David Corn

Is Lady Gaga a Better Politician Than Barack Obama?

On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered a military spending bill that would have repealed the military's Don't Ask/Don't Tell policy on gay servicemen and women. More than half of the Senate—54 Democrats and two independents—supported the measure (as did Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, who voted no purely for procedural purposes); all the GOPers opposed it. But because breaking a filibuster requires 60 votes, the decisions of moderate Sens. Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Scott Brown to join their obstructionist GOP colleagues ensured that gay people would still be unable to serve openly in the military.

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Whatever Happened to the CIA Black Sites?

Whatever happened to the so-called "black sites," where suspected terrorists were held overseas by the CIA and submitted to harsh interrogations that included torture? On April 9, CIA chief Leon Panetta issued a statement notifying CIA employees that the agency "no longer operates detention facilities or black sites" -- which were effectively shut down in the fall of 2006 -- "and has proposed a plan to decommission the remaining sites." In the months since then, lawyers for several terrorism suspects have been trying to determine the status of these sites, as they seek evidence for their cases. But the US government has refused to disclose anything about what it has done with these facilities.

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New Online Computer Game Exploits Right-Wing Paranoia

It's January 2011. The GOP is about to assume control of both houses of Congress -- having been voted in by a public deeply suspicious of Democrats after President Barack Obama conducted clandestine talks with President Felipe Calderon of Mexico and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of Canada.

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Is a Cheney Cover-Up Scandal Brewing?

Who in the George W. Bush White House tried to shred a memo challenging the use of torture?

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Religious Right Group Claims Same Sex Marriage Leads to Mass Murder

Is there a connection between same-sex marriage and mass murder?

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How a Clean Water Advocate and Senator Became a Chemical Industry Lobbyist

A decade ago, Nevada's congressional delegation won a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to fund drinking-water improvements in rural areas of the state. The aim was to ensure the water supply in these locales was free of dangerous levels of various chemicals, including the rocket-fuel additive perchlorate, a potential health hazard. The amount of money was modest -- $12.5 million -- but that didn't stop the state's federal legislators from crowing about their accomplishment. Richard Bryan, one of Nevada's two Democratic senators at the time, proudly declared that Nevadans had a right "to safe, clean drinking water."

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Obama Wins and Redefines What It Means to Be American

With his decisive triumph over Senator John McCain, Senate Barack Obama made obvious history: he is the first black (or biracial) man to win the presidency. But the meaning of his victory -- in which Obama splashed blue across previously red states -- extends far beyond its racial significance. Obama, a former community organizer and law professor, won the White House as one of the most progressive (or liberal) nominees in the Democratic Party's recent history. Mounting one of the best run presidential bids in decades, Obama tied his support for progressive positions (taxing the wealthy to pay for tax cuts for working Americans, addressing global warming, expanding affordable health insurance, withdrawing troops from Iraq) to calls for cleaning up Washington and for crafting a new type of politics. Charismatic, steady, and confident, he melded substance and style into a winning mix that could be summed up in simple and basic terms: hope and change.

After nearly eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, Obama was the non-Bush: intelligent, curious, thoughtful, deliberate, and competent. His personal narrative -- he was the product of an unconventional family and worked his way into the nation's governing class -- fueled his campaign narrative. His story was the American Dream v2.0. He was change, at least at skin level. But he also championed the end of Bushism. He had opposed the Iraq war. He had opposed Bush's tax cuts for the rich. He was no advocate of let-'er-rip, free market capitalism or American unilateralism. In policy terms, Obama represents a serious course correction.

And more. In the general election campaign, McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, turned the fight for the presidency into a culture clash. They accused Obama of being a socialist. They assailed him for having associated with William Ayers, a former, bomb-throwing Weather Underground radical,who has since become an education expert. Palin indirectly referred to Obama's relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who once preached fiery sermons denouncing the United States government for certain policies. On the campaign trail, Palin suggested there were "real" parts of America and fake parts. At campaign events, she promoted a combative, black-helicopter version of conservatism: if you're for government expansion, you're against freedom. During her one debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden, she hinted that if her opponents won the White House there might come a day when kids would ask their grandparents what it had been like to live in a free country. At McCain-Palin rallies, supporters shouted out, "Communist!" and "terrorist!" and "Muslim!" when the Republican candidates referred to Obama. And McCain and Palin hurled the standard charges at Obama: he will raise your taxes and he is weak on national security.

Put it all together and the message was clear: there are two types of Americans. Those who are true Americans -- who love their nation and cherish freedom -- and those who are not. The other Americans do not put their country first; they blame it first. The other Americans do not believe in opportunity; they want to take what you have and give it to someone else. The other Americans do not care about Joe the Plumber; they are out-of-touch elitists who look down on (and laugh at) hard-working, church-going folks. The other Americans do not get the idea of America. They are not patriots. And it just so happens that the other America is full of blacks, Latinos, gays, lesbians, and non-Christians.

McCain, Palin and their compatriots did what they could to depict Obama as the rebel chief of this other un-American America. (Hillary Clinton helped set up their effort during the primaries by beating the Ayers drum.) Remember the stories of Obama's supposed refusal to wear a flag pin or place his hand over his heart for the Pledge of Allegiance? The emails about Obama being a secret Muslim? The goal was to delegitimize Obama, as well as the Americans who were moved by his biography, his rhetoric, and his ideas. It was back to the 1960s -- drawing a harsh line between the squares (the real Americans) and the freaks (those redistribution-loving, terrorist-coddling faux Americans).

It didn't work.

With the nation mired in two wars and beset by a financial crisis, Obama mobilized a diverse coalition that included committed Democratic liberals turned on by his policy stands (unabashed redistributionists, no doubt) and less ideologically-minded voters jazzed by his temperament, meta-themes, and come-together message. He showed that the old Republican attack tactics do not always draw blood. A candidate could advocate raising taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations and withstand being called a socialist. A candidate could advocate talking to the nation's enemies and withstand being tagged weak and dangerous. A candidate could be non-white, have an odd name, boast a less-than-usual ancestry, be an unrepentant Ivy Leaguer, profess a quiet and thoughtful patriotism (that encompasses both love and criticism of country), and still be a real American. And become president.

How He Did It -- The Primaries

From the start of the campaign, Obama and his advisers -- notably campaign manager David Plouffe and chief strategist David Axelrod -- shared a vision of how a freshman senator with relatively little national experience could reach the White House. Obama presented himself as an agent of change leading a movement for change. Given that a large majority of the voters believed the nation was heading in the wrong direction after two terms of George W. Bush, this was not the most brilliant of strategic strokes. But Obama had the chops to pull it off. He spoke well, he conveyed intelligence and energy, and he advocated policies that seemed like an antidote to the Bush years. And he effectively matched his own personal story (a best-selling book!) to this message of renewal.

Throughout the primaries, Obama addressed the sense of disenfranchisement Democrats and independents (and even some Republicans) had experienced during the W years. As these citizens watched Bush and Dick Cheney dole out tax cuts to the wealthy, do nothing about global warming, launch an optional war in Iraq, and expand secrecy and executive power, many felt locked out. It didn't help that Bush and his crowd appeared dismissive of those who disagreed with them, decrying elitism and playing to conservative know-nothingism. Obama came along and invited primary voters to join a crusade for change -- which meant a crusade against them. It was a chance to strike back against the empire. Obama understood the need of many to reclaim their country. The right has often exploited such a sentiment. Think of the rise of the Moral Majority. But Obama was not playing the resentment card.

Crucial to his success was Obama's decision to keep anger (at least his own) out of the equation. For him and his supporters, there was cause to be damn mad. From their perspective, the country had been hijacked by Bush, Cheney and a small band of neocons. (A view they could hold with much justification.) But Obama appeared to have made a calculation: an angry black man could not win over a majority of the voters. He offered voters not fury, but hope. And considering his "improbable" -- as he put it -- rise, he was a natural pitchman for hope. Fixating on hope allowed him to talk about the problems of the United States (past and present) while remaining an optimist. Americans tend not to elect purveyors of doom and gloom to the presidency. Usually the candidate with the sunnier disposition wins. It's not hard to fathom why. When Americans select a president, many are voting for the person who they believe best reflects their own idea of America. Voting for president has a strong psychological component. It's how Americans define their nation. So personal attributes -- character, strength, biography, personality -- are important.

Obama described his presidential bid not as a campaign of outrage but as a cause of hope -- a continuation of the grand and successful progressive movements of the past. For Democratic voters, he had the appropriate liberal policy stances. He had a record as a reformer in the Illinois state senate and the US Senate. But he provided more than resumé; he served up inspiration. Obama could advocate these policies -- policies that often stir sharp partisan fights in Washington and beyond -- and at the same time convincingly call for a new politics of productivity (not partisanship) in Washington. This took some talent. Mark Schmitt credits what he calls Obama's "communitarian populism" -- a quiet, inclusive populism. Leave your pitchforks at the door. This message and his manner of delivering it led many Democratic voters to conclude that he was the right man for the post-Bush cleanup.

Obama had one big obstacle in the primaries: Hillary Clinton. She had a brand name that attracted and repulsed voters. She ran a conventional campaign. She uttered no talk of any movement. She relied on her resumé, and said she was ready to roll up her sleeves and work for you. Will you hire me as your advocate-in-chief? she asked. Obama was offering music; she was offering math. It was virtually a toss-up for the Democratic electorate. What made the difference was that Obama, the heady candidate, managed his campaign more effectively than Clinton, the down-to-earth candidate, managed hers. Clinton and her crew, after losing in Iowa and then fighting back in New Hampshire, botched the middle stretch and allowed Obama to rack up a series of wins that did give him -- oh, that dreadful word -- momentum. More important, her campaign seemed to bounce from one strategy to the next, as infighting roiled Clintonland. Not until the end of the primaries did Clinton get her groove back, winning over blue-collar voters in once-industrial states as the scrappy working-class hero. But it was too late. The delegate math became undeniable.

In beating Clinton, Obama showed that he had assembled a disciplined and skilled campaign staff. Not once was his campaign rocked by internal dissension. It never went through a staff shakeup. There were no media stories, relying on unnamed sources, revealing major disputes or fundamental disagreements at Obama HQ. ("We had our disagreements," says one top Obama aide. "But they were always within the confines of getting to the best decision. I was stunned by how well it all worked.") Consensus, smooth operations, no signs of turf fights or ego battles -- this is virtually unheard of in a major modern presidential campaigns. Obama even handled his flip-flops -- voting for the telecom immunity bill after vowing not to and opting out of public financing system after indicating he would remain within it -- relatively well. The operation of his campaign sent a signal: Obama was a serious person who could ably handle pressure. Obama preached hope and at the same time he was the CEO of a well-managed enterprise that would raise and spend (in record amounts) hundreds of millions of dollars.

How He Did It -- The General Election

Once it became clear that Obama and McCain would each be the presidential nominee of their respective parties, they faced two big tests -- selecting a running mate and addressing the financial meltdown. Obama passed both; McCain failed both.

Obama's choice of Biden was not inspiring. It was, in a way, a conventional pick, a safe bet (relatively safe, given Biden's penchant for verbal slip-ups). Obama's campaign was predicated on the promise he would shake up Washington. Biden, a three-decade veteran of the Senate, was not known as a rebel. But he had deep foreign policy experience and had spent years courting the working-class voters of Delaware. He could reassure voters worried that Obama had not spent enough years toiling on national security matters. And Biden certainly would not compete with Obama for headlines and screen time. Obama was the inspiration on the ticket. Biden was the insurance policy.

