the cases are extremely difficult to win. Drudge's side had limitless money and Blumenthal's didn't. So he washed his hands of it.

I'd much rather he'd wrested an apology from Drudge. But it's his life, his pocket book, not mine.

So, again, what vindication? Drudge fought off a suit. But he was wrong, and egregiously so. How is it exactly that he's vindicated.

Stop the 'right-wingers never get a fair shake' whining already.

Everybody on Wall Street is waiting for tomorrow morning's release of the new unemployment numbers. And most don't think it's going to be pretty and thus the market slid today in anticipation.

But what if you could get the numbers ahead of time and make gob's of money with the insider knowledge? Turns out I've thought the whole thing through and this article in Slate even gives some pointers.

Yes, yes, yes. Just doing my part to erode trust in public institutions.

As you've no doubt heard by now former Presidential Aide Sid Blumenthal yesterday agreed to drop his libel suit against Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report and also agreed to pay $2500 to one of Drudge's lawyers, Manny Klausner, to reimburse him for travel expenses. The travel expenses were to attend a deposition conducted by Blumenthal's lawyers -- a deposition in which the person to be deposed ended up not showing up.

Now, as you probably already know, I am anything but a neutral observer of this whole case. And I don't pretend to be unbiased.

Having said all that, however, I couldn't help but respond to what Andrew Sullivan said about the denouement of this case on his site today, basically arguing that Blumenthal was wrong to ever file his suit in the first place.

As as journalist - especially as one that runs a vaguely-Drudge-like website - I'm not a fan of libel suits. Journalists are supposed to be against them as a rule. I always felt a bit conflicted even about this one. I shudder to think, for instance, of getting sued for millions of dollars because someone gives me a bad tip and I print it. Then again I don't think I would post something so damaging with no evidence.

(Only my utter lack of any assets to lose gives me some small solace.)

But I have to say that I think Blumenthal really had no choice but to file this suit.

When someone says person X is guilty of beating his wife, do you believe them? Obviously, it depends on who's being charged and who's making the charge. But even if you figure it's not true I think the undeniable reality is that after such a charge is made most of us figure, well ... I maybe 5% believe it. Probably no, but who knows? Where there's smoke, there's fire. And so forth.

Isn't this true?

Even after Drudge took back the allegation and apologized, I think that still applies. Because you figure, well ... maybe there was something to it, but he got sued and he didn't have hard evidence to prove it, so he folded his cards.

I don't know that there was any way for Blumenthal truly to clear his name beyond doggedly pursuing this case -- a process which would of course allow Drudge's attorneys to conduct extensive depositions and discovery, and find any evidence of abuse, if there was any to be found.

So that's point number one.

There's also a tendency I think to downplay, or forget, or make light of just how scurrilous and damaging a charge this was. As a liberal political journalist, and then as an appointee to the president who signed the Violence Against Women Act it's just not too much to say that this charge would have destroyed Blumenthal, and made him a political untouchable. No question.

Obviously too, the charge itself must have caused intense anguish, and mortification, and embarrassment to Blumenthal, his wife, and the rest of his family -- notwithstanding the fact that the charge wasn't true. Imagine the awkward conversations with colleagues. Friends who might actually wonder if it's true.

Yuck. It's a mess.

Would it really have been so hard for Drudge to apologize for this? Yes, I know he took at it all back when it first happened. But what about a formal apology to settle the case and just make clear once and for all that there was nothing to it?

(Special Alert: TPM Exclusive Coming)

Actually, in early April the two parties were apparently negotiating just such a conclusion to the case -- something which I don't believe has yet been reported. Blumenthal's lawyers proposed Drudge issue such an apology and make a small contribution to an organization dedicated to the issue of violence against women. The two sides negotiated with the judge and the judge drew up a letter for Drudge to sign.

Let me quote from the letter (a copy of which I have in my possession) dated April 12, 2001, written by the judge, John M. Facciola. In this section Facciola writes out a suggested letter of apology by Drudge to Blumenthal:

On August 12, 1997, I published in the Drudge Report a story which stated that Sidney Blumenthal had a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up. The Report quoted an influential, anonymous Republican who stated that there were court records of Blumenthal's violence against his wife.

I now appreciate that the sources who provided me with this information were advancing a political agenda and that there is no information whatsoever to support their accusations. I am not aware of any information whatsoever that Mr. Blumenthal has ever struck his wife, and I was not aware of any such information before I published the statement on the Drudge Report, other than the assertions made by my sources. I acknowledge that no information has emerged since I published the story to substantiate what the sources told me.

I appreciate how the story could have caused Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal anguish and distress. I sincerely regret it did so.

Drudge apparently tentatively agreed to such a settlement; Blumenthal's side agreed. But then Drudge changed his mind and refused to sign.

And after all this, Drudge basically repeated the libel by implying on his website that Blumenthal had settled the suit because Drudge was about to depose some secret, damning witness.

Really, really low.

So, yeah, libel suits are dangerous things. And pretty scary things for the editors of Talking Points. But let's see this whole thing in perspective.

P.S. Next up TPM gets back his sense of humor and gets back to the normal fare.

In one of his recent college classes, Al Gore apparently told his students that he had never spoken to Bob Woodward about a particular meeting between Bill Clinton and himself which appeared in Woodward's book The Choice. Gore told the students that it was his understanding that Clinton hadn't spoken to Woodward either.

The implication being of course that Woodward had reconstructed the conversation rather than basing it upon one of the participants' first person accounts. According to one of students present, Gore "found it of concern that a prominent journalist would reconstruct a meal and a conversation."

As the Times recounts the story, Woodward responded thus ...

Mr. Woodward, however, said last week: "It is not fictional. He talked."

Twice, the journalist said, he met with Mr. Gore for interviews in April 1996. Of Mr. Gore's remarks to the class, Mr. Woodward said: "It is very sad. But it teaches you to never put away your Al Gore file."

In other words, based on the accounts of Gore's remarks as related by students present, Woodward said that Gore had talked to him, and Gore was lying.

Let's assume that Gore did talk to him. Was Woodward within his rights to respond in this way? Wouldn't it have been more appropriate for him to say that he stood by his account and that he was relying on a first person recollection -- thus leaving the identity of that person unspoken, and preserving his confidence? This would cover his journalistic integrity and his responsibility to his sources.

Of course, this entirely leaves aside the possibility (which I'm more inclined to believe) that Gore is telling the truth. And that Woodward is tossing aside the rule book to cover his own ass.

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