Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

I can't tell you yet what I thought of the Democratic presidential debate because I haven't seen it yet. I'm watching the taped version on MSNBC in a few minutes. But let me say a few things about this issue of Clark and the Republican party.

I went back and looked in the Nexis database to get a sense of what people were saying in 2001 --- that is to say, before people had any interest in spinning one way or another. Also mixed in is my sense of the situation from watching Clark since the Kosovo War in 1999 and more closely since Clark wrote Waging Modern War in the summer of 2001.

So here's my sense of this.

Clark moved back to Arkansas after leaving the Army to get into business and make some money and in all likelihood to get into politics. He got politically involved and basically kept people guessing. Republican scuttlebutt had him running for office as a Republican; Democratic scuttlebutt had him running as a Democrat. He gave this speech to a Pulaski County Republican Committee dinner. But a little context from a May 20th, 2001 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette …

Pulaski County Committee Chairman Greg Racicot invited Wesley Clark as keynote speaker. Former supreme allied commander in Europe and leader of NATO during the recent Kosovo campaign, Clark now lives in Little Rock and works in high-technology venture capital at Stephens Inc. A hot-ticket guest speaker, Clark plans a similar appearance before the Democrats, his wife, Gert, confided.

Then when everyone was sure he was going to run for something, he signed on as a CNN military analyst in late August 2001. Here's a blurb from the time in US News' Washington Whispers …

Just when Arkansas political bigs figured that local-boy-done-good Wesley Clark was set to make a bid for public office, he's surprised them all by signing on as a military and current affairs analyst with CNN, Whispers learns. Clark, a retired Army general who was one of the U.S. military bosses in Bosnia, is expected to be a regular on the cable network as it scrambles to recover viewers who've switched to Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Since retiring, Clark has been a fixture on the Arkansas political trail, speaking at key events normally reserved for campaigning pols. That's led most state politicians to assume he's planning to run for Senate or governor. Clark, however, keeps them guessing. And not just about his future: folks don't even know if he's a Republican or Democrat.

(Signing on as a military policy analyst for CNN a couple weeks before 9/11 does seem to signal an uncanny sense of timing, but I'll leave that for another time.)

Now my sense of Clark's political direction goes like this. I take Clark at his word that he was simply not a partisan when he was in the military. (Spencer Ackerman -- he of busting the WMD intel story wide open fame -- has a really good article in the new New Republic discrediting the idea that Clark was somehow Clinton's crony or one of the 'Clinton generals.' I strongly recommend Spencer's piece.) And as late as May 2001 he was not above saying kind words about the president's foreign policy team. But at the same time, during the first half of 2001, he was writing a book that was very much at odds with the president's foreign policy, in some cases explicitly so. And I think if you read the things Clark was saying as a commentator you can see him getting increasingly disenchanted with the radical direction President Bush was taking the nation's foreign policy in. You can see some signs of this at the very beginning of the administration, as in this exchange from February 2001 on MSNBC, and then progressively more so over time …

HOLT: General, I know this is a political question. But if we knew he had weapons of mass destruction and knew where they were, would you advise an air strike against those sites?

CLARK: Well, I think we're watching this at all times. And I think that the administration will look for that.

You know, we did the Desert Fox strikes two years ago because we thought that he had not agreed to the inspection visit. We knew where some of these weapons of mass destruction facilities were, and we took them out.

And if I were Saddam Hussein, I'd be quite concerned. If he's trying to do this again, he should expect that America and its allies will take the appropriate actions.

HOLT: Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, two names we associate with the Gulf War, now in big leadership positions. Do you think that will change, create more tension, perhaps bring the coalition as we knew it back together?

CLARK: Well, I think that we've got a very effective foreign policy team in this administration. I think they're going to do the right things.

But I think they're going to have to go into the Middle East, work with the allies there, go through the Persian Gulf and talk to people and get their feet on the ground first before they start making major moves.

A good piece I've found on Clark during this period is a column that Jim Pinkerton wrote in Newsday in July 2001. It's about Clark's book, but also about his views of the early stages of President's Bush's foreign policy.

Now, one final point. There's this idea afoot that Clark got into the Democratic party out of some sort of opportunism, and that this happened after 9/11. Frankly, this makes no sense. Is there really any time over the last two years that getting into the Democratic party would have seemed like a good way to get into office or advance politically? Particularly in a state like Arkansas which has been trending Republican? I mean, sad to say, but I don't see it. At the moment, President Bush is looking weaker and weaker. But that's pretty recent. Clark is clearly new to the Democratic party on many levels. But as explanations go, this strikes me as an awfully weak one.

Check out this article by UPI's Eli Lake on the growing split between the US and the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council (IGC), particularly as that rift came out into the open in New York this week.

This question has so many moving parts -- who should have authority over the ministries, who doles out the contracts, whether the IGC really has that much more legitimacy than Bremer -- that it's awfully hard to make heads or tails of. But I'm quite skeptical that a quick move to devolve control to this IGC would be a good idea.

On this issue, if on few others, I think the administration is right.

