Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

There are a host of wire stories out this morning with quaking Bushies pleading how little warning they had of Jim Jeffords' imminent departure from the Republican party.

In fact, both Karen Hughes and Andy Card say they didn't know anything was really up until they got a call from Maine Senator Olympia Snowe on Monday night and/or Tuesday morning.

Card looks especially vulnerable in all this. After all he's a New Englander, a Washington hand, a moderate. You'd think he'd have known better, maybe would have had antennae for this.

Card added rather feebly that no one tried to muscle Jeffords or treat him badly. And that it's not true that moderates have no place in the GOP today. (Of course, in a sense this is true: if you're willing to squelch your already wishy-washy political views in the interests of absolute fealty to the Bush clan you can even become White House Chief of Staff!!!)

Anyway, enough about Andy Card. I take Card and Hughes at their word: that they really had no advance warning that this was going to happen. And frankly, that's astonishing. Because this possibility was being pretty widely discussed almost a week before they say they found out about it. Olympia Snowe apparently needed to sidestep the machinery of legislative liaisons and the Senate leadership and get on the horn and tell Hughes, Card, et.al. just what hell was going on.

A little while back Jake Weisberg wrote a piece in Slate in which he canvassed several different possible explanations for the very conservative tack of Bush's governance in the early days of his administration. One possibility was the effect of the White House echo chamber, the cocoon. For all the many streams of information which pour into the White House, it's very easy (as Bill Clinton showed in 1993-94) to lose touch with what's actually going on, how the political winds are blowing, and so on.

Presidents and their major advisors are surrounded, frankly, by lots of yes-men. And perhaps more important, they're almost inevitably clothed in a triumphalist reading of their own recent political triumph. (This may be especially so with the Bushies since, as I've noted before, the Rove crowd has a history of getting hoodwinked by its own spin.)

In any case, this development points strongly toward this White House echo chamber conclusion.

Zell Miller now seems like a long-shot as a potential Democratic defector. And other moderates like John Breaux simply aren't going to jump ship, period. Not gonna happen.

But there's more than one way to skin a cat.

What about Bob Torricelli?

No, I'm not saying he's going to switch parties. But what if he gets indicted? One of the first things a prosecutor does in a plea negotiation with a crooked pol is try to force the pol to resign his or her office. (The acting Governor of New Jersey is a Republican.)

And who do the US Attorneys work for? Right, John Ashcroft. And who does he work for ... ? Well, you get the idea.

I grant you this may sound a touch conspiratorial. And if the Bush folks were inclined to play hardball at that level they'd have to build in a lot of "deniability."

But you don't have to believe in the possibility of any shenanigans to realize that the possibility of Torricelli's indictment has just become a very, very weighty issue with immense and immediate political consequences. And even if such a decision were made by the straightest arrow career prosecutor the decision couldn't help but be seen in a deeply political light.

It's hard not to sit back and savor the recriminations and finger-pointing among Republicans over Jim Jeffords' imminent defection from the GOP -- expected in less than an hour. At a moment like this, good reporters can unpack such a family feud and get everyone to gripe about everyone else. This article in today's Post by Mike Allen and Ruth Marcus is a good example.

It discusses various dopey, heavy-handed moves from the Bush White House -- like Chief of Staff Andy Card (one of Bush's New England cronies) calling a Vermont radio station to muscle Jeffords into supporting Bush's tax cut.

(That would be the same Vermont that has a moderate- to-liberal governor, an independently-minded liberal senior senator, and a socialist congressman.)

Anyway, it's a good read. (Here's Frank Bruni's more analytical look at the same question in the Times.)

But a few points come to mind. First is that Trent Lott is the most immediate, big-time loser here. Not just because he's losing his job as Majority Leader -- but because he was already quite unpopular in his caucus to start with. And he is the most clearly expendable person who has his fingerprints on the Jeffords screw-up.

All the reporting seems to agree that Lott (and thus the Bush White House) really didn't know Jeffords might be serious about leaving until the beginning of this week, perhaps not until Tuesday. That's weird -- really weird -- because a lot of other people seemed to have a pretty clear sense this was in the works late last week. How they got blind-sided by this deserves a lot of scrutiny.

Having said that, I think it's right to see this whole situation less as a matter of bruised egos (or poor strategies) than the result of the structural changes in the capital's politics in recent months. (Not that I want to cut Bush slack or anything, but ...) Jeffords had never been in a situation where his party was in the majority in the Senate and had a conservative Republican president in the White House. This just brought out the contradictions of his position in the party to a degree he couldn't ignore.

