Josh Marshall

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Despite all the not-unreasonable speculation that the California energy crisis would spike Governor Gray Davis' political career this new poll says otherwise. Even Richard Riordan, the quirky liberal-to -moderate former Mayor of Los Angeles, who Republicans are begging to get into the race, only manages to pull 35% of voters versus Davis' 49%. The key here, of course, is that California seems to be turning the corner in its struggle to get its electricity house in order. And thus there is good reason to think Davis will grow stronger, not weaker, than these current poll readings suggest.

Apparently Surgeon General David Satcher was growing impatient at how long it's taking George W. Bush to fire him. How else to explain his decision to issue a report noting the incontrovertible fact that there is no evidence "abstinence-only" programs work?

Like any self-respecting, New Dem-leaning Democrat under thirty-five I've greeted the charges of energy company price-gouging and price-fixing with a mixture of nostalgia and disbelief. I've got no affection for energy producers. It's clear they are reaping windfall profits from supply shortfalls which have dramatically ramped up prices. And I think it's well worth considering temporary regulatory interventions to prevent a massive transfer of wealth from consumers to energy companies over the next months and years.

But it's always been difficult for me to believe that energy companies had intentionally rigged the situation of constricted supply and inflated prices we currently face.

Until now.

Today's Paul Krugman column on the Times OpEd page sets forth some of the reasons why you don't have to be a wild conspiracy theorist to believe that price manipulation and intentional supply shortfalls by energy companies had a lot to do with the California energy crisis. He also explains why political pressure to end such skullduggery has likely been a strong factor in the surprising, but little reported, turnaround in California in recent weeks.

But what really opened my eyes on this question was a report released almost two weeks ago by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden which included internal energy company memos detailing plans to reduce refining capacity to pump up profit margins. If that's true it's extremely damning because the argument from the oil companies and their supporters in the Republican party has been that our big problem is a dearth of refining capacity due largely to restrictive environmental policies and the lack of that oil man's holy grail A National Energy Policy -- and of course some miscellaneous screw ups by Bill Clinton.

Wyden's argument is that oil companies conspired (that's an inflammatory word, I grant you, but technically correct, at least) to close down refineries to prevent oversupply and low prices -- partly by running independent operators out of business. The evidence provided by Wyden isn't dispositive. But it's impossible to dismiss out of hand. What seems quite clear is that a number of oil company execs were thinking along these lines. What you'd want to know is just how widespread it was and how large a role it played in our current predicament. Wyden's findings were striking enough that I'm surprised they didn't generate more attention. These questions definitely call for holding hearings and investigations and Democrats are planning to do just that.

Here's the kicker though. A few days ago I said that despite the numerous wouldashoulda scandals coming out of the Bush White House today there are some potential scandals that very much deserve looking into -- both on political grounds and just on the merits.

This is one of them.

In case you've forgotten our new president comes out of the oil industry. Just as important, our new vice-president (and the architect of administration energy policy) spent the last half dozen or more years running a major oil industry concern. If the charges in the Wyden report bear out, that is, if it turns out that there were widespread efforts to reduce refining capacity in the middle 1990s to drive up prices, it's very hard to believe an oil industry executive like Dick Cheney wouldn't know anything about. If he did know about it, his energy plan isn't just ill-conceived, it would be premised on a massive deception, and a utter disregard of the public interest. That would be politically devastating for the administration and deservedly so.

The New York Post leads today with news of more shameless power-grabbing, or rather office-grabbing, by that evil-doer Hillary Clinton ("Hillary Hijacks Senate Offices"). "The Democrats have had the gavel for two weeks and the first thing they do is give Hillary more space," one fuming Republican aide tells the Post. The piece gives short shrift to Chris Dodd's explanation that the extra two offices in question were supposed to go to Hillary in the first place because she comes from a large state.

