I hesitate to take up valuable Talking Points real estate with housekeeping info. But here goes: Many readers have asked/complained (“Dear Talk”, “Dear Points”, “Dear Lord of the Point”, etc.) about not being able to give people the link to a particular post on the site – since, of course, they just keep scrolling down day after day.

People! You can already! It sounds a touch complicated. But it’s pretty easy.


Every entry is date-stamped and has it’s own unique address. So for instance this entry is January 31st 2001 at 2:24 PM – as it says in the datestamp above. So that means you take the normal address (http://talkingpointsmemo.com/index.html) and a ‘#’ and then the date and the time all run together ‘013101224pm’ like so.

So http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com> is the link to this entry.

(Note: Since this page is now archived it is no longer index.html# but jan0104.html# etc.)

Pretty cool, eh?

Next we return to the standard vital political intelligence from Talking Points. And coming soon TPM gets its own custom URL (Internet address)!

A reader raises a very interesting point which hadn’t occurred to me. The Bush team is doing something very similar with the pardon issue as they did with the now-discredited vandalism story … leak that they are looking for a way to overturn the hideous pardon of Marc Rich … leak that they’ve found a way to overturn the hideous pardon of Marc Rich … cart out George W. to say that the Marc Rich pardon is hideous, but that the former president issued the hideous Marc Rich pardon, and George W. is going to rise above it and let the pardon stand (hideous, hideous, hideous!).

Chalk another one up for the lapdogian White House press corps. A pardon’s a pardon, guys. No matter what bogus legal theory Bush’s ex-Paula Jones lawyers may have fed you, there was no way (for better or worse) that they were going to be able to undo Clinton’s pardons.


Think of this
as a memo to Democrats in the House and the Senate. (Actually — just between us — that’s exactly what it is.)

Dear Messrs. Daschle, Gephardt, et. al.:

This is important. You are rapidly losing ground in the battle to frame the debate over tax cuts. The approach you’re now pursuing utterly ignores the essential elements of the politics of taxation. Bill Clinton had an intuitive understanding of this. But sometimes it seems like he was the only one. Clinton understood that you can never run against tax cuts, per se. NEVER. And, really, why should anyone ever be able to run against tax cuts? All other things being equal, shouldn’t we all want everyone’s taxes to be as low as possible?

But that’s the point: all other things aren’t equal. It’s tax cuts or paying down the debt or saving Social Security or instituting a prescription drug benefit and so on. Clinton understood this, and acted accordingly. And he added the kicker: which is better? Prescription drugs for your mother and grandmother, or a tax cut for the wealthy who are making out great already?

Thus far Democrats have failed utterly to approach the matter in this way.

But President Bush presented Democrats with a golden opportunity yesterday when he introduced his own pinched version of a Prescription Drug Benefit Plan (PDBP). This opened up a crucial point of vulnerability. The Bush plan is not only unpopular with the public – something ably demonstrated during the late presidential campaign, but also unpopular among politicians in congress, for a host of sometimes contradictory reasons. That provides a very big opening.

You must aggressively engage the president on PDBP. It is a golden opportunity to get off your backs and fundamentally reorder the legislative terrain of the 107th congress.

All the other shenanigans you’re up to pale in comparison.

What is accomplished by pushing PDBP now and not later?

Prescription drugs is not a two-fer or a three-fer, it’s a four-fer.

1. It’s just good public policy. A prescription drug benefit under Medicare would bring one of America’s most successful social programs into the 21st century by taking account of the increasing percentage of Medical costs taken up by prescription drugs.

2. It would outflank Bush on tax cuts. The president has introduced his winnowed-down version of a prescription drug benefit. Any Democratic alternative will be more generous, more popular, and – yes – more expensive. But that’s an advantage, not a liability. The White House will charge that the Democratic plan costs too much. At which point Democrats should respond: if it costs too much that’s only because the president’s tax cuts are so large. PDBP opens up a second front in the battle over fiscal policy. This moves the debate from an abstract discussion of taxes (which is inherently unfriendly to Democrats) to one of priorities (which is inherently unfriendly to Republicans.)

3. It will stymie and possibly derail efforts to reform Medicare along the lines of the Breaux-Thomas Medicare Reform Commission (the recommendations of which would convert Medicare into a voucher program run largely by HMOs).

4. It will throw the president off his legislative schedule and inflict the first real political damage on the new administration by exposing its political priorities as ones most Americans do not share.

There’s really no time to waste.

P.S. Next post we return to the fun stuff.

Good Morning and welcome to the first Talking Points report from Davos, Switzerland and the World Economic Forum.

I arrived last night and I must admit that the crisp Swiss air does add an extra charge to the heady and far-reaching discussions we’re all having here. I’m planning on meeting up with Tom Friedman for lunch today and hopefully also reconnecting with some friends from the British Labour Party who I haven’t had a chance to speak with since the end of our presidential election. I’m also going to be attending a seminar on bridging the global digital divide, especially in sub-arctic regions where the expansion of the Internet will apparently be a great boon for economic development. Much talk here of course about the American economy and whether the new American administration will retreat toward isolation or return to the embrace of …

Okay. Look. Fine. Whatever. I’m not in Davos, Switzerland. I’m in my Du Pont Circle apartment in Washington, DC. But obviously everyone else who is anyone is in Davos. But for me – no invite. Despite my heroic efforts exposing the Bushies’ attempt to smear the out-going administration with trumped up stories of inauguration day vandalism (contained in this article in Slate) I’m clearly not a big enough player to go to the international shindig’ in the Alps.

