Steve Benen

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Steve Benen

How The GOP Gave Up On Governing In Order To Keep Winning Elections
The GOP's push to win elections at all costs opened the door to a new leader who would cement its status as a post-policy party.
The education of David Frum

It took a while, but David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter seems to have noticed a problem with the conservative movement’s approach to competence.

It also has to be admitted: Many of us on the conservative side have fed this monster. (Rightly) aghast at the abuse of expertise by liberal judges, liberal bureaucrats and liberal academics, we have sometimes over-reacted by denying the importance of expertise altogether.

“‘Heart’ is crucial,” one of George W. Bush’s early evangelical supporters argued in a 2005 newspaper column. This same writer accused those conservatives who questioned Bush’s “faith-based initiative” of having “holes in their souls.”

So now instead of holes in our souls, we conservatives are getting candidates with holes in their heads.

As Kevin Drum put it, “Welcome back to the reality-based community, Mr. Frum. Good luck reining in the beast you and your colleagues have spent the past three decades unchaining.”

90 days later

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), 90 days ago:

“What we do can affect the outcome. But if we don’t see progress on two of the three big issues — oil revenues, de-Baathification, provincial elections — in the next 90 days, it may not happen. And Iraq could be a failed state.”

Just for good measure, let’s also not forget that Graham also said we need not worry about Iraq failing the vast majority of the agreed upon benchmarks for progress, because a major step forward was near. “In a matter of weeks, we’re going to have a major breakthrough in Baghdad on items of political reconciliation — the benchmarks — because the Iraqi people are putting pressure on their politicians.” That was Sept. 2.

Oh, all right, one more. Graham told Time magazine’s editors that unless there was political reconciliation in Iraq within 90 days, Americans should give up hope. “If they don’t deliver in 90 days, I will openly say the chances for political reconciliation are remote,” Graham said, adding, “If they can’t do it by the end of the year, how do you justify a continued presence?” That was Sept. 26.

For reasons that I’ve never entirely understood, the media establishment decided years ago that Graham is a “serious” lawmaker whose opinions on Iraq necessarily have merit. I have a hunch, reality notwithstanding, this won’t change.

‘Less than the sum of its parts’

It’s hardly a secret that the Republican presidential field is surprisingly unimpressive, which has contributed to a GOP malaise. Poll after poll has shown Democratic voters enthusiastic about their choices, while Republican voters generally feel the opposite.

But it’s worth pausing, from time to time, to realize just how feeble this field really is.

It is hard to think of another campaign when Republicans have seemed less excited about their choices. That was the unmistakable lesson of the rapid ascension in recent polls of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, the latest in a line of Republican flavors of the month. A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found that none of the Republican candidates — not even the suddenly hot Mr. Huckabee — was viewed favorably by even half of Republican voters. […]

[W]hat is worrying Republicans these days is that this tepid rank-and-file reception to the best the party has to offer suggests that the Republican Party is hitting a wall after dominating American politics for most of the last 35 years. Republican voters are reacting to — or rather, not reacting to — a field of presidential candidates who have defined their candidacies with familiar, even musty, Republican promises, slogans and policies. […]

Richard Lowry, the editor of the conservative magazine National Review, said the field “has been less than the sum of its parts.”

To quantify this a bit, Richard Bond, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, noted data that showed a 17-point “intensity gap” between the Republicans and the Democrats looking ahead to the ’08 campaign. “That is a monster number,” Bond said. “It shows that the Republicans are not fired up and it’s going to take a nominee who can clearly articulate a post-Bush vision for the country.”

To be sure, this could change once there’s a Democratic nominee Republicans can rally in opposition to. But what does it say about the modern Republican Party that they need a Dem to save their electoral chances?

Lieberman to endorse McCain

Marc Ambinder and Mike Allen are both reporting this afternoon that Joe Lieberman will appear in New Hampshire to endorse John McCain’s presidential campaign.

A source familiar with the endorsement said that the two will appear of NBC’s Today Show tomorrow morning and at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire.

The endorsement could help McCain with independents in the state…. The move will heighten speculation that McCain might ask Lieberman to join his ticket.

A few thoughts. First, this news hardly comes as a surprise. As far back as January, Lieberman said he would consider backing the Republican nominee in ’08. Obviously, given that McCain and Lieberman have been joined at the hip in support of Bush’s Iraq policy for five years, I would have been more surprised if he didn’t endorse McCain.