Oddly though, there's no mention of this March 8, 2001 letter Mitch McConnell sent to Hillary saying exactly what Dodd is saying now:

Dear Hillary:

Pursuant to the authority delegated to me as Chairman of the Committee on Rules and Administration, I am writing to inform you that in addition to your basic office suite, New York is entitled to additional space as a large state. In accordance with this policy, you are also assigned:

Rooms 470, 473, and 475 in Russell Senate Office Building.

Please have a member of your staff contact the Superintendent of the Senate Office Buildings to arrange for the details and time for locating to these new rooms.


Mitch McConnell



According to several published reports Gary Condit basically refused to get into the nature or details of his relationship with Chandra Levy in his second sit-down with the police over the weekend -- and police didn't press him on it. In fairness to Condit, it's worth pointing out (as the Daily News does today) that if he did admit to an affair in a meeting with police it would almost certainly be leaked to the press and appear the next day in the Daily News, New York Post, and Washington Post. So there is certainly a reason beside covering up other bad acts for Condit not to come clean to the DC police on the nature of his relationship with Levy.

That said, it's a little difficult to see how Condit could really have told the police much of anything or been at all forthcoming if he refused to get into his relationship with Levy since that is the whole point of talking to him in the first place.

The New York Post says police aren't satisfied that Condit told him everything he knows and are planning what the paper calls "further investigation into his activities." They also want to interview Condit's wife Carolyn.

It's again worth noting that the police continue to say Condit is not a suspect in Levy's disappearance. But of course they also say they have no reason to believe a crime has occurred. So take that for what it's worth.

Next up, Talking Points responds to Bull Moose's recent comments about Joe Lieberman, "a Democratic national greatness agenda," and campaign 2004. Unless of course we're preempted by more shocking developments on the Condit-Levy front.

A reader writes to ask if I was too harsh in my previous post arguing that "Bush and the Rumsfeldian wing of administration foreign policy have been lazily, stupidly, arrogantly indifferent" to the crisis now boiling over in Macedonia.

First, Talking Points is sometimes hyperbolic. That's one of the things I like about it. And the site itself is a different genre of writing from that in which I or others might write in say Slate or The New Republic. Sites like TPM or Kausfiles or are an evolving form, but I at least think of them as having the parameters and conventions of verbal conversation as much as magazine writing -- even though they only exist in written form.

This is actually just one of the many reasons writing Talking Points is actually a rather weird and perplexing experience. Today for instance I was invited to a foundation-sponsored lunch for the release of a new book by one of DC's marquee, establishment pundits. This is a pretty standard sort of thing where a cluster of bigwigs, and a few smallwigs like Talking Points, get together for a free lunch, a free book, and a lot of questioning and answering which may or may not have about the same value.

In any case, I'm there in my Sunday finest waiting for things to get under way, wondering whether it's okay to start eating my sandwich or not, when I see out of the corner of my eye the event host and another familiar face from the Cable TV airwaves standing at the edge of the room calling me over. I hop up to see what they want. And the fellow calling me over says to me with a mix of schadenfreude, irony, and furtiveness: "Josh, we've only got a few minutes before we've got to start, but tell us, what's the latest about Chandra?"

In almost two years in DC I'm not sure I've ever had a time when I felt quite that equal measure of affirmation and utter mortification at precisely the same moment.

In any case, back to the subject at hand: whether "Bush and the Rumsfeldian wing of administration foreign policy have been lazily, stupidly, arrogantly indifferent" to the burgeoning crisis in the Macedonia.

For all I've said above about the unique weirdness of Talking Points, I think these tough words are actually entirely appropriate. Here's why:

For years, Republicans have complained about Bill Clinton's allegedly promiscuous use of American soldiers, putting them here, putting them there, and so forth. They've made snarky jabs about the administration using our soldiers as 'social workers,' doing all sorts of unmanly, unsoldierly duties, as though our Balkan deployments were simply some international equivalent of corporate diversity training workshops.