But who cares about that nonsense!

Look. The Dems have not had a good week. But if they’re shrewd their big opportunity just opened up for them. What is it? Easy. PRESCRIPTION DRUGS. It’s a three-fer. No. Make that a four-fer. 1. Good policy. 2. Outflanks Bush’s rapidly growing momentum on taxes. 3. Stymies those who support privatizing Medicare and turning it over to HMOs. 4. Draws the first real political blood from the new administration.

What about Ashcroft?    &%$# Ashcroft! This is the real deal. That is, if the Dems know to seize the opportunity.

Well, since I grew up in California let me say a few quick words about the crazy California energy crisis. There is a growing chorus of conservative columnists who say that the crisis isn’t the result of too much deregulation but too little. (You know who they are!) It’s an argument as foolish as it is elegant.

Several California power companies face looming bankruptcy because the cost of the electricity they buy was deregulated but the prices they are allowed to sell at remained capped. So their prices skyrocketed but their revenues remained flat because they couldn’t raise their rates.

Now along come the gaggle of deregulation wiseacres who say: Wait a minute. Of course this isn’t working! You can’t half-way deregulate. You have to do it or not do it. Deregulate all the prices or none. If you hadn’t left in the caps on utility rates, prices would has risen, the whole system would have stabilized, and these utilities wouldn’t be on the brink of going under and dragging the whole state with them.

This is true, of course. But assertions can be true, and irrelevant, and even moronic all at the same time. And this one certainly qualifies.

You don’t get consumers to vote for deregulation by telling them their prices will go up. You entice them by telling them their prices will go down. And thus to make sure they’re not being hoodwinked voters will often require some guarantees. And thus the caps.

If rates were going to skyrocket, why do it in the first place?

Now the dereg floggers will argue that once all the magic of the market got going, incentives would kick in, new production would come on line, and prices would just fall and fall and fall.

Don’t bet on it.

Lots of my lefty friends can’t get the logic of markets through their skulls and refuse to see the benefits of market forces in many aspects of economic life. Phones are the key example, of course. But the applicability of market forces to all aspects of economic life is a classic bogey for high-IQ simpletons whose minds are apparently not big enough for more than one good idea.

Phones are one thing; electricity is different. Why is electricity different? More on that later.

No inside info. Just a hunch. Between 40 and 44 Democrats vote against John Ashcroft for Attorney General. But a critical portion of that number refuses to support a filibuster (Daschle, Leahy, et.al.). So after several days of slashing and acrimonious debate, Ashcroft is confirmed.

P.S. Could pushing still make a difference? Yup.

YES! Finally, Andrew Sullivan has risen to my provocations and lambasted me on his web site. Finally! And just when I was thinking of ditching this whole Talking Points racket!

As regular Talking Points readers will remember, I recently issued a very gentle and genteel diatribe against the increasingly shrill and rightward lurch of Sullivan’s recent writings about Al Gore, George W. Bush and the Florida recount. But this wasn’t about that.

Yesterday on his site Sullivan was dishing out DC’s recent conventional wisdom which says that the final rush of Clinton mini-scandals has pushed even the Clintons’ most dogged defenders past the point of forgiveness. He said …

I have yet to meet a single Democrat who isn’t sickened to his stomach by the excrescence of Clinton’s pardons, and by the puerile vandalism of the White House in the last hours of the old regime. Maybe they finally, finally get what some of us have been banging on about for years. [itals added]

Now today Sullivan has this post …

DUMB BUT NOT DISGUSTING: The American Prospect’s Joshua Micah Marshall, a rising star on the intellectual Left, emails to say he doesn’t find the use of presidential pardons as political pay-back/fund-raising tool to be beyond the pale. Just dumb – not disgusting. Dumb, presumably, because the Clintons didn’t get away with it! And this is the face of the idealistic Left these days. I emailed Josh to ask him what exactly would evoke disgust in him. He said, cryptically, “something disgusting.” Welfare reform? Prayer in schools? A tax cut? – 1/27/2001 02:23:59 PM

First let’s stipulate to a few points. Yeah, I really liked the “rising star” line. No question.

But ‘of the Left’? Please! As those who know me know, I’m anything but ‘of the Left.’ And it’s caused me no end of professional grief. But that’s another story.

Back to the post.

So basically what I said was that the pardon wasn’t disgusting just dumb – because they got caught.

Wow. I do sound pretty bad, don’t I? But is that really what I said? That it wasn’t disgusting, just dumb? That the only problem was that they got caught? Really?

But, hey, why argue? Let’s go the tapes!

Exhibit 1:


Date: 9:28 PM EST, 1/26/01
To: Andrew Sullivan
From: Joshua Micah Marshall
Subject:

not quite universal. even i’m bummed by the two stories. but no disgust.

Exhibit 2:


Date: 12:36 AM EST, 1/27/01
To: Joshua Micah Marshall
From: Andrew Sullivan
Subject: Re:

what would it take for you to feel disgust?

