Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

"White House press secretary Scott McClellan declined to say Monday whether President Bush thinks his aides should sign forms that would release reporters from any pledges of confidentiality regarding the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame."

That's the lede from Mike Allen's piece in tomorrow's Post.

The invaluable Chris Nelson, on the latest on the North Korea front, in this evening's Nelson Report ...

1. The current "news" is that, first, N. Korea says it won't come back to the 6-party talks until it gets financial inducements which the U.S. continues to say it won't approve; and, second, two private U.S. delegations are in and/or enroute to North Korea, and that the White House did not stop them, as it did policy critic and Congressman Kurt Weldon (R-Pa.) last year.

-- more on the 6 party talks later. Apparently in N. Korea is a group including former State Dept. negotiator Amb. Chuck Pritchard, now of Brookings, who was basically pushed out of the DPRK liaison slot by Vice President Cheney's office, with help from Undersecretary of State John Bolton.

2. Expected to arrive soon is a Congressional "staff del" on behalf of Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Richard Lugar (Keith Luse) and Ranking Dem Joe Biden (Frank Jannuzi), on a reprise of their private mission of last summer.

-- critics point out that what Luse, Jannuzi and Pritchard have in common, and what puts them in the "untrustworthy" category for Administration hard liners, is that all three have extensive, face-to-face experience talking with senior N. Korean officials about the issues which the hardliners claim are so mysterious.

3. Initial press accounts tried to reflect ROK Government optimism that by allowing the two missions, the White House was sending a covert "signal" of a more open attitude toward dealing with the DPRK…but any such spin was firmly shot down over the weekend.

-- it's significant that "pro-engagement" sources reinforce the initial statement by State's Adam Ereli that while State holds the Congressional staff delegation in the highest personal and professional regard, they frankly see more risk than opportunity from the visit: "Certainly any efforts that complicate prospects or undertakings to reconvene the six-party talks and to achieve forward movement in dismantling North Korea's nuclear program aren't helpful".

4. Today, a highly placed source explains, "The Administration is always concerned when the DPRK seems to want to negate the 6-party talks mechanism and pursue separate channels, particularly with American groups. We think the opportunities for mischief in this are neither remote nor small, and I say that with full respect for Messrs Luse and Jannuzi…".

-- following up on Ereli's official remarks last Friday, this source elaborates: "Contrary to the [initial press coverage of the two delegations] neither…goes with any approval, mandate, briefings or message from the Administration."

5. On the 6 Party talks, Russia and China today apparently failed to come up with compromise language which would allow a resumption, which they now concede would not be until February, at the earliest.

-- Russia/China tried to take up the long-standing DPRK offer of a "freeze" on its nuclear activities, but seem to have run headlong into today's reiteration by Pyongyang that it wants to be paid…this, despite President Bush's prompt rejection of a freeze during the U.S./China summit, followed by a the mid-December reiteration of the hardliner position that Pyongyang must agree to "irreversible" dismantling of its nuclear programs.

6. Sources confirm press stories from Dec. 19 that Vice President Cheney continues to play a critical role in enforcing a hard line, something that Amb. Pritchard has charged repeatedly, since retiring from the State Department.

-- according to involved players, Cheney led the way in rejecting an earlier Chinese compromise effort, although his concern was portrayed as more tactical than strategic. Cheney insisted that a press statement prior to any 6-party resumption would have to contain the "mantra" about "irreversible" etc.

7. Informed engager sources concede that while no one can object to the goal, Cheney's requirement that China and the other participants agree in advance in a pre-negotiation press statement "was enough to block any chance of coming to the table at this point."

With these late details in mind, see this piece by Fred <$Ad$>Kaplan in today's Slate.

Last week, administration boosters (either misunderstanding or intentionally distorting)made out as though the departure of this delegation was a sign that the NKs were folding in the face of Saddam's capture and the general success of regime change in Iraq.

The truth is rather different. As we've noted in these pages before, for roughly a year now, the administration has been walking back from its own policy toward North Korea -- first holding negotiations it said it would never hold, then broaching security assurances it said it would never guarantee, and then -- contrary to previous statements -- offering the prospect of new aid even before comprehensive disarmament.

The movement hasn't been linear or clean -- more like a series of wiggly gyres. But the overall direction has been fairly clear. The question now is whether the White House can ditch its failed policy once and for all and begin to move forward.

Oh what a difference having a dog in the fight makes ...

A few days ago the Post's Mike Allen got Victoria "typical Washington talk" Toensing to let us in on the Plame perps' 'we didn't know she was covert' legal strategy. Well, it seems Victoria was a little more hard core on the leak front before her friends (or clients?) got their hands caught in the cookie jar.

Back on September 9th 2001 she penned a piece in Post called "They Call It a Leak. I Call It a Crime."

