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Archive: August, 2009

POSTED: Monday, August 31, 2009, 10:13 AM
It turns out that former Vice President Dick Cheney doesn't like the Justice Department's decision to investigate whether CIA operatives broke the law while questioning suspected terrorists. "It offends the hell out of me, frankly," he said. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

 
We interrupt this vacation...


My vacation house, tucked against the side of a North Carolina mountain, does not have a television. This is a beautiful thing, because it reduces to zero the odds that some serial Washington dissembler will invade my space on Sunday morning. The Sunday shows habitually recycle the same bamboozlers - people like Dick Cheney - and it's frankly a bore.

Nevertheless, as I sat in a restaurant yesterday, sure enough, there was Dick Cheney grousing on the TV monitor, in a video clip from Fox News Sunday. I couldn't help but wonder what had sparked his ire (yet again), and what fact-challenged assertions he was undoubtedly inflicting (yet again) on the Sunday audience.

It turns out that Cheney doesn't like the Justice Department's decision to investigate whether CIA operatives broke the law while questioning suspected terrorists; in Cheney's words, "it offends the hell out of me, frankly."

That's a good one. Dick Cheney, who marched us to war with a litany of lies (many of them uttered on Sunday talk shows), declares that he is offended by the Justice Department's attempt to uphold the rule of law. Could attorney general Eric Holder possibly garner a better endorsement for his decision? 

Cheney argued yesterday that torture has worked. He told Fox News that his "sort of overwhelming view" is that torture has been "absolutely essential in saving thousands of American lives, in preventing further attacks against the United States." The torture, he said, has "worked very, very well."

It's amazing. This guy's credibility was shredded years ago, yet he still gets air time; indeed, his latest assertions were shredded before he even taped his Fox appearance.

A CIA Inspector General’s report on the Bush administration’s interrogation policies, authored in 2004 and finally released last week, identifies a series of "unauthorized, improvised, inhumane and undocumented” tactics, and fails to offer any conclusive evidence that such tactics yielded information that saved American lives.

In fact, the author of the CIA report stressed this point in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last Tuesday. In the words of former Inspector General John L. Helgerson, "You could not in good conscience reach a definitive conclusion about whether any specific technique was especially effective, or (whether) the enhanced techniques in the aggregate really worked."

Even Frances Townsend, who served as the Bush team's homeland security adviser, conceded on CNN the other day that the CIA report offered no documented evidence that torture worked. As she put it, "It's very difficult to draw cause and effect...The report doesn't say that."

Yet whereas the CIA inspector general said that he could not demonstrate "in good conscience" that torture yielded information that saved American lives, Dick Cheney was granted air time yesterday to once again stray far beyond the parameters of empirical evidence - and to demonstrate that, on this issue, he is actually far to the right of Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan, after all, who signed and championed the UN Convention on Torture, which decreed: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."

Fox News didn't challenge Cheney on any of these points. Chris Wallace didn't ask him about the CIA Inspector General's comments, or Townsend's comments, or Reagan's legacy. By contrast, we had this scintillating Q&A exchange about the Justice Department's decision to launch its torture probe:

Wallace: "You think this is a political move, not a law enforcement move."

Cheney: "Absolutely."

Fox News critics are happy these days with the advertising boycott campaign against Fox host Glenn Beck - specifically, the news that roughly 40 advertisers have either pulled their spots from Beck's show or refuse to sponsor him. But Beck is merely one of the more extreme manifestations of the Fox formula. There will always be plenty of advertisers who have no qualms about indulging Dick Cheney's fabulist impulses.

POSTED: Thursday, August 27, 2009, 3:33 PM

We interrupt this vacation...


It's bad manners to speak ill of the newly deceased, and it's probably rude to intrude on Kennedy hagiography in a time of mourning. But here goes:

Edward Kennedy's last wish was a masterly bit of political gamesmanship. Well aware that his infirmity or death might deprive the Democrats of a crucial vote for health care reform this autumn on the Senate floor, he proposed last week that the Massachusetts legislature shelve the current state law (which requires that a vacancy be filled via a time-consuming special election), and replace it with a new state law (which would allow the current Democratic governor to instantly fill the vacancy by appointing a new Democratic senator).