Exhibit 3:

Date: 12:39 AM EST, 1/27/01
To: Andrew Sullivan
From: Joshua Micah Marshall
Subject: Re:

something disgusting

At 12:36 AM 1/27/01 -0500, you wrote:
what would it take for you to feel disgust?

End of exhibits

First of all, let me stipulate to one point: I thought my rejoinder was pretty damn clever. You know, concise, punchy, tautological yet enigmatic, understated but in-your-face. You’d think an Englishman would like it! But I guess not. Anyway, back to our story.

I thought conservatives were supposed to be strict textualists! Don’t you think our friend Andrew maybe embroidered what I said just a smidgen for poetic/dramatic effect? Just a wee-bit maybe? I kinda think so. But I’ll let you be the judge.

(Note: Friends and readers should rest assured I would never publish their email without their permission. But, in this case, I think Andrew’s selective publication of my email gives me license.)

So what do I think of these “two stories”? Well, as I’ve noted in posts below, the vandalism story is quickly shaping up to be pretty much bogus. And, I would hope, an embarrassment for everyone who fell for a heap for unsubstantiated and self-serving leaks from the Bushies. As for the Marc Rich pardon, well that looks pretty bad to me. But disgusted? Sick to my stomach? No, not really. I can be disappointed in someone I like and still be free of digestive difficulties.

Anyway, we’re not so dissimilar, are we Andrew? Isn’t the real difference that I feel disappointment in someone I like and you feel vindication in the misdeeds of someone you hate? Isn’t the difference purely situational?

But, Andrew, let’s push all this textual analysis mumbo-jumbo aside. Let’s debate Clintonism and Clinton!

You’ll be ranting on about thin words like shabbiness and tawdriness. And I’ll be saying, who gives a #&@% and going on with arguments like the one I made here. You’ll be splenetic and over-heated and I’ll be jocular and whimsical. Trust me, it’ll be great. First of all, I’ll get all sorts of residual traffic from your site since my site is small-time and feeble and your site … well, your site is huge because you get to go plug it on shows like Nightline and that weird show Jeff Greenfield does on CNN.

And, on top of that, this might develop into a genuine ‘feud’ or ‘dispute’ between writers. Yes, yes, yes, I know you’re big-time and I’m small-time. But that’s okay. This could help me become big-time. Trust me, it’ll work. I’m starting to feel like Edmund Wilson or Walter Lippman or Norman Mailer already!

P.S. Are those emails you posted really authentic? You bet they are. All I did was take out the addresses.

P.P.S. Are you really upset about Sullivan’s post? No, of course not. Actually I appreciated it. I was honored. So why the long response? Hey, that’s what you do on these personal political web sites! It’s all whimsy, all drama. Sullivan’s been very kind to me. I’m still hoping he comes to my birthday party next month.

Now the backtracking begins.

A few Clintonites, back from weeks in the Bahamas or drowning their sorrows in gin or whatever, have stepped forward to ask the White House’s new occupants to put up or shut up. And there seems to be more shutting up than putting up.

Read the Post and CNN stories to get the details. But basically it seems like all we’re talking about is removal of ‘w’s from the keyboards of some computers by a few of Al Gore’s twenty-something staffers and the posting of a few gag signs like “The Office of Strategerie.”

As the Post quoted some Clinton staffers as saying:

Former West Wing officials said they agreed that these pranks, which they attributed primarily to aides to former vice president Al Gore, were in questionable taste. But they said these lapses were a far cry from property destruction and an exception to the efforts the Clinton team generally made for a smooth transition.

Now let me try out my own alternative narrative of this story and do let me know if I’m far off the mark …

PART I: New administration comes into office and finds a some isolated gags and pranks left for them by the departing administration – a few gag signs, removal of some ‘w’s from keyboards. They take these and systematically exaggerate or fabricate all manner of other alleged infractions including widespread cutting of utility wires, leaving of pornographic material, lewd graffiti on White House office walls, theft of miscellaneous property, over-turned desks, vandalism of miscellaneous office property by gluing things shut, ‘trashing’ of offices, leaving of computer viruses on White House computers, and so on.

PART II: These stories are then aggressively leaked to the press by the new occupants of the White House (including senior staffers in the new administration) – all on a non-attribution basis. The White House press secretary elliptically confirms most of the story but couches it in self-serving statements to the effect that the new president wants to look to the future and not the past and will not support any prosecutions for the alleged offenses.

PART III: The whole scenario rather transparently fits into the new administration’s spin about the difference between it and the former administration – with lush evocations of pettiness, immaturity, obscenity, and lawlessness. But, surprisingly, the city’s porcine political press takes the ball and runs with it, without forcing any of the leakers to speak on the record, provide systematic documentation of the alleged infractions, or even provide physical evidence to document the offenses.

PART IV: Story begins to hemorrhage and then collapse for lack of evidence. Press moves on to next story. No questions asked.

Am I missing something here?

I asked before why the DC political press let’s itself get led around by the nose like this. But, honestly, I already know.

As long as the Bushies are leaking so much about the trashing of the White House, why no pictures? Why no specific cataloguing of what was done? Why no one on the record with specifics? Isn’t this a put up or shut up type situation?

They can’t exactly say they don’t want to dwell on the past since they’re dwelling on it plenty with every reporter and right-wing hack in town.