"The leak must be investigated fully," Toensing bellowed, "if the law has any meaning. If that requires subpoenaing a reporter's phone records, so be it."

Phew! I'm pretty leery of busting up or subpoenaing the reporters in this case (an issue we'll go into further in a later post). But daaayyyuumm! That Victoria, I mean, you go girl!

In truth, of course, calling this a 'leak' is simply the way that those who want to hide or ignore this incident use to diminish its significance. The leak was only the mechanism by which the crime took place. Sort of like the Rosenberg leak or Rick Ames' leaks ...

As consequential? No. With the same treasonous intent? Of course not. But reckless indifference to national security isn't a defense, just another explanation for the crime. And as the Republicans got so fond of saying back in the 1990s: the law is the law.

The Iowa primary debate seemed a generally tepid affair -- it's finishing up right now. But Howard Dean signed on the dotted line of party loyalty and got the rest of the candidates on the stage to do the same. Good for all of them. Let's watch see that each sticks to it.

Fortune magazine has just published an interview with famed management guru Peter Drucker, whose expertise, of course, stretches into law, finance, international economics and foreign affairs. (Unfortunately, it's subscription only.) Here's one passage worth noting.

Look particularly at Drucker's comments on India and China.

FORTUNE: You sound fairly sanguine about the state of the U.S. economy. Do you see any danger signs?

DRUCKER: Oh, yes. The biggest problem I see is our total dependence on foreign money to cover our government debt. Never before has a major debtor country owed its debt in its own currency. It is unprecedented in economic history. Japan, by contrast, owes all its foreign debt in dollars. Now if you devalue the dollar, the Japanese economy benefits, because their imports become much cheaper. And the value of their debt goes down also. The individual Japanese companies that invest in dollars would lose, but the overall Japanese economy gains. But we have no experience about what will happen here when we owe so much debt in our own currency and we're forced to devalue the dollar. Sooner or later, we're going to find out.

What's more, there is an enormous amount of surplus capital in the world for which there is no productive investment. The supply greatly exceeds the demand. So there is a very jittery body of excess money that is desperately in need of returns, and it could become panic-prone. We have no economic theory or model for this.

FORTUNE: Does the U.S. still set the tone for the world economy?

DRUCKER: The dominance of the U.S. is already over. What is emerging is a world economy of blocs represented by NAFTA, the European Union, ASEAN. There's no one center in this world economy. India is becoming a powerhouse very fast. The medical school in New Delhi is now perhaps the best in the world. And the technical graduates of the Institute of Technology in Bangalore are as good as any in the world. Also, India has 150 million people for whom English is their main language. So India is indeed becoming a knowledge center.

In contrast, the greatest weakness of China is its incredibly small proportion of educated people. China has only 1.5 million college students, out of a total population of over 1.3 billion. If they had the American proportion, they'd have 12 million or more in college. Those who are educated are well trained, but there are so few of them. And then there is the enormous undeveloped hinterland with excess rural population. Yes, that means there is enormous manufacturing potential. In China, however, the likelihood of the absorption of rural workers into the cities without upheaval seems very dubious. You don't have that problem in India because they have already done an amazing job of absorbing excess rural population into the cities--its rural population has gone from 90% to 54% without any upheaval.

Everybody says China has 8% growth and India only 3%, but that is a total misconception. We don't really know. I think India's progress is far more impressive than China's.

If Drucker is right (and<$Ad$> I've always been in the camp that agrees with his general point with regards to India and China), that has vast and in most cases positive implications for America's posture across the globe. With respect to China. With respect to Pakistan. And in many other places as well.

Think how much of our broad, long-range foreign policy thinking rests on the premise that China is the rising economic and military power? What if the premise is wrong? Or what if India, nearly as large a country in population terms, is another rising behemoth? Then consider too that India is a democracy, albeit an imperfect one. It's also a rule of law based society -- again, if an imperfect one. And it's a country with hundreds of millions of English speakers and, according to Drucker, 150 million speak it as their primary language. (Update: As this page shows, Drucker's statement in this case is certainly incorrect. Only about 20 million Indians speak English as their native language. A number between 150 and 200 million properly refers to fluent English speakers.)

This is not a partisan issue in American politics, or needn't be. President Clinton began an opening to India in the 1990s and it's been continued under President Bush.

We'll return to this issue.

I'm gearing up to go to New Hampshire later this month (ten days of on-the-ground blog reporting up until primary day), lining up interviews and meetings and so forth. So I wanted to share some sense of what the campaign looks like to me right now.

As nearly as I can tell, the race has four moving parts right now: Clark, Dean, Gephardt and Kerry. And the four candidates are in motion like the interlocking pieces of a clock, each affecting the other in multidimensional ways.

Look for instance, at the American Research Group New Hampshire tracking poll. To the best of my knowledge, ARG is the only outfit currently running a public daily tracking poll.