Yet it was just a few years ago when Massachusetts Democratic lawmakers passed the special-election law. They did this in order to ensure that the Republican governor, Mitt Romney, would not appoint a Republican to replace Democratic senator John Kerry, in the event that Kerry won the 2004 presidential election. The law at the time allowed the sitting governor to quickly fill a vacancy via appointment, and the Democrats knew the law would work against them, so they changed it. Kennedy's last wish was that they basically change the law back, because this time it's the special-election provision that could work against them (by keeping the seat open for five months until special election day, thus thwarting the Senate Democrats' hopes of maximizing their floor votes for health care reform).

Dare we sniff a whiff of hypocrisy in all this? I don't intend to disrespect Kennedy's long and mostly admirable service to the nation by pointing out that these kinds of Bay State maneuvers have long characterized the Kennedy clan's power politicking. Indeed, Ted Kennedy never would have become a senator without the family's trademark gamesmanship. I'll tell you a couple of true stories:

In January 1961, JFK vacated his Senate seat and moved to the White House. The family patriarch, old Joe Kennedy, decided that the seat should go to young Ted. The problem was, Ted was not yet 30 years old, the legally minimum age for a senator. So the Kennedys prevailed upon the sitting Democratic governor to appoint somebody who would compliantly warm the JFK's old seat until Ted turned 30 in 1962 (under the rules at that time, a special election would be held that year.) And the Kennedys found the perfect person: an ex-pol named Benjamin Smith, who just so happened to be JFK's old Harvard classmate. Smith did the gig, and Ted won the special election at age 30.

None of that would have been possible, however, had JFK not won the Senate seat in 1952, by knocking off popular Republican incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge. JFK achieved this in part because he got some strong editorial assistance from The Boston Post, an influential newspaper of that era. The Post was expected to endorse Lodge, and Bostonians were stunned when it announced for Kennedy. Why did this happen? Because Joe Kennedy opened his checkbook and bestowed upon The Boston Post a personal "loan" totaling half a million dollars. News of the "loan" surfaced quickly, and Joe Kennedy denied that it had any influence on The Post's endorsement.

Yeah, sure. JFK himself knew better. Years later, while looking back at his '52 race, he remarked to journalist Fletcher Knebel, "You know, we had to buy that f-----g newspaper, or I'd have been licked."

The word now is that the Massachusetts legislature appears unlikely to change the law again. Perhaps it might be deemed rude to deny a dying man his last wish, and there is tragedy in the realization that Kennedy didn't live to vote on the fruits of his work on health care. But it would be wrong to again change the special election law for one party's short-tem advantage.

POSTED: Tuesday, August 25, 2009, 9:01 AM

I'm embedded for the next 10 days in a southern mountain town, with every intention of ignoring the news. That’s the purpose of a vacation. I can’t get with the kind of vacation that Al Pacino had in the film where he played a CBS workaholic who stood in the ocean screaming into his cellphone...OK, Pacino is always screaming, but you get my point. In these mountains I can barely get my cellphone to work, which is fine by me.

Still, I'll undoubtedly write from time to time. Mostly small items and allegedly pithy musings.

The usual verbosity will return next Friday, Sept. 4.

-------

Speaking of small items...

A respected survey firm, Public Policy Polling, has unearthed a statistic that gives us yet another dimension on the ignorance that pervades our nation. The pollsters have been probing the "birther" phenomenon, the refusal of so many Americans to believe that Barack Obama was born on American soil. They solved part of the mystery the other day. Get ready for this one:

Ten percent of Americans don't know that Hawaii is a state.

You read that right. According to PPP, six percent believe that Hawaii is not part of the United States, and four percent are unsure.

Well, that probably explains some of the birthers; these would be the people who acknowledge that Obama was born in Hawaii, but apparently think that Hawaii is some exotic foreign land.

Seriously, 10 percent of Americans don't know that Hawaii has been in the fold for the past 50 years? There are 230 million adults in this country, which means that roughly 23 million of them wouldn't be able to pass a basic civics test. Ponder that one for awhile.

POSTED: Monday, August 24, 2009, 9:29 AM


A tweaked and expanded version of the Sunday print column:


Is George W. Bush on the ballot this November in New Jersey? I recently saw a Democratic TV ad that invoked him as a bogeyman six times in 30 seconds.

Is Bush on the ballot this Novem"er in Virginia? I recently heard the Democratic candidate for governor declare, “Let’s be clear. George Bush is responsible for our economic problems."

