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Archive: February, 2009

POSTED: Friday, February 27, 2009, 11:19 AM


Republicans clearly are not satisfied. Despite the fact that they have been driven from power and condemned to suffer the indignities of a shrunken minority, they apparently have an abiding desire to sink even lower. Accordingly, and with renewed determination to alienate a greater number of Americans, this week they boldly took the following steps:

1. They have signaled their distaste for helping the jobless citizens in eight states. GOP governors in Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas don't want to take the billions in federal stimulus money that would be targeted to the people (especially in the GOP-dominated South) who have been hammered most by the recession. To receive this money, these governors would have to expand the jobless benefit eligibility rules. They don't want to. It's doubtful that all those newly laid-off marketing assistants and data specialists are so eager to strike a blow against big government. They'd probably prefer to get that money and spend it on badly needed necessities; indeed, Mark Zandi, the former McCain campaign economic adviser, has said that, for every buck invested in jobless benefits aid, $1.64 in economic activity is generated. But Republicans seem more focused on deepening their downward trajectory. Ticking off the newly jobless is a cinch way to do that.

2. They tapped Bobby Jindal to deliver the party's rebuttal to President Obama. Much has already been said about the sorry performance of the GOP's great minority hope; any citizens who expected to hear fresh policy alternatives must have been aghast, assuming that they bothered to watch. It should be noted, however, that Jindal did his best to fulfill the party's apparent desire to deepen its plight. At one point he declared, "Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts." Now there was a persuasive strategy - reminding Americans of President Bush's signature domestic failure, the episode that helped convince voters that the GOP regime was not fit to run the government. For Jindal, bringing up Katrina was the equivalent of tying his shoelaces together and taking a step.

3. At a time when the polls indicate strong majority support for activist government, and for the priorities in the stimulus plan, the Republicans have rightly calculated that they can alienate more people if they stand in the middle of the road and yell stop. This enlightened strategy was boldly articulated yesterday in Bill Kristol's monthly Washington Post column; as the conservative commentator sees it, Republicans need to "find reasons to obstruct and delay." That should aid the GOP's determined march to the margins. After all, it did the trick for the party during the 1930s.

4. And if all else fails to drive more people away, there's always that durable old standby: sordid invective. Indeed, there was a smorgasbord of that stuff yesterday in Washington, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. John Bolton, the ex-Bush ambassador to the U.N., suggested to the CPAC audience that the Iranians might opt to nuke an American city, and then came his punch line: "Pick one at random. Chicago." Whereupon his listeners, mindful of Obama's home city, erupted in cheering and applause. At another point, conservative activist Cliff Kincaid suggested that Obama is a communist, and that got the audience chuckling. But when Kincaid subsequently assailed Obama as an illegitimate president, by invoking the old canard that Obama was "not born in the United States"...well, much giddy bedlam ensued. It was a brilliant masterstroke; what better way to turn off the electorate than to dredge up a nutcase accusation that most Americans rightly view as phony?

There are surely tens of millions of voters whom the Republicans have yet to alienate, but, as evidenced this week, the project appears to be all systems go. CPAC will hear tomorrow from its closing speaker, Rush Limbaugh. That should help the project immensely.

And there's arguably no better way for CPAC to signal the paucity of thought on the right, and thus alienate more voters, than to free up some time at the podium for...Joe the Plumber. Which is what happened yesterday, I kid you not. Need we say more?

POSTED: Thursday, February 26, 2009, 10:59 AM


At the risk of lulling you to sleep, I wish to point out that Congress finally seems poised to correct a grave injustice long inflicted on the aggrieved 588,292 citizens of Washington, D.C.

Washingtonians are required to pay federal taxes, just like all other Americans on the continent. They are permitted to sue in the federal courts, like all other Americans. They can, if they choose to do so, serve in the military, like all other Americans. They can vote in presidential elections, and they are represented in the Electoral College, like all other Americans. In legal spheres, their economic activities are regulated by the same interstate commerce rules that apply nationwide. Yet for the last 208 years - ever since the District of Columbia was created - Washingtonians have been denied full representation in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If you really think about, it's pretty weird. Washington has roughly the same population as Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota, and Alaska, yet its citizens have fewer democratic rights. Actually, at this point the people of Baghdad have more voting representation in their national legislature than the people of Washington have on Capitol Hill.

This may soon change; an historic milestone may be at hand.

Late this week, the Senate may follow the House's lead and pass a bill awarding a congressional seat to the District. President Obama has already indicated that he would sign it (reversing the No stance of his predecessor). No doubt, there would be constitutional challenges - more on that in a moment - and the Supreme Court could ultimately be required to weigh in. But Washingtonians are currently making more progress on this issue than at any time since 1978.