Going back to the day after Christmas, there are three candidates consistently over 5%: Clark, Dean and Kerry. Clark and Dean have been strikingly consistent over the ten day period, with Clark at 12/13% and Dean at 37%.

(In the last two days, Dean has hit 38% and then 39%. But it's too early to see if that's a trend.)

The one clear trend line is a slow deterioration for Kerry. He started at 19% percent and went down a point each day until he settled at 14%.

Tracking polls are notoriously volatile. And the sample sizes are small. But I think there's consistent enough downward movement there to say something is happening.

Yet, this downdraft is not inconsistent with Kerry's strategy, as I understand it. Or, more accurately, not something they haven't accounted for.

Kerry is making a renewed and intense push in Iowa, figuring that he can't restart his campaign in New Hampshire and has to look for a springboard elsewhere.

I haven't seen any recent polls out of Iowa. But anecdotal reports say he's making some progress and gathering some steam there. The press will need some unexpected story out of Iowa in a couple weeks. And if Kerry surpasses whatever his expectations threshold is there, then he could be the story of the week going into New Hampshire, quite possibly reversing the deterioration which is now so evident there. It's the electoral equivalent of a very long hail mary pass.

But where is that threshold? It's hard to see how a Kerry surge in Iowa could be anything but a footnote unless he actually comes in second. And that seems hard to figure.

But where is that threshold? That's a key question.

Another data point that stands out in the ARG numbers is Clark. Though Kerry is falling, Clark seems to be locked in at 12% or 13%. If Kerry falls far enough in New Hampshire, then it really will be a Dean/Clark race.

But that will be by default. With all the other candidates save these three polling so poorly in New Hampshire, and with Kerry slipping, you'd really expect Clark to be gaining at least some ground. But at least by the evidence of the ARG poll, he's not.

Again, we're dealing with limited data here: one tracking poll. But Clark's putting lots of resources into the state now. If Kerry's decline doesn't reverse, when does he start to move? And if not, why not?

Then we have Dick Gephardt, for whom everything is Iowa. Like Kerry, he's looking for that Iowa leverage to propel him into a two-man race with Howard Dean. On TV this morning The Des Moines Register's David Yepsen (the 'wise man' of the Iowa caucuses) gave the impression that there is still a very real race in Iowa.

He also seemed to say that the mix of attacks and stumbles over the last month hasn't hurt Dean, in the sense of eroding his support, but has for the moment at least arrested any further gains. With a large pool of undecideds, that's important.

Dean's strategy here is the most straightforward: run down the clock. Get through both of these primaries with solid wins, prevent any of the other three candidates from significantly exceeding expectations, and end January with so much momentum than even the opposing candidate in the inevitable two-man race simply can't catch up.

One final thought: an interesting strategic question.

Would Clark gain more from a solid Iowa victory for Dean which effectively ended Gephardt's and Kerry's candidacies (thus forcing a two-man race by default) or by one of the other candidates breaking out, thus knocking Dean significantly off his stride?

With no little interest this morning I tuned in Fox News Sunday, which is now hosted by Chris Wallace. What will it be like, I wondered, to have the Fox Show hosted by a straight-up journalist, rather than a Movement Conservative who takes to Fox's silly conservative slant and Democratic-bashing like mother's milk?

Alas ... They didn't leave me wondering for long. It turns out it doesn't make any difference. His interview with (aka ambush of) Steve Grossman (who's now Dean's national campaign co-chair) was truly shameless, all but a caricature of the Fox MO.

This is really classic Bush.

Look at the first couple grafs of tomorrow's Times article on the roll-out of President Bush's 2005 budget ...

Facing a record budget deficit, Bush administration officials say they have drafted an election-year budget that will rein in the growth of domestic spending without alienating politically influential constituencies.

They said the president's proposed budget for the 2005 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, would control the rising cost of housing vouchers for the poor, require some veterans to pay more for health care, slow the growth in spending on biomedical research and merge or eliminate some job training and employment programs. The moves are intended to trim the programs without damaging any essential services, the administration said.

Where to start?

First of all it's nice <$Ad$> to see that we're apparently beyond the need to pretend that the calculus here is anything but electoral -- i.e., finding cuts in spending "without alienating politically influential constituencies."

And what are the cuts?

It sounds to me like it's a combination of cuts to groups with no ability to push back politically (working poor and sick veterans) and cuts that won't show up with visible ill effects until years later.

Like the cuts in biomedical research.

If we weren't all immortal now, I'd say that's a bit of a shortsighted way to save money, no?

And job training -- always a good place to cut in a period when high-skilled jobs are getting sent to India and China.

Look, certainly not everyone will agree with the policy priorities implicit in the criticisms and jabs above.

