Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

If you missed the movie-let produced for tonight's Paul Wellstone memorial you missed a lot: a montage of Wellstone's political life played over a track of Bob Dylan's Forever Young. Perhaps corny to some. To others like me, beautiful and heartbreaking. And, yes, clearly deep down I'm a lib. One doesn't fall far from the tree. (Full TPM Wellstone eulogy here.)

With one week to go, the South Dakota Senate race remains on a razor's edge TPM World Exclusive!  You heard it hear first!  Must Credit.. The latest information TPM has received has Johnson blipping up by a point or two. But is Johnson's opponent, Congressman John Thune, trying to even the score with some last minute 'push-polls'?

Seems so.

In case you're wondering, 'push-polls' first got attention in the early 1990s and they're the specialty of your greasier sort of political tele-marketing firm. A 'push-poll' isn't really a poll, or at least it's not really an effort to gain public opinion information. It's actually a stealth form of negative advertising. So for instance, you might have a list of a few questions followed by something like: "Would you still vote for candidate X if those awful charges about his beating his wife turned out to be true?" Click ... phone hangs up.

You get the idea...

Now someone is pulling one of these stunts in South Dakota.

For a week or more there've been rumors around the state that voters were getting classic push-polls tarring Tim Johnson with responsibility for engaging in voter fraud or "rigging the election." The fraud story began to fade about a week ago, fizzling for lack of substance. But it's a close race and the Thune campaign would still like to use it against Johnson.

Push-polling is notoriously difficult to track down and prove. And the financial paper-trail, to the extent there is one, usually only comes to light long after the election is over.

Today I spoke to two South Dakota voters who received such calls.

Ann Boer lives in Lyons, South Dakota, about twenty miles northwest of Sioux Falls. (Her husband, Vern Boer (D), is a candidate for Minnehaha County Commissioner.) Recently, Mrs. Boer received a survey call. The questioner first asked a few generic questions: leaning more toward Republicans or Democrats, more likely to vote for Thune or Johnson, etc. And then he asked: "Have you heard about the investigation going on about fraud in registering voters?"

Boer said yes.

"And if it was told to you tomorrow that it was Johnson's campaign that was responsible for this [fraud] then would that change your vote?"

Here's how Boer described the rest of the call: "I said 'no' and then he said 'why?' and I said 'because I know it's not verified that his campaign is responsible for it.' And then he just kind of hurried up and quit."

"I've gotten numerous calls but I've never gotten one like that," Boer told me Tuesday afternoon. "It was like accusing someone of something that hasn't even been verified."

Then there's Kathy Gustafson.

A bit after 9:00 PM Monday night Gustafson, a graduate student and teaching assistant at South Dakota State University, got a similar call. The caller started out with the standard questions of whether Gustafson leaned more toward the Democrats or the Republicans, whether she supported the NRA, pro-life or pro-choice, etc.

Then came the zinger. "If you knew that Tim Johnson had rigged the election, would you still vote for him?"

Gustafson didn't like the sound of that question and immediately asked the caller who he was working for. He said Central Marketing of New York City. Gustafson told the caller that she would still vote for Johnson since she didn't think there was anything to the charges. She also told him "a question like that had no business on a survey."

"He thanked me for my time," Gustafson told me on Tuesday. "He did not react or respond to my response to the question ... I asked one more time for him to clarify the company to make sure I got that right. And he said 'Central Marketing, Manhattan, New York City.'" (In yet another call to a South Dakota number, a survey caller identified himself as working for Central Marketing Incorporated (CMI) of Hudson, Florida.)

On Tuesday evening, Gustafson got the same call again from Central Marketing. A lot of these calls, it would seem, are getting made.

The Thune and Johnson campaigns are both now operating under a pledge to run only positive ads through election day. Someone is simultaneously running a pretty slimy negative ad campaign over the state's telephones. One assumes it's not the Johnson campaign.

A late afternoon call to Thune spokesperson Christine Iverson, requesting comment, was not returned.

Who will stop Republicans from making their showdown at the corner of Deception Street and Ridiculousness Avenue?

Over the weekend Newt Gingrich went on the airwaves to start the knock-down of soon-to-be Minnesota Senate candidate Walter Mondale. And this makes sense, you have to admit, in a moment of grief since Newt is so smooth-tongued and sort of a comforter. In his comments he said one of the terrible things about Mondale is that "Walter Mondale chaired a commission that was for the privatization of Social Security worldwide."

