July 25, 2007
Vol. 42, No. 15b
- Gonzales flounders during Capitol Hill grilling
- Specter blasts ‘ineffective’ Reid for wasting Senate’s time
- Earmark transparency reform in trouble
- YouTube Democratic debate produces interesting answers
- McCain makes desperate fund-raising bid
- Despite the failure of Democrats to get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate to cut off debate on an Iraq, Republican unease with the war is growing. President George W. Bush is on a very short leash in Iraq. He must begin withdrawal by September to avoid a bipartisan resolution in Congress.
- The multiple vetoes of appropriations bills — seven or more — threatened by President Bush may never come to pass. No appropriations bill has yet passed the Senate, and it looks more likely that he will be faced with an omnibus spending bill. That enhances the prospect of a government shutdown to determine whether Bush can outlast the Democratic Congress (as President Bill Clinton did to the Republican Congress a decade ago).
- The wide bipartisan margin of approval for the SCHIP health care bill does not necessarily mean it will pick up the requisite 60 votes needed for passage in the Senate. If it does, that promises a key presidential veto — and what Democrats consider a no-lose political situation: a health care bill either passed into law or vetoed by Bush.
- Democratic congressional investigators are relentless in harassing the Bush Administration. Former White House political director Sara Taylor is scheduled to testify “voluntarily” Friday in a House Oversight Committee deposition on alleged politicization of the Drug Control office. There is no apparent White House strategy for repelling this onslaught (see below).
- The conventional political wisdom has given the Democratic presidential nomination and the general election victory itself to Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.). Two cautionary notes: a) This is very early in the process for polling to be definitive; and b) the high negatives for Clinton indicate a severe downside.
Testimony: Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales floundered in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was repeatedly grilled over his bedside jawboning of former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft when he was White House counsel and Ashcroft was hospitalized. In questioning, Democrats were hostile, Republicans unsympathetic.
- Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) repeatedly trapped Gonzales into giving evasive answers and changing his story. He then all but flatly accused the attorney general of lying to the committee about the hospital incident and whether there were or were not any objections to the intelligence program Gonzales was seeking to renew.
- The most charitable interpretation was that Gonzales was at a loss as to what is going on in his own Justice Department. The less charitable interpretation was offered by Democrats on the committee — that he had lied to them. At one point, Gonzales seemed uncertain even as to whether he had received Ashcroft’s approval for a program the administration was running. Gonzales was willing to say only that he “believed” he had Ashcroft’s approval.
- The White House appears to have no serious legal strategy for countering the bevy of Democratic investigations of the White House that have been launched in Congress. Although the administration spared counsel Harriet Miers from the indignity of testifying before a House committee (and she may pay for that gift), they served up the young and completely hapless Sara Taylor to the firing squad in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. Taylor, who took over Karl Rove‘s advisory job at age 30, gave testimony that was extremely painful to watch.
Iraq: A master of Senate parliamentary procedure, Reid has recently shown a less flattering side. His actions of late, specifically the all-night Iraq session, reveal a ham-fisted side of Reid that really wants to run the Senate in the same dictatorial manner that the House is routinely run.
- Twice, Reid cut off veteran senators who were in the course of objecting to unanimous consent requests. Although not required, it is accepted practice to allow objecting senators to explain their reasons for objecting. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) became so upset that he launched into a diatribe against Reid, accusing him of wasting the Senate’s time and calling him an “ineffective” majority leader. Indeed, Republicans’ best argument right now is the failure of this Congress to accomplish anything of substance so far. Democrats have accomplished almost nothing in 200 days, and the failure to move appropriations bills in the Senate is widely expected to result in a government shutdown.
- Reid’s actions — not those of his back-benchers — demonstrated the degree to which Senate comity has eroded. Comity is the only thing that allows the Senate to work. The Senate works almost entirely based on unanimous consent. If that system erodes sufficiently, the Senate can be brought to a grinding halt by just one disgruntled member.
- As a political strategy, however, the focus on Iraq is a winner for Democrats. With polls showing the public favoring Democrats over Republicans on Iraq, there is no question that Democrats benefit from keeping the issue in the public eye as much as possible. The only real question is whether they do more to please or to anger their small-donor base by teasing them with Iraq withdrawal resolutions and provisions that are certain not to pass.
- The best argument for a quick Iraq withdrawal was tacitly made by several of the Democratic presidential candidates in Monday’s presidential debate, but it was put best and most explicitly by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.): “I know of no other way we’re going to convince the political and religious leaders in Iraq to take seriously their responsibility to decide to form a nation-state or not.” This argument is that nothing short of threats to withdraw — or an impending, time-defined withdrawal — can force the Iraqis to get their act together and enact a political solution.
Earmark Reform: Senate reformers fear that by running an end-around on a conference on the lobbying and ethics bill, Reid will manage to pass a bill that does not include earmark transparency in the Senate. The plan is to “ping-pong” the bill — to scrap the current bill, which reform Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will not allow to go to conference because he cannot get a commitment from the majority to keep the transparency rules in the conference report, and pass a new bill through both houses. This move would allow a bill to go through that has big loopholes for earmarks.
- Republican leadership has taken a “hands-off” approach to this issue — letting DeMint fight the fight, but also willing to walk away if he fails. The degree to which Republicans are addicted to pork is perhaps best demonstrated by their unwillingness to embrace what should be one of their best political issues — and right now, there are not too many good political issues for Senate Republicans.