But it's very hard to look at this budget -- or the outlines of it -- and not see this as a few relatively minor cuts (judged in comparison to the oceans of red inks we're now swimming in), picked for almost exclusively electoral reasons, after the president has as recently as this past year pushed through still more tax cuts and major new spending programs.

The contrast with the Clinton budgets is instructive and, truth be told, almost comical.

Say what you will about the policies behind spending priorities in the Clinton administration. But policy (either inspired or misguided) played a key role in shaping budgeting decisions. This, on the other, is pure politics.

How do we push the budget discipline issue without pressuring any of our interest groups (for whom we've been looting the fisc for the last couple years) and do it in a way that the consequences won't be clear until we're well into the second term?

Sort of the definition of forward-looking leadership.

As Bertrand Russell's little old lady might have said, it's politics all the way down.

Things are seldom as they appear on the surface. And the Plame matter is a case in point.

At the moment the discussion is about whether the doers can beat the rap. (Did the person at the White House know she was covert, etc.?)

(Along those lines, here's a question worth asking. Has Victoria Toensing or, more importantly, her husband and legal partner in their criminal defense firm, Joe diGenova, taken on any clients who might be targets in the Plame probe?)

But that's not the issue and it never has been. At least it hasn't been since very early on. Because the basic facts of the matter have been in plain sight from the beginning. And whether an aide to the president is indicted or goes to prison is largely an issue for that particular person.

The issue here -- from the beginning, and now to the end -- is whether the president accepts such behavior and what the standard operating procedure in the Bush White House is: Do you punish a political opponent by attacking his family if it means exposing one of the country's covert intelligence operatives and breaking the law?

That's a pretty straightforward standard. And by all the available evidence this White House considers it acceptable behavior.

Why do I say this?

From the start it's been clear what the essential facts are -- who did what. If the White House didn't know, it would have been a simple matter for the president to find out. And as I noted in the previous post, we now know that they did know who the people were from the beginning -- since they knew who to issue non-denial-denials for.

Now, just for the sake of the conversation, let's say that the perp didn't know Plame was covert. As I've discussed previously, there are many reasons why this is extremely unlikely. But let's say it's so. If that's the case, it would become an issue of manifest negligence and recklessness that should in itself qualify as a firing offense.

Again, a hypothetical.

Let's say the leaker ... and well, hold on. We don't know the person's or persons' name. So let's assign them a nickname to use as a placeholder. Let's call the person Hopper.

Ok, so back to the leaker.

Let's say Hopper just knew that Joe Wilson's wife was involved at CIA doing some work on the WMD front (remember, Hopper had to know that, because the accusation was that she had gotten him the uranium gig.) We now know -- or we seem to know -- that Plame was not at that point involved in any particular operations the exposure of which would have led to immediate and grave harm to national security or a threat to her life. But if Hopper only knew vaguely that she was at CIA and working on WMD stuff, then it was possible she was abroad and in danger if her name was exposed. Or, more to the point, she might have been involved in a covert operation trying to shutdown a shipment of weapons-grade uranium from Pakistan to al Qaida terrorists in Yemen. Or perhaps the front energy company she worked for was involved in ferreting out a uranium shipment from the Russian mafia to al Qaida operatives in Hamburg?

Was it likely that at that moment she was working on something so, shall we say, thermonuclear?

No, but WMD, in case you hadn't noticed, is a rather big concern for us at the moment. So before picking up the phone and calling Novak you'd think Hopper might have done a little checking and made sure her exposure as CIA wouldn't cause that much damage, right? Make sure she was just an analyst?

We could play out these hypotheticals ad nauseam of course. But I think the point is clear. As a matter of acceptable behavior, Hopper (or perhaps someone near Hopper ) should go pretty much anyway you slice it. If he spilled the beans on Plame without having any idea what she did in the WMD field, that's almost worse than if he knew just what she was working on.

And yet the White House seems to consider this acceptable behavior. Or at least it's behavior that is tolerated just as long as the perp can figure out a way to avoid criminal possible prosecution, by hook or by crook.

And the White House isn't the only place on the line. Not even the most.

For all who have eyes to see, the White House has made pretty clear where they stand from the beginning. They're going to see if they can brazen it out.

But where does the press stand? Do the big papers put heavy investigative resources on to this? Who's working this story at the Times. Does Mike Allen have to break all the stories? Do the editorial pages care? Does David Broder care? Tim Russert? George?

They're the ones on the line here. The issue of criminal prosecution is almost secondary. What do they think is important? What do they care about? It's been that way from the word go.

But of course ... more from the Neil Bush Files. This time a quick 800 grand on a sweetheart stock deal. And, yes, there is more to come on the Chen-Neil Bush 'summit' and how it came about.

The People's Republic of China: Strategic Competitor, Strategic Partner, or Family Business Partner? An issue for 2004.

More on this soon too ....