By going with Biden, Obama dared to be boring and indicated he was willing to play it straight when necessary. He abided by the first rule of veep selection: do no harm. McCain took another route. He gambled. He picked a governor little-known on the national stage -- a woman whom even McCain barely knew. It gave his campaign a shot of excitement and surprise. Her performance at the Republican convention was dazzling. But this high did not last, as Palin did miserably in media interviews. Several conservative columnists had to admit she was not ready for prime time. Within weeks, McCain's act of daring was widely perceived as an act of recklessness. Her approval ratings plummeted. Polls indicated she was a drag on a ticket and a prominent reason why some voters were not favoring McCain.

Palin was strike one. Strike two was McCain's erratic response to the financial crisis -- saying different things, deciding to suspend his campaign but then suspending the suspension. His actions reinforced the impression created by the Palin misstep: he likes to shoot from the hip. But with the economy and Wall Street in a free fall, many voters were probably not eager for another cowboy president. Meanwhile, Obama, who met with establishment advisers and calmly backed the $700 billion bailout (which McCain also endorsed), looked like the adult in the room that crucial week, which culminated in the first debate. That face-off, according to the insta-polls, was a win for Obama, as were the next two confrontations.

Weeks into the general election, Obama had made a pivot -- but so smoothly that most of the politerati did not even see it. He had gone from the inspiring movement leader calling for wholesale change in Washington to a reassuring figure who demonstrated that he could play well with the establishment. The younger and less experienced of the two nominees seemed better suited to handle a crisis. Iraq and national security were no longer the issues; the economy was. And Obama showed he possessed the steadier hand. At the final debate, as McCain jabbed with punches that packed not much punch, Obama came across as confident if not so dynamic. But when the world is cracking up, who wants pizzazz?

Losing on the economy front -- and in the temperament contest -- McCain, with Palin acting like his gun moll, stepped up his use of the standard GOP attack lines. He went back to basics. Obama, he contended, yearned to raise taxes not just on the rich but on everybody. Even though independent experts had concluded that middle-class voters would receive a bigger tax cut under Obama's proposal than McCain's, the McCain camp kept issuing charges about Obama's tax aims that were not true. They found a mascot in Joe the Plumber (who was not really named Joe and not really a plumber). And they whipped up the old tax-and-spend fear about Democrats.

"Now is no the time to experiment with socialism," Palin exclaimed at rallies, ignoring the fact that she presides over the socialistic state of Alaska (which redistributes tax revenues collected from oil companies to the state's citizens). She dubbed Obama "Barack the Wealth Spreader." At a McCain rally near St. Louis, Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) said, "This campaign in the next couple of weeks is about one thing. It's a referendum on socialism.� Senator George Voinovich (R-OH) weighed in on Obama: "With all due respect, the man is a socialist.� McCain repeatedly referred to Obama as the "redistributionist-in-chief," often stumbling over the phrase. He must have forgotten that during a 2000 campaign event, he was asked, "Are we getting closer and closer to, like, socialism," and McCain replied, "Here's what I really believe: That when you reach a certain level of comfort, there’s nothing wrong with paying somewhat more."

It was an anti-intellectual attack -- taxes equals socialism -- ignoring basic facts and the personal history of McCain (who was roundly accused by conservatives of engaging in "class warfare" in 2000 when he opposed George W. Bush's tax cuts for the rich). The point was to strike fear into the hearts of voters who make far less money than Obama's proposed threshold for tax hikes. McCain was not appealing to the better nature of voters.

Putting up a fierce fight, Obama did not make it personal. He paid tribute to McCain's military service. But he slammed McCain for standing with Bush on economic issues. "If you want to know where Senator McCain will drive this economy, just look in the rearview mirror," Obama told campaign audiences. And he challenged the Big Idea of the Republican Party:

The last thing we can afford is four more years of the tired, old theory that says we should give more to billionaires and big corporations and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. The last thing we can afford is four more years where no one in Washington is watching anyone on Wall Street because politicians and lobbyists killed common-sense regulations. Those are the theories that got us into this mess. They haven't worked, and it's time for change.

Obama wasn't just taking on Bushism. He was taking on Reaganism.

McCain, Palin, and their supporters did make it personal. They claimed that Obama was misleading the voters, that he was not what he seemed. They argued that he was not up to the job. The McCain-Palin campaign ran a series of ads -- one falsely asserted that Obama had supported teaching kindergartners "comprehensive sex education" -- that various MSM outlets pronounced untruthful and unfair. The Straight Talk Express was derided as a cavalcade of misrepresentation. The McCain-Palin campaign revived the Bill Ayers attack. It tried to brand Obama an associate of anti-Semites, pointing to his relationship with a Palestinian scholar -- without producing evidence that this Palestinian was anti-Semitic. (The International Republican Institute, a group chaired by McCain, had given over $400,000 to a group co-founded by this scholar.)

It was an ugly assault. Speaking in support of McCain and Palin, Representative Robin Hayes (R-NC) declared, "Liberals hate real Americans that work, and accomplish, and achieve, and believe in God." McCain supporters referred to Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama." At a Palin rally, Representative Steve King (R-IA) said that an Obama victory would cause the United States to turn into a “totalitarian dictatorship.� Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) declared that Obama was "anti-American." While she was at it, she urged the media to investigate and root out anti-Americanism within the US Congress.

This mud did not stick. Perhaps worse for McCain, his camp never presented a coherent strategic argument for its candidate. Obama had change and hope. McCain had no real case for McCain -- other than he was a POW who put his country first. What did he want to do as president? Serve his country again. He essentially asked to be rewarded for his past service and sacrifice. He didn't feel the voters' pain; he wanted them to feel his. And his campaign ended up being defined mostly by its retro attack on Obama: he's an untested and untrustworthy liberal.

Most of the voters disagreed.

With his victory, Obama has ended the Bush II era with an exclamation point. (The Democratic gains in Congress seconded the point.) Now Obama faces a restoration project of unprecedented proportions. It may take years for him and the rest of Washington to remedy the ills neglected, exacerbated or caused by the Bush presidency. And he will have a tough time matching progress to promise. At his victory celebration in Chicago before tens of thousands, he lowered expectations: "the road ahead will be long. The climb ahead will be steep." And he noted that his electoral victory merely provided "only the chance for us to make that change."

But his barrier-breaking victory was indeed change in itself. Consider this: Obama ended his campaign at a rally on Monday night in Manassas, Virginia, the site of Battle of Bull Run, the opening land battle of the Civil War, in which Union troops were routed and forced to retreat back to Washington, DC There before a crowd of 90,000 -- young, old, black, white, affluent, working-class -- Obama summed up his case:

Tomorrow, you can turn the page on policies that have put greed and irresponsibility before hard work and sacrifice. Tomorrow, you can choose policies that invest in our middle class and create new jobs, grow this economy so everybody has a chance to succeed, not just the CEO but the secretary and the janitor, not just the factory owner but the men and women who work the factory floors. And tomorrow, you can end to the politics that would divide a nation just to win an election, that pits region against region, city against town, Republican against Democrat, that asks us to fear at a time when we need to hope.

A black man on the verge of being elected president said that.

But race is just one part of the tale. Obama has done more than become a first. He has redrawn the electoral map (take that, Karl Rove) and reshaped the political culture of the United States. He has transformed the image of the United States -- abroad and at home. (He vowed in Chicago that "a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.") Above all, after eight troubling years and after decades of ideological civil war, Obama has redefined what is real America. "Who knew that we were the Silent Majority?" his press secretary Linda Douglass said moments after Obama left the stage in Grant Park.

The voters who see President-elect Obama as the embodiment of their America can trade the Yes We Can motto for a new one: Yes We Are.

McCain Uses His Big Speech to Give Us a Tour of His Vietnamese Prison Cell

Number of sentences in John McCain's acceptance speech about his experience as a POW in Vietnam: 43.

Number of sentences about his 25 years in the House and Senate: 8.

The convention ended as it began: a commemoration of McCain's hellish years in a Hanoi prison cell four decades ago. The political equation was a simple one: POW equals patriotic hero equals a fighting president. Before McCain walked down the long runway at St. Paul's Xcel Center, a baritone voice declared over the P.A., "When you've lived in a box .... you put your people first." Case closed.

But there was a speech to get through. And before McCain arrived at the climactic I-was-a-POW finale, he delivered, in wooden style, a no-better-than-par speech that was mostly a series of traditional GOP buzz phrases: lower taxes, cut spending, open markets. He noted, "We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don't legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities." (Just not community organizers.) Was the speechwriter who penned Sarah Palin's acceptance speech too busy to work on McCain's?

Unlike most speakers at the convention, McCain acknowledged that some Americans are facing tough times. "I fight for Bill and Sue Nebe from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who lost their real estate investments in the bad housing market," he said. "Bill got a temporary job after he was out of work for seven months. Sue works three jobs to help pay the bills." And he said he would fight for Jake and Toni Wimmer of Franklin County, Pennsylvania. "Jake," he explained, "works on a loading dock; coaches Little League, and raises money for the mentally and physically disabled. Toni is a schoolteacher, working toward her Master's Degree. They have two sons, the youngest, Luke, has been diagnosed with autism." But how would McCain help these folks? Moments later, he offered a dumbed-down version of his economic plan: " I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it." (By the way, many analysts and journalists have repeatedly noted that Obama's economic plan would cut income taxes far more than McCain for Americans below the top 1 percent.)

Over and over, McCain cited his love of country and his dedication to the nation that "saved" him. He tried to present himself as the candidate of change, who wants to transform "almost everything: from the way we protect our security to the way we compete in the world economy; from the way we respond to disasters to the way we fuel our transportation network; from the way we train our workers to the way we educate our children." (He did not explain why after eight years of a Republican administration the country needs so much change.) McCain reminded the GOP delegates that he has on occasion challenged his own party. His domestic policy ideas, the few he offered, did not rouse the crowd -- except when he called for more oil and gas drilling. In response, the delegates once again enthusiastically chanted, "Drill, baby, drill!" It was one of the biggest shout-outs of the night. The audience was notably silent when McCain called for boosting alternative energy sources.

Maverick, fighter, fixer -- McCain said he was all of that. But, above all, he was McCain the warrior who had returned home. He had fought for the country once before -- and he had suffered. He will fight for it again. "I have the record and the scars to prove it," he declared. "Senator Obama does not." Wave the bloody shirt.

McCain denounced the "constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving" the nation's problems. But this week McCain had commanded a convention that had reprised the standard GOP playbook of spin and fear. Speaker after speaker accused Barack Obama of plotting to raise taxes on middle-income voters. They portrayed Obama as weak, indecisive, inexperienced -- particularly concerning national security. On the final night, retired Lieutenant General Carol Mutter, denouncing Obama's stance on Iraq, told the delegates that the United States' "enemies don't talk about timelines for retreat." Yet the United States' ally in Iraq -- the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- has called for a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops. (Whoops: reality.) Repeatedly, GOP speakers claimed that Obama is not a man who can handle evil. "We cannot afford a president who thinks you can negotiate with evil," proclaimed Representative Mary Fallin, an Oklahoma Republican. But didn't Ronald Reagan negotiate with the Evil Empire? On the first night of the convention, the delegates watched a tribute film to the late President Gerald Ford that celebrated his negotiation of an arms control treaty with the Soviets. (A onetime negotiator-with-evil, Henry Kissinger, was sitting in the V.I.P. section as Fallin spoke.)