(The US did allow the American troops serving in the UN contingent to escort Albanian rebels in the operation that triggered the recent unrest. And the willingness to involve us, in that case, deserves credit. But the overall policy is pretty clear.)

As the Bushies have in so many other arenas, they've come to the White House with the standing assumption that everything Bill Clinton did should be undone -- righting the wrong in some sense of Bill Clinton's very presidency. This isn't the only reason certainly that the Bushies have taken a jaundiced view of our Balkan deployments, but it's an important part of the equation. And Don Rumsfeld has openly spoken of his desire to pull back our troop commitments in the former Yugoslavia.

This is a lazy, stupid and arrogant viewpoint. The new administration with its neo-Blimp political appointees in the Defense Department want global preeminence and geopolitical stability on the cheap. They've indulged an arrogant anti-Clintonism, a lazy retreat to neo-Cold War verities, and thinking about our interests and responsibilities in the Balkans which I think is properly called stupid. Our involvement in the Balkans was at best a wash politically for the Clinton administration; but it was the right thing to do, despite the messy outcome. Those who carped on the sidelines, either irresponsibly or foolishly, deserve no mercy when their facile maxims bear fruit.

Well that sounds like the other shoe dropping. Or if not a shoe then at least a very heavy sock. According to this late report from FoxNews, in his interview with police over the weekend Gary Condit told investigators that he "broke off his close friendship" with Levy two days before she disappeared. Apparently Condit used the placeholder of a "close friendship" to describe the events of the April 29th and 30th, while strongly implying, though not saying, that they were lovers.

Sources tell Fox that when Condit "broke off his close friendship" with Levy she "was extremely disappointed and distraught, refusing to take no for an answer and even becoming obsessed with him."

As we've noted before, consider the time line. On the 28th, Condit's wife arrives from California. Early on the 29th Condit talks to Chandra and breaks off their "close friendship." This is followed by two days of pager messages from Chandra to Condit which, according to FOXNews, Condit says he never returned.

This is like a jigsaw puzzle beginning to fit together.

So many events come across our radar which are really insignificant. And not (pace media bluenoses) just the Gary Condit story.

But the events spinning out of control in Macedonia over the last 48 hours could scarcely be more important or grave. As anyone remotely familiar with 19th and 20th century history knows, Macedonia is a latent hotbed of overlapping irredentisms and a firecracker folded into the creaky joints of Balkan stability.

From the outset of the greater Yugoslavian war, American diplomats have recognized this importance and Macedonia's relative placidity over the last decade has been a marked success as other parts of Yugoslavia skidded into destruction. As a recognition of that importance Americans soldiers have made up roughly half of a thousand strong UN peace-keeping force along the Macedonian border for most of the 1990s -- placed there by Bush's father long before Americans seriously considered deployments in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The reasons for Macedonia's centrality and importance are complex. But briefly, at least four countries would quickly be pulled into the fray if Macedonia were to spin out of control -- Albania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece -- and the last two of those are NATO member states. In short Macedonia's implosion could trigger the regional Balkan war which it has been the aim of American foreign policy for the last decade to avert.

The Bush administration comes late to this problem. But if things do go bad they'll share a large measure of the blame. It's not at all clear that America could defuse this situation. But Bush and the Rumsfeldian wing of administration foreign policy have been lazily, stupidly, arrogantly indifferent to this building crisis. And those who are in a position to do good and do nothing bear great blame when things go bad.

It's at times like these when Mr. Rumsfeld's ugly, Blimpish foolery becomes a very serious matter.

I've had several questions about what I think of Bill Safire's handicapping of the Democratic presidential contenders in Monday's New York Times.

There's a separate question which Andrew Sullivan raised about what to make of the Times poll itself -- whether it should be taken seriously, considering it seemed to have Bush a bit lower than recent Gallup and Zogby polls.

But for the moment let's stick to the Safire handicapping (which I've included below sans commentary).