When I first heard these stories about pranks and defacements at the White House from departing Clintonites, I confess, I felt a touch embarrassed. But if the Bushies are so keen on looking forward and not dwelling on the past, then why are they leaking about this to the media so profusely?

Karl Rove apparently leaked to various reporters that he had discovered a “hidden vanity mirror” in a bookcase in his new office – the office previously occupied by Hillary Clinton.

Isn’t this a bit transparent? Lemme guess tomorrow’s leak: sources close to Rove report he found secret bitch supplies apparently used by the former First Lady.

Come on! Isn’t news about Karl Rove being an $%#hole news about Karl Rove, and not the former First Lady?

And it’s very high-minded of the Bushies not to “prosecute” anyone for leaving cartoon pictures of George W. in printer trays. Please!

How does the political press get led around by the nose like this?

Sad to say it, but the Democrats seem to be losing the tactical battle to frame the tax cut debate. And there’s simply no reason for it. Alan Greenspan’s testimony yesterday is a setback. But it needn’t have been and still needn’t be a major one.

Every news story over the last month which points to support for a tax cut is chalked up as a victory for the president. Dick Gephardt says he’s for a tax cut; so that’s a victory for Bush. Alan Greenspan says he supports a major tax cut; so that’s a victory for Bush.

But wait. Al Gore ran on a platform which supported a major tax cut. Not a megalithic one like Bush’s. But one in the neighborhood of $500 billion. And for anyone who knows jack about economics, Gore’s tax cut would have a greater short-to-medium term impact on the economy than Bush’s since Gore’s is focused on people who tend to spend the extra money rather than save it. (Whether navigating recessions is better done through monetary or fiscal policy is another matter entirely).

So the Republicans aren’t the only ones supporting a tax cut. And, yes, you can find Dems who make these arguments. But that’s just not how it’s playing in the press. So the Dems tax cut talk is just trees falling in the forest.

Another point. As president Clinton ably demonstrated, you can never run against tax cuts per se. Never. You can make political arguments about who benefits from them. Or you can make arguments about priorities – tax cuts versus ‘saving social security’ or paying down the debt, etc. And why shouldn’t that be so? All other things being equal, shouldn’t we all be for everyone’s taxes being as low as possible? I think we should.

But that’s the point. All other things aren’t equal. Too often Democrats get tangled up in abstract arguments about equity or spending qua spending. This will choke off all possibilities for activist government, etc. etc. etc. (Traditional libs will complain most about losing this tax cut debate. But they’re actually most responsible for the problem.)

The conventional wisdom seems to dictate now that the public just isn’t interested in major new government spending and thus – with the debt pay-off argument receding – the Dems have no available arguments at their disposal.

But this is foolish. With Bush arguing that Social Security and Medicare need to be reformed because baby-boomers are going to bankrupt the programs, isn’t the issue money? If the programs are in such a bind why cut their potential sources of new revenue? Or let’s think more immediately. How about a prescription drug benefit under Medicare? It’s real popular. And, trust me, it’ll cost a ton of money. So why not line up prescription drugs against tax cuts. The Dems’ half a trillion dollar tax cut and a prescription drug benefit for your parents and grandparents versus Bush’s cut for his wealthy campaign contributors (and, yes, our wealthy campaign contributors too). That sounds like good politics, doesn’t it?

Ironically, the folks at the DLC (who I skewered in an article in the current issue of The New Republic) are actually the one’s doing the most to get out in front of Bush in a tactically intelligent and principled fashion. But no one seems to be listening.

Anyway, I know I’m not the only one to think of these things. But it’s not getting translated politically and there’s really no time to lose. This ain’t rocket science; but for most Dems you’d think it was advanced Relativity Theory.

Someone call Chappaqua! I think we need the old guy back. At least to call the shots.

Okay, so who’s on this list of Senate Dems who are thinking of running for President in 2004 …

John Kerry:  thinks it’s gonna happen, could happen

John Edwards:  everybody loves him, we’ll see

Joe Lieberman:  Talking Points likes him, we’ll see how he does

Joe Biden:  not a bad guy, maybe the first time was just a run through

Evan Bayh:  thinks it’s gonna happen, not gonna happen

Tom Daschle:  just a small, small chance he runs

Paul Wellstone:  great guy, no chance, may run

Bob Torricelli:  may be deluding himself into thinking it’s gonna happen, it’s not

Dick Durbin:  the dark horse

What? No Hillary? You got it. Read this to see why.

And outside the Senate? Bob Kerrey (it really ain’t gonna happen) and TPM’s one and only, Al Gore (ahhhh … we can dream).

We’ll be talking more about this list?

Hey, now that I’ve been reminded of John Ashcroft’s rationale for opposing James Hormel’s ambassadorial nomination, I think I understand what his problem was with Judge Ronnie White. He didn’t oppose White because he was black, he opposed him because he promoted the black lifestyle.

Don’t get it? Read this.

Seems like the New York Times got it wrong about Tom Daschle … And it sounds like Ari Fleischer got it really, really wrong by trying to play Daschle in the press by quoting his alleged assurance to president Bush that Bush would get each of his nominees.

Of course, it’s also possible that Daschle did give Bush an assurance and is now just backpedaling like crazy.