Many Dems still blame Bill Clinton bitterly for decimating the congressional Democrats in 1994. But this critique, though valid in some respects, was always a shallow and unsophisticated reading of the political history of the 1990s. The Democratic congressional majorities of the 1980s and early 1990s -- particularly its underpinnings in the South -- would never have survived the incumbency of a Democratic president. It was like a great old piece of furniture which would do well enough if left in place and used gingerly. But try to move it and it would fall to pieces.

As it did.

It's hard not to fear that something is going to come along and jinx this for the Dems -- given how tremendous their good fortune will be if Jim Jeffords gives them control of the Senate tomorrow, as expected. I mean, for all the hyperbole we so often hear about political happenings in Washington, this really is a huge deal.

You almost have to feel sorry for the Senate Republicans, offering Jeffords a bogus new leadership position as official Republican moderate. But I'm going to wait until Jeffords actually pulls the trigger to start making fun of them about it.

The one question I have is just when Jeffords' switch, and thus the transfer of power, will become effective -- and specifically whether it will happen before or after conferees are chosen for the budget/tax cut conference committee.

Of course, it's not like Dem conferees are going to wrestle this thing down to $500 billion or something. But they could markedly change the final product and possibly generate all sorts of contention and heartache for House Republicans and the White House.

Maybe not such a Grand Old Party after all?

I can't tell you whether James Jeffords is going to announce he's switching to the Democratic party tomorrow. But it's pretty hard to imagine he'd call a press conference to announce he's staying a Republican.

One senate staffer suggests the interesting possibility that Jeffords could become an independent but vote for Daschle for Majority Leader -- much like his fellow Vermonter Bernie Sanders does in the House. But I think that's just clever speculation -- not a hint of what will happen tomorrow.

It's hard to overstate the significance of Jeffords' switch, if it happens. But if it does, what about Zell Miller?

P.S. Late Update ... Between about 7:30 PM and 8:00 PM, the word circulated on the Hill that it's a done deal. Jeffords is making the switch.

At least now we've settled the question of whether Ted Olson lied about his involvement with the Arkansas Project.

Haven't we?

Even his official surrogates now concede the point. Their new gambit is simply to diminish the importance of the underlying question.

"What if he [Olson] did have an involvement in the Arkansas Project? Is there something illegal about that?" Trent Lott said yesterday on Meet the Press.

Or how about Ken Starr, on This Week, who dismissed complaints about Olson's evasiveness as "flyspecking"? "This [the Arkansas Project controversy] is an awfully narrow part of a man who's 60 years old, [with] a very long career."

So let's just review where we are on the Olson nomination.

As information in this article and many others have made abundantly clear, Ted Olson lied when he told Pat Leahy that he was not involved in the Arkansas Project, and had in fact been instrumental in shutting it down. (That his defenders now concede the point amounts to what the lawyers call a stipulation.)

And this is actually the second time Olson has intentionally deceived a congressional committee. In the first instance, an independent counsel found that Olson's statements were technically true, and thus incapable of sustaining a perjury prosecution.

As I once wrote in a profile of Maureen Dowd, "there was always something odd and paradoxical about Dowd's endless array of anti-Clinton zingers: if Clintonism was defined by an abundance of talent, appetite, and ambition at the expense of any real purpose or direction, then Dowd was the ultimate Clintonite."

So too with Ted Olson. If 'Clintonian' is now shorthand for lawyerly evasion or lying to achieve a greater purpose, then Ted Olson was Clintonian long before they coined the term.

Trent Lott and company want to say: "So what if he's lying. Look at the underlying question. It doesn't matter."

To which I can only say: hey, that's our comeback to having our guy get caught fibbing. Get your own!

And besides, with Bill Clinton the question was whether he'd get indicted or removed from office -- very high standards to meet. Ted Olson's trying to get confirmed by Senate. He's got no similar presumptions in his favor.

And, finally, let's not forget about Ken Starr. Much of the justice of Ted Olson's current predicament is seeing him hoisted on his own petard, skewered by his own sharp knife -- on multiple levels. And so too with Mr. Starr.

The best defense for Starr's zealousness during the independent counsel investigation was that he was a sort of truth fanatic. The mere hint of evasion or deceptiveness under oath was just too much for him to handle. And it drove him on a crusade for revelation.

Clearly that's not true.

