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Week of March 21, 2007

March 21, 2007
Washington, DC
Vol. 42, No. 6b

 

Outlook

  1. Just as the Democrats seemed off balance in dealing with the Iraq war, Republicans are furious that the Bush Administration is losing the initiative thanks to three big fumbles: firing the U.S. attorneys, the FBI excesses and the Walter Reed Army Hospital. “Incompetence” is the word used by Republicans in describing the administration.
  2. It is impossible to find a Republican on Capitol Hill who believes either that Alberto Gonzales will survive as attorney general or that he should survive. That typifies the poor congressional relations of the Bush Administration that are rooted in arrogance.
  3. The budget debate that began in the Senate Tuesday sums up the difference between the two parties. Setting aside the rhetoric, the Democratic budget calls for major increases in health and education spending paid for by upper-bracket tax increases. Being seen as supporting higher taxes has hurt Democrats badly over the last three decades, but they hope the Iraq War will override economics this time.
  4. Look for a compromise immigration bill to emerge from Congress after a good deal of internal Republican conflict. The increasingly influential Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, who won re-election last year as an immigration hard-liner, is prepared to risk attacks from constituents by brokering a compromise.
  5. Hints of a possible presidential run by former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) have generated a surprisingly strong and wide reaction — indicating Republican dissatisfaction with the present field. The question is whether Thomson will work hard enough to be a serious candidate.

Bush Administration

Plame Testimony: The long-awaited first public testimony by Valerie Plame Wilson demonstrated both the determination of Democrats to try to politically milk this story and the weakness of Republicans.

  1. The goal of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is to connect the “outing” of former CIA employee Plame to the Oval Office. The principal target is senior adviser Karl Rove, with the intent to strip him of his security clearance.
  2. To rehabilitate the shopworn story of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, it is necessary for Waxman to establish that Plame was a “covert” operative at the CIA. Without that, there simply is no point to all the fuss. Waxman surprised Republicans by claiming that he had authority from CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden to say that Plame was covert. Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee had tried without success to get from the CIA any definition of Plame’s status.
  3. Actually, Hayden apparently told Waxman that Plame was covert but not covert under terms of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. However, this did not come out during the course of the hearing. Republicans in Congress familiar with the situation were furious with Hayden, whom they believe is too cozy with Democrats and plays into anti-Bush sentiment at the agency.
  4. Republicans let Waxman and the Democrats have their way at the hearing, permitting Plame to come over as a poor, persecuted patriot instead of a Democratic partisan. Only two Republicans showed up at the hearing, and they seemed afraid to challenge Plame or bring out the truth about her.
  5. The Plame hearing was an example of the power of the congressional hearing intended to be used by the Democratic majority for political ends. The weakness of the Republican response may also be typical.

U.S. Attorney Firings: The current scandal over the firing of eight U.S. Attorneys has caused Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales to lose all support within the administration.

  1. President Bush’s gesture of phoning Gonzales to reaffirm his support is just that — a gesture. His press conference last night to challenge the Democrats was a means of political positioning. As President Bush announced that Gonzales would appear on the Hill to testify, he was in fact throwing him to the wolves. At best, he has a few months left in office. Only a few Republicans on Capitol Hill have called for Gonzales’s resignation so far, but the others are doing almost nothing to defend him..
  2. Bush’s willingness to allow only informal, closed-door interviews with members of the White House staff was an attempt to present what he repeatedly called a “reasonable” offer to Democrats. In warning Democrats against holding “show trials” or engaging in a “fishing expedition,” Bush is trying to take the high ground. He is also expressing just how powerless he is to do anything about it. Democrats were preparing subpoenas for the White House staffers this morning.
  3. Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) was vexed when Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to take credit for investigating the Justice Department’s dismissal of U.S. attorneys. Emanuel, who is not a lawyer, actually led all Democrats in focusing on the purge of federal prosecutors who had been pursuing public-corruption charges. Schumer, who is famous for taking credit and aggressive in placing himself before the television cameras, called for the resignation of Atty. Gen. Gonzales. Emanuel took the House floor with a different position — keeping the focus on the public-corruption investigations.
  4. The Senate acted this week to undo changes in the Patriot Act on the replacement of U.S. attorneys. A reform amendment proposed yesterday by Sen. Jon Kyl would have actually forced the President to install a Senate-confirmed U.S. attorney within 120 days. It was not really a partisan question, but Senate Democrats instead stuck together and followed their leaders’ instructions. They supported a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that returns to federal district judges the appointment power of interim U.S. attorneys.