The two marquee races of 2009 – Jon Corzine’s fevered bid to save his gubernatorial job in New Jersey, and his party’s ambitious bid to elect a third successive Democratic governor in Virginia - will demonstrate whether Bush-bashing can still sway the voters and deliver the goods.

After all, the tactic worked so well for the Democrats in 2006 and 2008. And let’s remember that running successfully against ex-presidents is a tried and true tradition. The Democrats thrashed Herbert Hoover in 1932, and then banged on him for the rest of the century.

The Republicans are no different. They racked up a landslide against George McGovern 37 years ago, yet they still circulate his name as a synonym for wimp. They ran against Jimmy Carter in 1988, even though he’d been gone for eight years; in TV ads, they dug up footage of cars waiting in gas pump lines during the ’79 energy crisis, complete with Johnny Mercer on the soundtrack crooning "I Remember You."

But I question whether bashing Bush will work this year.

It’s just as likely that the Republicans can win both races by framing them as referenda on Barack Obama – not necessarily by attacking the president directly, but by identifying and mobilizing those voters who seem particularly angry about his proposed policy overhauls (as well as those voters who have swallowed preposterous lies about his overhauls).

To grasp the opportunity, Republicans need only look at the polls. In blue New Jersey, a new Quinnipiac University survey shows that Obama’s approval rating has fallen 12 points in the past two months (from 68 to 56 percent), due largely to a plunge among swing-voting independents. And in Virginia, a new Washington Post survey shows that Obama is actually a drag on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds; only 23 percent of swing voters said that Obama’s endorsement makes them more likely to support Deeds, while 37 percent said they were less likely.

A bit of perspective is necessary, however. If the new president appears to lack coattails, he would hardly be the first. Historically, the party that controls the White House tends to lose these New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial races. The Republicans won both in 1997, one year after Bill Clinton was easily re-elected. Amd the Democrats won both in 2001 – a mere eight weeks after 9/11, when Bush was a war president at the peak of his popularity.

These "odd-year" voters tend to be contrarians who care little about the prevailing Washington powers; indeed, they often care more about quirky local issues. Virginia voters in 1997 got all excited when Republican candidate James Gilmore pledged to abolish the hated property tax on automobiles. They elected him on that basis, not realizing that the car tax was not a state levy, that actually it was handled by counties and municipalities.

But this kind of historical perspective won’t matter this year. Obama’s people recognize the potential spin problem: If Corzine and Deeds go down in November, their defeats will be widely interpreted (by the political media, with GOP encouragement) as a general thumbs-down verdict on Obama, thereby further imperiling his political capital.

That would not be fair to Obama, at least in New Jersey. Corzine’s woes are clearly his own; he was taking heat for the state economy, corruption among fellow Democrats, and the tax issue long before Obama broke big. Obama has been stumping for Corzine, and Corzine has put Obama in a TV ad, but in the end that race is a referendum on Corzine.

Perhaps Corzine’s best hope is to link Chris Christie, his Republican opponent, to a politician who is even more unpopular than he is. That would be Bush, of course. Hence the Corzine TV ad that seeks to weight down Christie with Bush baggage - noting that Christie raised money for Bush, that he allegedly awarded millions in no-bid contracts to "Bush cronies," that Christie is pushing "the same failed Bush economics," that he is "Bush’s friend."

The Corzine team also got some luck the other day, when the news surfaced that Christie, on several occasions, had discussed his prospective Republican candidacy with Bush political guru Karl Rove – while serving as U.S. attorney, a job that is supposed to be apolitical. On July 7, testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on an unrelated matter, Rove said that Christie wanted to know "who were good people that knew about running for governor that he could talk to."

Corzine has tried to mine this news for its Bush connection, but the issue is whether New Jersey voters care more about Karl Rove than about their own property taxes. I suspect it’s the latter, and, besides, the Quinnipiac pollsters said last month that 77 percent of New Jersey voters want Corzine to focus on state issues in this campaign.

But it’s arguably smart politics (or perhaps just desperate politics) to link Christie to "failed Bush economics." Even though Obama has taken hits in the polls, people are still likelier to blame Bush – not Obama – for the nation’s economic woes. The latest Rasmussen poll reports that 55 percent of Americans cite Bush as the main culprit. The latest CBS-New York Times poll, asking a different mix of questions, reports that 30 percent blame Bush while only four percent blame Obama.