Branding Democrats as national security weaklings and tax-and-spend drunkards was predictable. After all, the convention planners didn't dare defend the current administration. In fact, there was hardly a mention of the Bush presidency -- except when George W. Bush addressed the convention by video on its first night. And there was no talk of what the Republicans did between 1994 and 2006 when they controlled both houses of Congress for most of that time. The convention was a very Soviet-like affair; the Bush administration and the Republican Congress of recent years were airbrushed out of the picture.

And there was a heavy dose of us-versus-them -- with "them" being the usual targets of conservative agitators: the media, liberal elites, Hollywood celebrities, "cosmopolitan" Americans (as Rudy Giuliani, of all people, put it), and the government. McCain was exploiting the culture wars. Sarah Palin praised small-town America and mocked Obama for having been an urban community organizer. Onetime football coach Joe Gibbs called for a government of people who "follow [God's] game plan, his Bible, his word," adding that John McCain would be such a leader.

There were more words spoken at the convention about the evils of elites than the subprime meltdown, more words devoted to depicting Obama as an ambitious egomaniac than to addressing the health care crisis. Former Senator Fred Thompson dismissed the Democratic convention for focusing too much on the economic challenges of the day. (He nearly called the Democrats whiners.) When Cindy McCain, the candidate's wife and a multimillionaire heiress, recalled traveling on the campaign trail and seeing Americans facing "difficult situations," she noted that these Americans could "make things right" if the federal government would get "out of our way." A string of speakers accused Obama of failing to recognize the true threat of Islamic terrorism, but none of the major speakers said much -- or anything -- about Afghanistan. McCain himself uttered not a single word about Afghanistan. And nothing about climate change. More words at the convention were spilled about McCain the POW than job loss in America. And the Vietnam War was mythologized over and over as a fight waged for America's freedom and survival.

On the last night of the convention, Senator Sam Brownback told the delegates, "It's not about him; it's about us." Not really. It was about what happened to John McCain forty years ago and what that means to Americans today. His acceptance speech broke no new ground, and it was not meant to. It was just another reminder to cap a convention of reminding. The balloons then dropped, video fireworks fell, the crowd cheered. And for McCain, it was on to the final battle, the old soldier, faith-tested and faith-proved, accompanied by a stylish hockey mom representing small-town goodness -- against those whose mettle have not been tested, whose love of country has not been tested, whose America is rather different from the America of the Republican convention.

Clinton Overblowing Her Role in Irish Peace Accords Says Historian

Last week, Hillary Clinton released a statement celebrating the tenth anniversary of the historic Good Friday Agreement that led to peace in Northern Ireland. She noted,
Ultimately, the real credit for peace can only go to the brave people of Northern Ireland, as well as the leaders of Ireland and the U.K. But I also know that helping to advance the peace process and to achieve the Good Friday Agreement is one of my husband's proudest accomplishments as President. And I too am proud to have played a role in that effort.

The statement -- and Clinton's assertion that she had been part of the peace process -- did not draw much media notice, a sign that her Irish troubles might have eased. Last month, the Barack Obama campaign had challenged her claim to have "helped to bring peace to Northern Island." And that triggered a transatlantic tempest. David Trimble, the former First Minister of the Northern Ireland, called Clinton "a wee bit silly" for claiming to have been a figure of an importance in the peace process:
She visited when things were happening, saw what was going on, she can certainly say it was part of her experience. I don't want to rain on the thing for her but being a cheerleader for something is slightly different from being a principal player.

But then Clinton's campaign posted on its website a statement from John Hume, who shared the 1998 Nobel Peace Prize with Trimble, in which Hume declared: "I can state from firsthand experience that she played a positive role for over a decade in helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland." And Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams told the Irish Times that Clinton played an important role in the peace process. I met the senator on many occasions ... .I always found her to be extremely well-informed on the issues."

These endorsements from Hume and Adams did not fully support the claims from Clinton and her camp that she had been a significant participant in the Irish peace process. On NPR, she had said, "I wasn't sitting at the negotiating table, but the role I played was instrumental." And appearing on CNN on March 4, Terry McAuliffe, her campaign chairman, had said, "We would not have peace today had it not [been] for Hillary's hard work in Northern Ireland." Still, Hume's and Adams' statements did somewhat counter Trimble's dismissive remarks. And the campaign flare-up flared down.

But what was the truth? Had Clinton been instrumental? Was McAuliffe correct to say Northern Ireland would today be a bloody landscape had it not been for Clinton? Looking for an expert on the Irish peace process, I contacted Paul Bew. He is a prominent -- perhaps the most prominent -- historian of Northern Ireland. A professor at Queen's University Belfast, Bew last year published Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 1789-2006, a much-acclaimed work, which is part of the Oxford University Press's Modern Europe series. He once was an adviser to Trimble, and he was appointed to the House of Lords in 2007, in recognition of his own contributions to the Good Friday Agreement.

When I asked Bew about Clinton's claim, he chuckled and replied: "There is a simple point to be made." He referred me to a new book by Jonathan Powell, Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland. Powell was chief of staff to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and his book, which has been a sensation in England, is an insider's account of the peace talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement. Look at the index of this book for "Hillary Clinton," Bew told me. There is, he said, "only one reference to Hillary Clinton." Bew was right about that. That one citation refers the read to a tangential anecdote in which Powell mistakes a female Secret Service agent assigned to First Lady Clinton for a friend (Nancy Soderberg, a national security aide in the Clinton White House) and cheekily asks for a kiss. "That's it," Bew said. "The only reference to Hillary Clinton in this detailed blow-by-blow account. This is more telling than any other particular point .... It is very revealing."

Powell's book aside, I asked Bew, whose own book covers the Irish peace accords (and who also published a collection of his real-time journalistic accounts of the Good Friday Agreement), how he assessed Clinton's claim to have been "instrumental" in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. "She just was not there," he said. "Calling her instrumental is silly....I can't think of anything to be said for the case that she had a major role."

For the moment, this campaign controversy appears to be done. But if Clinton's Irish troubles return, perhaps the definitive -- and last -- word can go to the guys who wrote the books.

Dems Miss Opportunity to Challenge Surge

As General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday and pitched a story of success in Iraq, a news update flashed on the television screen: Sadr threatens to end cease-fire. Meaning that civil war between the Shiite-dominated government of Baghdad and the Shiite movement led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr could erupt. But Senator John McCain, the senior Republican member at the hearing, seemed unaware of this development. He asked Petraeus, "What do you make of Sadr's declaration of a cease-fire?"

This brief moment underscored a point that war supporters and war critics on the committee kept making throughout the hearing: The ground reality in Iraq is starkly different from how the war is depicted in the United States. Senator Joe Lieberman scoffed at war skeptics for embracing what he called a see-no-progress, hear-no-progress, speak-no-progress view of the war. On the other side, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) remarked that the testimony from Petraeus and Crocker -- who each claimed there has been significant though fragile progress in Iraq -- "describes one Iraq while we see another."

The main news of the morning -- news that had already leaked -- was that Petraeus has recommended that once the level of the U.S. troops in Iraq is brought down to presurge levels, which is scheduled for July, there be "a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation" and then "a process of assessment" before any further troop reductions are considered. In other words, 19 months after the so-called surge -- and after all the supposed success of the surge -- U.S. military involvement in Iraq is expected to be what it was at the start of the surge. Under questioning from Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, Petraeus noted that this process of assessment could take months and that additional reductions would only occur as conditions permit, indicating that the pause in the drawdown could be open-ended.

This was hardly a shocker. Petraeus, in keeping with Bush administration policy, refused to say anything concrete about reducing troops (at any time) to presurge levels. Instead, he and Crocker did what they could to keep alive the White House's favorite meme, that the surge is swell. They cited various indicators of what they consider success. "Weekly security incidents" are down to 2005 levels -- at least until last week. Civilian deaths, according to U.S. military figures, have fallen to early 2006 levels. Bombings are down to mid-2006 levels. The number of Iraqi battalions taking the lead in operations is up 20 percent since January 2007. The Sunni opposition to Al Qaeda in Iraq within Anbar province remains strong. Several pieces of legislation important to national political reconciliation have moved forward in the Iraqi parliament. A budget was passed with record amounts of capital expenditures. And, as Crocker noted, Iraq's Council of Representatives approved a redesign of the Iraqi flag. Their message: We must stay the course.

The Democrats on the committee took shots at the the-surge-is-working narrative, but with their 10-minute-long bursts of disjointed questions they were not able to redefine the debate. In his opening remarks, Levin noted that the main purpose of the surge -- to provide Iraqi leaders breathing room to hammer out a political settlement -- "has not been achieved," and he argued that "our current open-ended commitment is an invitation to continuing [Iraqi] dependency." He blasted the "incompetence and excessively sectarian leadership" of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and noted Iraq was not spending the billions of dollars in surplus it has obtained thanks to rising oil prices, leaving the American taxpayers (who are forced to pay up to $4.00 a gallon for gas) paying for tens of billions of reconstruction within Iraq. He cited a State Department report that noted that "the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated government [is] the key threat facing the U.S. effort in Iraq, rather than al-Qaida terrorists, Sunni insurgents or Iranian-backed militias." And he said that he was recently informed that of 110 joint U.S.-Iraqi operations of company size or greater in Iraq in the first three months of 2008, Iraqi forces assumed the lead in only 10 of those missions. Kennedy wondered when Iraqi forces -- the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. assistance -- are "ready to fight on their own." Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) noted that the "awakening" in Anbar started before the escalation of U.S. troops in Iraq, and he shared his concern that the war was producing serious "strain" for the military.

When most of the Republicans questioned (so to speak) Petraeus and Crocker, they praised the pair and hailed recent developments in Iraq. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would award Petraeus, a four-star general, a fifth star if that were possible. McCain maintained, "It is possible to talk with real hope and optimism" about Iraq, adding, "success is within reach." The only thing to worry about, McCain suggested, was a lack of spine at home: "Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq." (While questioning Petraeus, McCain once again demonstrated he does not understand that Al Qaeda is a Sunni outfit.)

Republican Senator John Warner (R-Va.) did try to reprise a question he posed to Petraeus when the general testified before the committee last September. At that hearing, Warner asked Petraeus if the Iraq War had made "America safer." And Petraeus had replied, "I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted in my own mind." This time around, Petraeus was obviously prepared for the question. But he did not have much better of a reply. "Is all this sacrifice [in Iraq] bringing about a more secured America?" Warner asked. Petraeus noted he had "thought a bit about it since September." He pointed out that Iraq is now free of a ruthless dictator and that the "seeds of a nascent democracy has been planted." He paused once or twice while answering the query. "The overall weighing of the scales is difficult." He added that only history will be able to judge. Pressed further by Warner -- "it's a fairly simple question," the senator said -- Petraeus remarked, "I do believe [the war] is worth it." Later on, Petraeus, quoting Tom Brokaw, praised the soldiers serving in Iraq as the "new greatest generation."

Free of fireworks -- except for a few outbursts from protesters in the audience -- the hearing was no game changer. Senator Hillary Clinton criticized the Bush administration's "same failed policies" in Iraq. But she did not forcefully challenge Petraeus and Crocker. In a low-key manner, she nudged Petraeus to state under what conditions he would "recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working." The general sidestepped the question. Clinton did not pound him for that.