But, hey, same difference.

In his press conference today he seemed pretty unhappy with the White House …

I would hope that the administration would not make it a habit of quoting me. And if they do, I would hope that we (sic) would get it right

He later said that the quote in the Times was “not my message to the president yesterday.”

Now, having said that, Daschle said that what he did say both privately and publicly was that “we will not filibuster any nomination.”

Now, obviously if the Dems are not going to filibuster any nomination then that really does amount to a guarantee that Ashcroft gets confirmed since no one thinks 51 senators are going to vote against him. So, if Daschle is serious about this, his statement against a filibuster is tantamount to an assurance.

But how locked in is Daschle to opposing a filibuster?

What it means is that I will discourage Democratic filibusters, but it doesn’t mean that any one of my colleagues may not still make the effort. It’s not my expectation that there will be one. I have indicated I will oppose one if one were to occur. But again, I would reiterate, that’s a matter left to each of my colleagues.

So what the hell is actually going on here? My assumption is that Daschle told Bush he wouldn’t lead a filibuster against Ashcroft – which is tantamount to an assurance, since he can only be defeated by a filibuster. Rove and Fleischer and Hughes (and maybe even Bush if they let him in the planning session) figured they’d interpret Daschle’s statement broadly and try to nudge him a bit or play him in the press to push things along.

That made Daschle, to put it mildly, look real bad in the eyes of his caucus and just about everyone else; and he flipped.

The real story? This was amateurish ball by the Bush crew. And it’ll hurt them.

What to make of this New York Times article which says Tom Daschle assured George Bush that he’d get his nominees approved?

Bush Press Secy. Ari Fleischer quoted Daschle to that effect; and Daschle’s office, according to the Times, didn’t dispute it.

This is very choreographed, isn’t it?

There’s obviously some complicated footwork taking place here, especially considering the growing anti-Ashcroft mood in the Dem caucus. (See the article linked above for harsh words from Judiciary Committee member Sen. Dianne Feinstein re: Ashcroft.)

The clearest explanation of what’s going on here is that Daschle is signaling to Dems in and out of congress not to get their hopes up that Ashcroft is going to get filibustered.

But this still isn’t the final word. Look who we’re dealing with.

Hey, look! The Ashcrometer just took a tumble from 82% chance of confirmation to 69%. Okay, okay, I admit, it’s still pretty damn likely he gets confirmed. But the last few days have not been particularly good ones for Ashcroft.

The big news of course is that Democrats have forced a delay of at least one week in a vote on Ashcroft. The New York Times came out strongly against the nomination. And there are some rumors swirling around Capitol Hill about possible surprises. But I don’t expect anything on that front.

But the real issue is a simple hardening of resolve on the part of the Democratic caucus. Evan Bayh’s stated opposition to the nomination probably brings with it most of the other Democrats who have even the slightest thoughts of running for president in four years. (Joe Biden was on Hardball this evening and left little doubt he was voting against.) The number of announced ‘no’ votes is currently six. But the actual number of assured ‘no’ votes is probably closer to 25. (One senate staffer told me yesterday that after the Democrats’ caucus meeting yesterday his senator thought the Dems would do well to get 25 ‘no’ votes against Ashcroft. But that doesn’t sound right to me. Also, expect some high profile announcements next Tuesday.)

On the other hand several key Senators who seem inclined to vote against Ashcroft’s nomination have stated publicly that they won’t support a filibuster. Among others, these include Pat Leahy, Jean Carnahan and Tom Daschle.

So why the delay? Hard to tell. The best answer I can come up with is that you’ve got a number of senators who are truly undecided and find themselves in an extremely difficult position, namely – Tim Johnson, Max Cleland, Mary Landrieu, and a number of others. These are Senators who come from states where they have to downplay their party affiliation. The idea of getting dragged into a filibuster that has Teddy Kennedy’s name all over it is very frightening for these guys (and gal) and for good reason. The last two, Cleland and Landrieu, also have the misfortune of serving with senior Senators who are signaling support for Ashcroft and thus making their situation that much harder.

(Note: Technically, Max Cleland is the senior senator from Georgia. But Cleland isn’t particularly well liked back home among party regulars; he’s in a heap of trouble in his reelection bid; and Miller is both chronologically older and a powerhouse of Georgia politics. So, in effect, Miller is the senior senator.)

Tom Daschle, both as Democratic Leader and as someone who himself comes from a conservative state, is very sensitive to the difficult spot these senators face and he’s clearly trying to give them as much space and freedom as he can to make a decision they can live with.

So here’s the question: If Dems are going to have a hard time getting to forty ‘no’ votes, and if even some of those ‘no’ votes won’t support a filibuster, how exactly do you figure Ashcroft actually gets rejected?

Answer: If you assume all these contingencies then there’s no way Ashcroft gets rejected. But my strong sense at this point is that these contingencies are far from locked in. A number of non-scandal, but possibly important, stories are bubbling to the surface (like this one) which touch upon Ashcroft’s candor during the committee hearings. The mood seems to be gravitating strongly against Ashcroft in the Democratic caucus. And the delay itself shows that the Dems feel time is on their side.

It may just be.