Congress

Iraq Supplemental: Tomorrow is the earliest Congress could possibly take up the condition-filled bill funding the Iraq War. Democratic leaders originally discussed the Iraq measure as a vote-of-conscience that they would not whip, but that changed quickly.

Democrats are still concerned about the level of support their bill has on their own side of the aisle. In order to win votes, they are resorting to both the carrot and the stick. They have inserted numerous pork projects into this bill, to which the normal Senate budget rules will not apply since it is a supplemental bill. Democrats have also threatened a loss of projects for liberals who vote against this war-funding bill.

Republican leaders believe that they will lose no more than 10 members on the vote. The logic is that there are so many offensive provisions in the bill — whether it is the Iraq pullout language or the pork — that Republicans cannot justify supporting it.

Governor 2007

Kentucky: Republicans here feel strongly that Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R) has gotten a raw deal with respect to the scandal over hires he made outside the state’s civil service system. However, they are equally convinced that he will not be re-inaugurated next January. The only question, therefore, is whether he loses the May 22 primary or the November 4 election.

  1. Fletcher has alienated two key groups in Kentucky’s Republican Party — first the grassroots organizers who got him elected in his close 2003 race, and second his Republican allies in the state legislature. To the former, he gave early impressions of ingratitude and neglect, and many of them have abandoned him by now. The latter complain that he has behaved in an aloof manner, not unlike the way President Bush dealt with the congressional majority when he still had it.
  2. The business community has also been upset with much of Fletcher’s work. Fletcher pushed through a so-called “tax modernization plan” that included one of the most hated of all taxes for small businessmen — an alternative minimum tax for businesses based on gross revenues. As a result, the state is raising excessive revenues on the backs of low-margin small businesses, even those with bad balance sheets.
  3. Despite promises during his 2003 election campaign to make Kentucky more business friendly, the state has dropped from the 29th to 36th most business-friendly state in the United States since 2004, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses. The tax change played a significant role in that.
  4. Former Rep. Ann Northup (R) is already nearly even with Fletcher in the polls, and she must be favored to win the primary. Despite what some view as a sluggish fundraising operation early on, she has hit her stride for the most part.
  5. The winner of this Republican primary must take 40 percent to avoid a primary runoff. A third candidate, businessman Bill Harper (R) — who served as Fletcher’s finance chairman in his 2003 election — will sop up a significant portion of the vote in his native Western Kentucky, the most Republican part of the state. This could make it difficult to get 40 percent.
  6. Still, Fletcher’s support lags even at a time when he is on television and Northup is not. The real state of play in the GOP primary should become clearer when Northup takes to the airwaves in April. Leaning Northup.

Louisiana: The decision by Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) not to seek re-election is not a huge surprise, given her low approval ratings and the brutal criticism she has received over her handling of Hurricane Katrina. But some Democrats are miffed that there was no special deal between her and former Sen. John Breaux (D), whose potential candidacy has been widely discussed for more than a month now.

