Josh Marshall

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I'm not accustomed to watching George W. Bush give a speech and hoping he hits it out of the park. But that was certainly my feeling last night as the president addressed the nation about yesterday's bombing. And on balance I'd say he came through with flying colors.

And for all his faults -- and, yes, he certainly has them -- you can't have watched Rudy Giuliani over the last 36 hours without thinking that in many important ways he has been a truly great Mayor of New York -- something many Dems like myself have long thought. And certainly moments of stress and tragedy, which require steel and grit, are his best moments.

And it's been pleasing to see how many Republicans and Democrats -- all of them as nearly as I can tell -- have focused only on the requirements of the moment, and resisted every opportunity to push even peripheral partisan advantages.

Regrettably, though, there seem to be at least a few examples of the cheapest, most craven opportunism. In this column in National Review Online, Larry Kudlow says that rising to the challenge of the moment will cost of "hundreds of billions of dollars" in new defense expenditures.

That may be debatable but certainly the impulse is legitimate and understandable. And you can even cut Kudlow some slack for the cheap shot implied by his charge that "terrorist invasion of the U.S. mainland underscores the urgent need to rebuild the defense and national security structure that has slowly but steadily eroded in recent years."

This is after all a man with the vision and integrity of a double-breasted suit.

But, according to Kudlow, this tragedy also means busting the lockbox, ditching debt reduction, and having another round of massive tax cuts!

Phony lockboxes must be thrown out the window. Unnecessary obsessions over debt retirement must be driven away. Now is the time for aggressive fiscal and monetary stimulus to promote growth and finance freedom. Substantial tax cuts on individuals, businesses, capital investment, and equipment depreciation should be immediately put into place ... Steps to promote energy production must be taken aggressively.
In other words, the only patriotic response to this horror is to enact the complete Bush legislative agenda!

What a shameless gambit.

David Horowitz trots out some similar crap. ("It's time for those on the political left to rethink their alliances with anti-American radicals at home and abroad.") But he's unworthy of mention; beneath contempt.

Nothing real to report beyond the obvious, horrifying tragedy unfolding on your TV screen or computer monitor. My immediate observations from DC have been posted here at toward the bottom of the page.

TPM, of course, is normally all about arguments among us, among Americans. But all of that falls deep into the background now. And my support, and I'm sure yours too, is with our president, our armed services, and all of those struggling mightily to save those who can still be saved.

Here's some news that should buoy Democrats and send a chill through Republicans' spines.

According to this newly-released ABCNews-Washington Post poll, 57% of Americans support trimming the Bush tax cut to keep the budget in balance. Two-thirds oppose using across-the-board cuts in discretionary spending to keep the budget numbers in line. And a staggering 92% oppose using Social Security funds to pay for other programs -- precisely what the administration is now trying to argue it is alright to do.

A close look at the poll's methodology reveals that the measure isn't of likely voters or even registered voters, but merely adults. And that should effect a slight Democratic tilt. But the overall results are sufficiently decisive that this is just a footnote.

What does it mean? That the president and his party are in a lot of trouble. And Democrats would seem to be taking exactly the right approach by forcing the president to take the first stab at solving the problem he created. As we noted here a little more than two weeks ago, this debate may seem like a jumble of numbers. But it's actually all about values, responsibility and trust - which is precisely the sort of debate Democrats should want to be having with this president.

The favored White House strategy is to tell the Democrats that they should come up with their own way to solve the problem. But this is a tack Democrats should welcome because the rejoinder is elementary: This is the responsibility era. Don't pass the buck. Don't blame everyone else. Take responsibility.

I have to admit this new article by Charles Babington in the Washington Post sorta pisses me off. The article ("Tax Cut Plan Filled With Dubious Spending Predictions") gives a bracingly frank run down of all the false premises, implausible assumptions, dishonest budget scoring gimmicks, and simple lies that went into making the Bush budget appear (to the very credulous, mind you) to add up.

Here's one brief passage from the article:

Why did congressional and White House negotiators adopt these spending projections? Because without them, there was virtually no way they could come up with numbers suggesting the nation could afford to forego $1.35 trillion in revenue over 11 years.

The legislation is more political creature than fiscal plan. It originated in George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. He called for a $1.6 trillion tax cut, which the Senate eventually whittled to $1.35 trillion. Once they agreed on the targeted amount, negotiators juggled projections and assumptions ­ several of them quite implausible ­ until the numbers fit.

The problem is that there's nothing in Babington's article that wasn't completely obvious six months ago when the Budget was being debated. So why wait till now to spill the beans?

I fear the answer is that during the actual debate the (foolish, to my mind) canons of newspaper journalism (i.e., presenting both sides of the argument) mandated that both sides' arguments be presented with equal merit, even though one was more or less false on its face.

Now that the whole thing has fallen apart after only a few months it's okay to state the obvious.

Great journalism.

