Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

With the vandalism story turning so clearly against them, the White House has now decided to strike back.

According to this story in the Washington Post, someone at the White House went around late last week collecting "recollections of officials and career government employees" and wrote up a list on Friday. (This was in response to queries from the Post.)

A few points seem worth making. Presumably this is the maximal argument, considering that this is the best news-cycle moment for the White House to turn the tide on the story. Even at that, it's pretty weak stuff. And at the risk of stating the obvious, none of this is any more substantiated than it was before. Ari Fleischer has a list. None of the people who saw the stuff have come forward to make the claims and answer questions. With the exception of two snapshots of the White House counsel's office which the Post said showed the place with "lot of trash but no discernible damage," they have produced no evidence.

In fact most of the accusations are worded in a broad and inflammatory fashion -- but in a way that is quite short of specifics.

There was "obscene graffiti in six offices." Well, just what did it say? Are they talking about the Office of Strategery signs?

Or what about the "Pornographic or obscene greetings ... left on 15 telephone lines"? Just what did they say? Were these just harmless jokes? Like the stuff the Bushies left for the Clinton's eight years earlier? Or things that were actually nasty or obscene?

Many of the accusations seem at least as easy to explain in terms of disorganization and confusion as intentional mischief. Fleischer reported that 75 phone lines were tampered with. But this meant "having the number plates removed and the lines plugged into the wrong wall outlet."

What we have here are accusations and, truthfully, most are either vague to the point of meaningless or just too pitiful to even mention. In this latter category you'd have to include the mention of the "two historic doorknobs [that] were missing."

(Note To Mike Allen: did Ari say that line about the historic doorknobs with a straight face? Did you ask for any more details? Is this "doorknob-gate" now? Or, given that it centers on Fleischer, maybe just knob-gate?)

For my part, nothing in the Post article changes the essential facts or merits of the case. It only shows Fleischer and company's willingness to compound the original slander. "We tried to be gracious, but the last administration would not take graciousness," Fleischer told the Post.

Fleischer's explanation for why they didn't tell any of this to folks at the GAO also sounds fishy:

Bernard L. Ungar, the agency's director of physical infrastructure issues, said in an interview that White House officials had told him some items "had to be repaired, such as telephones and computer keyboards, but that there was no record of damages."

Fleischer said the agency had only "asked us if we had anything in writing to provide."

"The answer is 'no' because we did not keep track in writing -- consciously so, because the president wanted to look forward and not look backward," Fleischer said.

Yeah. Right.

Leaving aside Fleischer's again-repeated, risible claim that was trying to tamp down the story, not elevate it, here's what we know: an administration which campaigned on and flaunted its conspicuous honesty started its term in office with a orchestrated campaign of lies. His press secretary (and numerous White House officials and Republican operatives) started his administration job off by deceiving the admittedly credulous White House press corps and participating in an orchestrated campaign to slander his predecessors.

An administration which campaigned on and flaunted its conspicuous honesty started its term in office with a orchestrated campaign of lies.

Coming from Ari Fleischer a mere list of accusations just won't cut it.

Overshadowed by the furor of the Jeffords defection last week was the surprising news that John McCain was one of only two Republicans to vote against the final Bush tax cut. (The other was Lincoln Chafee.)

From the perspective of last year's primary campaign this shouldn't have been surprising: McCain's opposition to the Bush plan was a major part of his message. But McCain seemed pretty on-board with the tax cut until fairly late in the game. And voting against the final bill has a particular import: It was going to pass anyway; it was a free vote. So voting against was not meant to affect the outcome, but to send a signal.

This very interesting article in Saturday's Washington Post says that McCain is seriously considering leaving the GOP to become an Independent - not simply to fiddle with the Senate calculus, but with a view toward a possible Independent run against Bush in 2004. The authors also delve into McCain's discussions with Democratic Senators Daschle, Kennedy and Edwards about a possible party switch, Daschle's trip to McCain's Arizona homestead this weekend, and McCain's meetings with various New Democrat policy types.

