Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

With all those years of carping about the horribly politicized Clinton IRS, you'd sorta think the Bush Treasury Department would keep its own nose clean for more than a few months.

Apparently Not.

The New York Times reported today that the IRS will soon begin sending letters out to scores of millions of Americans. The letters are essentially a political advertisement for President Bush in the guise of a tax announcement.

"We are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress passed — and President George W. Bush signed into law — the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001, which provides long-term tax relief for all Americans who pay income taxes ... The new tax law provides immediate tax relief in 2001 and long-term tax relief for the years to come ... [it is] just the first installment of the long-term tax relief provided by the new law."
A career employee at the IRS apparently leaked the letter to congressional Democrats. The article includes some quotes from government watchdogs rightly skewering this as a transparent effort to use the IRS to fund a massive 'thank you President Bush' ad campaign, as well as quotes from Frank Keith, a flack at the IRS, saying this was just a public service with information "the taxpayer needs."

A few points about this blinding display of Bush team hubris seem to have escaped mention, however.

The goodie the letter is taking credit for (an immediate tax rebate to a fairly wide cross section of taxpayers) is the one aspect of the tax bill which President Bush didn't want, and Democrats had to force on him.

Also, the contention that this is just an informational letter is rather belied by the fact that the text is cribbed directly from talking points generated by the White House political operation.

As attentive Talking Points reader will remember, the Bush White House long sold the tax plan on its universality -- a tax cut for all Americans. That is, until critics began pointing out that income taxes are only one kind of taxes Americans pay. Most Americans pay more payroll taxes than income taxes. And Americans who only pay payroll taxes don't get jack from the Bush plan.

The administration cavilled over this detail for a bit, but finally conceded the point and this Spring added a short blurb to end of the standard Bush boiler plate -- making 'tax relief for all Americans' into 'tax relief for all Americans who pay incomes taxes.'

And surprise, surprise, that very line is now part of the IRS letter. How'd that happen?

The IRS spokesman told the Times that the letter was "a collaborative effort between the agency and its parent, the Treasury Department." That's actually not to surprising, since Paul O'Neill -- once praised as refreshing moderate on the Bush team -- has of late emerged as a strikingly political and ideological Treasury chief. Of which we'll be saying more soon.

This article in the Times raises what is perhaps the one bright spot for the Bush White House in the loss of the Senate: the opportunity to blame the Democrats for the flaws and dishonesty of the Bush budget itself.

As many argued at the time, the Bush budget was premised on extremely low (unrealistically low) rates of increase in various domestic programs. It also didn't budget for things that Bush himself is already proposing: the education bill, missile defense, etc.

That's letting alone additional or expanded programs that Democrats might want.

By the end of the year, as the budget was actually getting cobbled together under Republican control, it would have become clear that the budget numbers put forth by the White House were simply a sham -- low-balled in order to ram through the tax cut.

Now, though, the White House will have an excuse, an argument. Blame it on profligate Democrats in the Senate who can't keep their spending in line. Even though the Republicans would have been equally unwilling to starve popular programs of funds.

For a variety of reasons I don't think this will actually work. But it looks likely to be the White House's strategy for the rest of the year -- especially when appropriations bills start getting voted on, and argued over between the House and the Senate, and sent on to the president's desk.

Okay, look, I tried! I did my best! I tried to think about the Patients' Bill of Rights. But the flesh is weak. So we're back to Gary Condit.

A few points. Mickey Kaus speculated a couple days ago that Condit's obtuse denials of an affair might both be logical and the best evidence of his innocence of any involvement in Levy's disappearance. I gave this theory a lot of thought. And he may be right. But one of the things that weighs against it is what I'll call 'story creep.'

If there were some plan or play book to Condit's response to all this you'd think he'd have ... well, you'd think he'd have a play book. One story that he'd stick with. But each passing day brings some fresh hemorrhage or drift in Condit's spin or storyline.

First they were just buds; then she was infatuated with him; then ... well, maybe there was something going on but hell that don't have a damn thing to do with it!

And all the while this downhill slide is accompanied by a daily barrage of information from some bizarro world where DC's Du Pont Circle neighborhood is a hotbed of abductions -- where you're about as likely to get kidnapped as you would be if you were an eco-tourist in the jungles of the Philippines. And there's a lot of other whacky ideas emanating from those 'close' to the Condit camp, as they say.