The committee Democrats missed an opportunity to confront vigorously the front men for Bush's war in Iraq. It was not as if they hoisted a white flag. They did cite facts and figures that undermine the overall thrust of Petraeus' and Crocker's presentations. They raised pointed criticisms. They griped about the costs of the war. But it did not add up to much of an assault on Bush's policies. Given that congressional opposition to the war has lost much steam in the past year, perhaps this was to be expected. After all, Democrats in Congress appear to have given up on passing any legislation that would alter U.S. policies in Iraq. They know the public agrees with them on the war. (Warner noted that up to 80 percent of Americans don't believe the war was worth it.) But the Democrats have been stymied by a president who refuses to pull back in Iraq.

With Petraeus and Crocker spending two high-profile days on Capitol Hill to appear before four committees, the Democrats have a chance to undercut the White House story -- which has gained traction within the media (if not within the public) -- that the surge has been a success. In the opening round, they did not do much to inconvenience Petraeus and Crocker. It was not an entirely triumphant appearance for the pair, but it was good enough for anyone who favors a continuation of the current course in Iraq, and that includes their boss in the White House.

Bush Lets Libby Walk

It's appropriate.

The president who led the nation into a disastrous war in Iraq by peddling false statements and misrepresentations has come to the rescue of a White House aide convicted of lying.

Before the ink was dry on today's court order denying Scooter Libby's latest appeal -- a motion to allow him to stay out of jail while he was challenging his conviction -- George W. Bush commuted Libby's sentence. Libby will no longer have to serve the 30-month prison sentence ordered by federal district court Judge Reggie Walton. He will, though, have to pay the $250,000 fine that was part of the sentence.

The commutation -- which is not a pardon and does not erase Libby's conviction -- is a reminder that Bush and his crew do not believe in accountability. Bush has been rather stingy in the use of his pardon power. And regulations issued by his Justice Department note that recipients of pardons should serve their sentences and demonstrate contrition before obtaining presidential absolution. (Libby had expressed no remorse and was not scheduled to report to jail for several weeks.)

Yet with this commutation, Bush ducked those requirements, and he is allowing Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who was found guilty of lying to federal investigators in the CIA leak case, to go unpunished. The fine will be no problem for Libby. His neoconservative friends and admirers will kick in to cover that tab. (Perhaps even Cheney will send a check.)

Libby had become a symbol of the Bush White House's problem with the truth. After all, his lies had been designed to block FBI agents and federal prosecutors from learning the full truth of a White House effort to discredit a critic who had accused the Bush administration of twisting the prewar intelligence. And now the final act in the long-running CIA leak scandal -- Bush's commutation -- stands as another symbol of this grand theme: lying doesn't really bother this crowd.

In the 2000 presidential campaign, Bush claimed he would bring responsibility to the White House and, as a PR stunt, he dubbed his campaign jet Accountability One. Yet with this commutation, he takes the position that in his administration an aide who purposefully misleads government officials investigating a possible national security crime need not be held fully accountable.

This is no shocker. Early on in the CIA leak affair, the White House announced that anyone involved in the 2003 leak that disclosed the CIA employment of Valerie Wilson, an undercover Agency officer, would be booted out of the administration. But Karl Rove, who had disclosed classified information about Valerie Wilson to two reporters and who apparently lied about his actions to White House press secretary Scott McClellan, was not pink-slipped. Bush has never acknowledged this broken promise. (Libby left the White House only after he was indicted in the fall of 2005.)

Bush shielded Rove, and now -- better late than never -- he's doing the same for Libby. Ever since Libby's conviction in March, neoconservative and conservative Libby partisans have been urging -- or demanding -- that Bush pardon Libby. They have cried that his indictment, his conviction, and his sentence were travesties of justice.

They blasted Bush for declining to intervene in the proceedings, branding the president (their pal!) a coward. They acted as if Bush's refusal to pardon Libby was a personal betrayal of each and everyone of them. They showed more concern for Libby than any of the civilians who have perished in Iraq in the years since they, Libby and their allies engineered the invasion of Iraq. Libby was their cause; he was one of them.

Once again, Bush, being nudged by the neocons, has sent a clear message: telling the truth doesn't matter. Bush has refused to acknowledge that he, Cheney, and other administration officials -- to be polite about it -- stretched the truth about Iraq and the threat it posed before the war.

Today, he says that if you lie to protect the White House (especially the vice president), you can escape retribution. But if Bush, Cheney and the others could get away with big untruths about war, why shouldn't Libby get away with small lies about a cover-up? Fair's fair, right?

The foundation of a democratic judicial system is that the sentence fits the crime. In this instance, the commutation fits the administration.

This Is What Waterboarding Looks Like

As Congress has debated legislation that would set up military tribunals and govern the questioning of suspected terrorists (whom the Bush administration would like to be able to detain indefinitely), at issue has been what interrogation techniques can be employed and whether information obtained during torture can be used against those deemed unlawful enemy combatants. One interrogation practice central to this debate is waterboarding. It's usually described in the media in a matter-of-fact manner. The Washington Post simply referred to waterboarding a few days ago as an interrogation measure that "simulates drowning." But what does waterboarding look like?

Below are photographs taken by Jonah Blank last month at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The prison is now a museum that documents Khymer Rouge atrocities. Blank, an anthropologist and former Senior Editor of US News & World Report, is author of the books Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God and Mullahs on the Mainframe.

He is a professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and has taught at Harvard and Georgetown. He currently is a foreign policy adviser to the Democratic staff in the Senate, but the views expressed here are his own observations.

His photos show one of the actual waterboards used by the Khymer Rouge.

Here's the first:

Here's another view:

How were they used? Here's a painting by a former prisoner that shows the waterboard in action:

In an email to me, Blank explained the significance of the photos. He wrote:

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What Valerie Plame Really Did at the CIA

In the spring of 2002 Dick Cheney made one of his periodic trips to CIA headquarters. Officers and analysts were summoned to brief him on Iraq. Paramilitary specialists updated the Vice President on an extensive covert action program in motion that was designed to pave the way to a US invasion. Cheney questioned analysts about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. How could they be used against US troops? Which Iraqi units had chemical and biological weapons? He was not seeking information on whether Saddam posed a threat because he possessed such weapons. His queries, according to a CIA officer at the briefing, were pegged to the assumptions that Iraq had these weapons and would be invaded -- as if a decision had been made.

Though Cheney was already looking toward war, the officers of the agency's Joint Task Force on Iraq -- part of the Counterproliferation Division of the agency's clandestine Directorate of Operations -- were frantically toiling away in the basement, mounting espionage operations to gather information on the WMD programs Iraq might have. The JTFI was trying to find evidence that would back up the White House's assertion that Iraq was a WMD danger. Its chief of operations was a career undercover officer named Valerie Wilson.

Her specific position at the CIA is revealed for the first time in a new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, by the author of this article and Newsweek's Michael Isikoff. The book chronicles the inside battles within the CIA, the White House, the State Department and Congress during the run-up to the war. Its account of Wilson's CIA career is mainly based on interviews with confidential CIA sources.

In July 2003 -- four months after the invasion of Iraq -- Wilson would be outed as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction" in a column by conservative journalist Robert Novak, who would cite two "senior administration officials" as his sources. (As Hubris discloses, one was Richard Armitage, the number-two at the State Department; Karl Rove, Bush's chief strategist, was the other. I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, also talked to two reporters about her.) Novak revealed her CIA identity -- using her maiden name, Valerie Plame -- in the midst of the controversy ignited by former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, her husband, who had written a New York Times op-ed accusing the Bush Administration of having "twisted" intelligence "to exaggerate the Iraqi threat."

The Novak column triggered a scandal and a criminal investigation. At issue was whether Novak's sources had violated a little-known law that makes it a federal crime for a government official to disclose identifying information about a covert US officer (if that official knew the officer was undercover). A key question was, what did Valerie Wilson do at the CIA? Was she truly undercover? In a subsequent column, Novak reported that she was "an analyst, not in covert operations." White House press secretary Scott McClellan suggested that her employment at the CIA was no secret. Jonah Goldberg of National Review claimed, "Wilson's wife is a desk jockey and much of the Washington cocktail circuit knew that already."

Valerie Wilson was no analyst or paper-pusher. She was an operations officer working on a top priority of the Bush Administration. Armitage, Rove and Libby had revealed information about a CIA officer who had searched for proof of the President's case. In doing so, they harmed her career and put at risk operations she had worked on and foreign agents and sources she had handled.

Another issue was whether Valerie Wilson had sent her husband to Niger to check out an intelligence report that Iraq had sought uranium there. Hubris contains new information undermining the charge that she arranged this trip. In an interview with the authors, Douglas Rohn, a State Department officer who wrote a crucial memo related to the trip, acknowledges he may have inadvertently created a misimpression that her involvement was more significant than it had been.

Valerie Plame was recruited into the CIA in 1985, straight out of Pennsylvania State University. After two years of training to be a covert case officer, she served a stint on the Greece desk, according to Fred Rustmann, a former CIA official who supervised her then. Next she was posted to Athens and posed as a State Department employee. Her job was to spot and recruit agents for the agency. In the early 1990s, she became what's known as a nonofficial cover officer. NOCs are the most clandestine of the CIA's frontline officers. They do not pretend to work for the US government; they do not have the protection of diplomatic immunity. They might claim to be a businessperson. She told people she was with an energy firm. Her main mission remained the same: to gather agents for the CIA.

In 1997 she returned to CIA headquarters and joined the Counterproliferation Division. (About this time, she moved in with Joseph Wilson; they later married.) She was eventually given a choice: North Korea or Iraq. She selected the latter. Come the spring of 2001, she was in the CPD's modest Iraq branch. But that summer -- before 9/11 -- word came down from the brass: We're ramping up on Iraq. Her unit was expanded and renamed the Joint Task Force on Iraq. Within months of 9/11, the JTFI grew to fifty or so employees. Valerie Wilson was placed in charge of its operations group.

There was great pressure on the JTFI to deliver. Its primary target was Iraqi scientists. JTFI officers, under Wilson's supervision, tracked down relatives, students and associates of Iraqi scientists -- in America and abroad -- looking for potential sources. They encouraged Iraqi émigrés to visit Iraq and put questions to relatives of interest to the CIA. The JTFI was also handling walk-ins around the world. Increasingly, Iraqi defectors were showing up at Western embassies claiming they had information on Saddam's WMDs. JTFI officers traveled throughout the world to debrief them. Often it would take a JTFI officer only a few minutes to conclude someone was pulling a con. Yet every lead had to be checked.

"We knew nothing about what was going on in Iraq," a CIA official recalled. "We were way behind the eight ball. We had to look under every rock." Wilson, too, occasionally flew overseas to monitor operations. She also went to Jordan to work with Jordanian intelligence officials who had intercepted a shipment of aluminum tubes heading to Iraq that CIA analysts were claiming -- wrongly -- were for a nuclear weapons program. (The analysts rolled over the government's top nuclear experts, who had concluded the tubes were not destined for a nuclear program.)

The JTFI found nothing. The few scientists it managed to reach insisted Saddam had no WMD programs. Task force officers sent reports detailing the denials into the CIA bureaucracy. The defectors were duds -- fabricators and embellishers. (JTFI officials came to suspect that some had been sent their way by Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, an exile group that desired a US invasion of Iraq.) The results were frustrating for the officers. Were they not doing their job well enough -- or did Saddam not have an arsenal of unconventional weapons? Valerie Wilson and other JTFI officers were almost too overwhelmed to consider the possibility that their small number of operations was, in a way, coming up with the correct answer: There was no intelligence to find on Saddam's WMDs because the weapons did not exist. Still, she and her colleagues kept looking. (She also assisted operations involving Iran and WMDs.)

