I’ve always been proud — perhaps overly so — that I was one of the first political journalists to openly question whether there was anything to all those stories about White House vandalism in the final days of the Clinton era — first here and there on TPM and then later in Slate.

But the genre of uncritical and fatuous ‘report the Bush spin as delivered’ coverage lives on.

Here’s just the latest example written by, of all people, Thomas DeFrank, the Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News.

DeFrank’s piece follows the standard plot points of the sop-to-Bush genre, contrasting the Bush style (obliging, middle American with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches) with the Clinton style (grasping, domineering with phallic Christmas tree ornaments).

You apparently can’t walk around the White House these days without being importuned by some member of the permanent staff who says things like: “The Bushes’ humble, conservative style really resonates with my middle class values. A lot more than those Clintons, whose limousine liberalism nominally catered to working families like my own, while subtly mocking my work ethic and efforts to succeed by my own efforts! And did I mention not being able to invest a small portion of my Social Security funds in the stock market?”

And every DC reporter seems to have an obliging friend on the new White House staff who is always trying to tell the help not to bother with some particularly demeaning chore, only to be told, “No, no, no. It is okay. Really. Please! I did that for Mr. Clinton’s sleazy Asian cronies many, many times!”

Where do I sign up to get Karl Rove’s assistants to write my copy for me too?

Hmmmmmm.

Now back to working on the much-awaited Talking Points redesign and, before that, the even-more -awaited TPM line on John Edwards.

Yesterday afternoon I pointed out that, in his letter to Tim Noah, Wlady Pleszczynski never actually denied that Ted Olson had been involved in the Arkansas Project.

He denied this, that, and the other. But not the actual point at issue.

Well, now Pleszczynski has written to Talking Points to do just that. But these sorts of brouhahas inevitably descend to parsing. So, instead of characterizing it, let me just show you exactly what he said and you can draw your own conclusions:

Josh: So when did you stop beating your wife/ significant other /or whatever?
That’s the category your complaint falls under. But if it makes your evening,
let me categorically say that Ted Olson was not a part of the Arkansas
Project. Every word of Olson’s statements regarding the project has been more
than truthful.

Best regards,

Wlady Pleszczynski

More soon.

Just when I think I’m out, they p-u-l-l me back in.

Let’s go back to Ted Olson.

Today Tim Noah (aka Chatterbox) runs a letter from Wlady Pleszczynski, of the American Spectator, rebutting Tim’s earlier article acusing Ted Olson of lying about his involvement in the Arkansas Project. (“Your Olson item would be McCarthyite nonsense if you knew what you were talking about …”)

But wait! I don’t think even Tim mentions, in his follow-on response, the most striking thing about the letter in question. Pleszczynski never says that Olson wasn’t involved in the Project. Or in other words, he never even denies Tim’s original charge or premise.

Pleszczynski says David Brock wasn’t part of the Arkansas Project. He says David’s unreliable. He disputes just what the Project was. Where it’s monies went.

He disputes everything except the actual point which is in dispute: whether Olson was involved in the Project and whether he lied about.

That’s a classic non-denial denial.

I’ve had a hard time telling if this Robert Blake murder mystery is a real story or just a treatment for the next Elmore Leonard novel. I mean, doesn’t it read that way? Barely reformed grifter marries has-been actor. Weird, twisted relationship. She ends up dead. And so on.

Of course, I’d figure we’d have Mickey Rourke as the border-line psycho, sometimes hit-man who Blake hired to do the hit. And I’d cast Steve Buscemi as the night watchman who was behind the restaurant and saw the whole thing go down and is now trying to shake down Blake for the big money. And maybe Blake had just landed a big comeback role, and some big money too, and he figured he couldn’t bring her along on his ride back to the top. And that’s how the whole caper got started.

Anyway, that’s how I’d flesh out the story. But enough flights of fancy. Let’s get down to some real news. This story at ABCNews.com leads with a friend of Blake’s who says the actor “could not have done it because Blake once turned down a previous offer to have his wife killed.”