By waiting, the Senate Democrats likely insure something close to an even partisan split on the Ashcroft vote which, politically, they feel works to their advantage. And with things so evenly they balanced, they figure, one more shoe drops and his nomination is sunk. So either way, they feel it’s a win on partisan terms.

And one more thing. Daschle and the rest of the Democratic leadership clearly feels it’s extremely important that the Democratic base not feel they caved, even if they’re not able to block the nomination. So taking their time helps in that regard too.

So that’s your utterly disorganized and formless Talking Points run-down of where we are on the Ashcroft nomination. And why the Ashcrometer stands at 69% likelihood of confirmation.

P.S. For those of you who feel disappointed that the Dems aren’t fighting hard enough on this one, consider this: My sense is that Tom Daschle’s hand is controlling the big picture here. And for what it’s worth I’ve got immense confidence that Daschle has a very good sense of what is in the best medium and long term interests of the Democratic party and the principles and issues Democrats believe in. So just keep that in mind. Also, see this excellent recent article on Daschle for more info.

Is something brewing on the Ashcroft front?

Maybe so. Maybe so … Check back this evening for a Talking Points update.

Okay, what do Senator Zell Miller (D-GA) and William of Ockham have in common?

You know, William of Ockham … As in Ockham’s Razor? … What? You don’t know what Ockham’s Razor is?!?! Geeeeezz!!! Okay, okay, don’t worry, Talking Points will hook you up.

William of Ockham was a fourteenth century scholastic philosopher most remembered as the originator of what came to be known as Ockham’s Razor. The Razor is a logical principle which states that “plurality should not be posited without necessity.”

And what the hell does that mean? Basically it means that when a question needs answering the simplest explanation which covers all the data is the preferable one. Albert Einstein had a more aphoristic way of stating this principle when talking about scientific hypotheses. “Everything should be as simple as possible,” he said, “but not simpler.” (Smart guy that Einstein!)

Anyway Talking Points thinks Ockham’s Razor rocks and he uses it all the time to find clarity through the muck of political obfuscation. Ockham’s Razor helped Galileo demonstrate that his simple heliocentric model of the solar system was better than the weird-ass Ptolemaic system which the Middle Ages had inherited form Antiquity. And today you yourself can use Ockham’s Razor to show that Evan Bayh is voting against John Ashcroft and Russ Feingold may vote for him because Evan Bayh wants to run for president and Russ Feingold doesn’t. (Get that last one?)

Now you are probably asking yourself: where the hell is Talking Points going with this William of Ockham crap?

Bear with me!

Let’s go back to our original question. What do Senator Zell Miller and William of Ockham have in common?

Answer? Not a damn thing. Because even with the clarifying magic of Ockham’s Razor there’s nothing that can explain why the new Georgia Senator is practically falling over himself to carry water for George W. Bush.

Last week Miller was the first Senate Democrat to officially announce he’d be voting to confirm John Ashcroft. That at least was understandable on political grounds. In a state like Georgia you get points for standing up to liberal, Washington-based interest groups. But yesterday Miller announced he was cosponsoring George W.’s megalithic tax cut with Phil Gramm.

Even a lot of Republicans are telling Bush that that just ain’t gonna happen. Most people didn’t even think Miller wanted to run for another term in the Senate. But if he does, he won’t be up again till 2004. Bush’s tax cut isn’t even all that popular in Georgia. So it’s hard to figure why Miller needs to back it to cover his right flank. And certainly he doesn’t need to cosponsor it.

So why is he doing it?

That’s what I mean: no one knows! Talking Points checked with some conservative Southern Dems today and some other folks from Georgia and even they can’t figure out what Miller’s up to. He couldn’t find anyone to defend Miller’s course. And it’s not even like Miller was all that conservative during his two terms as governor of Georgia. By Southern standards he was pretty progressive.

The only thing Talking Points could come up with was this: When Miller was appointed to serve out the term of the late Paul Coverdell, a Republican, he kept on some of Coverdell’s staff. (Miller and Coverdell were actually close friends.) In particular, he kept on Coverdell’s Senior Policy Advisor, Alex Albert. In December, after Miller had won election in his own right, he appointed Albert his Chief of Staff. Coverdell was very tight with Phil Gramm and pretty much all the rest of more partisan Republicans.

Maybe Albert’s just got Miller’s ear. But it’s hard to Zell.

When Talking Points first fired up his computer this morning he saw all the articles about the new ethical standards Bush is putting in place for his team. It’s a bit of a slap at the Clinton folks. But it’s also become something of a ritual for incoming administrations. Clinton instituted a bunch of new ethics guidelines when he came in too.

But then he looked a little closer. There don’t appear to be any new ethical guidelines. Bush just told his crew “to stay well within the boundaries that define legal and ethical conduct.”

Why hasn’t anyone pointed this out?

Basically Bush got the ball rolling with a gratuitous, but contentless, slap at the outgoing administration.

Imagine that.

How’s this for a description of Bush’s bipartisanship and ‘reaching out’?

For Bush, bipartisanship means something like this: Here’s our program, here’s what we want to do, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re not shunning you. We invite you to come join us.

The Bush line on race is much the same: Here’s us. These are our programs and our people. But we’re not shunning you. We invite you to join us.

Look how this works. Bush is outlining a down-the-line conservative legislative agenda – but he welcomes Democratic support. He appointed an attorney general who is anathema to most African-Americans – but he is also “reaching out” to them.