  1. Breaux has said he will decide quickly, but the fact that he has not already announced and is not already raising money puts fear into the hearts of state Democrats, who know that he is by far their strongest candidate. Breaux has teased himself in and out of races in the past. He could well do so again.
  2. There is also the potential problem of his residency. No one is going to accuse Breaux of carpet-bagging just because he lived in Washington for a few years as a private citizen, but the issue could legally keep him off the ballot, which may give him second thoughts about entering. The residency requirement for gubernatorial candidates in Louisiana is draconian, requiring Louisiana citizenship for the past five years.
  3. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and Rep. Bobby Jindal (R), who narrowly lost to Blanco in 2003, is raising so much money that he could discourage any other candidate from entering the race. Blanco has a large campaign war chest that she could give to the state party, but she is not required to do so. If Breaux does not make up his mind soon, any candidate hoping to top Jindal will begin late and under funded.
  4. Before Breaux expressed interest in this race, Democrats had been courting moderate Rep. Charles Melancon (D) as a possible candidate. If Breaux does not run, pressure will build up on Melancon to run. Melancon would have been much more inclined to do so before, but two months of uncertainty have cost him two month’s worth of fundraising and campaigning. Melancon would have to spend up to $4 million to make himself sufficiently known throughout the state, whereas Jindal already has nearly state-wide name identification.
  5. Although Melancon has not completely ruled it out, it is clear that the second term congressman would be taking one for the team, almost as a favor to the state party. The Democrats’ real hope is in Breaux’s running.

President 2008

Giuliani: The biggest Washington area fund-raiser for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a reception scheduled for tomorrow night at the Maryland mansion of millionaire lobbyist Peter Terpeluk. Terpeluk, who served for four years as ambassador to Luxembourg after being named by President George W. Bush, is one of several Bush backers across the country recruited by Giuliani. Lou Cordia, a longtime Republican political operative in Washington who started in the Reagan Administration, is managing the fund-raiser, which requests $4,600 from individuals and $9,200 from couples.

One major Washington contributor who is not yet committed to a presidential candidate has received four telephone calls and two e-mails soliciting for the Giuliani event.

McCain: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is now publicly flirting with an immigration reform bill that would require illegal immigrants to return to their home countries in order to apply for United States citizenship — something he has opposed in the past. As recently as 2005, McCain had derided such a proposal as “Report to Deport” and said that “11 million people are not going to voluntarily come out of the shadows just to be shipped home.” Now, however, McCain feels a need to move himself to the right. He expressed openness to such a proposal while in Iowa this week.

Romney: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney‘s (R) gaffe before a crowd of Florida Cubans has gotten a considerable amount of attention, even if only because his detractors are making it an issue. Florida Cubans are very Republican and likely to play a large role in Florida’s Super Tuesday primary. The mistake is unlikely to cost him the Cuban vote, but it does play into the image he has picked up of being a bit too much the good-looking and perfect candidate — of being too scripted.

Romney used a Spanish motto that is dear to Communist dictator Fidel Castro — “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” (“Fatherland or death, we shall overcome.”) Romney’s defenders point out that the phrase was commonly used in pre-Castro Cuba as well.

Romney’s other problem is in his backyard — the decision by the Massachusetts GOP to take legal action against the anti-Romney group, Massachusetts Republicans for Truth, for infringing on the party name. The group’s founder, consultant Holly Robichaud, responded by pointing out that the party never had any objections when Massachusetts Republicans for Choice backed Romney in 2002. This gives Romney’s detractors another opportunity to point out his shift on the abortion issue.

Clinton: Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) raised eyebrows among Democratic insiders when Washington Post columnist Al Kamen reported that Clinton dined last week at the 701 restaurant in downtown Washington with former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, his wife, Valerie Plame, and left-wing journalist Sidney Blumenthal.

Leading Democrats have stayed away from Wilson since a Senate Intelligence Committee report in 2004 discredited him. Blumenthal was known as a vicious attack man when he worked as an aide to President Bill Clinton late in his administration.

Sincerely,
Robert D. Novak

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Written By

Mr. Novak was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, a political newsletter he founded in 1967 with Rowland Evans. He passed away August 19, 2009. Read tributes to Robert Novak and his legendary work, as well as memories from Novak alumni and the Human Events family.

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