For Ted Olson, this may simply be 'live by the sword, die by the sword.' Play rough and your enemies hit back. Starr is a different matter. He's defending Olson with an argument more or less identical to that which Clinton's defenders used to defend him. Before you could say that Starr was just a prig, or an obsessive, or a hidebound moral absolutist. But no more. He's now revealed himself as the rankest sort of hypocrite.

And that's rather satisfying to see.

It almost makes up for the tax cut.


"Able-bodied adults who have the ability to earn income have an obligation not to pass part of their own responsibility on to a broader population." That's Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill's take on whether the federal government should have to guarantee Security Security and Medicare benefits to seniors, in an interview with the Financial Times which appeared on Friday.

Not only does O'Neill believe the government should no longer guarantee Social Security and Medicare. He also believes the corporate income tax and capital gains tax should be abolished, with the revenue shortfall apparently made up through higher income taxes for individuals.

Give O'Neill points for candor. But shouldn't these statements be generating a bit more attention.

A few days back I pointed out an article from the New York Daily News which seemed to follow the sop-to-Bush story line almost exactly -- finding countless anonymous members of the permanent White House staff who just can't stop counting their blessings that they're out of under the Clintons' thrall.

When I wrote that post I professed surprise that Thomas DeFrank, the Washington Bureau Chief of the Daily News would go in for this sort of stuff.

But perhaps I was a bit too charitable.

It turns out that DeFrank was also the author of one of the more melodramatic and Bush-bowing articles on the now-disproven White House vandalism story.

As in most of these articles, DeFrank included the obligatory mentions of how the White House was trying to keep a lid on the vandalism stories, even as they were of course also leaking them to the reporter in question:

Nevertheless, the White House relentlessly soft-pedaled the vandalism, refusing to release estimates of property damage and denying that a formal investigation was underway. Press secretary Ari Fleischer downplayed his statement that aides were cataloguing the damage.
In fact, DeFrank didn't just retail the standard vandalism anecdotes. He even had a few I hadn't heard before. Like the "telecommunications staffer with more than a quarter-century of service [who] was seen sobbing near his office one night last week" because of all the destruction.

(You just can't make this stuff up! Well, I mean, not unless your initials are AF or RB.)

Anyway, what I didn't know before was that DeFrank is also a bit of a Bush family pal and has been friends with the president for years. He cowrote Jim Baker's diplomatic memoir The Politics of Diplomacy. And perhaps most striking, while writing the first of these two pieces, DeFrank was also in the hunt for a job in the Bush administration. According to this article in the Weekly Standard, DeFrank was in the running for Defense Department Spokesman before eventually being passed over for Victoria Clarke.

Is DeFrank still looking for a White House job? If so, please let Talking Points know, because he'd totally be up for being a Washington Bureau Chief again. Especially a gig with so much editorial freedom!

My secret sources tell me that John McCain is the big target at this weekend's NRA annual convention in Kansas City, Missouri. The combination of McCain's support for campaign finance reform and his creeping support of moderate gun control just makes him too plump a target to pass up.

The charge against McCain apparently runs like this: McCain is a hypocrite because despite his support for campaign finance reform he is part of Americans for Gun Safety's multi-million dollar ad campaign in support of closing the gun show loophole. (AGS was founded in July by Monster.com executive Andrew J. McKelvey.)

The ads -- which you can read about and see here -- prominently feature McCain and Joe Lieberman, the cosponsors of AGS's favored version of the gun show loophole bill.

A friend of mine -- a dissident conservative -- once told me that soft money is the mother's milk of the modern conservatism.

Case in point.

In my earlier post about the final collapse of the White House vandalism ruse, I wrote that the real story was how the majors had buried the story of the GSA Report or not reported it at all.

Now the Post website has rectified that lapse by posting this story by Charles Babington in which he reports the GSA findings and writes:

Many news organizations, including The Washington Post, reported on the alleged vandalism shortly after President Bush took office in January. The Post and other outlets soon raised doubts about the claims, and also reported on Bush's statement that the allegations were false.
Honestly, that run-down comes up a bit short. The Post ran several stories pushing the phony vandalism stories and, if memory serves me right, a number of editorials similarly peddling the unfounded, and now disproven, misinformation.

The Post did run one quite good piece by John F. Harris on January 27th which chronicled the beginnings of the climb-down by the Bushies and the press ("White House Scales Back Prank Reports").

But to the best of my knowledge the Post has never commented on what seems like the real story here: how the Bush White House played the press with anonymous leaks and preyed upon their credulousness about any and all forms of Clintonite wrongdoing.

But the Post can at least look down on the Times -- which has yet to even mention the GSA story (at least online).