Yikes!

Not exactly the most convincing defense, is it?

At various points over the last few months I’ve often mocked our president for his apparent ability and willingness to pitch his tax cut as the solution to almost every conceivable problem the nation faces, or even doesn’t face.

Robust Growth? Tax cut. No Growth? Tax cut. Market downturn? Tax cut. Low Productivity? Tax cut. Invasion of Feral Elves? Tax cut.

But the president’s actual rhetoric is now outdistancing my mockery. Now he says the tax cut is the best solution to the ‘energy crisis.’

That, of course, would be the ‘energy crisis’ his administration has whipped up to bolster the case for increased oil drilling and weakened environmental protections.

But if you look at these latest, declining public approval numbers from the CNN/USA Today poll you can’t help wondering if the president’s numerous puffed up ‘crises’ are coming back to haunt him. (His numbers have fallen nine points since last month to 53%.)

According to the CNN poll, the number of Americans who believe the energy situation is “very serious” has gone from 31% to 58% just since March. And if you look through the rest of the numbers, the president’s dipping approval numbers seem tied to growing pessimism on the economy and energy fronts more generally.

Don’t get me wrong: Energy prices are high. And the economy is wobbly. But what precisely has changed in the country’s energy situation in the last two months which would justify a near-doubling of the number of Americans who think our plight is “very serious?” What beside the dramatic shift in the public debate — pushed largely by the White House — toward discussion of an energy crisis?

In it’s first three months alarmism has been the defining trait of this administration. And what we’re seeing may be some poetic justice. And another example that restoration regimes tend more often to be imprisoned by the mistakes of their predecessors than edified by them.

We’ll get back to that latter point soon.

Today the Washington Post’s In The Loop column reports that Janet Hale is set to be appointed assistant secretary of health and human services for management and budget.

Janet Hale, associate administrator for finance for the House, and a top aide in the Office of Management and Budget in Bush I, is to be assistant secretary of health and human services for management and budget.

Isn’t that bio a tad incomplete? Isn’t this the same Janet Hale who was, if not knee-deep, at least ankle-deep in the HUD scandals of the 1980s? The same Janet Hale who called the initial Inspector General’s report about the impending HUD scandal “premature, unjustified and unfair” and resisted pressure to tighten controls over HUD programs?

This is the person to manage HHS’s finances?

P.S. Special shout-out to Talking Points special correspondent KSB for the heads up.

This column defending Ted Olson in today’s Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is people’s evidence #1 that Olson really is in a lot of trouble. And it’s also a classic example of attempted editorial sleight of hand.

The editorial argues that people who attack the Arkansas Project are really just attacking the First Amendment since there is nothing wrong — and certainly nothing illegal — with private parties investigating a president and publishing evidence of his law-breaking or bad acts.

That’s certainly true.

Now there’s quite another matter of whether this was legal for tax-exempt organizations to be involved in; or whether those involved in the Project may have violated other laws in the process of their work, or whether Ken Starr’s Independent Counsel’s Office might have been improperly connected with it. But let’s set all those matters aside and assume that the Arkansas Project was only what it undeniably was: a vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball in its hardest form.

Look closely at the Journal Editorial: don’t they completely avoid and try to confuse the point? The question — tied to Olson’s hubris — is why he lied about his involvement in the Project. The editorial barely touches on this and simply goes on about how innocuous the Project was. Lying about it is what’s got him in trouble. The editorial not only barely tries to defend him on this ground. It actually mounts a transparently contradictory defense. Saying that there wouldn’t be anything to lie about in the first place.

(Bartley, Fund, et.al: guys, it’s the cover-up that gets you, right? Haven’t you guys been telling us that for ages?)

Live by the vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball, die by the vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball.

Next up, why Olson felt he needed to lie about the Arkansas Project; why he might have thought he could get away with it; and when he was accused of lying to Congress before.

Let’s delve a little further into this Ted Olson matter and the accusations against him reported in this article in today’s Washington Post.

