Josh Marshall

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This column defending Ted Olson in today's Wall Street Journal Editorial Page is people's evidence #1 that Olson really is in a lot of trouble. And it's also a classic example of attempted editorial sleight of hand.

The editorial argues that people who attack the Arkansas Project are really just attacking the First Amendment since there is nothing wrong -- and certainly nothing illegal -- with private parties investigating a president and publishing evidence of his law-breaking or bad acts.

That's certainly true.

Now there's quite another matter of whether this was legal for tax-exempt organizations to be involved in; or whether those involved in the Project may have violated other laws in the process of their work, or whether Ken Starr's Independent Counsel's Office might have been improperly connected with it. But let's set all those matters aside and assume that the Arkansas Project was only what it undeniably was: a vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball in its hardest form.

Look closely at the Journal Editorial: don't they completely avoid and try to confuse the point? The question -- tied to Olson's hubris -- is why he lied about his involvement in the Project. The editorial barely touches on this and simply goes on about how innocuous the Project was. Lying about it is what's got him in trouble. The editorial not only barely tries to defend him on this ground. It actually mounts a transparently contradictory defense. Saying that there wouldn't be anything to lie about in the first place.

(Bartley, Fund, guys, it's the cover-up that gets you, right? Haven't you guys been telling us that for ages?)

Live by the vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball, die by the vicious and unsavory exercise of political hardball.

Next up, why Olson felt he needed to lie about the Arkansas Project; why he might have thought he could get away with it; and when he was accused of lying to Congress before.

Let's delve a little further into this Ted Olson matter and the accusations against him reported in this article in today's Washington Post.

David Brock's word probably isn't enough to sink Olson.

Don't get me wrong: I've got tons of respect for David; and I don't doubt him for a moment. But he's just one person. And he's also very much an interested party in this whole matter of the Spectator and the Arkansas Project and so forth. And he can be portrayed as someone with an ax to grind.

So who else might be able to back up David's version of events?

If I were, say ... a staff investigator for the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee I'd be looking to Ronald Burr, the co-founder and long-time publisher of the American Spectator who was fired over his efforts to do a proper accounting and/or audit of the moneys which the various Scaife foundations were funnelling through the magazine to be used in the Arkansas Project.

Burr was very roughly handled in the whole affair. And he would certainly know plenty about the questions at hand. But to date he's been prevented from speaking on the record about any of this because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed after being fired by the Spectator. (His severance package was a pricey $350,000 -- well, pricey for the magazine world, at least. Trust me.)

I understand that there are a number of people who can contradict Olson's denials of involvement with the Arkansas Project. But, just as he was during the impeachment saga, it's probably only that non-disclosure agreement which is preventing Burr from talking.

Now, I don't know the fine points of the intersection between private contractual agreements and Senate subpoenas (see note here on TPM's aborted legal career). But I have to assume that a private contract is trumped by a congressional investigation, just as a private confidentiality agreement is trumped by a subpoena in a criminal trial.

So why not give Burr a call?

P.S. Any of TPM's readers at the American Spectator want to add their two cents?

When I first started writing Talking Points (six months ago, frighteningly enough) I was pretty free with writing what I was hearing -- largely because only my friends were reading. But now that Talking Points is read by millions of readers across the country every day (well, okay, thousands of readers). So I've got to be a little more careful, a little more responsible.

Anyway, there's a lot buzzing about a story that may be running in the next issue of the Enquirer or Vanity Fair. But, honestly, I don't know if there's anything to it.

Still it's generating lots of buzz. And if you're interested in finding out a bit more, read this opinion column in today's Tallahassee Democrat.

Wow! How much did Tom Edsall enjoy writing this story? As you'll see in the post below, today's Washington Post has a story by Edsall which makes the case that Olson lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he told them he wasn't involved in the so-called Arkansas Project.

This new story from early this afternoon reports that the Committee has now postponed today's scheduled vote on Olson's nomination so that it can investigate Olson's alleged deceptions.

Even Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Edsall writes, "said a Washington Post story published this morning raising 'legitimate' questions that need to be answered before the Olson nomination can be voted on."

The translation of this, of course, would be:

Orrin G. Hatch said my story from this morning's Post kicked Olson's &#%, and that even he (Hatch) wasn't willing to carry water for Olson, unless and until Olson could create some sort of smokescreen to divert attention from the charges, or -- excluding that -- find some way to discredit David Brock.
And now we return you to your normal TPM programming.