For better or worse, Condit doesn't seem like a man with a plan. He seems like a real-life version of that pitiful goof William H. Macy played in Fargo, a hapless rube who finds himself in a terrible situation, and whose desparate efforts to break free just drag him further out onto a slip-n-slide of ridiculousness and tragedy.

A while back Tim Noah tried to push a new phrase from The Sopranos: 'Disrepecting the Bing.' Disrespecting the Bing basically meant copping to an insignificant offense in order to avoid taking responsibility for, or admitting to, a far graver one.

The on-going Condit melodrama puts me in the mind of another apt phrase: looking for the 'real killers.' A la OJ, to look for the 'real killers' means to toss up cockamamie and transparently moronic diversions in a hopeless effort to draw attention away from your own misdeeds. Robert Blake was 'looking for the real killers' before the Chandra-Condit case knocked him out of the headlines.

Probably all Gary Condit is guilty of is an ill-considered affair with an intern, and some very bad luck. But, metaphorically at least, he's definitely looking for the 'real killers'.

The latest news is that Condit called Levy's parents over the weekend only to have them refuse to take his call, referring him instead to their newly-hired lawyer. As Condit's press secretary told ABCNews.com, after seeing the Levy's broadcast interview, Condit "called to take them up on their request that he talk to them ... Condit saw Susan Levy on television and he decided to call her on Saturday morning because he sensed she wanted to reach out to him." Reach out to him? Please!

Unless I missed something they never asked him to talk to them. They asked him to come clean, address publicly what he knew. The call seems pretty obviously like a stunt (presumably cooked up by Condit's advisors) to either make the Levy's look bad by refusing to talk with him or allowing him to sidle up to them in the public mind by having a heart to heart with the family.

P.S. Next up, the Patients' Bill of Rights. I promise! Really!

Why exactly is a Russian cargo plane, an Antonov 124, being used to ferry home the disassembled American spy plane which has been sitting on the runway at Lingshui Air Base in China for the last two months? The Chinese apparently refused to allow an American military aircraft to land at Lingshui to retreive it. And the Russian AN-124 is apparently the biggest production cargo plane made. So Lockheed put the job out to bid and contracted with the Russian firm Polyot Air Cargo Ltd. to crate the thing back to the US in several pieces.

('Polyot' is the Russian word for 'flight' and thus it's a little difficult to pick apart all the various companies with similar names. But based on a few quick Nexis searches, Polyot Air Cargo appears to be a subsidiary of the Polyot aerospace concern which has ties to the Russian military and is currently working on plans to launch satellites from Antonov 124s. Polyot planes were also used in March 1999 in a suspected effort to ship MIGs to Yugoslavia or North Korea.)

Frankly I'm not sure there's anything so bad about this. I assume they've taken precautions to make sure there are no Russian military personnel on board the cargo plane who can crack the boxes open while they're in flight.

But wouldn't folks on the right be going nuts if this happened on Bill Clinton's watch? And for those on the right who are already bent out of shape about American 'kow-towing' to China, isn't this just a further loss of face or dignity? Any thoughts, Marshall?

For those who haven't noticed, Evan Bayh announced officially last week that he won't be running for president in 2004. Despite what some say, that really should not come as a surprise for several reasons. First, he is up for reelection in 2004, which makes a presidential run difficult. More important though is that he was just too far off the reservation on the Bush tax cut -- and that's a proxy for much else.

Bayh is the Chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. One of the highlights of the tax cut debate for Dems was the fact that the pro-business, centrist DLC ended up having pretty much the same position on the tax cut as the left-labor Economic Policy Institute -- i.e., the two wings of the Democratic party. But Bayh wouldn't even get on board with his own organization's position -- a real embarrassment for him and the DLCers.

As regular readers know, these pages are normally taken up with asides about public policy, handicapping of Democratic presidential aspirations, digs at the Bush White House, and miscellaneous other ideas I have about political matters. I've gotten a number of messages recently praising how I've been following the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy matter. But I've also gotten a few, quite thoughtful, emails from readers asking just why I am spending so much time on what they see as essentially a tabloid story.

Frankly, I've wondered myself. So let me see if I can answer the question.

First a mundane reason. As a journalist, when you pull at a dangling thread and see three more threads come free it's hard to resist pulling on those too. To put this more concretely, every question about this case seems to yield more questions or more misleading responses. And purely on an instinctive level that makes it difficult to resist.