All of which again raises the recurring question: just what sort of pol is John McCain these days? The best language the Post's Edsall and Milbank have for him is to call him the head of the "embattled progressive wing of the Republican party." And that's well enough since that's about all our current political vocabulary allows. But is John McCain really like Jim Jeffords and Linc Chafee?

They may come down similarly on a series of policy questions. But the basic difference is clear even if it's difficult to articulate. The best way to describe it may be to says that there's something 'soft' about the Jeffords-Chafee sort of moderate Republicanism, something 'hard' about McCain's.

So if McCain were to leave the Republicans and try to head up some sort of third force in American politics, or try to run for president on that basis, what exactly would that politics be? Especially considering that McCain's policy positions now seem very, very similar to those of the centrist-progressive wing of the Democratic party?

Part of what's going on here isn't so much about public policy or political strategy, as it's a matter of political gestalt. And political gestalt, or perhaps better to say the unifying principle of a politics, is often much more important than the particular shopping list of policy positions a pol endorses.

Clintonism, as it evolved over the course of the nineties, was rooted in a politics of empathy. Wags made endless cracks about that line "I feel your pain." But that was an important line - and what was behind it was key to Bill Clinton's immense power and resiliency as president.

There's a question that pollsters always ask voters when sizing up their views about a given politician. The question is generally phrased something like this: does politician X care about and/or understand the kind of problems someone like you faces in their daily life. A pollster would put it more artfully, but you get the idea.

Bill Clinton always scored very well on this question. Even when he did pitifully on personal approval. Do you respect him? Is he honest? Etc. And that was the key to his political strength - something Republicans never quite grasped. The question measures the politics of empathy. And Clinton had it in spades.

Clinton transformed the presidency and the nation's politics along these lines. Some of the theater of this was in the ubiquitous presidential rope lines and the flying in to commune with disaster victims. But on a broader programmatic level he crafted a politics of feeling and empathy, one which was about crafting policies - small ones, usually - to address the mundane needs people faced in their daily lives. This was a sort of retail politics which, as Jacob Weisberg once noted, amounted to a governorization of the presidency. Your parents can't pay for their prescription drugs? We've got a program. Kids' class sizes are too big. We've got a program for that too. Need to learn how to run some new machine to get a new job? We'll hook you up!

This change goes far past Bill Clinton and now saturates almost all of our politics. Republicans and Democrats alike have to play this game. One need only look at the rhetoric of our new president, if not his actions, to see the deep impress of Clintonism.

In any case, when Bill Kristol and Company started casting about for something they called National Greatness Conservatism I suspect one of the things motivating them was the recognition that conservatives could simply never beat Democrats at this game. If the politics of empathy is a house, it's floorboards tilt Democratic. Republicans are never going to out-feel Democrats or be able to offer up more programs. Compassionate Conservatism really just amounts to 'I kinda feel your pain.'

What was necessary was not so much a different raft of policies, as a different operating principle. And the logical conservative response to a politics of empathy and feeling would be a politics of sacrifice, austerity, assertion and perhaps also virility and masculinity. In many ways, that's just what National Greatness Conservatism is. It particularly explains the emphasis on assertive foreign policy, military might, and national service.

Now, having said all this, McCain and the National Greatness folks both started their journeys separately before meeting up and deciding that they might be going to the same place. And one can start out moving in a political direction for one reason and then get pulled in by other political gravities along the way. That seems to have happened to both McCain and the Kristol crowd, though in somewhat different ways.

So McCain may look similar to the Democrats on policy after policy. And increasingly he is. But this difference of mentality or gestalt is just as much what's in play here as where McCain comes down on the patients' bill of rights.

The big news next week will be the British Labour Party's landslide victory over the Tories (aka, the Conservative Party) on June 7th.

This will be big news on a number of levels: First, in roughly eighty years as one of Britain's two major parties, Labour has never won two consecutive elections. Or, to put this in American terms, a Labour Prime Minister has never been reelected. Labour is also expected to substantially expand it's already massive majority in the House of Commons.

But the real story here isn't so much Labour's power as the complete and utter collapse of the Tories -- arguably the most successful small-"d" democratic political party of the twentieth century.

