Week of January 17, 2007

January 17, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 2a
  • President Bush’s attempt to sell troop surge to the nation backfired
  • Argument against minimum wage played out in American Samoa fight
  • Reid gets embarrassed in ethics reform battle
  • Gov. Blunt in trouble for 2008 in Missouri
  • Obama poses serious threat to the rest of the Democratic field
  • Outlook

    1. President George W. Bush‘s attempt to revitalize his Iraq War policy has been a political failure. His "surge" in troops won no converts, and all efforts now are based on attempting to prevent a negative resolution from being passed in the Senate.
    2. The gloom pervading the Republican Party cannot be exaggerated. The long-range GOP outlook for 2008 is grim. The consensus is that U.S. troops must be off the ground of Iraq by next year to prevent an electoral catastrophe in the next election.
    3. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is not buying into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s (D-Calif.) 100-days concept. He not only resisting her full package on ethics but has scheduled Senate hearings on other priority bills hurried through the House.
    4. The presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) for now sets up a three-way race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is the clear front-runner, and, incredibly, the "moderate" candidate. Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) is the candidate of the left.
    5. Similarly, the Republican race starts with three viable candidates: Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. McCain is the front-runner, but Romney is on the rise.

    Bush Administration

    Troop Surge: President Bush’s attempt to sell the new Iraq policy to the nation backfired — the public’s disapproval of the idea of a troop surge is higher now than it was before President Bush tried to sell the policy.

    1. A sense of impending political doom clutches Republican hearts. It is exacerbated by the alarming intelligence brought back from Baghdad by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and passed around Capitol Hill. In a pre-Christmas visit to Iraq, Coleman and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida met with Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the Iraqi government’s national security adviser. Coleman described their astounding encounter in a December 19 blog post: "Dr. Rubaie maintains that the major challenge facing Iraq is not a sectarian conflict but rather al Qaeda and disgruntled Baathists seeking to regain power. Both Sen. Nelson and I react with incredulity to that assessment. Rubaie cautions against more troops in Baghdad."

    2. In other words, the Iraqi government is denying the obvious reality of sectarian violence on the ground, acting as though nothing has changed about the Iraq insurgency since it began. The reason is that despite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s lip service to cracking down on Shiite militants, his government’s political support is inextricably tied to their military leader, Moqtada al-Sadr. Maliki’s failure even to show up for a scheduled press conference to comment on Bush’s new strategy, and his continued silence, underscore this fact..

    3. This hastens the desire of Republicans, who once cheered the Bush Doctrine in the Middle East, to remove U.S. forces from a politically deteriorating situation as soon as possible. Iraq, one of Bush’s top political advisers now notes, is a black hole for the Republican Party. A nationally prominent Republican pollster reported confidentially on Capitol Hill after the President’s speech that if U.S. boots are still on the ground in Iraq and U.S. blood is still being spilled there at the end of the year, the GOP disaster in 2008 will eclipse 2006.

    4. Many Republican congressmen have tied their hopes to Bush’s pledge that Iraqi forces will take over local security by September. But they do not know how that victory can be achieved if the Iraqi government is tied to the Shiite militia, a political problem in Iraq that no increase in U.S. troops can solve. They can only hope that the Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and her sidekick, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), overplay their hands by cutting off funds to U.S. troops in the field. It is a slim hope for now.

    5. House and/or Senate passage of a resolution condemning a troop surge would be damaging to President Bush. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of repudiation suffered by President Woodrow Wilson when Congress rejected the League of Nations, but it is definitely an official vote of no confidence in the President’s foreign policy.

    6. Former Sen. John Edwards’ admonition that "silence" among Democrats in Congress in the face of the Bush plan amounts to "betrayal" apparently hit home with Sen. Clinton. Although Edwards did not mention Clinton by name, her handlers felt threatened enough by such language coming from the left that she released a counterattacking statement. As Democrats mull over just how strongly they want to oppose President Bush’s plan — whether, for example, they want to go so far as to support de-funding part of the war effort — the leading contenders for their 2008 nomination will be positioned for the war debate.