Jacob Weisberg has an excellent article in Slate unpacking the unfolding anomaly of Democrats as the party of fiscal discipline and Republicans as the party of scroungers and deficiteers.

But there's one point he doesn't bring up; and it's one that, as far as I can see, hasn't been mentioned much during the budget debate at all.

It's true that Democrats historically have been the party unafraid of modest deficit spending while Republicans were the ones who worshipped at the altar of the balanced budget. But the present-day turnaround on fiscal policy isn't the only one that has taken place.

Unlike what we know today, the Democrats also used to be the party with its strongest roots in the country's hinterlands -- the Mountain states, the Prairie states and the South. Conversely the Republicans were the party of the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, and social-capital rich states like Wisconsin.

(The classic example of this change comes in a comparison of last year's election map and the map of the 1896 election. Bryan, the Democrat, won virtually all the Bush states. And McKinley, the Republican, won pretty much all the Gore states. More recently, when Harry Truman won his upset victory over Tom Dewey in 1948 the one region in which he was pretty much shut out was the Northeast, the region which is now the Democratic heartland. If you've got a moment you can see the trend over the course of the century in this helpful list of election maps.)

The party of the Northeast and Upper Midwest has historically tended to be the one favoring more disciplined fiscal policy while it's the party with its base in the South and the West which has preferred more loosey-goosey financing.

In this current article in the New Republic Robert Reich argues that Democrats got on the fiscal discipline bandwagon by way of incidental or opportunistic political calculations by Bill Clinton during the late 1990s (perhaps even because of Monica). But I suspect this is something more fundamental, and tied to the parties' changing geographical bases.

If you want to read an article that combines schadenfreude, back-stabbing, disloyalty, pitifulness and pettiness in the most pleasing way imaginable then by all means READ THIS ARTICLE!

It's about the bum's rush Texas Republicans are giving to departing Republican Senator Phil Gramm ("Texas Republicans want Gramm out, Hispanic In.") As David Plotz makes clear in this article, Gramm is pretty far down the list of people who deserve sympathy for anything. But this comes pretty close.

The story goes like this ... Gramm's departure creates several opportunities and potential pitfalls for Republicans. The most obvious opportunity is to hold the seat with an Hispanic Republican - thus validating and augmenting the president's efforts to create a more Hispanic-friendly GOP. On the downside, Republicans could a) lose yet another Senate seat and b) thoroughly embarrass the president by having an Hispanic Democrat elected in 2002 from Bush's home state.

So Texas Republicans want Gramm to resign and allow Gov. Rick Perry (an unelected Governor, mind you) to appoint Rep. Henry Bonilla to replace him, thus giving Bonilla a running start in his effort to win a full term next November.

The Dallas Morning News correctly notes that this would avoid "a potentially brutal and costly Republican primary." But it would be more accurate, though admittedly impolitic, to say that such a primary could be brutal, costly and thoroughly discredit the notion that the Texas Republican party is built upon a happy marriage of Hispanics and post-segregationist freaks. But, you know, if they want to use the shorthand, that's cool by me.

Anyway, what's really striking about this situation is just how publicly a handful of relative upstarts within the Texas GOP (Bush, Perry, Bonilla) is telling Gramm to get the hell of out of town. President Bush met with Perry at the White House on Wednesday to discuss ways to get Gramm to resign and at least one Texas Republican media consultant with close ties to Bush has publicly told Gramm to pack it in.

Coming from a sitting president of Gramm's own party the message Bush is sending to the too-slowly departing senior Senator comes through pretty clearly as:  GET THE *#$& OUT!   Go! Be Gone! LEAVE! Enough with you! Go Away forever! NEVER COME BACK!!!

Meanwhile the shoving from Perry has become almost obscene, leading to exchanges such as this one in today's Houston Chronicle:

Gov. Rick Perry said Friday that U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm, despite repeated denials from the senator's office, is still considering resigning so that Perry could appoint a successor and avoid a Republican brawl over the plum political seat.

"Senator Gramm is still going through a thought process of whether or not he would resign early. So I don't think there's been any change," Perry told reporters.

There certainly wasn't any change in Gramm spokesman Larry Neal's response.

"Senator Gramm is not going through a thought process about resignation. He has no intention of resigning," Neal said.


Compassionate Conservatism was always, rightly, taken as a finger in the eye of gloomy, nasty Republicans like Phil Gramm. But you've gotta figure Gramm would like a little more compassion right about now.

Okay, as you must know, Talking Points has a network of spies across the country constantly sending in intelligence reports on all manner of political bigwigs and smallwigs. And I've been collecting a dossier of information on the semi-secret peregrinations of one-time nominal head of the Democratic party, Al Gore.

Now as long time TPM readers will know, I've been a longtime Gore supporter who's of late become rather more skeptical. But as long as I'm going to hook you up with some quality info I thought it would make sense to get the ball rolling with some utterly trivial info about Gore and then we'll move on to substance as we go.