David Brock’s word probably isn’t enough to sink Olson.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got tons of respect for David; and I don’t doubt him for a moment. But he’s just one person. And he’s also very much an interested party in this whole matter of the Spectator and the Arkansas Project and so forth. And he can be portrayed as someone with an ax to grind.

So who else might be able to back up David’s version of events?

If I were, say … a staff investigator for the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee I’d be looking to Ronald Burr, the co-founder and long-time publisher of the American Spectator who was fired over his efforts to do a proper accounting and/or audit of the moneys which the various Scaife foundations were funnelling through the magazine to be used in the Arkansas Project.

Burr was very roughly handled in the whole affair. And he would certainly know plenty about the questions at hand. But to date he’s been prevented from speaking on the record about any of this because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed after being fired by the Spectator. (His severance package was a pricey $350,000 — well, pricey for the magazine world, at least. Trust me.)

I understand that there are a number of people who can contradict Olson’s denials of involvement with the Arkansas Project. But, just as he was during the impeachment saga, it’s probably only that non-disclosure agreement which is preventing Burr from talking.

Now, I don’t know the fine points of the intersection between private contractual agreements and Senate subpoenas (see note here on TPM’s aborted legal career). But I have to assume that a private contract is trumped by a congressional investigation, just as a private confidentiality agreement is trumped by a subpoena in a criminal trial.

So why not give Burr a call?

P.S. Any of TPM’s readers at the American Spectator want to add their two cents?

When I first started writing Talking Points (six months ago, frighteningly enough) I was pretty free with writing what I was hearing — largely because only my friends were reading. But now that Talking Points is read by millions of readers across the country every day (well, okay, thousands of readers). So I’ve got to be a little more careful, a little more responsible.

Anyway, there’s a lot buzzing about a story that may be running in the next issue of the Enquirer or Vanity Fair. But, honestly, I don’t know if there’s anything to it.

Still it’s generating lots of buzz. And if you’re interested in finding out a bit more, read this opinion column in today’s Tallahassee Democrat.

Wow! How much did Tom Edsall enjoy writing this story? As you’ll see in the post below, today’s Washington Post has a story by Edsall which makes the case that Olson lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he told them he wasn’t involved in the so-called Arkansas Project.

This new story from early this afternoon reports that the Committee has now postponed today’s scheduled vote on Olson’s nomination so that it can investigate Olson’s alleged deceptions.

Even Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Edsall writes, “said a Washington Post story published this morning raising ‘legitimate’ questions that need to be answered before the Olson nomination can be voted on.”

The translation of this, of course, would be:

Orrin G. Hatch said my story from this morning’s Post kicked Olson’s &#%, and that even he (Hatch) wasn’t willing to carry water for Olson, unless and until Olson could create some sort of smokescreen to divert attention from the charges, or — excluding that — find some way to discredit David Brock.

And now we return you to your normal TPM programming.

I’ve had a number of people write in and comment about this article I wrote yesterday in Slate. The article was about why Democrats seem so much more feckless and frail in the art of scandal-mongering than Republicans.

Many of the comments center on the fact that Democrats are a coalition party and are thus never quite as unifiable as the Republicans. That’s true, to an extent.

Others make the point that Democrats simply aren’t as mean as Republicans, or, perhaps stated a little differently, that Dems spend much more of their time questioning the rightness of their own actions and thus can never get up the same sort of ferocious head of steam that Republicans do. There’s a lot self-serving in that viewpoint — but there’s some truth to it too.

The most interesting comment or critique though is this: most people don’t want to hear this sort of endless badgering and complaining. And one of the things that kept Bill Clinton in office is that the great majority of people really didn’t like his rabid, foaming-at -mouth opponents.

That’s very true. And yet, as this piece by John Harris makes clear, the endless drumbeat of scandal-mongering against Bill Clinton really did take its toll.

The answer, I think, is that to the extent Republicans were successful they succeeded by having ideological attack-dogs do their dirty work for them, while keeping themselves above the fray.