Yeah, I know. This issue is an eye-roller. For 170 years, Washingtonians weren't even allowed to elect their own mayor; the "Home Rule" movement waxed and waned for so long that the press deemed it a non-story. In the film All The President's Men, which takes place in 1972, a roomful of Washington Post editors are kicking around story ideas, and one guy says, "I think we could mention that this might be the time to go to the front page with District Home Rule," and everybody laughs and scoffs. The persistent editor, addressing his boss Ben Bradlee, says, "Ben, this time it could go all the way," and Bradlee, bored and jaded, barely musters the energy to say, "OK, well, when they pass it, we'll run with it."

But Home Rule finally did pass, in 1973. And this time, in 2009, the movement to give Washington a real congressman could indeed go all the way. Republicans have been politically resistant to the idea for a long time, since it's a slam dunk that the minority-majority city will elect a Democrat in perpetuity. But the deal on the Hill would be to create a new seat for the Republicans in Utah (which seems poised to get a new seat anyway, in the wake of the next census), in exchange for some GOP support on awarding full voting rights in Washington. It also should be mentioned that some Republicans sincerely want to take the high road and support the full democratic aspirations of the city's African-American electorate (in a sense, this is a civil rights issue), if only to signal that the party still aspires to embrace inclusion.

Opponents, however, still insist that the DC voting rights bill is unconstitutional, based on a literal reading of the Founding Fathers. The U.S. Constitution says that full congressional representation shall be awarded only to "the people of the several states." True enough. The document was ratified in 1789, when every U.S. citizen lived in a state; as yet, there was no such entity as the District of Columbia. That didn't happen until 1801, when the District was carved out of land ceded by Maryland and Virginia.

But how would it be legal to enact a law giving Washingtonians a congressman, when there is no such wording in the Constitution? Well, consider this: The Constitution, thanks to the 16th Amendment, gives Congress the power to levy federal taxes "among the several states." There's nothing in that wording about the District - yet citizens of the District have to pay federal taxes like everybody else.

Similarly, the Constitution says only that the citizens of "different states" can sue each other in federal court. Congress later extended that right to Washingtonians, and the Supreme Court upheld that right in a ruling 60 years ago.

As one legal scholar contended not long ago, "There is nothing in our Constitution's history or its fundamental principles suggesting that the Framers intended to deny the precious right to vote to those who live in the capital of the great democracy they founded." It was high time, this ex-federal judge argued, that Congress and the president stand up for the half a million Washingtonians and correct "this longstanding injustice."

That's Kenneth Starr - the same guy who pursued Bill Clinton in the Lewinsky scandal. If someone with Starr's conservative credentials is making that kind of argument, it's fair to suggest that full voting rights for the District might actually have a fighting chance...But wait!

Now it turns out that GOP Senator John Ensign has introduced a "poison pill" amendment to the bill, mandating the erasure of the Washington city council's gun control laws. Clearly, that amendment is strategically intended to gum up the works, and make ultimate passage more difficult. But its implicit message - that some Republican from Nevada can presume to dictate social policy inside the city - is precisely the kind of paternalism that the District voting-rights movement has been battling for generations.

POSTED: Wednesday, February 25, 2009, 11:17 AM

Some tangentially connected observations about President Obama's address to Congress:

The politics of the audacity of hope. Obama was right to downplay the gloom and play up the optimism. That's how FDR did it in 1933 ("This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper"). That's how Ronald Reagan did it in 1981 ("Let us begin an era of national renewal...and let us renew our faith and our hope"). Americans - and perhaps the markets - typically react best when they are told that their best days are still ahead.

POSTED: Tuesday, February 24, 2009, 11:22 AM


On the original Saturday Night Live, John Belushi used to play a slobbering character called The Thing That Wouldn't Leave, so named because of his clueless propensity for staying too long at a party, and refusing all hints and entreaties from his hosts to haul himself off the sofa and hit the road.

Senate Democrats are currently saddled with such a character; I refer, of course, to Roland Burris. But Burris has sucked up so much attention lately that it's easier to forget about the Thing who persists in camping out on the Republican sofa, even as his hapless hosts gnash their teeth and pray that he will go away.

I refer, of course, to GOP senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky, the former baseball pitcher who hurled a perfect game as a Phillie in 1964, but who, in his two terms as a Washington lawmaker, has been pitching way too many screwballs.