I've had a number of people write in and comment about this article I wrote yesterday in Slate. The article was about why Democrats seem so much more feckless and frail in the art of scandal-mongering than Republicans.

Many of the comments center on the fact that Democrats are a coalition party and are thus never quite as unifiable as the Republicans. That's true, to an extent.

Others make the point that Democrats simply aren't as mean as Republicans, or, perhaps stated a little differently, that Dems spend much more of their time questioning the rightness of their own actions and thus can never get up the same sort of ferocious head of steam that Republicans do. There's a lot self-serving in that viewpoint -- but there's some truth to it too.

The most interesting comment or critique though is this: most people don't want to hear this sort of endless badgering and complaining. And one of the things that kept Bill Clinton in office is that the great majority of people really didn't like his rabid, foaming-at -mouth opponents.

That's very true. And yet, as this piece by John Harris makes clear, the endless drumbeat of scandal-mongering against Bill Clinton really did take its toll.

The answer, I think, is that to the extent Republicans were successful they succeeded by having ideological attack-dogs do their dirty work for them, while keeping themselves above the fray. One of the reasons Newt Gingrich went down the tubes was that he often failed to keep this distance. He couldn't help himself. Others in the Republican party, though, manage this dance much more dexterously. Like George W. Bush, for instance.

One of the great comedies of Bush's campaign message was his promise to 'change the tone' in Washington when it was undeniably his own party, and his own supporters, who had created the tone of partisan back-biting in Washington. Yet Bush himself didn't have his hands dirty; so he could plausibly make the claim.

So it's true enough that people didn't like the Republican scandal-mongering of the last 9 years. But then again, for the moment at least, who's got the Oval Office, the Speaker's gavel, and control of the Senate?

Are my eyes deceiving me or is that blood I see in the water? There's very little question that Ted Olson lied to the Senate Judiciary Committee when he told them he was not involved with the Arkansas Project -- the multi-year, scandal-hunting operation funded by Scaife-controlled foundations, and run through the American Spectator magazine.

(One side note here: the Spectator is now under new management (effectively, at least). And it's my understanding that it's cleaned up its act. I don't mean they've changed their political stripes. Nor should they. But they're now being run by folks who want to run the place the way an opinion magazine should be run -- i.e., not as a propaganda chop-shop.)

Be that as it may, back to our story.

This story in today's Washington Post, written by Tom Edsall, is the first sign this matter is really seeing the light of day.

There's little doubt Olson was lying about his involvement with the Arkansas Project. I say this partly based on conversations with people close to the project. More importantly, though, there are just too many specific, well-documented, published reports of Olson's involvement for him simply to be able to brush it off with a blanket denial.

This is one of those Washington Open Lies. Everyone knows it's a lie. The question is simply whether or not he can be caught out.

And one other matter. I'm told GWB's political strategist Karl Rove is on an under-the -radar trip around the country hunting up congressional candidates for 2002 and knocking the heads of those the White House would rather see not run. I called the White House for comment but they're just dishing out endless 'no comments.'

Has anyone seen Karl recently?

Nothing weans conservatives from their addiction to the truth like striking up a conversation about the estate tax.

(Yes, here at TPM we still call it the 'estate tax.' Call it something else and your heirs will be paying the estate tax.)

Anyway, that truth bending tendency applies to more than just Republicans.

A little while back Robert Johnson (head of Black Entertainment Television) and a number of other wealthy black executives made a splash by calling for the repeal of the estate tax and arguing that it's particularly unfair to blacks. The estate tax, the group's ad claimed, "will cause many of the more than one million black-owned businesses to fail or be sold."

So basically, just when blacks and starting to build up some real wealth, here comes Uncle Sam slapping them back down with the estate tax!

Well, the ad in question was packed with so many untruths and distortions that it's hard to know quite where to start. But one-time Talking Points minion Josh Green does a pretty good job of dispatching all of them in this just published piece in the American Prospect.

And what about those million black-owned businesses that might bite the dust because of the dreaded estate tax? Josh had a economist at NYU run the numbers.

How many black-owned businesses are likely to face estate taxation this year? 223.

P.S. And, no, that's not 223,000, that's 223.