Presidents can do a lot worse than 49% approval a year before they face reelection -- as NBC is reporting for President Bush tonight.

In fact, I'm pretty sure the last two presidents who won second terms (Reagan in 1983 and Clinton in 1995) were doing worse a year out. But the key here is that the president's numbers seem to be in something close to free-fall. His approval ratings have fallen roughly 20 percentage points in four months. And both Reagan and Clinton were on the rebound at the time.

Even with all the context which may be fairly provided (like the fact that the 70+ numbers were part of a post-war spike), the president's rapid descent is undeniable. And it's not clear he's hit bottom.

I'm hearing many conservatives say now that the White House political office is off their game. But I see no real evidence of this. The problem is more fundamental. For quite some time this White House has functioned like a heavily leveraged business, an overextended investor that suddenly gets a margin call. To extend the business metaphor, the White House has been surviving not on profits but expectations of future profits or, in other words, credibility. The White House has been able to get the public to sit tight with a lot of objectively poor news (a poor economy, big deficits, bad news from abroad) on the basis of trust.

But a combination of the manifest incompetence of the planning for post-war Iraq and the dishonesty of the build-up for the war have become increasingly difficult to defend or deny. And that's struck a grave blow against the president's credibility.

Credibility of course is unitary. And the erosion has ricocheted from foreign policy to domestic policy and back again in escalating fashion. Suddenly the White House's explanations for why the country has fallen back into half trillion dollar deficits are ringing hollow.

As we've seen recently, a hollowed-out company can push along for some time so long as no one takes a good look at the books or calls in their loans. But when it happens the fall can be dramatic.

More talk, more diversion.

In President Bush's speech at the UN yesterday many took note of his call for a "new anti-proliferation resolution" to counter the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Now it's becoming clear that that was just a throwaway line meant for domestic consumption, one fashioned by speechwriters rather than policy-makers and intended to give Americans the impression that the president was pushing some sort of new UN-friendly, multilateral intitiative.

Not true. Apparently the policy-makers and diplomats knew nothing about it until the words came off the president's lips.

As the AP noted with gentle understatement: "U.S. and British diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they were surprised by Bush's call for a weapons resolution and that Tuesday was the first time they had heard about the idea."

(We'll be linking to another story soon with further reporting on this.)

What's more, the actual counter-proliferation experts say such a resolution would be close to meaningless since the key controls and restrictions are already covered by existing treaties.

Needless to say, the folks in the hall knew this. This was for domestic consumption, some padding spun up by speechwriters to balance out the speech.

More talk, more diversion, more denial.

Don't miss this post at Juan Cole's site about the new plan to privatize Iraq's economy.

More on the UN speech and a White House in denial -- my new column in The Hill.

Or maybe not ...

David Kay is in charge of our effort now, with some 1,500 inspectors and analysts and experts. He will provide an interim report later this month, and I am confident when people see what David Kay puts forward they will see that there was no question that such weapons exist, existed, and so did the programs to develop one.

Colin Powell
Meet The Press
September 7th, 2003

David Kay is not going to be done with this for quite some time. And I would not count on reports. I suppose there may be interim reports. I don't know when those will be, and I don't know what the public nature of them will be.

Condi Rice
Press Briefing
September 22nd, 2003

Can we call this a credibility issue yet?

It's come to this. A US Congressman, Jim Marshall, Democrat from Georgia's 3rd District, says media bias is responsible for US troop deaths in Iraq.

From a column he penned the Atlanta Journal Consitution earlier this month, some of the highlights: "I found myself wondering whether the news media were somehow complicit in [Sgt. Trevor A. Blumberg's] death ... We may need a few credible Baghdad Bobs to undo the harm done by our media. I'm afraid it is killing our troops."

It really doesn't get much lower than that.

The backdrop to the Clark-bashing from the White House and its helpers. This from Charlie Cook's weekly newsletter "Off To The Races" ...

For the White House, it is particularly important that Clark's credibility be impeached as soon as possible. President Bush now has a 40 percent disapproval rating on "handling foreign policy and terrorism." That is without a Democrat with any credibility in national security having thrown a punch. A credible Clark could inflict some very serious damage on this president, particularly after Bush's admission last week that there was no direct connection between the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and Saddam Hussein. That was news to 69 percent of Americans, who told Washington Post pollsters in August they thought a connection was likely. The Bush campaign cannot afford to have a credible Clark throwing fastballs at them for the next 15 months, whether he is the nominee, running mate or sitting on the sidelines.

This isn't rocket science, people. This is how they operate. Don't think it's random. If you go over to the Fox News website, you can see their featured video clip (page down on the left) with Brit Hume repeating the ridiculous Standard-peddled phone log canard : "White House phone logs suggest Wesley Clark is telling tales once again." You've seen this before. As I say, it's how they operate. The only question is whether the legit press gets dragged into it, as they have in the past. It's a test for them.

As promised, Vice President Dick Cheney's Public Financial Disclosure Report for calendar year 2001. (Before downloading the pdf file, note that it's a big file -- almost 5 megs. But a high resolution is necessary to read certain parts accurately.)