This poll out today shows the first possible bad news for Labour in some time. Their level of support has dipped to 43% -- the lowest yet. But even this unexpected late slide for Labour (likely a blip actually, earlier in the week they were surging) underscores the pitiful position of the Tories -- since Labour seems to be losing votes not to them, but rather to the Liberal Democrats, the long-time puny third party of British politics.

And it's not like things are exactly hunky dorry in the UK. Last year the country experienced a mini-energy crisis, recent months have been spent trying to stamp out a horrific epidemic of foot and mouth disease, and the last week has seen the worst race riots since the early 1980s. On top of all that, Tony Blair and his second in command John Prescott have had some rough moments on the campaign trail.

So it's not so much that Labour -- or 'New Labour' as the Blairites style themselves -- are so strong or on top of things, though they are, but rather that the Tories have all but ceased to exist as a political force.

At mid-week, Tory leader William Hague was reduced to the pitiful necessity of arguing that a Labour landslide "would be extremely dangerous for this country." In other words, Hague had been forced to begging the voters for a crushing defeat rather than a humiliating one.

In any case, what's interesting from an American perspective is that the Blairites are very close to the Clintonites in terms of ideology, political style and strategy, and on a personal level as well. Clinton advisors give advice to the Labour folks and vice versa. So, with all this, why has the Third-Way model (embraced by Blair and Clinton) seemed to succeed so famously in the UK while remaining at best stagnated and incomplete in the United States? Or to put it in more concrete terms, why is Tony Blair going to spend the next five years in 10 Downing Street while Al Gore is ... well, just where is that guy?

P.S. CORRECTION: As a one-time professional historian (who even did work in English and British history) I am loathe to admit an historical error, but here I must. My point above, that Labour has never won successive elections is broadly true, but technically inaccurate. Labour won power in 1945, won an election in 1950, but then lost in 1951. They won narrowly in 1964, expanded their majority in another election in 1966, but then lost in 1970. Labour won two elections in 1974, but lost power in 1979. Here's the story: British governments can call elections at more or less any time they choose within five years of a parliamentary election. In each period of power Labour has either needed two quick successive elections to form a stable government, or, as in 1950-51, won a second election narrowly, proved unable to gover! n effectively and had to call another election, which it lost. What would be accurate to say is that Labour has never been able to govern for two successive, full parliaments. On the other hand, in the post-war era the Tories have twice managed this, once governing for three consecutive parliaments ('51, '55, and '59) and more recently for four ('79,'83,'87,'92). Thanks to an attentive TPM reader for noting my error.

Be sure to read this important tidbit on the Bush administration's decision to cut by fifty percent funding for combating child labor around the world -- a key part, no, a sine qua non, of what progressive free traders like Talking Points believe in. It's neither as funny nor as saucy as the post below about the rapscallion Jenna Bush, but it's a good deal more important.

Long-established political systems often have informal rules and traditions as persistent and important as the formal ones. So, for instance, in the British mixed-monarchy of the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a tradition of animosity and mistrust between the King and the Prince of Wales. This stemmed from the fact that the heir-apparent often had to live well into adulthood or middle-age before assuming the job he had been groomed for -- and those opposed to the present regime would often cluster around him as an avenue to future power and preferment.

(The movie The Madness of King George plays somewhat on this tendency.)

In the United States there is a similar tradition in which the president's brother must be a ne'er-do-well buffoon who episodically gets into scrapes and embarrasses his more successful sibling but also -- and this is the kicker -- humanizes him. (In apparent recognition of Hillary Clinton's assumption of certain formal political duties, her brother Hugh Rodham also took on the role of presidential oaf-brother.)

But George W. Bush's brothers are all either successful or WASPish enough to keep their shenanigans private and proper. So the chore has apparently fallen on his daughters, particularly the rapscallion Jenna.

As all the wires are reporting today, Jenna and her sister Barbara were picked up for trying to buy booze with a fake ID at Chuy’s Mexican restaurant in Austin, Texas. This comes, of course, less than a month after Jenna pled no contest to alcohol possession, after she was picked up in sweep of nightclubs by the city police. And that after seemingly innumerable appearances on the front page of the National Enquirer.

