Vol. 42, No. 10b
- Giuliani looks best in second debate
- Rove aide seeks immunity for Congressional testimony
- Gonzales tries to lay the blame on McNulty for U.S. attorney firings
- As he attacks investigators, Republicans frown on Doolittle’s chances
- Although former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani certainly improved in Tuesday night’s South Carolina debate compared with his stumbling in the first debate in California, we see severe problems afflicting his campaign. His now unmistakable pro-choice position on abortion may be enough by itself to sink him, but many Republicans also object to his authoritarian style. While he still leads in the polls, a large portion of the remaining majority of Republican voters oppose him strongly.
- We continue to find many important Republicans — particularly members of Congress — who look for former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) to fill the conservative void, even though his performances so far have not been stellar. Last weekend, addressing a closed-door session of the right-wing Committee on National Policy (CNP), Thompson related two anecdotes, one about his helping Chief Justice John Roberts‘s confirmation and the other about raising money for Scooter Libby‘s defense — his two recent enterprises in the public sphere. One important CNP member gave him a B-plus.
- As we go to press, Congress is prepared to pass a Democratic budget with a massive tax increase. Senate Budget Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) insists his budget contains no tax increase, but that is sophistry based on the proposition that reverting to pre-Bush tax levels is not a tax increase. Republicans so far have been ineffective in playing the tax card, which always has been a key weapon in the GOP arsenal.
- The poor Republican morale in Congress, particularly in the House, cannot be exaggerated. Party loyalists there — we refer not only to moderates but staunch conservatives as well — have turned their backs on President George W. Bush and admit that they cannot wait for him and his administration to leave town.
- The betting in Washington is that Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales will stay for the indefinite future and that World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz soon will go. Based on merit, that may be exactly the wrong outcome. One factor arguing for Gonzales’s retention is the difficulty of confirming a new attorney general with no strings attached.
- Liberal Democrats were surprised at the level of support they received in the House for a bill demanding withdrawal from Iraq beginning this year. Republicans continue to believe that Democrats are ready to hang themselves with the war issue, but the bill’s 171 votes is actually a reflection of growing public dissatisfaction with the war.
The second Republican debate revealed a fairly static field in which many of the answers were the same as in the first debate. Of note is the joke by a second-tier candidate former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) that Congress was spending "like John Edwards in a beauty shop."
While it may seem trivial on its face, the joke is consistent with the public image Edwards has accidentally cultivated, it will be difficult for many voters to look at Edwards without thinking of the joke.
Giuliani: Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) had a mixed performance, but mostly a positive one. He was especially strong when he seized upon Rep. Ron Paul‘s (R-Tex.) comments on the 9-11 attacks, which suggested that America’s policy should be shaped after a careful look at why the terrorists attacked the United States in the first place. Giuliani rephrased Paul’s remarks as a statement that Americans had brought the attack on themselves and drew applause as he rebutted the idea, even calling upon Paul to withdraw his remarks. In a Republican crowd, this was indisputably smart politics.
Giuliani was less impressive when he was asked to defend his stands on social issues, which are to the left of those of most Republican voters. He responded by attempting to frighten the audience with the prospect of President Hillary Clinton (D), who would let America lose to the terrorists. Moderator Chris Wallace did not quite let him duck the question this way, and forced him to answer again. This was still much better than his handling of the issue in the first debate.
McCain: In the first Republican debate, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had looked uncomfortable in his own skin. In the second debate, he was better. He even drew applause from the Republican crowd for his opposition to torture. The same crowd had earlier applauded Giuliani for supporting extraordinary interrogation techniques.
To his credit, McCain gave straightforward answers to his position on immigration and campaign-finance reform. The problem is that he gave answers the Republican base does not terribly want to hear.
McCain’s answer on tax cuts, however, was misleading — particularly his claim that he opposed the first round of President Bush’s tax cuts because there was no crackdown on spending. He even said that he had not changed his mind or admitted that he had been wrong in 2001. But when asked about his tax votes, McCain had told our Inside Report column in February, "I can’t tell you that I cast exactly right votes over the years."