Second, McCain’s campaign is certain to score points with the David Broders of the world, but this endorsement may not deliver much in the way of primary votes. Indeed, Lieberman’s support in New Hampshire is hardly impressive — remember the classic “three way tie for third place“?

And third, on the possibility of a McCain-Lieberman ticket, this has been touted of late by everyone from The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol to National Review’s Peter Wehner, though it seems terribly far-fetched given Lieberman’s support of abortion and gay rights.

This is the natural evolution of an embarrassing senator who lost his way quite a while ago. It’s unlikely, in a 51-49 Senate, that the Democratic leadership will punish Lieberman for this (by, say, reevaluating the decision to give him a committee chairman’s gavel he never uses), but it’s hardly an unreasonable move given the circumstances.

Fighting over who values Bush more

After a series of humiliating incidents, Mike Huckabee has earned his reputation for knowing less about foreign policy than any credible candidate in either party. To help address his obvious deficiency, Huckabee wrote (or, more likely, someone on his staff wrote) a piece for the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, in which he criticizes the administration’s handling of Iraq, specifically lamenting Bush’s “arrogant bunker mentality,” which he described as having “been counterproductive at home and abroad.”

Assuming Huckabee read the piece, he had to realize there’d be at least some pushback. Mitt Romney was the first out of the gate, suggesting Huckabee sounded like a Democrat.

Romney kept this up on “Meet the Press,” saying the criticism is “an insult to the President and Mike Huckabee should apologize to the President.”

Oddly enough, Huckabee is already starting to back down, telling Wolf Blitzer that he’s the true Bush ally, not Romney.

“I didn’t say the President was arrogant…. I’ve said that the policies have been arrogant…. I’m the one who actually supported the President’s surge. I supported the Bush tax cuts, when Mr. Romney didn’t. I was with President Bush on gun control, when Mitt Romney wasn’t. I was with the President on the President’s pro-life position, when Mitt Romney wasn’t.”

As a rule, the GOP presidential field realizes that the president’s name isn’t supposed to be uttered at all. In this week’s Republican candidate, not a single Republican hopeful used the word “Bush” over the course of the 90-minute event.

And yet, now, two credible challengers for the Republican presidential nomination are anxious to align themselves with the least popular president in the modern political era. Great idea.

Media identifies, but won’t fix, problem

What’s that old cliche? The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Several political reporters covering the presidential campaign seem to have that down pat. The Washington Post’s Anne Kornblut, for example, explained on MSNBC in October:

“I have to say we in the media are spoiling for a fight. Usually we are biased in favor of a good tussle at about this point. … I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere between now and January 3, now that we know that’s when the Iowa caucuses are going to be, to see some kind of reverse, some kind of Obama surge or an Edwards surge. Something that is going to knock Hillary down a few pegs. Whether it’s a media creation, or something that actually happens on the ground. I would be shocked if there were nothing like that.”

It sounds like a healthy first step. Kornblut identified a common media problem — the media likes to manufacture a fight, and take down a frontrunner whether the facts warrant it or not.

But as Greg Sargent explained today, it’s the second step that seems to be the trouble:

[P]undits and commentators have a strange and widespread tendency to talk about their profession’s collective failings — but without displaying any desire to change them, without showing any awareness that these failings could be changed with a little effort, and even without betraying any awareness or concern that they themselves might be contributing to the problem.

Looking the other way on DADT

When it comes to kicking Americans out of the military because they’re gay, the occasional defense — offered by conservatives who know the policy is absurd — is that the Pentagon is merely following the law. If Congress wants able-bodied, patriotic, American volunteers to join the Armed Forces, regardless of sexual orientation, lawmakers should change the policy. If not, the Defense Department doesn’t have a lot of choice.

Except, that’s wrong. “60 Minutes” is scheduled to have a report tonight on gays in the wartime military, and the apparent trend to occasionally disregard “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” in the face of recruiting difficulties, retention challenges, and a severely overstretched fighting force. In one instance, CBS’s Lesley Stahl spoke with a gay solider who not only disclosed his sexuality to his superior officers, but “even offered graphic proof.” He was neither discharged nor reprimanded, DADT be damned.

[Army Sgt. Darren Manzella], a medic who served in Iraq for a year, currently serves as medical liaison for the 1st Cavalry Division stationed in Kuwait, where he says he is “out” to his entire chain of command, including a three-star general. After leaving Iraq, he started receiving anonymous emails warning him about his openness that suggested he was being watched, so he went to his commander to head off an investigation he felt was coming. “I didn’t know how else to do it,” he tells Stahl, acknowledging that he initiated an investigation of himself by violating the policy. “I felt more comfortable being the one to say, ‘This is what is real,'” Manzella says.