Bunning is such an embarrassment, with his verbal miscues and bizarre behavior, that Senate Republican leaders are now working openly to bounce him out of the chamber. They have made it abundantly clear that they don't want him to run for re-election next year - a highly unusual posture, since party leaders normally encourage incumbents to run again. But Bunning, at age 77, is shaking off all the signs and digging in for a third bid. The GOP is so distressed by his intransigence - and so worried that a Bunning defeat next year would help the Democrats win a filibuster-proof 60 seats - that they are actively soliciting another Kentucky Republican to challenge their own senator in a party primary. That's how bad things are with the Thing.

Actually, things got even worse over the weekend, when Bunning declared in a speech that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will soon be dead. By the end of the summer, in fact.

While making an argument for more conservative judges, Bunning informed his audience that the high court will soon have one less liberal judge. Bunning, who is not a doctor, and who naturally has no access to Ginsberg's private medical records, nevertheless stated that she has "bad cancer. The kind you don't get better from. Even though she was operated on (Feb. 5), usually nine months is the longest that anybody would live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."

Meanwhile, Ginsberg was back on the bench yesterday, firing questions at lawyers, as medical experts provided a cautiously optimistic prognosis, noting that her cancer had been caught at an early stage and that it had not spread beyond her pancreas. And Bunning - realizing, perhaps, that it's a tad tacky for a senator to summarily consign a high court judge to her eternal rest - shifted yesterday into mea culpa mode: "I apologize if my comments offended Justice Ginsburg." (If?)

The Ginsberg episode is merely the latest in a long string of embarrassments. That's one big reason why he has barely raised any money for his 2010 re-election bid (a Senate incumbent in Kentucky needs to raise upwards of $20 million; in Bunning's latest filing, he has raised around $175,000). Meanwhile, the Kentucky polls show that he is highly vulnerable - which is no surprise, given the fact that Bunning barely eked out a two-point victory in 2004, on a night when President Bush won Kentucky by 20.

Bunning's behavior is legendary in GOP circles. During his '04 campaign, he said that  Democratic challenger Daniel Mongiardo looked like Saddam Hussein's sons "and even dresses like them, too." (A Bunning spokesman later apologized, while insisting that the remark had generated "a lot of laughs.") Bunning also boosted his security detail, at taxpayer expense, claiming that al Qaeda might be targeting him; indeed, he told a TV crew, "There may be strangers among us." (Senate officials said there were no specific threats against Bunning.) Even in 2007, he insisted that Mongiardo (a doctor by trade) had dispatched campaign workers dressed as doctors to harass him and Mrs. Bunning ("I had little green doctors pounding on my back"), though there was no evidence of it happening.

He has also alienated business leaders and fellow Republicans back home. During the '04 campaign, he told a chamber of commerce luncheon in Louisville that, contrary to all expectations, the city would not be getting a new bridge. This was news to the local Republican congresswoman, Anne Northrup, who had arranged for that bridge to be built with federal funds - and who knew that, in fact, the project had the green light. Northrup had to mollify the shocked business leaders by declaring that the senator was merely "confused," a word that is code for "senile." As for Bunning, he at first denied that he had uttered his inaccuracy - then admitted saying it only after he was informed that his speech had been recorded. (He had also denied the remark about Hussein's sons, until informed that those remarks had been videotaped.)

Bunning also has a habit of being in the wrong place. In October '04, he was supposed to be in Kentucky for the only scheduled Senate campaign debate; instead, he was up in Washington, claiming he was "tied up" with legislative duties (actually, the Senate was not in session). So he participated via satellite, and appeared to be using a teleprompter in violation of the debate rules.

By contrast, when he was supposed to be in Washington last month, for the opening Senate session and the casting of consequential votes, he was somewhere else on vacation (he has never said where). Republican officials were less than thrilled, rightly recognizing that Bunning's decision to go AWOL in a time of crisis could well become grist for Democratic attack ads in Kentucky next year.

So it's no wonder that Washington GOP strategists have been huddling with a respected Republican state senator, mapping the possibility of his challenging Bunning in a primary (while officially denying, naturally, that any such plans are in the works). Most instructive, however, is that posture being taken by Republicans Mitch McConnell (the GOP's Senate leader) and John Cornyn (who chairs the party's 2010 campaign committee). They have met with Bunning, he has told them that he intends to run, and yet they still keep insisting publicly that Bunning has yet to make up his mind. To which Bunning said of Cornyn, "He's either deaf, or he doesn't listen very well."

Cornyn was also recently asked whether Bunning would be the best candidate to hold a seat that the GOP dearly needs next year. Cornyn replied, "I don't know. I think it's really up to Senator Bunning."

Stripping away the politesse, here's the translation: "I wish that freaking slag heap would take a hint, get off the sofa, and hit the road."