When the war started in March 2003, JTFI officers were disappointed. "I felt like we ran out of time," one CIA officer recalled. "The war came so suddenly. We didn't have enough information to challenge the assumption that there were WMDs.... How do you know it's a dry well? That Saddam was constrained. Given more time, we could have worked through the issue.... From 9/11 to the war -- eighteen months -- that was not enough time to get a good answer to this important question."

When the Novak column ran, Valerie Wilson was in the process of changing her clandestine status from NOC to official cover, as she prepared for a new job in personnel management. Her aim, she told colleagues, was to put in time as an administrator -- to rise up a notch or two -- and then return to secret operations. But with her cover blown, she could never be undercover again. Moreover, she would now be pulled into the partisan warfare of Washington. As a CIA employee still sworn to secrecy, she wasn't able to explain publicly that she had spent nearly two years searching for evidence to support the Administration's justification for war and had come up empty.

Valerie Wilson left the CIA at the end of 2005. In July she and her husband filed a civil lawsuit against Cheney, Rove and Libby, alleging they had conspired to "discredit, punish and seek revenge against" the Wilsons. She is also writing a memoir. Her next battle may be with the agency -- over how much of her story the CIA will allow the outed spy to tell.

The Bush-Is-An-Idiot Camp Grows

The other day I crossed paths with a conservative talk show host. We chatted about current events. He noted that he was quite pissed off at the neocons for suggesting that American blood should be spilled to benefit the Iraqis. Let the Iraqis take care of themselves, he huffed. I asked, "Are you in the Bush-is-an-idiot camp?"

This was a reference to a recent segment on Joe Scarborough's MSNBC show during which Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, posed the question, "Is our president an idiot?" After playing a montage of video clips showing Bush at his tongue-tied worst ("Fool me once, shame on you -- fool me -- you can't get fooled again"), Scarborough said that an former close aide to President Bush had recently told him that Bush is "intellectually shallow and one of the most incurious public figures this man has ever met." Scarborough claimed that Bush is "getting worse instead of better" and that when it comes to presidential stupidity Bush is "in a league by himself." He added, "I don't think he has the intellectual depth."

My conservative interlocutor fidgeted, as he considered how to respond. After a moment or so, he said softly, "Well, he can be moronic."

I have long thought it was not politically wise for Democrats to deride Bush as dumb. And I believed it was wrong to assume -- as did many Bush-bashers -- that W. was not intelligent. After all, he managed to become president -- which is not an easy task (even if Karl Rove is your master strategist). He also managed, against the odds, to change the tax code to benefit folks like him. How stupid is that? But watching Bush grapple with the mess in Iraq -- a problem entirely of his own making -- it's hard to sidestep the conclusion that his own, let's say, information-processing abilities are profoundly affecting national security, and not for the better.

I am haunted by an exchange that occurred at Bush's press conference last week. ABC News' Martha Raddatz asked Bush if it was time for "a new strategy in Iraq." That's a reasonable question. The recent surge of violence there -- about 10,000 civilian deaths over the course of three months -- should give anyone pause, especially the decider-in-chief who thought invading Iraq was a fine idea in the first place. Replying to Raddatz, Bush said, "The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. That's the strategy."

Forgive me, if you've heard or read me making this point previously, but that's not a strategy. That's a goal. A strategy is a game plan for achieving a goal.

Bush went on to note that he has changed tactics on the ground -- by moving troops from one area to another. This has led to less violence in one area but more in another. This was not responsive to Raddatz's query. Tactics are what you use to make a strategy happen. Bush didn't seem to know the difference between the two.

Raddatz pressed him and said that Bush had not answered her question about his strategy. "Sounded like the question to me," he said.

If the commander in chief cannot talk more articulately about his strategy for winning an elective war he initiated, the problem is serious. It's become a truism tossed about by partisan Democrats looking to score political points, but it actually is true: Bush has little to offer but stay-the-course-ism. And he shows no signs of considering other options. His plan once was rather simply stated: The United States would train Iraqi security forces and when the Iraqis can take over the United States would leave. But as sectarian violence spreads -- and the security forces become part of the conflict -- that basic plan becomes thinner by the day.

Let's compare Bush with Sen. Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat. A few days after Bush's press conference, Biden published an op-ed article in The Washington Post that reiterated a plan for Iraq that he had previously developed with Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. I am not endorsing the plan, but here's what was refreshing about it: It was a plan. It had five points. It was internally consistent. It was an effort to deal with the dilemmas at hand. The Biden-Gelb plan calls for a unified but decentralized Iraq with Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis essentially controlling their own regions. A central government would be in charge of the really important national responsibilities: protecting the country and divvying up the oil revenue. (The Sunnis, who generally live in areas not loaded with oil, would be guaranteed a share of the pot.) The plan has a reconstruction component, which includes a massive jobs program, and calls for withdrawing most U.S. troops by the end of 2007.

It may or may not be the right plan, but it's a plan. After reading the op-ed, I could not help but wonder, why can't Bush describe a plan of his own in such concrete terms?

Bush's partner in his plan-less Iraq project -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- doesn't inspire great confidence either, at least not when he's granting an interview to an American cable network through an interpreter. Speaking with CNN's Wolf Blitzer a few days ago , Maliki said, "The violence is not increasing ... We're not in a civil war. In Iraq, we'll never be in a civil war."

It's understandable that the leader of a nation near (or in) civil war would not want to acknowledge in public that his country is on the brink. But to say the violence is not increasing? Americans ought to hope Maliki is not imitating Bush's previous practice of insisting progress is under way whatever the reality may be.

But Bush is the problem -- at least, our problem -- not Maliki. I sense that more and more conservatives are unnerved by Bush's stewardship of the war they wanted. On a television show this past weekend, I asked conservative commentator Linda Chavez and the Weekly Standard's Matthew Continetti if the absence of any meaty Bush plan for Iraq discomforted them. "It does worry me, David," Chavez responded. "As a supporter of the war in Iraq, it does worry me. I think it worries Matthew, too. I mean, I think everybody recognizes we do not have enough troops. The question isn't pulling troops out. We need more troops, not fewer."

Continetti predicted that more Republicans in Congress might start calling for the same -- after the elections and if they retain control of the House. That would be a true profile in courage. Continetti was essentially accusing GOPers of playing political games at the expense of American and Iraqi lives.

In the meantime, the plan-free war continues, and the Bush-backers mainly duck that uncomfortable issue: whether this war is too much for the man who launched it. That does appear to be the big elephant in the room. And it seems that even conservatives and Republicans are finding it difficult to ignore its smell.

Hiding Behind the Troops

When the CIA tried to hit Ayman Zawahiri, Al Qaida's No. 2, with a missile fired from a Predator drone and ended up killing more than a dozen civilians as well as four or so people later identified as "foreign terrorists" in a Pakistani village near the border of Afghanistan, that was dumb.

When George W. Bush did not quickly apologize, offer compensation to the victims and announce there would be an immediate investigation, that was also dumb. For with this strike, the Bush administration essentially aided the enemy, who now can point to this episode as proof that Bush does not give a damn about innocent Muslim lives (which is what many people in the Arab world already suspect).

And this botched operation has severely undermined the Pakistani government of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, revealing how Bush treats his friends and allies in the war of terrorism. Moreover, actions like this can lead one to wonder if Bush really means it when he says -- as he has frequently -- "We believe in the dignity of every human life."

If that were indeed the case, then wouldn't he be all broken up over the Pakistani civilians blown to pieces by the CIA missile? Hunting mass-murdering terrorists who live among civilians is indeed hard and nasty work, which most people find morally justifiable. ("We have to do what we think is necessary," John McCain declared on Sunday.) Then let's be frank.

Those who are willing to target a neighborhood in a far-away village -- hoping to kill a terrorist but knowing that innocent human beings may also be smashed to bits -- do not really believe in the dignity of every human life. They are willing to trade certain lives (of nameless people who happen to be villagers in a remote spot) for the results they seek.

The cost-benefit analysis may be defensible; in all wars, noncombatants are killed. But please, let's not kid ourselves. Bush and his commanders in the war on terrorism are willing to waste nonterrorists to kill terrorists. Right or wrong, that is not caring about the dignity of every life.

Now by writing this, I hope I am not violating Bush's standards for acceptable debate. After years of ignoring or deflecting criticism of his actions in Iraq and of his conduct of the so-called war on terrorism, Bush in recent months has taken a different tack. He has admitted mistakes were made -- by others, not him -- regarding the WMD intelligence. (This can be categorized as a Doh!-like concession.) And he has said that criticism of him is not out of bounds, as long as it's the right sort of criticism and doesn't, for instance, raise questions about his motives.

Last week, speaking at a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Bush made this point once again -- and the next day added an electoral twist. Before the supportive crowd, he said:

"We must remember there is a difference between responsible and irresponsible debate -- and it's even more important to conduct this debate responsibly when American troops are risking their lives overseas. The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it."

They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel, or because we misled the American people. And they know the difference between a loyal opposition that points out what is wrong and defeatists who refuse to see that anything is right."

I recall there were plenty of Bush supporters who never missed the chance to question Bill Clinton's motives whenever he fired a shot overseas. Remember the real-life claims of Wag the Dog? GOP opportunism notwithstanding, what's wrong with questioning Bush's motives or arguing the case that he misled the public to win support for the invasion of Iraq?

It's understandable that Bush himself may not enjoy such criticism. But he's not king -- at least not yet -- despite all the legal memos written by his Justice Department and counsel's office claiming that he can do anything he wants to and avoid (that is, break) any law while he is pursuing his commander-in-chief duties in the war on terrorism. (See the memo, "The Unitary Executive and Finding Big Brother (Implied) in the U.S. Constitution.") And recent polls have indicated that more than half of Americans believe that Bush deliberately overstated the threat from Iraq prior to the war. His motives are already under suspicion. Perhaps the American people, as Bush suggests, do know the difference between responsible and irresponsible rhetoric.

But apparently he doesn't want them to talk about it. Before the VFWers, he went on:

"When our soldiers hear politicians in Washington question the mission they are risking their lives to accomplish, it hurts their morale. In a time of war, we have a responsibility to show that whatever our political differences at home, our nation is united and determined to prevail. And we have a responsibility to our men and women in uniform -- who deserve to know that once our politicians vote to send them into harm's way, our support will be with them in good days and in bad days -- and we will settle for nothing less than complete victory."

Note the sleight of hand. Accusing Bush of misleading the nation on the reasons for war is, he says, equal to questioning the mission. In a sense, he might be right about that. It certainly is saying that the cause for which Bush has sent American men and women to the death is not what Bush claimed it to be. But here he is trying to hide behind the troops. Attack me, and you're undermining them. It's cowardly. But it sure is in sync with his l'etat-est-moi view. In this case, it's l'armee-est-moi. This is not the only spin option available to Commander Bush. He could have as easily said:

"I know there are folks out there saying mean things about me and my decision to invade Iraq. Well, fire away. I'm fair game. I can take it. But whatever anyone thinks of me and the war, I know we all agree that we should do whatever we can for the troops -- and that even my critics are with me on that."

That might be how a uniter-not-a-divider would put it. But not Bush. Speaking the next day in Louisville, Ky., he was asked by a 7-year-old, "How can people help on the war on terror?" Bush replied:

"One way people can help, as we're coming down the pike in the 2006 elections, is remember the effect that rhetoric can have on our troops in harm's way and the effect that rhetoric can have in emboldening or weakening an enemy."