One of the reasons Newt Gingrich went down the tubes was that he often failed to keep this distance. He couldn’t help himself. Others in the Republican party, though, manage this dance much more dexterously. Like George W. Bush, for instance.

One of the great comedies of Bush’s campaign message was his promise to ‘change the tone’ in Washington when it was undeniably his own party, and his own supporters, who had created the tone of partisan back-biting in Washington. Yet Bush himself didn’t have his hands dirty; so he could plausibly make the claim.

So it’s true enough that people didn’t like the Republican scandal-mongering of the last 9 years. But then again, for the moment at least, who’s got the Oval Office, the Speaker’s gavel, and control of the Senate?

Are my eyes deceiving me or is that blood I see in the water? There’s very little question that Ted Olson lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he told them he was not involved with the Arkansas Project — the multi-year, scandal-hunting operation funded by Scaife-controlled foundations, and run through the American Spectator magazine.

(One side note here: the Spectator is now under new management (effectively, at least). And it’s my understanding that it’s cleaned up its act. I don’t mean they’ve changed their political stripes. Nor should they. But they’re now being run by folks who want to run the place the way an opinion magazine should be run — i.e., not as a propaganda chop-shop.)

Be that as it may, back to our story.

This story in today’s Washington Post, written by Tom Edsall, is the first sign this matter is really seeing the light of day.

There’s little doubt Olson was lying about his involvement with the Arkansas Project. I say this partly based on conversations with people close to the project. More importantly, though, there are just too many specific, well-documented, published reports of Olson’s involvement for him simply to be able to brush it off with a blanket denial.

This is one of those Washington Open Lies. Everyone knows it’s a lie. The question is simply whether or not he can be caught out.

And one other matter. I’m told GWB’s political strategist Karl Rove is on an under-the -radar trip around the country hunting up congressional candidates for 2002 and knocking the heads of those the White House would rather see not run. I called the White House for comment but they’re just dishing out endless ‘no comments.’

Has anyone seen Karl recently?

Nothing weans conservatives from their addiction to the truth like striking up a conversation about the estate tax.

(Yes, here at TPM we still call it the ‘estate tax.’ Call it something else and your heirs will be paying the estate tax.)

Anyway, that truth bending tendency applies to more than just Republicans.

A little while back Robert Johnson (head of Black Entertainment Television) and a number of other wealthy black executives made a splash by calling for the repeal of the estate tax and arguing that it’s particularly unfair to blacks. The estate tax, the group’s ad claimed, “will cause many of the more than one million black-owned businesses to fail or be sold.”

So basically, just when blacks and starting to build up some real wealth, here comes Uncle Sam slapping them back down with the estate tax!

Well, the ad in question was packed with so many untruths and distortions that it’s hard to know quite where to start. But one-time Talking Points minion Josh Green does a pretty good job of dispatching all of them in this just published piece in the American Prospect.

And what about those million black-owned businesses that might bite the dust because of the dreaded estate tax? Josh had a economist at NYU run the numbers.

How many black-owned businesses are likely to face estate taxation this year? 223.

P.S. And, no, that’s not 223,000, that’s 223.

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.

Here’s a thought: After the last election many Democrats were, shall we say, rather unhappy with the electoral college. Of course, the college would be exceedingly difficult to abolish since it’s a boon to small states (whose votes get weighted more highly because of it) and you’d only need thirteen of those states to oppose it to block a constitutional amendment abolishing the college.

So, it’s not going to happen.

But the constitution doesn’t specify how the states allocate their electoral votes, just how many they have. The fact that all but two states hand out their electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis is purely a matter of convention. Two states — Nebraska and Maine — already hand out their votes by congressional district. So, for instance, if you win the popular vote in Maine you get the two electors who are proxies for the state’s two Senators. But you’d have to win both of the state’s congressional districts to get the other two electors who are proxies for the state’s House members.

Got it?