Yes, we're back to the 'privatization' ridiculousness. And you'll remember this is the case where Republicans tend to support something called 'privatization' but then realized it wasn't popular so they renamed what they want as 'not privatization' and renamed the Democrats's opposition to privatization as actually being privatization. You still with me? Good.

You know, it's like how everybody used to think that Republicans were opposed to choice on abortion and that Democrats were pro-choice. Remember that? Oh, you didn't hear? You're really not up-to-date. See, Republicans are pro-choice on abortion since they favor letting state legislatures decide whether or not abortion should be legal. And Democrats, surprisingly enough, are actually anti-choice since they deny state legislatures the freedom to choose. It's amazing how confused about this we all used to be. And for so long.

So anyway, back to Walter Mondale and his support for "the privatization of Social Security worldwide."

Now when I heard this, I didn't even know what commission Gingrich was talking about. But I realized that it must be some mix of the standard Republican Social Security word games or perhaps a straight out lie, something just short of accusing Mondale of conspiring with aliens to privatize Social Security.

It turns out that Mondale did actually co-chair a commission organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies which did endorse moving "social protection schemes from pay-as-you-go to market-based financing." That was the majority report. But Mondale, the report's executive summary says, "and six co-signers also released a separate statement dissenting from the Commission's pension recommendations as they applied to Social Security in the United States." So, in other words, Mondale specifically said the opposite of what Gingrich said he said.

So Gingrich lied when he attacked Mondale for supporting Social Security privatization -- a policy which Gingrich himself, of course, supports but which he refuses to acknowledge by name.

When will the ridiculousness end?

My Republican staffer reader up on the Hill, who likes to keep me honest, writes in to say that I'm calling all the Senate races in the light most favorable to the Dems. I am pointing out Democratic opportunities. That's true. But if you look at the overall prediction I'm making -- that the Dems hold their own or pick up one seat -- that assumes that most, or at least many, of the Dem possibles don't turn into Dem actuals. My point is simply that I'm seeing a growing number of Dem opportunities and only one that looked safe veering toward vulnerability.

TPM doesn't go in much for Times-bashing, at least of the media bias variety. But when the paper prints cliches and conventional wisdom as fatuous and unsubstantiated as this ...

Since at least 1992, when Bill Clinton won the White House by, in part, appropriating traditionally Republican issues, the nation's two political parties have increasingly sounded the same notes during campaigns.

If the Republicans were left at the gate in 1992, they have surely caught up this year, blurring the lines on everything from prescription drug coverage to corporate malfeasance to the handling of Social Security.

Democrats and Republicans are lamenting the prospect of another election with low voter turnout, but in truth, they have only themselves to blame. What initially had been seen as a clever, if perhaps cynical, gambit for political advantage has ended up giving voters a choice between beige and brown.

More on this to come ...

Whatever else you can say about this election -- the quality of the campaigning or the issues debated -- you're just not going to find one to beat this one in pure nail-biting potential. Race after race for the Senate is either dead-even or within the margin of error or more than close enough for the lagging candidate to make a last minute dash across the finish line. (The best, up-to-date, methodological run-down of all the big races, that I've seen, can be found here.) Yet it's hard to miss a subtle but real shift in the Democrats' favor across the country. The third and fourth weeks out from election day did not look good at all for the Dems. But the last two weeks before election day seem to be moving in just the opposite direction. And if that's true, that's exactly when a party wants to have the wind at its back. Good months in the Spring or Summer are nothing compared to a good week or two at the end of October.

First, as TPM has been saying for sometime, the hapless Doug Forrester is really going down the tubes in New Jersey. The New York Times/CBS News poll has Frank Lautenberg up 48% to Forrester's 36% among likely voters. Among those most likely to vote, Lautenberg's lead was narrower, at 48% to 41%. That tracks fairly well with a Mason-Dixon poll released a couple days earlier which showed a 47% to 40%. Admittedly, the straight numbers here don't make this race look totally beyond Forrester's reach. But when you look at the context of the race and the trend-line -- Lautenberg's steadily expanding lead and Forrester's utter lack of issue, charisma, or demographic levers to turn the thing -- you realize that it is. He's toast. Republicans and Mickey are welcome to send in their dissenting emails here. But, believe me, he's gone.