- Whereas the dictatorial procedures in the House have kept members in line voting to preserve almost all earmarks, the tremendous power of each senator makes it much harder to keep them in line preserving the system of favors. For that reason, Senate earmark reform is potentially much more effective and dangerous, even if the Senate adopts precisely the same reforms as the House.
- Senators and congressmen of both parties are touchy about their ability to feed their states and districts with earmarked funds. Nowhere could this be seen as clearly as when the office of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) produced a lengthy tract this week defending a $7.5 million Defense earmark that he and nearly all the Republicans in the Nebraska delegation heartily embrace. Criticism of the earmark by Robert Novak‘s “Inside Report” — which pointed out that the earmark beneficiary company employs Nelson’s son — ultimately received more attention than it ever would have otherwise.
- In fact, family members of senators and congressmen from both parties and in all regions of the country have for years benefited directly from the “Washington economy” of lobbying firms and government contractors, many of which would not even exist without the infusions of taxpayer money that earmarks provide each year. They run the ideological gamut from former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). This has never been considered improper, but few Americans know that a very small number of Washington-connected families negotiate, appropriate and benefit from large expenditures of taxpayer money on a small number of companies through the earmarking process.
Democratic Debate: Many watchers expected the first “YouTube” debate to be a gimmick and an unserious affair. In fact, CNN’s Democratic debate on Monday was a success, producing several tough questions and answers from the candidates.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the hardest questions were given to longshot candidates — questions, for example, about gun rights, slave reparations and Iraq. This is an inevitable problem, however, given the field of eight candidates.
Clinton: This debate will likely be remembered as the performance in which Sen. Hillary Clinton finally learned to lighten up and act a bit human, eschewing the debilitating and robotic persona she normally affects in public speaking situations. Clinton’s appearance, delivery and answer content were sharp and on the money. She was at the top of her game this week, better than in any previous appearance. She has been coached well in the last month. She also benefited from receiving few of the toughest questions.
When offered the opportunity to exploit rival Barack Obama‘s (D-Ill.) lack of experience, she hit a home run. Clinton also looked better physically and sartorially. On Iraq, she played Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) as her well-informed foil to discuss the reasons and need for withdrawal.
Although she has not locked it up yet, Clinton showed in the debate that she can do what it takes to be a good candidate. Republicans have been hoping for her nomination as the weakest general election candidate of the top three Democrats, but she may prove more formidable than they expected.
Obama: Sen. Obama performed well, but as the second-place candidate in a very static Democratic field, he needed to shake something up. He did not, and he also delivered a gaffe on a foreign policy question that highlighted his lack of experience and could cost him the state of Florida if he does end up getting the nomination. His unqualified willingness to meet with a number of rogue world leaders, including Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro, was suddenly thrown into sharp contrast with Clinton’s careful answer that she would not meet with anyone if she believed that the visit was going to be used as a propaganda piece to humiliate the United States.
Obama tried to deflect the fact that he won’t support same-sex marriage outright by pointing out that he supports civil unions, which he added are basically the same thing in all but name — which is exactly what opponents of civil unions point out.
Edwards: Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has had better days than he did Monday night. His failure to land any punches on Clinton suggests he can’t rise above third place.
Edwards was impaled on a question about same-sex marriage, in which he also made a tortured argument that essentially concluded that one’s faith should have no place in affecting the way one thinks or votes.
Richardson: Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) began his first answer, on Hurricane Katrina, with a sequence of ground-up talking points so muddled that they made no sense at all. He continued his performance with similar bumbles and left a lot of questions on the stage about just why he was still in the race. That did not stop him from winning a focus group in Nevada, where voters perhaps long for a Western Democrat to get the nomination for once.
Richardson’s Iraq answers gave the appearance of total ignorance of the situation in Iraq, especially in comparison with the other candidates on stage. Try as he might to assert that “there is a difference” between himself and the others on Iraq, he proved mostly that he had not taken time to learn much about it. He was much better when discussing issues he understood: Darfur, where he visited not too long ago, and on No Child Left Behind, which he has dealt with as governor.
Fred Thompson: In advance of a formal solicitation for funds or an announcement of his candidacy, former Sen. Fred Thompson‘s (R-Tenn.) presidential campaign quietly organized its first Washington fundraiser at the downtown J.W. Marriott hotel for the last week in July. This event will give the clearest signal so far of how successful the actor-politician will be in his late-starting drive to finance his run for president. The telling sign will be whether he picks up important lobbyists and other Washingtonians who earlier had lined up for Sen. John McCain‘s (R-Ariz.) fading campaign for the presidential nomination.
Although Thompson may not announce officially as a candidate until September, there are limits to how long he can wait. It is no easy task to appear on the ballots of many primary states, and he will need a campaign sometime soon to make the cut in time.
McCain: Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign is facing a huge financial crunch. He is in the critical month after three straight weeks of staff defections and firings. With basically just weeks in which to raise more than $1 million and prevent the vultures from devouring him, McCain has made a desperate fund-raising bid for small contributions, on grounds that “the liberal Hollywood elites would love to see Senators Obama, Clinton or Edwards face off against any Republican other than John McCain.”
A July 11 fund-raising letter was intended to reassure contributors that, contrary to speculation, McCain has no intention of dropping out of the contest. But McCain’s letter seeking $400 contributions went to some supporters who already had sent his campaign the maximum $2,300 contribution for the primary elections.
The senator signed the appeal that promised: “With so much on the line…we cannot afford to give up — or even back down one inch. My friend, I promise you, I never will.” Some speculate, however, that he will exit the race once federal matching funds become available to cover his campaign debt
|Robert D. Novak|