Anyway, after November, some opponents of the electoral college thought this might be a way to sort of half-abolish the electoral college. To press the college, as it were, a little further down toward the popular vote. A Democrat might get completely blown out of the water in Texas, say. But he or she’d probably grab a few votes in areas where Dems were strong. And vice-versa for Republicans in New York or Pennsylvania.

There are all sorts of practical problems with getting all the states to go along. But it seemed like a good idea.

Anyway, it turns out it’s a lousy idea.

Here’s why.

A few weeks back I was interviewing conservative activist Grover Norquist for an article about conservative efforts to combat voter fraud. Like many conservatives, Norquist believes that inner-cities, particularly minority and immigrant neighborhoods, are hotbeds of voter fraud. I think this is an entirely fallacious argument, with little to no factual support. But let’s leave that aside for a moment.

Norquist has an ingenious idea: while most conservative anti-voter fraud activists want to do things like require picture IDs, abolish Motor Voter, crackdown on alleged voting by non-citizens, Norquist has a more elegant, root-and-branch approach.

He proposes changing electoral votes in precisely the way I described above. Oddly enough, he opts for what we might call a demand-side approach to the problem (this is humor for really advanced TPM readers.)

In Norquist’s view, this removes all the incentives to rack up huge majorities in the central cities with fraudulent votes since it doesn’t really matter if you win Michigan’s 14th district (Detroit) with a big turnout or a small turnout, with a big margin or a small one. You still just get the same one electoral vote.

As Norquist described it to me, this reform would end the incentive for vote fraud and “cauterize” these hotbeds of corruption and prevent the evil from spreading out into other untouched areas.

Now, let’s step back for a minute and look at what this means.

First of all this would be an unmitigated disaster for Democrats. Here’s why: Democrats routinely win states by losing many of the congressional districts by close margins and racking up huge margins in the big cities. That’s basically what happened this year in Pennsylvania where massive voter mobilizations among African-Americans and organized labor pulled the state out for Gore in Philadelphia. If you make the Norquist reform you not only change the winner, you also short-circuit the impetus for Democratic core voters to get to the polls.

The reason Dems pull elections out in the big cities isn’t, as Norquist and other right-wingers, would have it, that they practice massive vote fraud. It’s because their voters are heavily concentrated in the cities. Make the reform Norquist proposes and you instantly short-circuit all the gains Dems have made of late in get-out-the-vote efforts. And you also massively diminish the electoral strength of African-Americans and other minorities.

In other words, substitute the words ‘high minority voter turnout’ for ‘voter fraud’ and you get a pretty idea what the Norquist reform would accomplish.

Like I said, a real lousy idea.

Here’s a very interesting George Will column on the apparent craze to name everything under the sun after Ronald Reagan.

(Why’s Talking Points praising George Will? Hold on, hold on.)

The gist of the argument is that there really is no popular groundswell in favor of commemorating our 40th president. It’s really just a handful of Washington-based professional Republicans, conservative ideologues and Reagan-worshipers. And in thoroughly non-Reaganite fashion they’re using top-down, Washington-based big government to shove this all down everyone’s throats.

National Airport here in DC was recently renamed Reagan National Airport. And the latest instance of this hypocrisy is that Bob Barr, whacky right-wing congressman from Georgia, is threatening to withhold federal funds from our subway system, the Metro, unless all the subway signs and maps are reprint and reposted to say Reagan National Airport for the airport stop.

Anyway. A great hypocrisy. And a great point.

What’s even more interesting is that Talking Points’ one-time quasi- kinda sorta protege Nick Confessore wrote the same article in the New Republic EXACTLY A WEEK BEFORE WILL’s COLUMN APPEARED.

Only Nick actually did a lot of reporting — as opposed to cribbing his column from the work of a promising young opinion journalist.

(Yes, Will’s prose is more orotund and the moral is more delicately unfurled. But I say we’re really talking about the same basic point, the same basic article. You be the judge though. Here’s Nick’s piece. Here’s George’s.)

