Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

My dear friend Mickey Kaus says on his site today that Antonio Villaraigosa may have lost the LA Mayor's race yesterday because of a letter that he wrote to Bill Clinton in support of a pardon for Carlos Vignali, the drug mini-kingpin who Bill Clinton did pardon in January.

"Do you doubt," Mickey writes, "that if Clinton hadn't commuted Vignali's sentence, Villaraigosa would today be mayor-elect of L.A.? In this sense, Villaraigosa isn't the victim of racism. He's the latest (last?) victim of Bill Clinton."

I'm inclined to think that every pol is responsible for his or her own actions. But this seems to me like an example of how normally shrewd and insightful folks often somehow lose possession of their reason when talking about Bill Clinton. If Villaraigosa wrote a letter (which unbeknownst to him actually included false information) encouraging Bill Clinton to issue an ill-considered pardon then it sounds to me like, if anything, Bill Clinton is the victim of Villaraigosa, not vice versa.

Or am I missing something?

For those of you who are only familiar with Zell Miller as the Democrat who endorsed the Bush tax cut, his OpEd in Monday's Times is well worth reading.

As I learned when writing this article on Miller a couple months ago (the title is "Zellout," but authors seldom pick the titles of their pieces, and I definitely wouldn't have chosen that one), Miller is a fascinating, often very annoying, captivating, and in many ways admirable pol.

Miller looks at the fact that Al Gore got completely shut out in the South last year and says that the Dems will never elect a president until they reconnect with Southerners politically, regain their trust, etc. Miller says he thinks that there should be, and one day will be, "universal access to health care" (which if you read closely is not the same as universal health care) but that before they can do that Dems have to pay down what he calls a 'trust deficit' -- in essence show that Dems are trustworthy custodians of the public moneys before voters will trust them to enact various progressive reforms.

He also has some interesting, and I think valid, things to say about how in the South the gun control issue functions as a proxy for values and cultural and inter-regional condescension.

There's a lot of good and valid information in his piece. But here's the problem, summed up in the following paragraph:

Al Gore became only the third Democrat since the Civil War to lose not only every state in the old Confederacy, but two border states as well. George McGovern and Walter Mondale were the others. But they had an excuse: They were crushed in national landslides. They didn't just lose the South. They lost from sea to shining sea.
For Miller, the fact that Gore did so well in so many other parts of the country makes his rout in the South more blameworthy, problematic, etc. What he doesn't seem to appreciate is that these two developments are intertwined. Democratic dominance of the Northeast and West Coast is just the other side of the coin of Democratic debility in the South. Gun control, social liberalism, and cautious but activist government aren't just some bizarre outriders that can be tossed aside to pick up a few states in Dixie. They're key to the Dems revival in other parts of the country.

Miller makes the point that Democrats have to prove their trustworthiness in managing the public fisc with tax cuts and fiscal discipline before voters will trust them again to use government for activist means. This was a common argument by New Democrats and other party reformers in the 80s and early 90s. And there was much truth in it. Yet to voters in many parts of the country that case has already been made.

Miller is right that Democrats will have a difficult time winning the presidency so long as Republicans can easily lock down every state in the South. And this is a serious question for Democratic strategists. Where he's wrong is to ignore the broader regional and cultural polarization of our national politics, the connections between Democratic dominance in their new core regions, and their difficulties in the South.

Those who make Miller's sort of argument run the risk of sounding like those Republican naifs and rubes who used to say, 'hey, if we could just get the red necks AND the blacks, then we'd be cookin' with gas, then the Dems would never have a chance!'

Well, yeah. But that's not how politics works.

Many Southern Democrats are accustomed to thinking that they're in possession of a sought-after jewel which Dems in the rest of the country must cater to and kneel down before to get a chance at holding. But this is an outdated view which made much more sense when the Dems were only at parity in places like the Industrial Midwest, the West Coast, and the Northeast. Democrats do have a Southern problem -- which we'll be talking more about in relation to John Edwards -- but Miller doesn't have a national solution.

When I turned aside the academic life for this writing racket I think I had visions of Edmund Wilson and Walter Lippmann. Analyzing these pictures of alleged White House vandalism makes me a feel a bit more like a low-rent Johnnie Cochran. Anyway, I guess you've got to sleep in the bed you've made. So let's have at it.

The White House has now released at least two pictures to substantiate their accusations of White House vandalism. And apparently they've agreed to give their "list" to the GAO for another investigation of the whole thing.