But the point is, senators don't feel compelled to take such hints. Once ensconced, they often tend to be independent actors, heedless of the needs of their party. Once ensconced, they are tough to extricate - short of waging a successful, and costly, primary. That's the deal at the moment with Burris and Bunning, this season's winners of the Belushi award. 

 

POSTED: Monday, February 23, 2009, 10:02 AM

My Sunday print column, revised and expanded:


After two successive electoral thrashings, after being told by the voters in 2006 and 2008 that they were unfit to govern, the minority Republicans have few potent weapons left in their arsenal. Whipping up hysteria is one of them.

POSTED: Friday, February 20, 2009, 11:36 AM


A noteworthy item appears today on page four of The New York Times:

"An article published on February 21, 2008, about Senator John McCain and his record as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts of interest included references to Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist. The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust."

Translation: On virtually the one-year anniversary of its original story - a story that was rightly assailed by liberals and conservatives alike - The Times has settled a defamation lawsuit filed by Vicki Iseman, and has published a statement that allows it to save face. Sort of.

You may not remember this Times story, which detonated during the latter stages of John McCain's march to the GOP nomination. It was, in my humble estimation, manifestly unfair to McCain - and particularly unfair to lobbyist Iseman, since it definitely left the impression (even if it did not "intend to conclude") that in 1999 she may have sought to serve the interests of her corporate clients by sleeping with Chairman McCain of the Senate Commerce Committee.

The Times, in the strictest sense, did not report errors of fact - the aforementioned "Note to Readers" did not contain a retraction - but its story did insinuate, powerfully so. To tease the reader, the 3000-word piece opened with the unmistakable intimation of sex:

"Early in Senator John McCain's first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers. A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fundraisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself..."

My translation: Back in 1999, some McCain aides (all unnamed) were "convinced the relationship had become romantic" (but we never learn what specific evidence, if any, led them to believe this).

Elsewhere in the story, these unnamed aides were reportedly worried about "the appearance of a close bond," and the possibility of "potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest," because Iseman's telecommunications clients had business with McCain's committee. But there was no evidence in the story that "the appearance" ever led to any actual conflicts of interest - beyond the fact that McCain once sent two letters to the Federal Communications Commission, asking that it rule soon on whether a key Iseman client, Lowell Paxson, should be granted a TV license.

Big deal. McCain himself has mentioned that episode in his memoirs, and it's old news anyway, because the press reported on it 10 years ago - noting at the time that while the FCC rebuked McCain for writing those letters, there was no evidence that McCain had tried to muscle the agency into ruling a certain way. And The Times story offered no fresh evidence of any actual muscling.

Anyway, back to those tantalizing hints of sex: The story said that the unnamed McCain aides got him to admit that he had been "behaving inappropriately" with Iseman. However, from reading the story, there was no way to know whether that phrase referred to the behavior of lovers; or the behavior of platonic pals plotting to help a lobbying client in violation of the public interest; or the behavior of two friendly flirts whose political dealings were legit, but who were imprudently making themselves grist for gossip.

The Times has insisted that the story intended to highlight what it viewed as McCain's willingness to risk "the appearance of impropriety," despite his own carefully crafted image of propriety. But even the newspaper's resident ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, publicly voiced his own discomfort with the story. Shortly after publication, Hoyt smartly wrote: "A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior, and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that it is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide."

Iseman told the The Times in writing that she had not conducted any kind of liaison with McCain; her denial appeared in the article. She elaborated on her denial last autumn, during lengthy interviews with the nonpartisan National Journal - which, in its own reporting on Capitol Hill, found no evidence that Iseman had ever enjoyed any kind of personal relationship with McCain. Iseman sued The Times two months ago, saying that she wanted to restore her professional reputation "as an honest broker in the political arena."

As part of the settlement, The Times agreed to run a statement, on its website, from Iseman's lawyers (one of whom is a First Amendment scholar). It appears today. The lawyers are on strong ground with their complaint that the article "communicated by implication that Ms. Iseman had unethically capitalized on the implicit illicit relationship to obtain favorable action by Senator McCain on behalf of clients she represented," and that Iseman wound up as "collateral damage" since McCain was the prime focus.

More dubiously, Iseman's lawyers argue that she is a "private individual" as opposed to a "public figure." (In libel law, it's much tougher for a public figure to win a defamation lawsuit.) But, in an online response to the lawyers, The Times pointed out: "A publicly registered lobbyist is hired to influence public officials on matters of public policy." If this case had gone to trial, The Times would have made that argument, and, in all likelihood, the paper would have prevailed.

Needless to say, however, this is not an ideal time for newspapers to be spending money on libel cases. (And why risk an adverse ruling on the "public figure" argument?) Hence this settlement. The Times can say that it retracted nothing; Iseman can say that she won a measure of justice. I think she came out ahead.