I hesitate to even discuss the political implications of Paul Wellstone's tragic death (TPM eulogizes him here). But the conventional wisdom seems to be that if former Vice-President Walter Mondale signs on for the race (and it seems he will) he'll be very hard for the Republicans to beat. Wellstone was already opening a small, but measurable lead in that race. And the sympathy and grief factor, coupled with Mondale's elder statesman profile, may be impossible for Coleman to overcome. Who knows if this is how it'll turn out? And I'd happily lose all these races to have Wellstone back. But that's what I'm hearing.

One interesting note I hear from a few Republican sources (pure speculation, but intriguing) is that the Wellstone tragedy might actually have some spillover into the Missouri race, where it's likely to rekindle memories of Mel Carnahan's death in a very similar tragedy two years ago. Senator Jean Carnahan had apparently picked up some kind of momentum after a debate in which she, I'm told, effectively scolded Talent for questioning her patriotism. I had virtually written this race off, but the late movement may be in her direction.

The last few weeks also weren't great for South Dakota's Tim Johnson. He had opened up a very small lead but then fell back a few points as the voter fraud allegations pushed other issues off the campaign radar. Thune may still be up by a point or two. But my sense is that the campaign debate in the state is now moving back to issues which favor Johnson. It's a very hard call but I'd still say Johnson is the likely winner.

The key races I'm looking at are in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Georgia. These aren't the closest races. But they're the ones that are breaking unexpectedly in the stretch -- two trending toward the Dems and one trending toward the Republicans.

While people often say that Al Gore lost the presidency in Tennessee or West Virginia, I've always thought he really lost it in New Hampshire. Yes, it was grievous to lose his home state and the once impregnably-Democratic West Virginia. But there are a lot of reasons Democrats should have a hard time winning those states. Gore should have been able to win New Hampshire. And he very nearly did. Shaheen is benefiting from the political and demographic changes which have, over the last decade and a half, made New Hampshire into much more winnable territory for Dems. This article in today's Washington Post says it's basically dead-even and the momentum at least is with Shaheen.

The Senate really could swing several seats in either direction. But as of today I'd say the good money is on a Democratic hold, with a reasonable chance of their picking up one or perhaps -- a big perhaps -- even two seats.

Like so many others I am in a state of shock over the sudden and tragic death of Paul Wellstone. I can scarcely believe I've just written those words. For every Democrat -- probably as much for those who didn't share his politics as for those who did -- Wellstone was a special treasure: a sort of genuinely progressive, utterly engaged and sincere politician who somehow captured what was essential in the aspirations of his party, even if he supported policies that others didn't. ("I'm from the Democratic party-wing of the Democratic party," he got fond of saying in the late 1990s ...) One thinks of his vote against welfare reform in 1996, on the eve of his first run for re-election. Whatever you think of the merits of that vote -- and history has been kinder to the supporters of the bill than the opponents, on balance -- no other Senate Democrat who was up for re-election that year had the nerve to make the vote that he did -- though many of them thought the way that he did. He did something very similar this year on Iraq. And in recent days it seemed conviction was making for good politics. I can't say I knew Wellstone in any serious way. But I did have a number of conversations with him over the last few years -- particularly a couple in New Hampshire in early 2000 when he was stumping for Bill Bradley and then later at the Convention. Perhaps the most honest thing I can tell you, while my eyes are still teary over this, is the simplest: I really liked him. It's the most wooden of cliches to say in death that so-and-so was real, genuine, not scripted, just an all around great guy. But the over-use of such plaudits as filler can't bar the invocation of them when they were this true. Most successful pols are steely operators. Not a few act serious, without at all being serious, but are rather jokes and whores. Or if they're first-rate men or women they've long since gotten gated-off behind walls of flacks, caution and self-protection. Paul Wellstone just wasn't like that. From my admittedly limited experience with him, the image he projected of a down-to-earth, more-like-what-you'd-expect-from-a-driven-political-activist-than-a-United-States-Senator was entirely accurate. I remember getting hit up by him and members of his staff -- I think it was in early 2001 -- to give more attention to the truly egregious and low-incoming-screwing bankruptcy bill then moving through the Senate. He was more or less single-handedly holding the bill up and getting grief from other supposedly liberal stalwarts in the Senate for doing so. When I was more clearly ensconced in the environs of professional liberalism -- when I was the Washington Editor of the American Prospect -- I often chafed at what I perceived to be the ineffectual Ivory-Towerish purism of so much of late 20th century elite liberalism, the mix of muscle and cliche masquerading as energy and fun. And I feel that no less today. I've seen my share of the fundraisers with their endless harvesting of checks from the fancy-hatted, the useless and the corrupt. But, you know, you do what it takes to accomplish things you believe are right. For a dozen years Paul Wellstone managed to show that these trade-offs did not necessarily have to be made. At least not for him. He was irreplaceable.