Thumbing through my host's copy of the latest New Republic, I find the following line in Andrew Sullivan's TRB column: "Not long ago, Democrats claimed they wouldn't agree to any tax cut."

When was that exactly? Al Gore ran on a program of tax cuts. Most Senate Democrats did too. Bush's was much larger. And he'll get one much closer to his liking, at least in terms of size. Gore's were targeted; Bush's weren't. And Bush largely won that argument. (Unless of course you count targeting the bulk of the cuts at the top marginal rate bracket -- but that's another story.) But they were both tax cuts.

Sullivan's point in the column is that a certain degree of BS can serve a benign purpose. ("Yes, some of the time he is full of it on his economic policies. But a certain amount of B.S. is necessary for any vaguely successful retrenchment of government power in an insatiable entitlement state.") So don't think so badly of Bush when he fibs. He's got his heart in the right place.

Does Andrew want us to cut him the same slack?

This is very, very strange. Whatever you may think of National Missile Defense (NMD), the idea has very little support outside the United States. The only other country which is open to the idea is America's closest ally, Great Britain.

In fact, a week ago British Prime Minister Tony Blair surprised many by issuing what appeared to be an endorsement of the Bush administration proposal. Later Downing Street backed off in response to fierce criticism from within Blair's ruling Labour Party. The salient point however is that the UK is the closest the US has to a friend on missile defense.

Today, however, The Daily Telegraph, a conservative-leaning British paper, published an interview with Bush administration adviser Richard Perle, in which Perle attacks Blair as "wishy-washy and ambivalent" and "dodging the issue" on NMD.

One more bit of info: Blair's about to kick off Labour's campaign for the parliamentary elections which will be held on June 7th. And these charges of wishy-washiness will certainly be used -- they seem almost designed to be used -- by Blair's Tory opposition.

Now, a few points. The British and American governments simply don't speak to each other like this. It's just not done. During an election campaign it's almost a provocation. True, there is an inherent awkwardness in the relations between the Bush and Blair governments since the Blair and Clinton governments were extraordinarily close -- sharing advisors, consultants, political theorists, various personal friendships, etc. But the bonds between the countries still put this sort of jaw-boning beyond the pale.

What's more striking is the broader context: No one expects Blair to lose this election. Blair has already been bending over backwards to keep the door open to missile defense. And, most important, no one is more open to missile defense than the Brits.

There's simply no logic to this.

What's troubling about this isn't so much that it's mistreating an ally as it shows the continuation or even quickening of two troubling trends in Bush administration foreign policy.

Fist is the over-reliance on braggadocio over diplomacy or policy -- even to the point of isolating us from our closest ally.

Second is the Bushies' increasingly chaotic foreign policy, with what looks very much like administration in-fighting being played out in public in the form of apparent gaffes ("whatever it takes" to defend Taiwan ... then maybe not) and quickly switched policies (sever military ties with China ... no, sorry, drop that).

Isn't this what's happening? Who's in charge here exactly? Who's exercising control? There's only one thing more dangerous than effective and able war-hawks: it's incompetent ones.

Let's be honest: President Bush's apparent passage of a budget outline for a $1.3 trillion tax cut is a very big and very important victory. Only his early insistence on the $1.6 trillion dollar number gives the Democrats some thin reason to crow. But let's not fool ourselves. The president got what he wanted.

This isn't the Democrats fault exactly. They just don't have the votes. But here too let's have a little perspective. President Clinton had a similar moment like this in 1993 when he got his budget outline through Congress. Very hard fought. Big accomplishment, and so forth. But then the Democrats had towering majorities in both chambers. Not George W. Bush. His party essentially has legislative parity in both chambers. So again, don't gainsay the accomplishment.

(There is a sidelight here: Republicans seem to have fiddled with the numbers a bit at the last moment when putting the House and Senate plans together. And now John Breaux and Jim Jeffords are saying they may no longer be on board. But this is quibbling; the big picture is still the same.)

As one friend from the Hill told me last night -- rightly I think -- from this point on the legislative terrain changes quickly in the Democrats' favor. And the president is moving ahead with a raft of ambitious plans which I feel confident will backfire. But the budget is a special kind of victory. It defines the playing field that every other battle gets played on, particularly how much money there is to work with for prescription drugs, Social Security, etc.

So, as I said, let's not fool ourselves. This is an important and, in tactical and strategy terms at least, impressive victory.