Now one thing this obviously shows is that Jenna really, really knows how to party. And, trust me, that's a virtue (or a vice, take your pick) that Talking Points can really appreciate.

But isn't this sort of getting to the point where it goes beyond the rule that you can't talk about the chief executive's progeny? I mean, you're the president's daughter and you try to buy alcohol with a fake ID?

Excuse me?

Isn't this sort of a nine strikes and you're out kind of situation?

Here's President Bush today at Sequoia National Park -- text from White House press release:

My administration will adopt a new spirit of respect and cooperation, because, in the end, that is the better way to protect the environment we all share -- a new environmentalism for the 21st century. Citizens and private groups play a crucial role. Just as we share an ethic of stewardship, we must share in the work of stewardship. Our challenge is to work in partnership. We must protect the claims of nature while also protecting the legal rights of property owners. We will succeed not by antagonizing one another, but by inviting all to play a part in the solutions we seek.
Here's Newt Gringrich six years ago introducing the House Republicans' environmental Vision Statement (a "new environmentalism . . . for the 21st Century") -- text copy is from "House GOP Releases Environmental Plans", UPI, May 15th, 1996:
This document is the foundation of the new environmentalism, which will define the environmental agenda for the 21st century," Gingrich said. Some of the "principles" of the one-page vision statement include: --"Americans should be assured that their air and water is clean and safe, that they will have access to outdoor public recreation areas, and that our historic and wilderness areas will be protected. --"Regulations should improve the environment by setting common sense standards without dictating the precise technologies for meeting those standards. The development and use of innovative technologies should be encouraged. --"Federal policy should, where appropriate, be based on incentives for individuals, state and local governments, and businesses to protect the environment, rather than setting down inflexible laws," and, --"Private property owners should be assured greater certainty regarding the use of their property."
And Gingrich a month later -- text copy from The White House Bulletin, June 18th, 1996:
[W]hat we're offering is a new environmentalism that has private-property rights and has economic opportunity; but it also has better science, more creativity, more community involvement, more local initiative so that we really are doing a better job of having a better environment for our children and grandchildren.
Need I say more?

Republicans have clearly settled on the party line regarding Jim Jeffords: his defection had nothing to do with ideology. Rather, he saw that Strom Thurmond might not make it much longer and he wanted to be the one to put the Dems over the top, with all the fanfare and preferment that would decision would entail.

For my part, I never thought the ideological and self-interest theories of Jeffords' defection were mutually exclusive. It makes sense to me that his motives were a mix of the two, that they flowed together.

But that aside, the Republicans' argument amounts to an admission which has yet to receive much attention.

For the sake of argument, let's assume Jeffords' move was entirely mercenary and self-serving.

If there were any real prospect of the Republicans winning back the Senate in 2002 then Jeffords' switch would make little sense. He'd just be trading a few months as a quasi-Democrat committee chair with no real chance of passing legislation for a return to minority status in eighteen months, and the prospect of mega-payback when the Republicans retook control.

Even if Thurmond did pass on to his great reward before 2002 the same logic would apply.

On the other hand, if the Democrats seemed likely to expand their majority in 2002, and again in 2004, then Jeffords' hop would make a lot of sense on self-serving grounds.

In other words, the Republicans' attack on Jeffords betrays their own unstated belief that time is not on their side.

Politics affords few examples of politicians whose predictions are always right or whose proposals always catch on with colleagues.

But for predictive purposes there's something almost as good: the politician whose predictions are always wrong and whose proposals are always immediately derided and/or ignored by his or her colleagues.

Which brings us to Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, who has just been appointed to serve as the first official token moderate in the Republican Senate leadership.

Specter used to be a pretty stand-up Senator. But in recent years he's become increasingly prone to unreliable predictions and bizarre proposals.

Let's review some of Specter's recent performances.