Not being shunned is certainly preferable to being shunned. But in everyday life we have another name for this kind of attitude: We call it condescension.

Want more? See the whole thing in today’s New York Post.

Say it ain’t so. But it is so. The Ashcrometer, sadly, jumps up to a perilous 82% chance of confirmation. And, truth be told, it may warrant being higher than that.

It’s not that Zell Miller of Georgia has announced he’ll vote for Ashcroft that’s such a big deal. The Dems don’t need 50 votes on this one, just forty. And a surprising number of the Senators who are inclined to vote against Ashcroft’s nomination seem just as willing to vote to sustain a filibuster. The only problem is that there don’t seem to be forty of them out there. At least not quite.

Talking Points talked to staffers in the offices of a number of centrist Dems today and quite a few are still unwilling to say what they’re going to do – even way off the record. Apparently they still want to see how these last few days sink in before sticking their neck out on Ashcroft.

Tom Daschle’s stated unwillingness to participate in a filibuster is going to be key for a lot of these wavering members. And some speculate that Daschle’s unwillingness to go to the mat on Ashcroft may have at least tacitly been a part of the very successful negotiations he carried out with Trent Lott over power-sharing in the Senate.

Having said all that, the Senate Dems whom one might expect to vote for Ashcroft are Zell Miller, John Breaux, Max Baucus, Kent Conrad, Tim Johnson, Evan Bayh … in the very possible category Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln and Max Cleland. Obviously that doesn’t get you under forty. But, hey, that’s just what Talking Points is hearing.

People of Earth, we come in peace …

(Translation: Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.)

More news soon from the scene of the festivities.

Ya know. From the sound of it, John Ashcroft is going to be such a staunch defender and enforcer of gun-control laws, abortion rights, and civil rights, that you sorta wonder why right-wingers want him so bad.

Is Ashcroft a lib now? Or is there some disconnect here? Or is Ashcroft just completely full of crap – and Senate Dems aren’t doing a lousy job catching him out on it?

My, my. Democrats do seem to be pushing Andrew Sullivan right off the deep end. They’re pushing all his buttons. Pat Leahy’s a hypocrite. Ted Kennedy’s a hypocrite. There’s apparently no decent reason to vote against John Ashcroft at all. Sullivan has even picked up the Republican talking point comparing Janet Reno’s confirmation to John Ashcroft’s. Does anyone honestly think that Janet Reno was as ideological or extreme an appointment as John Ashcroft? Does Reno deviate from the centerpoint of American politics to the left just as much as Ashcroft does to the right?

Really. This doesn’t even pass the laugh test, does it? That doesn’t mean Ashcroft should be voted down. But let’s do keep some quality control on the analogies, okay?

(I won’t call Sullivan a friend, because I’ve only met him a couple times and corresponded with him briefly by email. But when I have met him he’s been very kind and generous. So that’s my two bits in that regard.)

For the last several weeks, on his very entertaining and insightful website, Sullivan has been pounding away at anyone and everyone who thinks something untoward happened in Florida, and even more ferociously whacking away at those who think that what happened in Florida should inform how Democrats treat Bush’s presidency.

He takes particular aim at Rick Hertzberg (writing in the New Yorker) and Michael Sandel (writing in the New York Times) both of whom argue that George W. Bush isn’t just any president and that Senate Democrats have both the right and the obligation to compel Bush to provide the moderate governance he promised during the campaign.

(Actually, I made much the same point, albeit more briefly, about six weeks ago in the New York Post. But, hey! That’s just a right-wing tab, so it doesn’t get so much attention. Anyway, back to our story …)

In passing, Sullivan notes the “unprecedented way in which Gore and his trial-lawyers tried to overturn the result of a presidential election through legal maneuvering” and generally ridicules the process of unofficial recounts going on down in Florida, especially the use of “the most liberal standards imaginable” for counting ballots – standards which, improbably, ended up giving Bush a few extra votes in Miami-Dade county this week.

Is it really irrelevant that half a million more Americans voted for Al Gore than for George Bush? Doesn’t this and the Democrats’ gains in the Senate call for and justify some added scrutiny of Bush’s decision-making from those 50 Senate Dems? Anything else is sour grapes and cheating. The Democrats, according to Sullivan, are the ones playing at the edges of a coup.

Obviously, this stuff just makes my blood boil … errr, Talking Points’ blood boil … errr, whatever. But, anyway, I’ve tried to give some thought to precisely why it does so. And now I think I’ve found out.

Sullivan’s election model seems to be symbolic procedural formalism. It really doesn’t matter how we got to Bush’s inauguration. What matters is that we’re there! If he got there with the most votes or the second-to-most votes. Or whether some people weren’t allowed to vote. Or whether some others were allowed to vote but then didn’t have their votes counted. This is all just ingredients tossed in the stew. Now let’s just eat!

And anyway, if you wanted to vote so bad, why didn’t you push the chad all the way through! Look, we had an election, everyone could vote, if %&$@# got weird, well, come on’, an election’s an election. Bush won and that’s the end of it.

But an election isn’t just symbolism. It’s not an ordeal or a trial by fire. The underlying democratic process actually matters. Everybody gets to have their say, and then you count up the says, and whoever gets the most says wins. It’s not shoddy or indulgent to actually try to find out what people said. That’s the point!