That begs the question, though, of why this got me interested in the first place. The answer is that this first caught my eye as a media story, and a rather important one at that. The press corps here in DC goes wild over all sorts of whacky, unsubstantiated, and irrelevant stories. But this seemed like a story that was actually quite serious.

A young woman disappeared under very mysterious circumstances. And there was strong evidence connecting her romantically to a sitting United States congressman. Let's imagine this case were set in Los Angeles. A young woman disappears under very mysterious and very ominous circumstances. Investigators discover that she was carrying on a secret relationship with an older married man. I guarantee you the LAPD would have turned that guy's life upside down. When women disappear, police routinely look first at the men they're linked with romantically -- especially if those links are furtive. That doesn't mean that's right. And it certainly doesn't mean that the men in question are guilty of anything. But that is what happens.

In this case, though, Condit is a congressman and that's changed the calculus.

Something else has happened with the media, though. Frankly, for a mix of personal and political reasons, the pundit gatekeepers in DC think Gary Condit is good people. They've found it inconceivable that any of these suspicions about the case could be true. And for weeks they largely ignored it. Or at least opted to give Condit every benefit of the doubt. (Let's just say that's a quite different attitude than would have been adopted to some other politicians I can think of.) This issue of the subtle and unspoken establishmentarian attitudes which shape coverage of official Washington is a topic of great interest to me -- as readers of various of my articles in other publications will know.

There's another related reason. Reporters cultivate an image of dogged truth-seekers who kick up rocks and report what they find come hell or high water. The truth is a little different. Reporters conceive of stories in conventionalized terms, standard storylines, motifs and so on. Is it a secret affair story? Maybe a corruption story? A campaign finance shenanigans story? An in-trouble back home with the constituents story?

These are some of the routine storylines that people look for. Some stories though don't fall clearly into any of these rubrics. A secret affair story is juicy and it may mean the end of the line for a politician. But it's basically a victimless crime. No one really gets hurt -- in a literal sense. And to journalists at least, basically a cynically fun time is had by all.

That's where this story is different. This story has been a little dicier for reporters to sink their teeth into because frankly you don't know quite what you're getting into. It's unpredictable. You don't know just what you're going to find. To some extent, this is a very valid reason for caution -- since obviously you don't want to be tossing around charges when someone is missing. But it's also led to a suspicious reticence as well.

So, what's attracted me to this story was the perception -- from the outset -- that there was a deep-seated double-standard at work; that establishment types in DC liked Condit and weren't inclined to give him a hard time; that he's a congressman in a city run by Congress and the police seemed to be giving him a wide berth; and that the media's customary aggressiveness seemed conspicuously absent.

Obviously, now most all of this has changed. And to readers who've been critical of my writing on this I can only say that I appreciate and respect your concerns, and, to a great degree, share them. But for the reasons I have set forth above I thought and still think that this was worth looking into.

I wrote an article for Salon.com today which covers a good bit of the ground already covered in these virtual pages about the Gary Condit-Chandra Levy story -- particularly Condit's weird reluctance to issue any clear denials of most of the more damning allegations which have appeared in the press.

As I describe in the article, Condit's press secretary, Mike Lynch, and his lawyer, Joseph Cochette, were conspicuously unwilling to directly deny a Levy sleepover when I interviewed them (more details on this are in the piece). But already on Wednesday, Lynch at least seemed to be groping toward the new explanation that emerged on Thursday.

At one point when I was asking Lynch whether Levy had ever spent the night at Condit's apartment he said she wasn't there "that night." This immediately caught my attention because none of the press accounts had ever mentioned a specific night -- just that she had spent the night at his apartment. When I pointed this out, Lynch dropped that line of argument entirely and fell back on the standard restatements of Condit's denial of telling anyone about an overnight. (Again, I give a word for word run-down in the Salon article.)

When I spoke with Condit's lawyer, Cochette, on Wednesday he was unwilling to say anything more than what he had said in his letter to the Post. (See the article for the full quotation) But by Thursday morning he seemed to have picked up the specific night argument when he told Good Morning America:

"[She] absolutely did not" sleep over at Condit's, Cotchett said. "If she did, she had to spend it on a couch because Congressman Condit's wife was in Washington the entire week [before] she [went] missing."
Now, again, this is really just a textbook non-denial denial -- a vehement denial of a question that really wasn't the question. No one but Condit's folks ever brought up anything about a specific night in question.