    Minimum Wage: Republicans were surprisingly divided on the minimum wage bill presented by Democrats as part of their 100-hour agenda. Some division was expected. Minimum wage is a populist "compassion" issue that plays well with people who do not understand economics. But it was also expected that more Republicans would hold the line on the grounds that a minimum wage hike is more likely to put teenagers out of work over the summer than it is to lift families out of poverty.

    Nothing highlights this fact more than the American Samoa controversy that erupted after the bill’s passage. It was discovered that the bill did not apply to that territory, even though it applied to all of the other U.S. territories and states. Republicans pointed the finger at Speaker Pelosi, accusing her of doing a favor for Starkist, whose tuna plant is in American Samoa but whose headquarters is in San Francisco.

    Democrats eventually agreed to include American Samoa in the bill, and Eni Faleomavaega (D), American Samoa’s non-voting delegate to Congress, had specifically asked for his collection of islands to be exempt from the higher minimum wage because it would be "devastating" to the two tuna plants there, which directly or indirectly account for roughly 80 percent of the territory’s economy. In other words, Faleomavaega and the Democrats who agreed to his provision were acknowledging that trade-off of paying more to minimum wage workers — most of them dependents or spouses providing a second income — would be the crushing of American Samoa’s economy. The obvious question is that if it is bad for American Samoa, couldn’t a higher minimum wage also be bad for other places?

    The bill passed the House with a veto-proof 315-116 count, but President Bush is likely to insist that some business friendly provisions be added. In case of a veto override, some Republicans may withdraw support if those provisions are not included. That will be their way out — and the American Samoa situation offers them another argument for voting no in the future.

    Ethics Reform: Last week’s Senate action saw a minor dispute over the so-called "Reid Amendment" — not an amendment offered by Senate Majority Leader Reid, but one snidely named after him by some Republican staffers because it would perhaps most affect his and his family’s situation.

    Another ethics amendment, demanding full transparency of earmarks, suddenly incurred his strong opposition despite using the same language as the Democratic House bill. The Senate’s earlier version would have exempted more than 90 percent of earmarks from transparency and reporting. In proposing their amendment, Senators Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) were using language identical to Pelosi’s reform in the House, and that aspect of Reid’s denunciation of the amendment was almost missed entirely by the press.

    Senators DeMint and Coburn offered an amendment to tighten loose anti-earmark restrictions in the current ethics bill by prohibiting senators from requesting earmarks that financially benefit a senator, an immediate family member of a senator or a family member of a senator’s staffer.

    Reid’s four sons and his daughter’s husband all have been lawyers or lobbyists for special interests, mostly the real estate, gambling and mining industries. While Reid has declared they are barred from lobbying for their clients in his office, there is little doubt they have taken advantage of their close proximity to a powerful senator. Other members of their firms can lobby his office. It is generally understood in Washington that special interests hire family members in hopes of having more access — it is a thoroughly bi-partisan phenomenon that has gone on for years. Republican reformers saw an opportunity in Reid’s background both to highlight this issue and to take a political shot at the new majority leader.

    Reid brought a tabling motion that would have killed the DeMint-Pelosi amendment, but it failed, 46 to 51, with nine Democrats abandoning their majority leader. Two of the nine freshman Democrats — Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Jon Tester of (D-Mont.) — voted against Reid.

    For such a tabling motion to fail is rare. Senate leaders usually only make such motions when they are certain of success. Equally rare was the motion’s aftermath. Normally, when such motions do fail, an amendment is approved by voice-vote, since another roll call vote is considered needlessly repetitive. But an obviously distressed Reid took the floor to hold open the vote indefinitely on DeMint’s amendment — something reminiscent of the tactics used in the House by former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.). Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) saved Reid further embarrassment by proposing a minor technical change in the DeMint amendment and claiming victory.