So if the war in Iraq becomes an issue in this year's congressional elections, the White House is all set to point an accusatory finger and scold, "Partisan lips sink ships." It's their counterattack, and Bush has started test-driving it in a pre-emptive fashion. Four years ago, as I wrote about recently, Bush campaigned for GOP candidates and claimed that Democrats were "not interested in the security of the American people."

Nowadays, the president is suggesting that he would view similarly harsh rhetoric directed toward him (as opposed to the Democrats) as an attack on "the mission" and a threat to the troops. I might consider suggesting that rank hypocrisy is at work, and that only not-to-be-trusted scoundrels shield their political backsides with the troops. But I don't want to embolden the enemy.

That End-Of-Empire Feeling

Is the United States in the last throes of empire?

That sounds like an ideologically loaded, fatalistic and defeatist question. But it's what I've been wondering about at the start of this holiday season.

Might future historians look back at the Bush II days and ask if this was the point when the country started slipping? Might the war in Iraq be regarded as a desperate act of a superpower that had already peaked? Will economists of the latter 21st century examine our economic decisions and say, "What were they thinking?" Or has the Grinch gotten to me?

Treasury Secretary John Snow says 'tis the season to be merry because the malls are crowded and the American economy, under the watchful gaze of George W. Bush, is on the move. But perhaps a touch of foreboding is merited. The White House and its conservative pals, trying to take advantage of the cheery season, have recently started a new campaign that claims Bush has been denied the credit for an economy that is expanding at a decent clip and that produced 215,000 jobs last month.

In fact, polls show that most Americans -- whether they're happy in the malls or not -- have a downbeat view of the economy. And there are solid reasons why Americans should not put aside concerns about the country's long-term economic prospects and why Bush should not be pronounced the savior of the American economy.

First, the correlation between presidential action (especially tax cuts) and economic performance is iffy. How many conservatives credited Bill Clinton, who raised taxes on the wealthy and balanced the budget, for the explosive economic boom that occurred in the 1990s? By contrast, the results -- and costs -- of a military invasion are easier to tie directly to a commander in chief than economic developments. If most of the public believes Bush deliberately misled the nation into a bad war -- which is what most do think at the present time -- then Americans can be excused for not hailing Bush for the uptick in economic numbers for which he might or might not bear responsibility.

Perhaps Americans also know -- or feel -- that wage growth has lagged behind GDP growth. Or that the growing economy is a hot-money economy fueled by reckless borrowing (which could be read as a sign of national fading glory). Nervous Nellies like Alan Greenspan warn that, despite the recent economic growth, Bush is driving the federal budget off a cliff by creating trillions of dollars of debt that will have to be paid off after he leaves office. The current fiscal policy and the ballooning federal deficits, Greenspan claims, are "unsustainable."

The outgoing Federal Reserve chairman is mostly fretting about a budget crunch that will be provoked by Medicare and Social Security obligations. But he also has noted that the growing trade deficit -- and the spiraling cost of servicing it -- poses a serious threat. A friend who is building a private equity fund for emerging markets summed up the macro situation for me this way: "What a great system. The Chinese lend us money to buy their goods. Then we have to pay back the loans with interest. They make money off us on both ends." Who are the better capitalists?

If the American economy is being hollowed out in age of globalization, do the traditional numbers -- jobs produced, the unemployment rate -- have the same meaning as they did in days of greater stability? Job creation may be up for the moment. But long-term job security and right-now health care security are less certain. Middle-class Americans can no longer expect to remain in a well-paying job for decades, as many American workers once assumed they would. Consider this: GM recently announced it will be dumping 30,000 jobs and closing several plants. Shortly after that, I heard CNN anchor Miles O'Brien gushing about a Toyota truck plant being built in San Antonio, Texas, that will create up to 2000 jobs paying $9 to $11 an hour. That's about $20,000 a year -- much less than what unionized autoworkers have made. Despite O'Brien's enthusiasm, this is hardly a tit for GM's tat.

Sure, some job creation is better than none. But considering the United States needs to create about 160,000 jobs a month to keep even with population growth, 215,000 is not a remarkable number. (Bush last week claimed credit for 4.5 million new jobs created in the past two and a half years. That's just about the keep-even number of 4.8 million or jobs.) Given all the legitimate concerns an American can (and should) have about the country's future economic well-being, the recent job spurt is not enough to warrant cries of "Thank you, George Bush."

You don't have to be a worrywart to wonder if Bush is ignoring -- or exacerbating -- trends that will undermine America's traditional economic dominance. Many economists -- Morgan Stanley's Stephen Roach and Max Sawicky , to name a few -- are sounding the alarm that if America doesn't change its borrowing ways, the nation is in for a hard landing.

Then, there's the war. Bush depicts it as an action crucial for the survival of the nation. Yet the nation -- or much of it -- does not buy that, and most Americans are alienated from an endeavor that is fundamentally redefining the country's relationship with the rest of the globe. They are not paying for the war. Nor are they rushing to join this grand effort. Recruitment has become a problem for the military. And the party that most supports the war -- the Republicans -- refuses to ask well-heeled American citizens to finance this project, which war-backers liken to World War II and the Cold War.

In fact, the GOPers push for more tax cuts for the wealthy, while seeking to reduce public funds for health care for the poor, food stamps, school lunches and other programs that benefit low-income people. Think about it. The elites of America -- the people who enjoy the benefits of this nation more than anyone -- are generally content to sit back, pocket the Bush tax cuts and do nothing to encourage their children to sign up for this noble crusade. Is there not a whiff of end-of-empire decadence to this? But let's not blame only the top-dwellers. This society across the board (certainly, much of the media) pays more attention to the new Xbox 360 than daily developments in Iraq.

One cynical TV show host recently groused to me: "Nobody cares about the war. I don't do shows on the war. It's all about getting through the holidays. Shopping -- that's what people care about." A shop-til-we-drop economy and a war that is sold on the cheap. Are these signs of increasing national greatness? Or -- bah, humbug- -- perhaps something else? Let's ask the folks at the mall.

Another Irrelevant Speech on Iraq

Finally, after two-and-a-half years, George W. Bush has demonstrated that he -- or, that is, his speechwriters -- is not completely out of touch with reality regarding Iraq.

In yet another Big Speech on Iraq -- delivered at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland -- Bush recognized that the insurgency in Iraq encompasses more than "terrorists" linked to al Qaeda. In speech after speech in recent months, Bush and Dick Cheney have sold their war in Iraq as an us-versus-them confrontation between the United States and "terrorists" who want to destroy America. They regularly misrepresented the insurgency, refusing to acknowledge that it was mostly a homegrown rebellion composed of Sunni Arabs, some of whom are former Baathists looking to regain power, some of whom are fighting out of sectarian motivation. (This gang, while certainly anti-American cares more about gaining power in Iraq than annihilating Cincinnati.) Bush and Cheney talked about the war in Iraq as only a black-and-white showdown between US troops and al Qaeda-ish terrorists.

But at the Naval Academy, Bush presented a less comic-bookish analysis of the war. He conceded that the insurgency has been made up of Sunni Arab rejectionists, Saddamists, and terrorists. And he said the largest element in the insurgency is the Sunni Arabs. The terrorists, he said, are the smallest but most lethal slice of the insurgency. Here was the president at long last characterizing the insurgency in an accurate fashion. That's a good sign. After all, how can you win a war if you don't know who or what you're fighting?

Still, belatedly defining the enemy properly should not be considered a major accomplishment for a commander in chief who launched an elective war to neutralize a supposed immediate threat (Saddam Hussein harboring stockpiles of WMDs, building nuclear weapons, and plotting with al Qaeda) that did not exist. So Bush in his speech maintained that the effort to stand up Iraqi security forces is proceeding well. Speaking beneath a sign that declared, "Plan for Victory" (what happened to "Mission Accomplished"?), Bush threw out statistics illustrating progress in this area. He quoted US and Iraqi military officers saying that the Iraqis are increasingly able to handle security responsibilities.

But the Bush administration has attempted to prop up support for the war with impressive-sounding but not reality-based figures before. As former CIA analyst Larry Johnson noted yesterday:

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Democrats Split on Roberts Nomination

What's a Democrat to do?

On September 20, Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid issued a passionate statement denouncing the nomination of John Roberts Jr. as chief justice of the Supreme Court. He said he would vote against Roberts, and he pointed to memos Roberts had written in the 1980s in which Roberts took hard-edged conservative stances on civil rights, privacy issues and other matters. Reid also cited the Bush administration's refusal to release memos Roberts had written when he served in the solicitor general's office during the first Bush administration. "We should only vote to confirm this nominee if we are absolutely positive that he is the right person" for the post, Reid said. His position was unambiguous.

On September 21, Senator Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat of the judiciary committee, declared that he would vote for Roberts. Leahy released a lengthy statement that could have justified either a nay or aye vote. He said he was "extremely disappointed by the lack of cooperation from the Administration....The Bush administration treated senators' requests for information with little respect. Instead, for the first time in my memory, they grafted exceptions from the Freedom of Information Act to limit their response to Senators' requests for information. They stonewalled entirely the narrowly tailored request for work papers from 16 significant cases John Roberts handled when he was the principal deputy to Kenneth Starr at the Solicitor General's office during the President's father's administration." Leahy also complained that Roberts "disserviced himself" by being tight-lipped about his judicial views during his confirmation hearings. And Leahy voiced concern about where Roberts would lead the court:

Judge Roberts's work in the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments as well as his formative period in the Reagan White House seem to have led him to a philosophy of significant deference to presidential authority.....Maybe this deference was a principal basis on which this President chose him....This is a fundamental question. We know that we are in a period in which the Executive has a complicit and compliant Republican Congress that refuses to serve as a check or balance. Without the courts to fulfill that constitutional role, excess will continue, and the balance will be tilted.

But Leahy put aside these and other concerns. Why? Because he believes "Roberts is a man of integrity." He explained:

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The Real Rehnquist

I confess: I have a hard time saying "William Rehnquist, rest in peace."

Supreme Court Chief Justice Rehnquist, who died on Saturday night, spent much of his adult life trying to restrict the rights of American citizens and to empower further the already-powerful.

He rose to prominence as a right-wing attorney who decried the Earl Warren court for being a hotbed of judicial activism (left-wing judicial activism, as he saw it). He then became, as a Supreme Court justice, a judicial activist of the right-wing sort, overturning laws made by Congress (that protected women against domestic violence, banned guns near school property, and prohibited discrimination against disabled workers) and steering the justices into Florida's vote-counting mess in 2000 (an act that only coincidentally--right?--led to George W. Bush's presidency).

In that case--Bush v. Gore--Rehnquist, for some reason or another, put aside his much heralded belief in state sovereignty, which led him, on other occasions, to grouse about limits on the abilities of states to execute criminals. When it came to states frying prisoners, he advocated a hands-off approach. In vote-counting, he was all for intervention.

But let's be clear: in recent years there has been no other Supreme Court justice who had a personal history so loaded with racism--or, to be kinder than is warranted, tremendous insensitivity to racial discrimination--as did William Rehnquist.

As a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson in the early 1950s--when the Court was considering the historic Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case--Rehnquist wrote a memo defending the infamous 1896 decision, Plessy v. Ferguson, which established the separate-but-equal doctrine. Rehnquist noted, "That decision was right and should be reaffirmed." In other words, he favored continuing discrimination and racial segregation.

During his 1971 confirmation hearings, after he was nominated to serve as an associate justice on the Supreme Court, he said that memo merely reflected Jackson's view not his own. But few historians have bought that shaky explanation.