During the pardon scandal Specter says President Clinton could, and may well, be impeached again over the pardons. (Republicans privately -- and in some cases publicly -- say Specter is whacked.)

During the pardon scandal Specter proposes limiting or abolishing the president's veto power. The idea goes nowhere.

Two days before Jim Jeffords' defection Specter gives Dems agida and Republicans a sliver of hope when he tells The Chicago Trib's Jill Zuckman that Jeffords isn't going to bolt. "He indicated to me that he is not going to change parties," said Specter. Jeffords changes parties.

After Jeffords quit the GOP, Specter takes the Senate floor and accuses Jeffords and Harry Reid of possible ethical misconduct over the negotiations preceding Jeffords' defection and goes on to propose changing Senate rules to prevent the chamber from switching hands because of a defection like Jeffords. (Of course, one would think Republicans would really resist such a rule now, considering that another defection is their only hope of recapturing the chamber before 2002.) Predictably enough, according to the Washington Post, GOP leadership aides say they have no idea what Specter was talking about.

Harry Reid probably had it right when he told the Post: "It's a silly proposal and it has no chance. It's his [Specter's] way of of showing everyone he was a lawyer."

P.S. For more on Specter's political career you can buy his new book Truth, Justice, The American Way, and Arlen Specter from Amazon.

(The title is actually Passion for Truth : From Finding Jfk's Single Bullet to Questioning Anita Hill to Impeaching Clinton, but you get the idea.)

According to numerous columns and commentaries (echoed by grumbling Republicans), Tom Daschle really, really has his work cut out for him.

Yes, the Dems may have wanted the Senate leadership and they may be giddy at the moment. But now Daschle faces the challenge Trent Lott's been dealing with: how to run the Senate with a slender one vote margin, how to stop the opposing party from gumming up the works with procedural shenanigans, and most importantly how to get things done.

Simply put, this is a moronic analysis of the current situation.

Daschle will certainly find his task challenging. But several factors make it far easier for the Democrats to run the chamber than the Republicans.

First, are the Republicans really going to bring the chamber to a halt with procedural delays? That's what they seem to be threatening here unless all nominations are allowed to go to the full Senate whether or not they're passed out of committee.

But this is surely an idle threat: it's the Republicans who need the trains to run on time in the Senate, not the Democrats, because it's their president who's trying to move his agenda.

If the Democrats shut down the Senate with their majority control they might arguably be in for a backlash from angry, anti-gridlock voters.

But if Republicans are the ones doing the obstructing, would that really be such a bad thing for Dems? That shuts down the Bush agenda and leaves the Republicans taking the blame. That's not a threat; for the Democrats that's having their cake and eating it too.

On the 'getting things done' front, things are also very unequal. Democrats aren't really in a position to get much of anything done, period.

Anything they pass on their own votes in the Senate can easily be vetoed by the president. And the Republican House obviously isn't going to help much either. So 'getting things done' isn't really in the cards for the Democrats. Their effective power with control of the Senate is to bring up popular issues which Republicans and the president feel the need to opppose: minimum wage, campaign finance reform, a real patients' bill of rights, prescription drug coverage, etc.

In other words, don't believe the hype: for the Dems, taking control of the Senate is every bit as good a deal as it looks like.

P.S. Next up, just what the hell is up with Arlen Specter?

As several readers have noted, the new importance of Bob Torricelli's continued tenure in the Senate probably makes an indictment ever-so-slightly less likely. Because an indictment of a sitting Democratic senator by a Republican Justice Department, under these circumstances, couldn't help but be seen as highly questionable, even if the decision was made entirely on the merits.

But none of this seems to be getting the ever-feisty New Jersey senator down.

At a DC fundraiser for New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey on Tuesday night, Torricelli made a few remarks.

After praising McGreevey, recalls one attendee at the event, Torch said, "I'd like to thank everybody who I encouraged to come for being here. You're probably going to be rewarded with a subpoena. But they're a dime a dozen nowadays. I'll autograph them if you're interested."

Brass, I tell you! All brass.

P.S. Senator Torricelli's press office declined to comment on the Senator's remarks at the McGreevey event.