Toast? Yes, toast. Several days back a few normally shrewd commentators took me to task for prematurely writing off New Jersey Senate candidate Doug Forrester. The key evidence was a Washington Post article which said the two candidates in the race were "virtually tied in public opinion polls." Frankly, that wasn't true then. But now we have a bit more evidence. Let's review the last three public polls, starting with the most recent: NBC 10 poll, 42-32 Lautenberg; Quinnipiac University poll 52-43 Lautenberg; Star-Ledger/Eagleton-Rutgers poll 47-42 Lautenberg. Add to this that Jersey Democrats have a rock-solid get out the vote operation and you come fairly quickly to the conclusion that Forrester is toast.

There's a dictum in politics: when your opponent's going down the tubes on his own, stand back, look high-minded, and watch him swirl. Which brings us to the South Dakota Senate race. In Monday night's debate, challenger John Thune fell over himself charging -- loosely, in the form of questions -- that Tim Johnson was personally involved in orchestrating voter fraud in the western part of the state. Thus Thune ...

You hold a press conference and tell the people of South Dakota - come clean about what your involvement is with voter fraud in western South Dakota. I think the people of South Dakota need to know what the facts are. Who authorized this putting a bounty on voters? Who did you hire? Who was involved?
This tells you something pretty clearly. If the fraud issue were pulling Johnson down of its own weight, the logical move would be to avoid such extravagant charges. Since it's not, he's not avoiding them. Rather, he's pushing them as hard as he can, trying to win the campaign on this issue alone.

Today, Johnson called for both campaigns to forswear any and all negative ads for the remaining two weeks before election day. This is a pretty transparent tactic, since Thune needs to go negative much more than Johnson does right now, and has something -- baseless or not -- to go negative with. Still, a transparent tactic isn't always a bad one.

In turn, Thune's spokesperson, Christine Iverson responded with a classic 'when did you stop beating your wife' rejoinder.

Thus Christine ...

Today, we ask Tim Johnson to release the following information: all correspondence and E-mail between his campaign and the South Dakota Democrat Party; all cell and phone records between the Johnson campaign and the South Dakota Democrat Party; all records of meetings between the Johnson campaign and the South Dakota Democrat Party; and all financial transactions between the Johnson campaign and the South Dakota Democrat Party related to the voter fraud investigation, people currently under investigation and those indicted. There is more to running a clean campaign than running positive ads. A clean campaign includes preserving the integrity of the election system. If the Johnson campaign has nothing to hide they will have no problem releasing information about their work with the state party on voter registration efforts. Together, we can give the people of South Dakota a positive campaign, both on the airwaves and in the ballot booth on Election Day.
Note the puerile use of 'Democrat party' in place of the correct usage, 'Democratic party.' Iverson has developed quite a rep in recent months for bullying and slashing behavior on the campaign trail and she seems inclined to go out with a flourish.

Why precisely do I read Andrew Sullivan's website? I'm not sure. Much of the stuff I find either wrongheaded or offensive or stridently badgering toward people who don't deserve badgering. And yet I read it. In fact, it's one of the only blogs I read regularly or even read at all. Tonight or this morning -- take your pick -- I noticed his post on the prison amnesty in Iraq. And I think Andrew's on to something. Clearly, this amnesty has been promulgated for the most cynical of reasons, for a mix of domestic and foreign propaganda. But this is the most repressive of regimes. And repressive regimes tend to function like ratchets. To survive they can stand in place or become more repressive. But it's very difficult for them to become less so. Reeling back political repression is a tough, often an impossible, proposition, as we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union a dozen or more years ago. And there's some small chance we could be beginning to see the first signs of something like that in Iraq. What's happening right now -- and the way a few are interpreting it -- reminds me of something I was once told by the guy I regard as one of the shrewdest and most knowledgeable people in Washington when it comes to Iraq and US policy thereto. I can't say who it is other than to say he's ex-military. But here's the way he once described the Iraqi regime to me: "The physical analogy to Saddam Hussein's regime is a steel beam in compression. This is an extremely repressive regime. Even to say those words doesn't do it justice. When it breaks … it'll give off absolutely no sign at all that it's about to fail … And then ka-wammo! And it just goes crazy. That what's gonna happen here." That really could happen here, and possibly, just possibly, without a single American shot ever being fired.