So it’s no wonder that Obama himself is trying to make the races a referendum on Bush. Not long ago, he headlined a Virginia rally for Creigh Deeds and sought to shift blame to the ex-president by lamenting "the folks who created the mess...When I walked in, we had a $1.3-trillion deficit. That was gift-wrapped and waiting for me when I walked into the Oval Office." He ratcheted up the rhetoric while recently stumping with Corzine in New Jersey, assailing Bush for "a recession that was caused by years of recklessness and irresponsibility."

In Virginia, Deeds himself sought in a speech last Friday to saddle his Republican opponent with Bush baggage: "Just recently, (Bob McDonnell) said he believes that President Bush did a good job and he created - and I'm quoting here - 'an economic revival in America.' The fiscal policies of George Bush doubled the national debt and resulted in over 300,000 Virginians losing their jobs and 48,000 Virginia families losing their homes to foreclosure. That's not a revival, and I will not let my opponent take us back to this economic approach."

These odd-year elections are all about passion. Since most voters tend to stay home, the trick is to crank them up and turn them out. With the Democrats playing defense in 2009, perhaps their best hope is to galvanize their people by banging Bush one more time (and if it works, notwithstanding Bush’s disappearing act, we’ll see the tactic again in 2010).

But, considering the sweep of Obama’s ambitious agenda and ubiquitous presence, it’s more likely that any ’09 referendum will be on him – or perceived as such. The past recedes, fairly or not. To borrow the president’s words, it’s all about "the fierce urgency of now."
 

POSTED: Friday, August 21, 2009, 12:05 PM

The memory remains vivid. I had just gotten home from the 2004 Democratic National Convention, having exhausted myself in the usual manner unique to those events, having walked across downtown Boston eight or nine times, having watched John Kerry conclude a successful convention that had buoyed his prospects for defeating President Bush, and I was trying to regain my bearings by sleeping late on a Sunday morning. But alas, there was news on the TV - or, rather, faux news - that required my attention:

The Bush administration, fronted that morning by homeland security chief Tom Ridge, was declaring that the evil-doers were poised to murder us at any moment. Ridge said that information, obtained within the previous 72 hours, signaled a potentially imminent al Qaeda attack on financial institutions in New York, Newark, and Washington.

POSTED: Thursday, August 20, 2009, 12:30 PM

Today I invite you to link my new freelance commentary piece, assessing the stormy career of the newly-deceased Robert Novak. I want to add several observations:

Midway through the piece, I mention that a lot of top Washingtonians leaked information to Novak just to stay on his good side. That was a nice way to put it. He actually thrived, during his print column heyday, by practicing a semi-benign form of extortion. He made it clear to people that if they didn't cooperate with him as sources, he would be apt to treat them as targets. Karl Rove once showed up at a party for Novak wearing a button that said, "I'm a source, not a target."

POSTED: Wednesday, August 19, 2009, 4:16 PM

Say what you will about Barney Frank (and, undoubtedly, you will).  I'll simply note for the record that the congressman last night delivered a master class for his more timorous colleagues on how best to handle the town hall clowns. It's simple, really: Speak eloquently and slap them silly.

When some rebel without a clue showed up with a sign depicting President Obama in a Hitler mustache and demanded that Frank explain why he supported a "Nazi policy" on health care, his answer went like this:

POSTED: Wednesday, August 19, 2009, 11:18 AM

As the denizens of Afghanistan prepare to vote in tomorrow's presidential election (presumably defying threats by the Taliban to cut off their noses and ears), I couldn't help but wince at what Richard Holbrooke said the other day. During a Washington forum, President Obama's special envoy to the volatile region summed up the status of the war this way:

"The specific goal of the United States is really hard for me to address in specific terms. But I would say this about defining success in Afghanistan...We'll know it when we see it."

About this blog

Cited by the Columbia Journalism Review as one of the nation's top political reporters, and lauded by the ABC News political website as "one of the finest political journalists of his generation," Dick Polman is a national political columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is on the full-time faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, as "writer in residence." Dick has been a frequent guest on C-Span, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and the BBC. He covered the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns.

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All commentaries posted before April 18, 2008, can be accessed at www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

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