I can't say that I know precisely what they're going to find. But what I do think is pretty clear is that this vandalism story is quickly becoming a real tar baby for Ari Fleischer. And I have to think he must be starting to realize that.

Could the White House really have the goods to put this story to rest? Maybe. But if they did, the thing to do would be to silence the critics with a knock-out blow. And even if you believe all they've alleged in their "list" it's still a far cry from the vandalism that was originally alleged.

More important, getting into a back and forth with their critics about piddly stuff like whether ten slashed phone cords were slashed by resentful twenty-somethings in the Old Executive Office Building or accidentally by movers just makes them look stupid and petty.

I mean, listen: can you really say that "in an attempt to deprive the incoming White House of office supplies the previous administration threw out vast quantities of paper, pens and pencils and three-ring binders, which we recovered" and not consign yourself to Dante's seldom-discussed tenth ring of hell -- that reserved for pitiful morons?

As nearly as I can tell, this photo released by the White House shows a disheveled office with some boxes of folders and binders knocked over on the ground. Certainly not tip top shape. And I hope every office in the place didn't look like that. But is this it? This is the smoking gun?

My understanding is that both these photos are from the White House Counsel's Office in the Old Executive Office Building. So what's surprising is that we haven't seen the following conclusion already drawn: we know from sworn congressional testimony that the folks in the Counsel's Office were working early into the wee hours of the morning of President Clinton's last day in office working over those pardon applications.

Now, the substance of what they were working isn't on the top of my list of things to talk about. But what seems logical to assume is that the staffers in the Counsel's Office worked into the morning and had little time to put things away and throw things out before they left around noon on inauguration day. Not that they 'trashed' the place about of mindless permissive liberal rage.

It would have been the better part of wisdom for Fleischer to say that he never repeated the wildest allegations of vandalism (which would have been very misleading but not technically untrue), that rumor and emotion got the better of some people in those early days, and that it's just over and be done with it. His new round of threats have just dug him deeper.

I must admit that the decision to call the cops on the Bush daughters always seemed a bit over the top to me. From my personal experience /research as an underage drinker (circa 1984-1990) my understanding was that the prescribed punishment for this infraction was ritual humiliation by the bartender /waiter, confiscation of the ID with a condescending look, and summary expulsion from the premises. But apparently, as the death penalty thing shows, they've got a more punitive mentality down in Texas. So who knows?

In any case, the folks at the White House said the decision to drop a dime on Jenna and Barbara was actually political. "One senior administration official" told reporters that Chuy's, the restaurant in question "is owned and operated by liberals."

Well, apparently not. According to this ABCNews.com article, Michael Young, co-founder and president of Central Texas Chuy's Inc. is actually a relatively big ticket Republican donor.

Now who does that "senior administration official" sound like to you?

P.S. You got evidence on this, or just suspicion? Pure suspicion. But it sounds like him to me.

Nothing like finishing up with a bang, they say.

Yesterday Anthony Nelson, a Treasury minister in John Major's government and an MP for twenty-odd years (1974-1997) announced he was defecting to Labour. Certainly not a crushing thing in itself, but it doesn't exactly set the right mood heading into election day.

Today Marney Swan, chairman of the Conservative Women's National Council, the Conservative Party's women's organization, said William Hague had blown it with the women's vote with his combative anti-Europe campaign stance. She also said she'd be calling for an inquiry after the election to find out how things got so screwed up.

Meanwhile in a perhaps necessary, but still humiliating and pathetic ruse, William Hague has announced a detailed 20-point action plan for his (mythical) first two weeks as Prime Minister, including his plan to halve the number of 'spin doctors' in the government.

'Spin doctors' being the party hacks who pen bamboozling speeches and action plans that have no relation whatsoever to reality.

You can find the Talking Points' run down on the Washington Post White House vandalism story below. But another question. The White House keeps talking about this "list" it's released -- which apparently formed the basis of the Post story.

Here's my question: does only the Post get to see the list? Isn't it going to be released to the rest of the media, so we can actually see it and evaluate it?

And the snapshot of the trash-strewn office in the White House counsel's office? Can't we see that? News reports at the time said folks at the White House were "informally documenting" (in the words of CNN's Kelly Wallace) what happened. And Drudge, for what's is worth, was told by someone at the White House that "photographic and audio evidence" was being compiled.

Can we see those pictures?

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.