Tom Daschle (4-1)
Joe Biden (5-1)
Richard Gephardt (15-1)
John Edwards (9-1)
John Kerry (4-1)
Pat Leahy (6-1)
Joe Lieberman (5-1)
Chris Dodd (4-1)
Russell Feingold (8-1)
Al Gore (2-1)

Actually, by and large, I think he's got it about right. Gore, Kerry, and Lieberman seem about right, though Lieberman should be at least as high as Kerry, and probably a touch higher. Daschle is maybe a touch high; Edwards maybe a touch low; but neither too far off the mark.

Feingold makes no sense. Dodd at 4-1 is so ridiculous that you have to wonder what Safire is smoking (and I'm a Dodd fan). And Leahy unfortunately also seems pretty overdone even at 6-1 (though I'm a fan of his too).

The name where I may surprise people by agreeing with Safire is Dick Gephardt's. I think Safire's exactly right. One of the next-yet- quite-told stories of Washington these days is the slow, inexorable fall of Dick Gephardt as a serious presidential contender. If Gephardt were just a goof it wouldn't be such an interesting story. But he's not. Not at all. In fact, in some ways, Gephardt's decline as a possible presidential contender is directly related to his able leadership of the House Democratic caucus back from the wilderness years of 1995. I think 15-1 has it about right. Maybe a touch optimistic.

Well, a prophet is never known in his own time, as they say. Or at least not for a few weeks. Talking Points first started turning a jaundiced eye towards the Gary Condit's non-denial denials way back on May 18th. And by now of course everyone's gotten into the act. Yesterday The New York Daily News said:

It doesn't help that Condit bears a striking physical resemblance to actor William Macy, who played a mild-mannered car dealer with the anxious grin whose murderous plot spins wildly out of his control in the movie "Fargo."
But wait a minute! Didn't Talking Points flag the Condit-Macy connection back on June 19th! I mean, God!!! What is journalism coming to nowadays when a young, up-and-coming writer can't even get credited for his own semi-libelous riffs on the events of the day!?!?!

Anyway, enough of this lameness.

We're clearly into the phase of the Condit story where most of the developments are meta-developments, or perhaps better to say para-developments -- events which tell us nothing really new about the underlying question but add embroidery around the edges and interesting but extraneous information from which we can at best infer new insights.

In this category we have Condit's second interview with the police, his hiring of Abbe Lowell, his meeting with Levy's mother and so on.

As nearly as I can tell the only significant new detail we have is the Washington Post's report that in the second police interview Condit said he last spoke to Levy on April 29th.

As your more experienced Conditologists will remember, the 29th is the day before Levy disappeared. It is also the first day on which she was making repeated calls to Condit's private pager (Time Magazine said Levy's mother found "about 20 calls" to the number on Chandra's cell phone bill -- but the Time report left unclear how many of those were on the 29th and 30th.)

So what does this tell us?

As nearly as I can tell this is what we know: on Saturday April 28th, Condit's wife Carolyn arrived in Washington for a visit -- something she only does two or three times a year.

The next day, Sunday the 29th, Levy began sending repeated pages to Condit trying to get in touch with him. Some time that same day (either after or before the flurry of pages, we don't know) Condit spoke to Levy for what was apparently the last time.

After speaking with Condit on Sunday, Levy continued to try to get in contact with him the next day, paging him again repeatedly on Monday the 30th. Also on Monday the 30th, Levy went to Washington Sports Club and cancelled her membership, and sent a final email to her parents about travel plans (which arrived the following day).

One issue that seems very worth clarifying is whether the Condit-Levy conversation of the 29th occurred before or after she started ringing up his pager. If it occurred before the pager calls began, that makes you think something of real importance occurred in the final conversation, leaving Levy extremely eager to talk to Condit again. If the conversation occurred in the midst of those pager calls, the picture is a little more ambiguous.