McCain would have done better to admit an error, because the record shows his position has changed. At the time of the first Bush tax cut, McCain was not talking about the need to cut spending as much as he was employing Democratic rhetoric against the tax cuts, arguing that they reduced marginal rates too much. In a 2000 Iowa debate, he made this complaint to Bush about his tax plan: "Your tax plan has 36 percent of it going to the richest 1 percent in America. … I think that we ought to give the tax relief to the people who need it most." He was also quoted then as saying the tax cuts helped the wealthy "at the expense of middle-class Americans." He also spoke in a CNN interview of "a belief in America that too much of this tax cut still goes to the wealthiest Americans."
Romney: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), the winner in the first debate, did not make any major gaffes in the second debate, but he certainly failed to shine. In one of the most pointed questions of the evening, Romney was asked about illegal abortions. A relative’s death from an illegal abortion had supposedly turned him to favor legal abortion when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, before he changed his position again while running for President. Romney responded by completely avoiding answering the question.
Romney did show he is capable and agile when asked if he had ever "flip-flopped" in a way that would undermine his interests as a Republican presidential candidate. He cited his current support for the No Child Left Behind law, which he framed as a case of the federal government’s standing up against the interests of the teachers’ unions.
White House E-mails: The mini-scandal over White House employees’ use of non-government e-mail accounts, possibly regarding official White House business, is the latest project of the Democrats’ Grand Inquisitor, House Oversight Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.).
- The use of the off-book e-mail accounts is nothing new for government employees. Primarily, it is understood as a way of separating official business from personal communication. Government employees are not supposed to use government accounts for personal business, and they can be fired or disciplined (under the Hatch Act) for using government time or property for political purposes.
- But the problem here is that government business may have been conducted outside the normal channels, through private e-mail accounts. This violates another law that requires the preservation of records of government activity in the White House. Such a practice could potentially allow a White House to operate in ways that defy congressional and public oversight. The investigation, however, is driven by Democrats’ desire to nail Presidential Advisor Karl Rove, whose e-mails were mostly sent and received through outside addresses owned by the Republican National Committee. Most of the e-mails have been deleted.
- Rove’s former assistant, Susan Ralston, is currently seeking immunity to testify before Waxman’s committee. Ralston is a former assistant to Jack Abramoff, the disgraced Washington super-lobbyist and Republican fund-raiser. As Rove’s gatekeeper, she became special assistant to the President and the highest-ranking Filipino-American in the administration. For Waxman, she is a link between Abramoff and Rove. Ralston was deposed behind closed doors prior to her request for immunity. According to her friends, she has nothing to say that would cause problems for Rove. Her request for immunity was forwarded to the Justice Department, whose recommendation may or may not be followed by Congress.
- Ralston’s quest for immunity may mean nothing, or it could be very bad news for Rove. On the one hand, immunity requests are becoming par for the course in congressional hearings. Monica Goodling of the Justice Department did the same, despite the fact that it would be difficult to suggest that laws were broken in the case of the fired U.S. attorneys. Ralston may be seeking immunity merely for self-protection rather than to nail her former boss, and she could turn out to be a dud for Waxman. Still, there may actually be violations here pertaining to the legal preservation of presidential records. Democrats were bitterly disappointed when Rove was not indicted in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case (when Ralston was among the grand jury witnesses).
- It was in this climate that Rove last week telephoned Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to dress him down for allegedly leaking to the press an account of a private meeting on Iraq at the White House. (Kirk implied in a conversation with a colleague that Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) was actually to blame for the leak.) Rove has apparently not perceived his need for the support of congressional Republicans, instead believing incorrectly that they need his support.
Gonzales: Asked about the U.S. attorney firings controversy during a speaking engagement at the National Press Club, Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales again and again, but subtly each time, laid blame on departing Deputy Atty. Gen. Paul McNulty.
- Gonzales called McNulty’s departure "a loss," but emphasized McNulty’s central role in the attorney firings. "The one person I would care about would be the views of the deputy attorney general," he said. "He knew better than anyone else about the performance and qualifications of the U.S. attorney community." Asked what he would have done differently, Gonzales offered up the apparent contradiction that he would have made McNulty more involved in the firing process instead of relying on his chief of staff, Kyle Sampson.