It's not hard to conclude that Rehnquist was on the wrong side of history and then lied about it--especially given actions he took later. In 1964, Rehnquist testified against a proposed ordinance in Phoenix that would ban racial discrimination in public housing. As The Washington Post notes in stories on his death, Rehnquist wrote at the time, "It is, I believe, impossible to justify the sacrifice of even a portion of our historic individual liberty for a purpose such as this."

In other words, people are not truly free if they are not free to discriminate. In his 1971 hearings, Rehnquist repudiated that stance. But did he really mean it?

Twelve years later, he was the only justice to say that Bob Jones University--that hotbed of racial discrimination and religious bigotry--had a legal right to keep African-Americans off its campus.

"He Lived for The Law"--that's how AOL headlined the story on Rehnquist's death. But it's not that Rehnquist had a blind spot on race. He was an active proponent of discrimination. Yet this fellow--without truly making amends--became chief justice of the highest court of the land. Only in America.

As Rehnquist's impact on America is considered, it ought not be forgotten--particularly at a time when we see how the poor of New Orleans have been neglected--that Rehnquist was at times all too willing to forget about the rights of those less fortunate than he.

Stonewalled at the White House

I advise all students of political speech to read the transcript of the press briefing conducted by White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Monday. It was a smorgasbord of stonewalling. He entered the White House press room at 1:00 p.m., his eyes darting about, and started off by reading a statement from President Bush on the tenth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica.

Then the subject changed. Rather abruptly. Reporter after reporter asked McClellan about Karl Rove and the news -- broken by Michael Isikoff of Newsweek -- of a July 11, 2003 email written by Time's Matt Cooper that noted that Cooper had spoken to Rove on "double super secret background" and that Rove had told him that former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's "wife… apparently works at the agency on wmd issues." The email is proof that Rove leaked to a reporter information revealing the CIA employment of Valerie Plame (a.k.a. Valerie Wilson).

This puts Rove and the White House in a pickle. Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, says that Rove did not mention Valerie Wilson's name to Cooper. But this is a rather thin defense. (I explain why here, and I also note why George W. Bush, if he takes his own rhetoric seriously, has no choice but to dismiss Rove.) But legal and criminal difficulties aside, the email is undeniable evidence that Rove leaked national security information to a journalist to discredit a critic (Joseph Wilson). How does that square with White House policy as it has been previously stated? Well, it doesn't. And the journalists in the White House press room knew that. Many had a list of previous McClellan statements at the ready. I was there, and I had a list, too. Here are some of the past White House statements I had collected.

On September 29, 2003, Scott McClellan said of the leak (which first appeared in a Bob Novak column on July 14, 2003):

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Stem Cell Wedge?

Finally, a wedge issue for Democrats?

The ongoing fight over stem cells has divided the GOP. Fifty House Republicans disregarded party leaders and helped Democrats pass legislation to remove restrictions George W. Bush had imposed on the federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, which scientists believe could lead to treatments and cures for many diseases.

The intraparty debate was so impassioned that two Republican Congressmen on opposing sides engaged in a shoving match. Even though Bush called expanded stem cell research unethical and threatened to veto the legislation--which would be his first veto--antiabortion Republicans Orrin Hatch and Gordon Smith vowed to press ahead with a Senate version.

Arlen Specter, another Republican senator championing this research, claimed his side could mobilize enough senators to defeat a filibuster threatened by GOP social conservatives and to reject Bush's veto. (The House majority was not veto-proof.)

Meanwhile, the religious right--already furious that Republican senators had not nuked the judicial filibuster--accused antiabortion Republicans who advocate stem cell research of betraying the cause. Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council warned that his and other like-minded groups would no longer accord these Republicans 100 percent ratings. And the dust-up caused House majority leader Tom DeLay to return to Schiavo-style rhetoric. He called stem cell research--which uses cells extracted from leftover blastocysts (early embryos composed of 100 or so cells) stored in fertility clinics--"the dismemberment of living, distinct human beings."

Four years ago, Bush was able to straddle the line on stem cells. In a speech, he declared he had reached a Solomonic compromise. He would permit federal underwriting of research that used only pre-existing stem cell lines; he would not allow federally funded scientists to work with new lines, for that would condone (if not encourage) the continued destruction of blastocysts. Bush claimed that 60 lines were available, sufficient to support vigorous research. But there were only a dozen lines--not enough for effective research--and most were tainted by mouse DNA. But this stance enabled Bush to avoid taking a yes-or-no position on an issue that pits his social conservative base against popular opinion, which strongly backs stem cell research.

Now the sides are clearer, thanks to the efforts of Representatives Mike Castle, a Republican, and Diana DeGette, a Democrat, who pushed the issue to a vote in the House.

"We've forced a frank debate," DeGette says, "and we've shown that the leadership of the Republican Party is controlled by a small slice of right-wing zealots."

Bush and DeLay enthusiastically sided with the theocons. But not all GOPers are grateful for this opportunity. Senate majority leader Bill Frist--who has had other troubles lately (being outflanked on the nuclear option by John McCain, inartfully handling the John Bolton nomination)--has signaled that he's not eager to bring the Senate version to a vote. A probable GOP presidential contender, Frist is caught between his need to placate the Dobsonite wing of the party and his desire to appeal to less extreme voters. Senator George Allen, another GOP White House wannabe, has been recalibrating--that is, diluting--his previous support for this research.

The stem cell controversy sets Republican against Republican and distances party leaders from popular sentiment. Voters yearning for cures to awful diseases that could affect their own families have reason--perhaps for the first time--to feel threatened by the social cons and their GOP allies. But does this debate pose a short-term or strategic hazard for Republicans?

"A growing number of Republican House members believe this could be an issue in 2006," DeGette says, "and moderate Republicans are crazed about that." But Matt Dowd, Bush's chief campaign strategist in 2004, notes that it's "too early" to declare stem cells a wedge issue: "To get to that level, a large segment of the population has to have an emotional stake in the issue. And stem cells has not yet risen to the level of gay marriage or abortion. It's more of an intellectual thing, not an everyday concern."

Nor is he worried about next year's Congressional races. Look at the Kerry-Bush contest, Dowd argues. John Kerry tried to deploy stem cells as a defining issue and lost. "The President," Dowd says, "wants to make sure there's a balance. The public supports balance."

That may be what many voters crave on brave-new-world issues. But with a veto, Bush will have a tough time depicting his stance as balanced and distinct from the medical-science blocking of the religious right. The party is not likely to crack up over stem cells, but this controversy--perhaps a prelude to other battles stirred by technological advances--is pushing Republicans to consider how far to go in identifying with diehard social conservatives. This fault-line within the GOP is hardly a death knell for the party.

But one thing's certain: It can't be good for the GOP when Bush and DeLay suggest that Nancy Reagan and other prominent Republicans support an unethical practice that entails human dismemberment.

Bringing Down the House

Where are you going to be on May 12? At the gala tribute dinner conservative groups in Washington are throwing for Tom DeLay? No? I won't be there either. But I'm glad conservatives are rallying behind DeLay, the scandal-struck Republican House majority leader. These conservatives are sticking to rather dangerous talking points. They keep insisting that the attacks on DeLay are nothing more than the dark work of the nasty liberal media that has been plotting with Democrats to destroy the entire conservative movement. If only. And--no coincidence--this is precisely how DeLay sees his current predicament. When The New York Times reported that he and his daughter received half a million dollars in fees from his campaign and political action committee, DeLay called the story, "Another seedy attempt by the liberal media to embarrass me." (Did he dismiss the Times' articles on Whitewater in such a fashion?)

When a shifty politician starts to blame media conspiracies for his own misdeeds, that's a good indication he senses real trouble is looming. But DeLay's ethics problems--taking overseas junkets arranged and paid for by corrupt lobbyists and foreign agents; putting family members on the payroll; setting up a political action committee that engages in shady (perhaps illegal) contributions laundering; virtually extorting another member to vote for a piece of legislation; among other questionable activities--have nothing to do with his right-wing views. Even the always-ready-for-a-fight conservative editorialists of the Wall Street Journal recently observed that DeLay has "odor issues," "smells just like the Beltway itself," and is "betraying the broader set of principles that brought him into office."

Still, most conservatives are accepting DeLay's  l'etat-c'est-moi strategy. The Washington Post reported that when right-wing leaders gathered at a meeting recently, Rep. Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican who heads the save-DeLay forces in the House, told them that the anti-DeLay articles are appearing because the Democrats are unwilling "to accept the Republican majority in Congress, and see this majority leader as one that they can't beat at the polls and now have taken to a planned attack of personal destruction."

I wish the Democrats were that organized. Does Cantor truly believe that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are slyly pulling the strings that produce long, intricate articles about DeLay's overseas travels? Or that they orchestrated the three reprimands issued against DeLay last year by the Republican-chaired House ethics committee? Democrats should hope that Cantor and his comrades are this out of touch with reality. But while the DeLayists maintain a brave face in public, several House Democrats report that when they're in meetings with House Republicans and DeLay is mentioned, the Repubs shake their heads. It's not yet dead-man-walking time. But there seems to be a sentiment shared by Republicans that the U.S.S. DeLay cannot take on much more water than it already has. According to the Post, Republican aides have a daily morning conference call to trade intelligence on upcoming DeLay stories and to spin a response.

Not all GOPers are enthusiastically bailing out the water. On one of the Sunday chat shows, Sen. Rick Santorum, a fierce social conservative who has been tiptoeing left in preparation for what may be a difficult re-election campaign next year, said:

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WMD Commission Stonewalls

The stonewall continues.

On Thursday, President Bush's commission on weapons of mass destruction intelligence released a 692-page report that harshly criticizes the U.S. intelligence establishment. It notes that "the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of it pre-war judgments about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. This was a major intelligence failure." That's no news flash. The Senate intelligence committee issued a report last July that said the same. But like the Senate committee, Bush's commission--cochaired by Judge Laurence Silberman, a Republican, and former Sen. Chuck Robb, a Democrat--ignored a key issue: whether Bush and his aides overstated and misrepresented the flawed intelligence they received from the intelligence agencies. As I wrote about days ago, Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the intelligence committee, promised last summer that his committee would investigate the administration's prewar use (or abuse) of the WMD intelligence after the 2004 election, but more recently Roberts backed away from that vow, claiming such an inquiry would now be pointless. The commission, which claimed it found no evidence that Bush officials pressured intelligence analysts to rig their reports, notes in a footnote:

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Making Unnecessary Enemies

Editor's Note: This is David Corn's response to a piece Jennifer Nix wrote last week about progressive authors signing book contracts with corporate publishers.

You have a rather funny way of doing business.

That's the one-line email I sent to Jennifer Nix, editor-at-large of Chelsea Green Publishing, last week. And I never heard back from her.

What prompted my note to her was a piece she wrote for AlterNet that chided Michael Moore, Al Franken, Amy Goodman and me for having published our books with corporate publishers. The article, entitled "Sleeping with the Enemy," was billed as "the opening salvo at the company's soon-to-be-launched weblog." I was tempted to ignore her acting-out article. But it received some pickup on other sites. So allow me to reply.

Nix started her piece this way:

I've got an invitation for all progressive authors out there.

How about putting your money and ideas where your mouths are? Why not work with independent book publishers to share with the public your thoughts about progressive politics, social justice, sustainability and media reform ... instead of lining the pockets of the corporate publishers (and ultimately the five or ten rich white men who control nearly every media message we read and hear in the U.S. today).

Well, I have an invitation for Nix. How about approaching potential colleagues in a reasonable fashion – rather than attacking them – if you want to run a successful progressive-minded business?