    The lesson is that Democrats failed to consider some of the consequences of campaigning on ethics reform. After so much talk about the culture of corruption, they can’t be caught opposing serious ethics reforms that are offered by Republicans. In this situation, Reid’s positioning on earmark and lobbying reform does not make him look good.

    Governor 2008

    Missouri: Gov. Matt Blunt (R) is one of a handful of Republican governors in serious trouble. He finds himself somewhere between the situation of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) — who may face a primary or decline to run again — and that of Gov. Mitch Daniels (R-Ind.), who is moderately unpopular but not a long shot for a second term. Blunt has yet to decide on his own plans for 2008. The topic of whether he will seek re-election did not come up during a recent powwow he held with this top staff. Blunt made a few major mistakes, including his unnecessary and public support of one ballot measure (funding embryonic research) and opposition to another (minimum wage). The former hurt him badly with his base, the latter could hurt him in a general election.

    State Atty. Gen. Jay Nixon (D) may take a chance in 2008, either against Blunt or another Republican, should someone replace Blunt on the ballot. No one serious is expected to run in a primary against Blunt, but if Blunt steps aside, Rep. Kenny Hulshof (R) and Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder (R) are the most likely Republicans to jump in.

    Former Sen. Jim Talent (R) is not interested, reportedly preferring to wait for his seat to come open again in 2012 — although no one is sure that any politician can afford or even bear such a long wait.

    President 2008

    Obama: After only two years in the Senate, Obama has already shown that he is not to be taken lightly as a presidential candidate. He is far more agreeable to listen to than the presumed frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and has much less of a "slick" aura about him than the Iowa frontrunner, former Sen. Edwards.

    Obama is a far-left liberal whose rhetoric does not sound too liberal. He is also a novelty as a viable black presidential contender, but he is also more than just a novelty. Unlike black candidates before him, he could conceivably both win and serve as President.

    Obama will have no problem convincing liberals to support him in the Democratic primaries, but his calm demeanor will not freak out the right the way Clinton and Edwards already do. And his ability to raise money is already proven — an Internet appeal from Obama was all it took to fund the entire Senate re-election campaign of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in 2006.

    Romney: People in Washington are wondering what former Gov. Romney was thinking when his campaign released a three-page dossier on Brian Camenker, a conservative activist whom no one had ever heard of before.

    Camenker, who had been characterized by the press as a conservative "gadfly," had been attacking Romney on his stance on homosexual rights and social issues. He only gets more attention because of the Romney operation’s attempt to highlight him. One sign that the researchers doing the work are out of touch with campaign strategy is the fact that the piece attacks Camenker for attacking liberal former Massachusetts Gov. Paul Celucci (R).

    The campaign’s decision to give all this attention to a nobody critic is the equivalent of Virginia Republican Sen. William Scott‘s decision in 1974 to hold a press conference to deny that he was the "dumbest congressmen" after a consumer group branded him as such.

    Tancredo: Nobody seems very sure why Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), the anti-immigration crusader, has thrown his hat in the ring for the presidency. No one believes he can win. A key lesson of 2006 is that the immigration issue is not an automatic winner for Republicans, and Tancredo is also not expected to raise the kind of money needed for a serious race. Many also believed that he would stay out after Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) announced his candidacy, since that put an immigration hawk in the race. But in fact, Duncan’s presence in the race had less effect on Tancredo than the decision of libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) to seek the nomination.

    Tancredo got in anyway. He won’t have the immigration issue to himself, but as long as he stays in, he may have to himself the anti-Bush mantle in the GOP primary. It is not expected that any of the other candidates (except maybe Paul) will denounce Bush for the GOP’s decline, as Tancredo did Tuesday in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s afternoon program.

    Tancredo still has not decided whether he will run again for re-election to Congress. As a presidential candidate, he has the potential to draw single-issue immigration voters away from other Republican candidates in the primary.

    Robert D. Novak