- He also said, interestingly, that Mike Battle, as director of the Executive Office of U.S. attorneys, was not deeply involved in the evaluation of the U.S. attorneys. Rather, everything fell at McNulty’s feet.
- Gonzales had never put so much on McNulty’s shoulders before he resigned from his job. McNulty was definitely responsible for at least one thing: His Senate testimony had originally opened the Justice Department to scrutiny, since he was the one who said that the departure of several U.S. attorneys had been "performance-related."
- Even as he spoke, across Capitol Hill, former Deputy Atty. Gen. James Comey was testifying that while serving as White House counsel, Gonzales had tried to take advantage of his ailing predecessor as attorney general, John Ashcroft, by pressing him on his hospital bed for approval of a domestic surveillance policy.
Kentucky: Although the No. 3 candidate claims his internal polls show former Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.) pulling ahead, it appears more likely that she can, at best, force a runoff against troubled incumbent Gov. Ernie Fletcher (R). Even that appears unlikely at this point. One poll shows Fletcher 10 points ahead and well above the 40 percent threshold at which he avoids a runoff.
The incumbent governor has blown Northup away in fundraising. She must tear him down in order to have a second crack at him. Her late attack on his ethics in a recent debate is a sign of her recognition that he would finish the race with more than 40 percent if the election were held today. Leaning Fletcher.
On the Democratic side, former Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear is clearly the man to beat at this point. The most likely outcome of next Tuesday’s primary is a runoff between him and Bruce Lunsford. Beshear has benefited from the departure of state Treasurer Jonathan Miller (D) from the race — Miller endorsed Beshear as he exited. In debates, Beshear was everyone’s target, a sign that all of the campaigns recognize his late frontrunner status. Leaning Beshear.
California-4: Rep. John Doolittle (R) won re-election by three points last November in a district that gave 61 percent of its vote to President Bush in 2004. The reason for his drop-off in support was the pending accusation of impropriety involving his wife’s work for the disgraced and now imprisoned Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Now that the FBI has raided his home for his wife’s business files, Doolittle has begun publicly attacking the authorities for persecuting his family. Other House Republicans, however, do not have the liberty of taking him at his word. In the 2006 cycle, too many similar protestations of innocence — coming especially from then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) — proved to be false. The record is clear that congressmen lie in order to make their legal situations appear brighter than they actually are. Even if Doolittle is telling the truth, there is no room for error here.
Doolittle has already been forced to step down from the Appropriations Committee. His committee replacement, Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), has been accused of making too much money on a major land deal, and of voting to put an interchange in a place that would increase his land’s value (it was actually 16 miles away from his property).
Republicans foresee a Doolittle loss in the coming election or, at the very least, the needless expenditure of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to save Doolittle when that money will be needed elsewhere. They would prefer to see the nine-term lawmaker depart gracefully instead of making a scene. He will almost certainly draw a primary if he tries to run again. Among the potential Republican challengers are Assemblyman Ted Gaines, former state Sen. Rico Oller and radio host Tom Sullivan.
Pennsylvania-4: Former Rep. Melissa Hart (R) wants to run once again for the seat she lost in 2006 to Rep. Jason Altmire (D). Hart’s loss came as a huge surprise on election night. But senior House Republicans are loath to support a Hart comeback attempt unless she overcomes what they consider her major fault in the 2006 election. They cite her refusal to go negative in her campaign against Altmire as the main reason she lost.
Fred Thompson: Sen. Fred Thompson was once again absent from the debate, but he continues to win straw polls and perform well in polls despite having no campaign to speak of. He won a Vermont straw poll over Romney, the regional favorite, after earlier straw-poll victories in Georgia, Oklahoma and California.
Over the weekend, Thompson received mixed reviews when he made an appearance before the conservative Council for National Policy. His speech, a red-meat discussion of the Constitution and the need to check the Judicial Branch, was received with a standing ovation.
But some were puzzled by the fact that he dedicated more than one-third of it to Scooter Libby. No one seemed to disagree with him, but many considered it an odd focus for the speech.
|Robert D. Novak|