I know from my own reporting that subtle attacks on the Levy family's credibility are starting to bubble up from the direction of the Condit camp. And even the stuff coming out of the Condit camp publicly is starting to get so cockamamy and weird that you start to wonder: what are we going to hear next, Condit announcing his search for the 'real killers'?

On a more serious note, let's take a look at Cotchett's statement on Good Morning America about the alleged Levy sleep over. Cotchett pointed out that a Levy overnight was implausible since Condit's wife was in town that week. According to this article in Friday's Washington Post, the actual days were April 28 to May 3, and Condit's wife only comes to DC two or three times a year.

I must confess to being a touch on edge because of how freely the Condit camp is throwing around talk of libel suits. But Condit's wife was in town for a fairly rare visit to DC at precisely the time when Levy was making repeated phone calls to Condit's answering service, and when she subsequently disappeared. Doesn't that raise some pretty obvious and pretty troubling questions?

Frankly, we're at a very touchy and difficult stage in this whole story. In their interview on MSNBC yesterday Levy's parents were pretty clearly turning on Condit, and at least entertaining the possibility that he might be involved in Chandra's disappearance. And the weirdness and stubbornness of Condit's non-denial denials are for the first time getting people in the media to seriously consider whether there may be some connection between the Condit-Levy relationship (of whatever sort) and her disappearance.

What makes this so touchy is that there is no real evidence at all pointing to any Condit connection to Levy's disappearance. Intriguing theories, no evidence. All there is is the increasingly strained, incredible, and bizarre nature of Condit's denials of an affair which cannot help but fuel speculation that there is something more than an affair to hide.

At this point though, it's worth remembering: as to any connection between Condit and Levy's disappearance, there are theories aplenty, but no real evidence.

There are several very big developments on the Chandra Levy-Gary Condit front. Stay tuned for more later today. If you can't wait for the whole TPM run-down you can check out this article at MSNBC and this one at ABCNews.com.

Needless to say I'd really prefer that the Tory party remained moribund for a generation to come. But for those who wish otherwise it's a very good sign that Michael Portillo (odds-on favorite to succeed William Hague) has decided to throw his hat in the ring. (And, no, put that fancy Spanish pronunciation back where you found it -- it's pronounced PORT-I-LOW.) Portillo very likely would have become Conservative party leader after John Major but for the humiliating happenstance that Portillo himself was voted out of office in the 1997 Labour landslide. At the time Portillo was Defense Secretary.

That night in 1997 I remember watching Portillo give what we'd call his concession speech. It was simply one of the classiest, most impressive performances under duress and pressure I've ever seen.

Portillo would also seem to have what the Tories need now to get up off their backs. He's a one-time Thatcherite, who moved to the center after losing his seat in the Commons in 1997. He's embraced what he sometimes (embarrassingly) calls 'compassionate conservatism', but in a way that actually appears to have some content (unlike some other people). Finally, at a time when the Tories are being pilloried for appearing intolerant, exclusionary and even isolationist (with regards to Europe), Portillo has credentials which instantly inoculate him: he's the son of a Spanish immigrant (the fact that his dad was an anti-Franco refugee is a nice touch) so it's hard to see him as anti-immigrant or anti-Europe. And he's also admitted to having had a series of homosexual relationships while in college -- which certainly takes some of the edge off the normal Tory starchiness.

And let's be frank: having sharp looks and an appealing manner is no small thing for a politician. Especially when your predecessor looked less like an opposition leader than a preening lemur.

Still considering throwing his hat in the ring to oppose Mr. Portillo (and apparently enjoying the support of Baroness Thatcher herself) is the current shadow Defense SecretaryIain Duncan Smith. That makes a certain amount of sense of course since what the Tories really need today is a youngish, uppity, balding, anti-Europe Thatcherite to restore the party's fortunes.

I don't expect Linc Chafee to switch parties any time soon. But he seems to have told Charlie Bakst, head political writer for the hometown paper, The Providence Journal, that he's still seriously considering it. And he's already operating as the de facto 52nd member of the Senate Democratic Majority. What do I mean by that? He told Bakst that if and when the Senate flipped back to Republican hands (like with a Torch indictment, say) he'd seriously consider switching parties and flipping it back. Take a peek at the article and see for yourself.