So here's the deal. I'm told he always refers to the prez as W. He's packed on no more than ten pounds. No more. And when he talks to the assembled groups of former staffers and supporters what he really gets animated about is the environment (i.e., reverting to form).

Hey, what's your problem? I said it we'd start trivial, didn't I?

Let's read another postcard from the responsibility era, shall we? Here are a couple key grafs from an AP story from yesterday:

Bush said trimming the capital-gains tax rate – now 20 percent for most people – "would pile up some revenues" for the government. That would be a huge help for the administration as it scours the tight budget for money to pay for its proposals to boost defense, education and other spending.

Many economists say the government could make money in the early period of a capital-gains tax cut – as additional people sell their property to take advantage of the lower taxes – but the reduction would be a money-loser for the government in the long run. Republicans say it is a moneymaker because it prompts property sales that would not have occurred otherwise.

Trent Lott pushed the same idea the day before when he told the AP that a temporary capital gains tax cut "would help with revenue that we would have available to the government to spend for our top priorities: education and defense."

Democrats and Republicans have been batting around the capital gains tax for years, with Democrats arguing equity (and less often, but perhaps more cogently, economic rationality) and Republicans arguing that reducing the tax will make the economy more dynamic, spur growth, and thus (mirabile visu!) perhaps in the long run actually increase tax revenues.

But look closely at these remarks (or even not that closely) and you'll see that that is not what's being discussed here. The idea here is to get the quick infusion of revenue which all concede a capital gains tax cut would likely produce in the short term, with little regard to the long-term loss of revenue, and thus long-term fiscal health. Or put another way, it's stealing from tomorrow to make up for the improvident ways of today.

The real world analogy to this sort of behavior is when you tell your spouse that the mortgage ain't so hard to manage because, hell, you can probably get a quick $500 selling junior's coin collection on EBay, right? Or how much easy money you can save if you don't change the oil in your car.

I guess that's why they call it the responsibility era.

Why Mitch Daniels? Here's one of the lines circulating around Washington.

You may remember that many Republicans and many Bushies put much of the blame for the original President Bush's 1992 defeat on the independent-minded then-OMB director Dick Darman. So in this administration the idea was, let's not take any chances. The new director of OMB had to be a genuine hack who not only toed the party line but jumped at the chance for assignments involving public subterfuge and dissimulation.

But you have to wonder whether confidence men and charlatans don't have some beef with this man for diminishing their reputation. In his recent article in TNR Ryan Lizza quotes Daniels as "derid[ing] debt reduction as paying off 'foreign' bondholders."

Waiter, could I have that 'responsibility era' now please?

Ryan Lizza's new article in The New Republic debuts the White House's new angle on the budget battle: in an era of declining surpluses and worsening economic numbers the public doesn't care about the budget or the surplus nearly so much as it cares about the economy. That means that all the Democratic carping about the surplus and the Social Security lockbox will pale in comparison to the White House's arguments that more spending (from the Social Security surplus) and perhaps still more tax cuts are just what the economy needs to get back on track.

At least that's what the White House hopes.

This is all grist for the mill for the things we're going to be talking about during this just-beginning budget battle. But let's start with a few points. I'm willing to concede that the Democrats, as yet, have been remarkably slow-footed in framing this debate. But it seems to me that there is a pretty clear problem with the White House's apparent strategy.

According to Lizza, one White House aide says that in contrast to Democratic yapping about the by-gone surplus the Republican line will be "`Where did the prosperity go and how do we get it back?"

The real problem here is timing and perception. Presidents don't do well blaming Congresses for economic hard times. That's just in the nature of the American political system. And it's even more so when the economy went bad on the administration's watch.

Yes, I know, I know, we now know the economy was decelerating rapidly even before the President took the oath of office. For my money, the primary culprit is Alan Greenspan's Fed, which ramped up interest rates during an energy shock in a quest to fight off inflation which (outside the volatile energy sector) showed every sign of being utterly non-existent.

But tell me, are your eyes starting to glaze over? If so, that means you're like most voters. Because all of these details are utterly beside the point. The bottom line is that the previous administration presided over one of the best economies in decades -- and one with astonishingly low levels of unemployment. So the current administration is just not in a position to make the case, as the Reagan White House did, that it needs time to fix the dreadful economy the previous administration created. (In fact, look at the 1982 election returns: it didn't even work for Reagan.) To the public, Clinton was good economic times, Bush is worsening economic times. Simple as that.

There's something else that follows from this. If the economy ran so well under Clinton's economic policies how credible is the argument that the economy can only be revived with a completely different set of economic policies? Answer: not very credible.

There's more to say about this (and we'll be saying it), but for the moment just keep in mind that this administration has a reputation for confidently spinning out wildly improbable political scenarios, thinking they can pull it off with just a big bluff. So far it hasn't worked and I doubt it will this time either.

And of course we haven't even gotten to the massive hit to the president's credibility from the lies and broken promises about the tax cut and Social Security. But let's leave that till the next post, because I want to go eat breakfast.