It remains imperative that newspapers take risks and report assertively, and The Times is one of the few remaining outfits with the requisite resources. But in this brutal economic climate, and with critics on the left and right always baying for blood, it's also imperative that if investigative reporters take aim, they had better squarely hit the target. These days, there is precious little margin for inexactitude.

POSTED: Thursday, February 19, 2009, 1:40 PM



Surely we can all assume that no self-respecting Republicans will dare take a dime of Barack Obama’s welfare socialist stimulus money. They have their small-government convictions, after all, and surely that requires that they leave billions on the table, firm in their belief that conservative ideology is far more important than the fiscal and social welfare of their constituents. Surely they wish to remain consistent, and faithful to the credo. That would indeed be the principled thing to do. End of story, right?

But hang on a moment. What do we have here…

Lindsey Graham, one of the top Senate fulminators against the stimulus, now says: “I think it would be smart for South Carolina to take the money.” Sarah Palin, who has generally echoed the anti-stimulus conservative line, says that she’s ready to take stimulus money “on a case by case basis,” especially for construction projects. Bobby Jindal, the Louisana governor, leaves the window ajar by saying, “We’ll have to review each new program,” and Missississippi Gov. Haley Barbour does the same, saying that “there may be some things that we’d be better off not to take.”

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, vocal stimulus foe, has just informed Obama, in a letter, that he "will accept the funds." Back east, the Republican regime in Georgia reportedly sent a wish list to Washington a month ago. Out west, California Republican congressman, who voted No, says, “We’re obligated to make sure this money is spent properly.” In the heartland, a Missouri Republican congressman,  who voted No, says, “There is some Pell Grant money (for students), which is a good thing.” And back in South Carolina, GOP governor Mark Sanford, another outspoken stimulus foe, now says that his stance "doesn't preclude taking the money."

Huh?

Surely they all wish to do better than that. Let’s grow a spine, people. For instance, Bobby Jindal is facing a potential $2 billion budget shortfall next year, and, granted, his cut of the stimulus package - for infrastructure spending alone – is worth $538 million, but surely he wouldn’t think of taking any of that money and compromising his party’s principles. He might even want to run for president in 2012, and standing on principle is very important to the national conservative base. So no doubt he will refuse every last cent of that liberal lucre. Right?

As for Sanford, the conservative governor of South Carolina, this is truly the time to stand on principle – what with unemployment soaring at home (9.5 percent), and Graham urging him to take the money that’s right there on the table (“you don’t want to be crazy here,” says Graham). South Carolina has actually been dependent on Washington for a long time – reportedly, the state gets $1.35 back for every buck it pays in federal taxes – but what better time than now for Sanford to be ideologically consistent and say no to the money that would extend jobless insurance, build and repair roads, and prevent teacher layoffs. We know he’ll stand firm all the way. Right?

As for Palin, OK, granted she’s facing a projected $1.5-billion budget shortfall, and granted her cut of the Obama stimulus package would reportedly total more than half a billion dollars, which after all would be a big help to her hurting constituents….but surely we have every confidence that she will refuse it all and thus remain a principled conservative to the bitter end. Right?

Indeed, we can surely expect that all Republicans will hew to their convictions and spurn the money. So what if the latest Fox News poll, released today, finds that 60 percent of Americans (including 62 percent of swing-voting independents) approve of the job that Obama is doing, while only 34 percent (including just 29 percent of independents) approve of the job that the congressional Republicans are doing? Principled people don't peg their convictions to the public mood. 

And we can surely expect that, any second now, party chairman Michael Steele and the party leaders on Capitol Hill will finally issue that stinging press release, the one that slaps down all these wavering conservatives who seem so tempted by such ill-gotten gains. And it will be such a simple message, a paean to ideological consistency: “We said no to the bill, and now we say no to the money.”

Funny how that’s not happening.
 

POSTED: Wednesday, February 18, 2009, 11:26 AM



Now that President Obama has signed the economic stimulus package, let us highlight an interesting fact that has been largely underplayed in the news coverage:

A Democratic chief executive has signed into law the largest two-year federal tax cut in history...yet virtually the entire Republican caucus on Capitol Hill voted against it.

To repeat: A liberal Democrat has signed into law a bill mandating $282 billion in tax cuts over the next two years - dwarfing George W. Bush's $174 billion in tax cuts during his first two years - yet the party that typically invokes "tax cuts" as its ideological mantra decided to vote No. There are 219 Republicans in the House and Senate; 216 voted against a tax cut that's bigger than the Bush cut.

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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