Now, truth be told, opinion journalists actually love having their material plagiarized by nationally syndicated newspaper columnists. But there’s a convention, a way it’s done and a way it’s not done. At some point in the column you write “as so-and-so recently wrote in such-and-such.” Then you’re cool. Rehash the whole column if you like. But if you don’t say that, well … that’s really not cool.

And Will, it seems, is really not cool.

I mean, George. You can’t cut Nick some slack? He’s just a sapling, man. Just starting out. You’ve gotta snag his material and not even throw him a bone? Look at that face! He’s just a kid! Look at that face. Look at that punim, as my grandma would say! Just a kid, I tell you. And you with the cushy nationally syndicated column gig can’t even give the little guy his props?

Uncool, man. Very uncool.

I mean, come clean George. Give the kid his due. Or, at least, as Tim Noah would say, tell us you “disrespected the bing”.

P.S. Let’s be clear: I am not accusing Will of word for word plagiarizing. I’m saying that the first article appeared online a week before Will’s did in a magazine, The New Republic, which is extremely widely read in DC. And they make a very, very similar argument. And use many of the same examples. It’s certainly possible that this is just a coincidence. But I think the burden of proof is very much on Will.

P.P.S. So did Nick put you up to this? Eh … maybe.

Not everyone is fronting it on their websites, but the big news today is unquestionably the report that the economy grew at a rate of 2% in the first quarter. This means the basic assumptions on which we’ve been discussing things for the last three months or so were simply wrong.

Conventional wisdom held that the economy was essentially at zero growth. Maybe a few shades below or above, but basically at a standstill. Yet the economy seems to be coming along rather nicely and actually accelerated from the last quarter of 2000.

What’s less clear is which party this benefits.

Let me also say a few brief words about the Bob Kerrey story. I should preface what I say by telling you that I don’t much like Bob Kerrey for reasons which have nothing to do with this current issue. So I’ve been reluctant to say anything about it because of my own possible bias.

Having said that, I’m inclined not to believe Kerrey’s version of events. This isn’t because I think he’s a bad guy. Just if you use Ockham’s Razor that surmise makes better sense of the evidence than his version of events.

One reason is that Kerrey’s version events doesn’t seem to merit the level of pain, agony and guilt which he says he feels. Accidentally killing civilians is tragic and horrible but it happens constantly in war. Every bomber pilot undoubtedly killed hundreds or thousands of non-combatants (or at least many more than a dozen or two). What fits better with Kerrey’s anguish is a situation in which such a massacre of civilians had a certain rationale in the given situation (the idea is that they feared these civilians would warn Viet Cong in the area and help them ambush Kerrey’s troops when they were trying to make their escape) but was nonetheless horrific and wrong.

As the new phrase Tim Noah is peddling would have it, I suspect Kerrey is “disrespecting the bing.” And if not he’s, again per Noah, “pulling a McCain.”

I haven’t read all the news accounts in question, though I’ve seen the adoring press interviews with Kerrey, so I’m not inclined to say more than this. But a number of readers have asked me to comment. So there’s my answer.

Frankly, as someone who was petrified in 1990-91 that if the Gulf War dragged on he might get drafted, I’m not inclined to judge Kerrey too harshly on the basis of ambiguous facts from a situation in which I’ve obviously never found myself. But as to what happened, I suspect there’s at least much more to tell than Kerrey is letting on.

I don’t know how else to say this. But this apparently-deserved hit piece on Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison is really, really funny.

Apparently Hutchison is, as they say, not an easy boss. And much of the piece is the standard order ‘Senator makes staff pick up spouse’s dry-cleaning’ sort of stuff.

But some of it goes beyond even that normal sort of small-time abuse of official privileges.

Like this choice snippet …

Hutchison requires a staffer to show up at her doorstep each morning with bagels and coffee and wait without knocking until the door is opened. The senator usually is driven the two blocks to her congressional office when she emerges.

I mean, what is this? Ritual humiliation? Does she make them call her Mistress Kay?

I’m happy to report that TPM is about to be written up in a number of magazine articles that will be appearing in the next month or so. But man — or at least this man — does not live by buzz alone. So here’s my brief take on the politics of Bush’s environmental policy in today’s New York Post.