He then says his commander reported him, as he was obliged to do, and then “I had to go see my battalion commander, who read me my rights,” he says. He turned over pictures of him and his boyfriend, including video of a passionate kiss, to aid the investigation. But to his surprise, “I was told to go back to work. There was no evidence of homosexuality,” says Manzella. “‘You’re not gay,'” he says his superiors told him. This response confused him and, he says, the closest a superior officer came to addressing his sexuality was to say “I don’t care if you’re gay or not.”

It’s apparently part of a trend. Gay soldiers discharged under the DADT policy have dropped from 1,200 a year in 2001 to less than half of that now.

A few months ago, John McCain said gay people in the military represent an “intolerable risk” to morale, cohesion, and discipline. When push comes to shove, the military apparently disagrees.

Who needs fiscal sanity?

Quick quiz: what’s going to cost the U.S. more over the next decade: the exploding costs of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare or Bush’s tax cuts? Despite all the talk we hear about the prior, it’s not even close — the tax cuts are poised to cost the treasury far, far, more.

And yet, every Republican presidential candidate in the field, to a man, vows to make each of Bush’s cut permanent, beyond their scheduled expiration in 2010. As the NYT’s Tom Redburn notes today, over the next 10 years, it will cost “roughly $2.5 trillion in revenues now expected under current law. And that’s just the beginning.”

Even without taking on any additional tasks, merely meeting the government’s existing obligations — mostly to pay for the military and to keep up with the health care and retirement needs of the elderly — would send the budget deficit soaring, pushing overall federal debt held by the public from under 50 percent of the size of the nation’s economy today to over 300 percent by 2050.

“The combination of roughly constant revenues and significantly rising expenditures would quickly create an unstable fiscal situation,” the [Congressional Budget Office] report notes alarmingly, but in its characteristically dry and understated manner.

How would the Republican candidates deal with this problem? Most say they would try to hold down spending — and cut taxes even more.

Keep in mind, most of the GOP field, including Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, are on record believing in the Tax Fairy — tax cuts can pay for themselves with increased revenue. It’s transparent nonsense, but it helps explain why the Republican field doesn’t even pretend to care about fiscal sanity.

‘Broader and deeper’ surveillance

With the Senate set to move on a revised FISA bill, and the renewed debate over retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with legally dubious NSA requests, the so-called “Terrorist Surveillance Program” is on the front-burner again.

But the NYT adds a new wrinkle to the debate today: the Bush administration’s surveillance efforts are even “broader and deeper” than previously believed.

[T]he battle is really about something much bigger. At stake is the federal government’s extensive but uneasy partnership with industry to conduct a wide range of secret surveillance operations in fighting terrorism and crime.

The N.S.A.’s reliance on telecommunications companies is broader and deeper than ever before, according to government and industry officials, yet that alliance is strained by legal worries and the fear of public exposure.

To detect narcotics trafficking, for example, the government has been collecting the phone records of thousands of Americans and others inside the United States who call people in Latin America, according to several government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the program remains classified. But in 2004, one major phone carrier balked at turning over its customers’ records. Worried about possible privacy violations or public relations problems, company executives declined to help the operation, which has not been previously disclosed.

Glenn Greenwald characterizes the landscape as one approaching a “surveillance state.”

The Executive Branch and the largest telecommunications companies work in virtually complete secrecy — with no oversight and no notion of legal limits — to spy on Americans, on our own soil, at will.

More than anything else, what these revelations highlight — yet again — is that the U.S. has become precisely the kind of surveillance state that we were always told was the hallmark of tyrannical societies, with literally no limits on the government’s ability or willingness to spy on its own citizens and to maintain vast dossiers on those activities. The vast bulk of those on whom the Government spies have never been accused, let alone convicted, of having done anything wrong.

One should assume the debate will now subtly shift to include the new revelations. Before, if you believed that the Bush administration should get a warrant before spying on Americans, and if you suggested that telecommunications companies ought to follow the law and respect customers’ privacy, White House allies insisted you were effectively “pro-terrorism.” After all, if you’re “strong” on national security, you wouldn’t mind giving the NSA and telecoms unchecked, unregulated authority to spy on whomever they pleased.

We’re bound to hear a similar argument here. Instead of the “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” the label will be expanded to the “Drug Kingpin Surveillance Program.” If you expect the Bush administration and the telecoms to follow the law, you must be “soft” on narco-traffickers.

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