True, a ‘ballot’ doesn’t automatically become a ‘vote.’ But it should come pretty damn close.

Yes, George W. Bush gets to become president, with all the powers of the office. But this isn’t the same as popular legitimation. And doesn’t our constitutional system have enough play and flexibility in it (with things like the Senate’s “advise and consent” authority) to grapple even with odd and unprecedented situations like these?

Which got me thinking … Is this that whole difference between virtual representation, which the Brits are into, and actual representation, which the Americans like?

You know, like during the American Revolution when the colonists said you actually had to be able to vote in order to actually be represented. (A radical concept!) Maybe that’s where he gets this from.

But didn’t we fight a war over this? Isn’t this one settled? Hasn’t anyone told him?

P.S. Do you hope Sullivan will take this whole thing in good humor? I certainly hope so … And if he attacks you in print and drives gobs of people to your website? That’s the fallback … But does he even read Talking Points? Good point, probably not.

No movement on the Ashcrometer today. Still holding steady at 75% chance of confirmation.

But did you notice how Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (one of the most underrated senators, in Talking Points’ book) caught Ashcroft in a lie, and called him on it?

Sure, he didn’t put it quite so baldly. But … well, let me just get to the story.

The latest Republican angle is to frame the confirmation debate as though John Ashcroft’s critics were saying that he either has the wrong religion (he’s Pentecostal) or that he is too religious. So John Ashcroft becomes just one more potential victim in the on-going persecution of white Christian conservatives.

Here Orrin Hatch implies that some senators may be doing just that and Ashcroft responds with a self-serving, lametonian response.

HATCH: Doesn’t matter to me whether you’re Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, whatever, or an atheist or agnostic. I’m sure that goes for–I hope that I’m sure that that goes to the rest of our fellow senators. In fact, the Constitution of the United States specifically forbids religious qualifications for office.

Now, having gone through that type of, I think, offensive criticism, which is continuing right up to today, is there anything in your religious beliefs that would impair you from faithfully and fully fulfilling your responsibilities as attorney general of the United States?

ASHCROFT: Well, I don’t believe it’s appropriate to have a test based on one’s religion for a job. I think Article V of the Constitution makes that clear.

Please!

A short time later Senator Leahy tried to clear up the libel Hatch had slipped into his remarks.

LEAHY: I just would not want to leave one of the questions from my friend from Utah to give the wrong impression to the people here and just, sort of, make it very clear. Have you heard any senator, Republican or Democrat, suggest that there should be a religious test on your confirmation?

ASHCROFT: No senator has said, “I will test you,” but a number of senators have said, “Will your religion keep you from being able to perform your duties in office?”

LEAHY: I’m amazed at that.

ASHCROFT: Pardon?

LEAHY: Well, I’m amazed at that …

Yeah, me too.

You’d like to nudge down the Ashcrometer in honor of Martin Luther King Day. But it’s not to be.

Today the Ashcrometer holds steady at 75% chance of confirmation.

P.S. Another update soon on the filibuster option.

Talking Points has been worried for some time about over-playing George W. Bush’s militant provincialism and penchant for verbal gaffes. (Really. No kidding, he has.)

Can’t this just be a dressed-up form of cultural or regional pretension? Liberals wasted no end of time harping on Ronald Reagan’s lack of intellectual curiosity and culture.

And what good did it do them? Not much. At best it further alienated them from their one time base of support among middling working families in the Midwest and the Northeast. And to some extent with good reason.

Still, it’s hard to ignore the signs that our new president is an imbecile.

On NBC’s Dateline, Tom Brokaw asked Bush if any White House invitation to Scalia could be construed as some sort of payback for handing him the presidency. Here’s how Reuters reported the conversation:

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I do like him. (But) I guess we’re going to have to scratch him off the invitation list now,” he replied to interviewer Tom Brokaw.

When his wife Laura Bush protested that it was perfectly normal for the president and first lady to host the Supreme Court, Bush interrupted, saying, “He just teasing…”

“He was just trying to make sure Anthony didn’t get a good meal,” Bush said, correcting himself quickly, “Antonio.”

But neither name was quite right.

The first name of the man appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 by former President Ronald Reagan is “Antonin.”

Is this some sort of cultural jujitsu? Is he suckering us into looking like East Coast, elitist snobs?

Unfortunately, no big news today from the Sunday talk shows, so the Ashcrometer falls only a measly two points — to a clean 75% chance of confirmation.

At the same time, all the Democratic Senators who were saying nice things about Ashcroft have fallen silent. And a number that have always been silent have all but decided to oppose him.

The Conventional Wisdom in Washington still leans overwhelmingly in Ashcroft’s favor. But Ronnie White’s testimony will throw a heavy dose of volatility and unpredictability into the mix. And polls have already shown real misgivings about Ashcroft’s nomination. In other words, strong shifts in public opinion could change the calculus rapidly and dramatically.

The real question now is whether the Senate Democratic caucus is willing to kill Ashcroft’s nomination with a filibuster (i.e., with forty votes).

Talking Points three Democratic senators to watch are Joe Lieberman, Max Cleland, and Evan Bayh. They’ll tell the story.

More on why soon.