Yesterday I was pedaling away on a stationary bike at my gym watching C-SPAN (yes, watching C-SPAN while working out … GET OVER IT!) when I saw Tom Daschle telling a gaggle of reporters that Bob Torricelli had denied or disavowed (maybe recanted?) a press report that he would vote for a $1.4 trillion tax cut compromise.

I didn’t know quite what to make of that until I read the Washington Post this morning.

As regular readers will remember, a while back Talking Points speculated over why Torricelli was bucking his caucus on the tax front when he had legal troubles that would make you think he needed all the friends he could get.

Well, maybe Bob’s been reading Talking Points. Or maybe his legal troubles have just gotten a whole hell of a lot worse. Because according to the Post, Torch got up yesterday in the Senate Democratic caucus meeting, protested his innocence and basically begged his colleagues to stick by him.

Ouch!

What a fun moment that must have been.

Torricelli has never been very popular with his colleagues. He’s bucked the caucus on various fronts (though he did real good for them raising money last election cycle). Having to get down on his knees and beg like that must have been rough. (The Times, for what it’s worth, has Torch sounding more combative and less pitiful.)

Which brings us back to Torricelli’s suddenly seeming to find religion on the tax issue.

Hmmm.

I can just imagine the private meeting between Torch and Tom Daschle before the Caucus met, with the one-time maverick and high-flyer in need of help from the big man. Maybe it went down like in the opening scene from one of my favorite movies, with Daschle telling Torch …

We’ve known each other many years, but this is the first time you came to me for counsel, for help. I can’t remember the last time that you invited me to your house for a cup of coffee, even though my wife is godmother to your only child. But let’s be frank here: you never wanted my friendship. And uh, you were afraid to be in my debt.

Or maybe not.

Anyway, you get the idea.

I think the Dems have another vote locked up on the tax debate.

You should take it as a given that Talking Points is involved in more or less constant communication and negotiations with wags and wonks from across the political spectrum searching for ways to stick it to the folks currently running the show at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And along those lines, here’s a thought.

It sounds like there’s ample ground for a possible meeting of the minds between certain Dems (Dems, of the TPM variety at least) and the National Greatness Conservative / Reform / McCainite wing of the GOP on the tax cut front. Here’s the idea.

Many of these NGCs aren’t too crazy about the Bush tax cut. They’re not up in arms about it exactly. But they think it’s too regressive, that it should put more emphasis on middle income families.

How about a tax cut with a substantial payroll tax rebate plus a dramatically increased and refundable child tax credit? There’s very little in that which a progressive could disagree with — at least certain progressives. It’s also across the board — every gets the payroll tax rebate and everyone with kids gets the tax credit. And for the NGCs, well, they can just see the child tax credit as a school voucher. The thought has occurred to at least one of them.

Such a package would address much of what both groups say they believe in.

Now one problem is size. How big would it be? For my part I wouldn’t have a lot of trouble with the price tag being pretty high — say in the trillion dollar range, or perhaps even a touch higher? (Don’t quote me on that — I’m still thinking it over.) But the fiscal discipline issue is a very important one for the Democrats today. Not just for substantive reasons and for its political potency but also for the way it knits together different factions within the party, the way it allows them to have something to agree on to mask over other differences.

So that’s one problem.

Another problem is that Dems may fear that if they legitimized the idea of a tax cut on that scale they’d lose one of their major arguments against the Bush plan. And they might be right.

There’s also a problem on the NGC side of the equation.

The NGCs are very much like Scoop Jackson Democrats from the 1970s — a handful of brainy thinkers, an equal number of pithy writers, and exactly one elected politician. And even that one with a questionable future.

(In fact the NGCs aren’t just like Scoop Jackson Democrats. A few who are old enough actually were Scoop Jackson Democrats. But that’s another story.)

The relevant point is that it’s not really clear what troops they can put on the field — and so far even McCain has been a no-show in the tax debate.

Still, it’s an interesting possibility.