She goes on:

I'd like to ask Amy Goodman why she published her last book, The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers, and the Media that Love Them, with Disney-owned Hyperion.

Michael Moore: What possessed you to make money for Rupert Murdoch by publishing your book, Stupid White Men, with ReganBooks/HarperCollins, and to then go to AOL/Time Warner's Warner Books with Dude! Where's My Country?, before jumping to a third corporate ship, Viacom's Simon & Schuster, to publish your latest offering, Will They Ever Trust Us Again?

David Corn: When you were underscoring the media's role in spreading W.'s deceptions, in The Lies of George W. Bush, why did you choose not only to go with a corporate-owned publisher, but with Crown – for years now, a member of the German-owned Bertelsmann AG conglomerate, which helped to spread anti-Semitic literature and Nazi propaganda in the years leading up to and during WWII?

Al Franken: When publishing Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, why did you make money for Dutton, a cog in the wheel of British-owned media giant Pearson, rather than help to reform American media by making a commitment to and money for an independent American publisher? And, finally, I really hate to point out to populist Jim Hightower that he, too, made money for that same Brit media giant, by going with another of Pearson's holdings, Viking, when he published his latest book, Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush.

Come on, people. Is it all about the big advances? Hear this: a big advance does not a bestseller make. It should be about how many people buy your book.

Pardon the royalties out of me. But advances do matter – at least to me. Unlike Moore and Franken, I am not a millionaire. (I am assuming they are, and they better be, given the sales of their books and movies.) I have worked for 18 years (yikes!) at The Nation, making a salary well below my peers in mainstream journalism. (I have also written for AlterNet, which hardly pays Vanity Fair rates.) I have two small daughters. To complete The Lies of George W. Bush in nine months (while still working my day job), I had to take time away from my family. My hard-working wife picked up plenty of slack. The only way I could justify such a project was to guarantee it made economic sense for my family.

That meant being sure I would be well paid for these stress-inducing efforts. An advance against future royalties achieves that. If I had embarked on such a project with no advance – or a low advance – I would have been taking a rather large risk. I would have had to count upon the publisher to sell many books. And I would have had to assume (or hope) that no unforeseen events would derail my book. Let's say an anti-Bush book had been scheduled to come out on Sept. 18, 2001. It would have been subsumed. There would be no sales and, thus, no royalties for the author. If the author of that book had not received an advance, he or she would (in a financial sense) have wasted his or her time. By taking an advance, I and other authors pass the economic risk on to the corporate publisher. Would you work for a year – or years – on a project for little or no money, just hoping that when it is done the stars will line up right and you will be able to make money off the sales? For some people, that might be an appropriate course of action. Well-off authors (the few, the proud) could afford to do so. First-time authors, who are driven to be published, might have no other choice. But those of us in between have to consider other steps.

And while I am at it, let me confess that for years I drove a used Volkswagen. No doubt, Nix disapproves of purchasing vehicles made by a firm with historic links to the Nazi regime. (Now, I am happy to inform her, I ride about in a car from the pacific land of northern Europe.)

Nix claims that her firm knows how to turn a book into a bestseller, pointing to the success it had with George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which did hit the best-sellers chart. At the time I started work on my book, Nix's house had no track record in turning a political book into a bestseller. And who knows if it can do so again? Suggesting that it's a breeze for an indy and lefty publisher to produce a bestseller, she cites MoveOn's 50 Ways to Love Your Country, which was published by Inner Ocean. I am not impressed by that example. That's no reflection upon MoveOn. I credit the group for being a success story of modern-day political organizing. But if an outfit with nearly 2 million highly committed members cannot produce a book, market it aggressively to its membership, and then land that book on the best-seller list, it is rather inept. (A book can hit the best-seller lists by selling several thousand copies a week.) By the way, when my book came out, I approached MoveOn and asked if it would send out an e-mail to its members notifying them of the existence of my book and other anti-Bush books. I was turned down. The explanation: that would be too commercial an act. Fair enough. But that concern did not stop MoveOn from later pushing ticket sales for Fahrenheit 9/11.

Nix is not so pure herself. She was a staff writer for Variety, which is owned by a gigantic, transnational corporation run by – can you believe this? – a host of white guys. (Was it wrong for her to cover the all-important showbiz world in order to enrich these fellows? Why was she not running a bilingual newsletter for immigrant farmworkers?) She also worked for NPR, a lovely outfit but one that accepts donations from rapacious corporations attempting to enhance their images in order to preserve their hold on the global economy.

Don't get me wrong. I would be delighted to work with an indy house if an appropriate deal could be arranged. And I wish my friends at AlterNet success with the book they are publishing with Nix. But the fact that Nix chose to whack me – without apparently knowing anything about my situation and my needs as an author – leads me to believe she lacks the business sense I would look for in a publisher, corporate or independent.

Voter Fraud or Flawed Elections?

The e-mails keep pouring in. Please investigate voter fraud! Here's evidence the Republicans stole the election! We're watching you cover the election irregularities! A number of Americans – is the number growing? – believe George W. Bush only won the election because the voting was somehow rigged. And each day they disseminate via e-mail what they consider to be proof – or, at the least, reasons to be suspicious. In pieces for The Nation magazine, I've noted that there is good cause to worry about the integrity of a voting system that is overseen by partisan players and that relies in part upon paperless electronic voting machines that are manufactured by companies that are led by pro-GOP executives and that refuse to reveal the computer codes they use. But I've also cautioned against declaring that the potential for abuse means the system was abused to flip the results. Exit polls that differ from reported vote counts are not necessarily proof of foul play, and statistical analyses that seem to raise questions need thorough vetting before they are waved about as signs of chicanery.

Take one of the early arguments for the "stolen election." Shortly after E Day, a former high school math teacher named Kathy Dopp sent out a chart that showed George W. Bush faring unusually well in Florida counties that used optical scan voting machines. A-ha, some folks exclaimed, this chart demonstrated the vote had been fixed. A team of political scientists led by Walter Mebane, a professor of government at Cornell, then examined the votes in these counties and found they were consistent with a years-long trend of registered Democrats in rural counties voting for Republican presidential candidates. Their findings were disputed by some "stolen election" advocates. But the Caltech/MIT Voter Technology Project released a study that reached the same conclusion as the Mebane paper. And this past Sunday, the Miami Herald published the results of its investigation of this particular voting pattern. The paper noted:

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Going Down the Stolen Election Road?

Before the vote-counting was done, the e-mails started arriving. The election's been stolen! Fraud! John Kerry won! In the following days, these charges flew over the Internet. The basic claim was that the early exit polls – which showed Kerry ahead of George W. Bush – were right; the vote tallies were rigged. Could this be? Or have ballot booths with electronic voting machines become the new Grassy Knoll for conspiracy theorists?

Anyone who questioned the integrity of the nation's voting system – before the election or after – has had good reason to do so. Electronic voting that does not produce an auditable paper trail is worrisome – as is the possibility that the machines can be hacked. The proponents of these systems claim there are sufficient safeguards. But in this election there were numerous reports of e-voting gone bad. Votes cast for one candidate were registered for another. In Broward County, Fla., software subtracted votes rather than added them. In Franklin County, Ohio, an older electronic machine reported an extra 3,893 votes for Bush. Local election officials caught that error. But when I asked Peggy Howell, one of those officials, why the mistake occurred, she replied, "We really don't know." Were these errors statistically insignificant glitches that inevitably happen in any large system? "It gives us the uneasy feeling that we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg," Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is part of the Election Protection Coalition, told Reuters. "What has most concerned scientists are problems that are not observable," David Jefferson, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, explained to the Associated Press. "The fact that we had a relatively smooth election ... does not change at all the vulnerability these systems have to fraud or bugs." And the 2000 fiasco in Florida demonstrated that non-electronic voting can also have serious problems, which often disproportionately affect low-income counties.

Then there's the issue of who is running the show. Only a few companies manufacture electronic voting machines. They are not transparent. They do not use open-source code. Last year, Walden O'Dell, the head of Diebold, a leading manufacturer of touch-screen machines, declared in a fundraising letter for the Ohio Republican Party that he was "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." That hardly inspired confidence. And across the country, oversight of voting is conducted by partisan officials. In Ohio, Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican and conservative activist, oversaw the voting. On his watch, the polling place for Kenyon College was equipped with only two voting machines. Yet about 1,100 people – mostly students – wanted to vote there. These voters (and you can guess whom they preferred) had to wait up to nine hours. It doesn't require much cynicism to suspect that this was no accident.

But did something more foul than minor slip-ups and routine political chicanery occur? Those who say yes – at this point – are relying more on supposition than evidence. They cite the exit polls to claim the vote count was falsified to benefit Bush. The pollsters say they oversampled women, that their survey takers were not allowed to get close enough to the polls and that Kerry supporters may have been more willing to cooperate with the pollsters than Bush backers. Impossible, huffs pollster/consultant Dick Morris: "Exit polls are almost never wrong." But Morris argues that the faulty exit polls are not a sign the vote count was off but an indication that the pollsters deliberately produced pro-Kerry results "to try to chill the Bush turnout." (Talk about conspiracy theory.) The screwy exit polls do raise questions, but they are not proof of sabotage. And left-of-center accusers have promoted contradictory theories. Many suggest Diebold and other vendors put in the fix via the paperless touch-screen machines. But other critics – including progressive talk show host and author Thom Hartmann – also point to a spreadsheet created by an activist named Kathy Dopp that shows what she considers anomalous pro-Bush results in Florida counties that used optical-scan voting, not electronic touch-screen voting. (The optical-scan machines were manufactured by Diebold and the other firms that produce the touch-screen machines.) But Walter Mebane, a Cornell professor, and colleagues at Harvard and Stanford examined this allegation of fraud and concluded that it is "baseless." They note that the counties in question are mostly in the conservative Florida Panhandle and "have trended strongly Republican over the past twelve years."

Making a different we-wuz-robbed claim, journalist Greg Palast, in an article bluntly titled "Kerry Won," contends the Democrat would have definitely triumphed in Ohio had the final tally included the uncounted ballots – by which he means 92,672 ballots that did not register a vote when run through a counting machine – and the 155,000 provisional ballots. Palast wrongly assumes that an overwhelming majority of these ballots contain votes for Kerry, who lost by 136,000 votes. Not all of the provisional ballots, however, would pass legal muster. (Ohio Democrats estimated less than 90 percent would be valid.) And more important, the 92,672 other ballots, if hand-counted, probably would not have produced a major vote gain for Kerry. After the Florida 2000 mess, I examined almost a third of the 10,500 uncounted votes in Miami-Dade County. Of those, only a few hundred contained a discernible vote. Tallying them produced merely a five-vote edge for Al Gore. It is highly improbable that the pool of uncounted and provisional ballots in Ohio could have yielded Kerry a net gain of more than 136,000 votes.

Clear away the rhetoric, and what's mainly left are the odd early exit polls (which did show Kerry's lead in Ohio and Florida declining as Election Day went on and which ended up with the current national Bush-Kerry spread), troubling instances of bad electronic voting, and curious – or possibly curious – trends in Florida. This may be the beginning of a case; it is not a case in itself. Investigative reporter Robert Parry observes, "Theoretically, at least, it is conceivable that sophisticated CIA-style computer hacking – known as 'cyber-warfare' – could have let George W. Bush's campaign transform a three-percentage-point defeat, as measured by exit polls, into an official victory of about the same margin. Whether such a scheme is feasible, however, is another matter, since it would require penetration of hundreds of local computer systems across the country, presumably from a single remote location. The known CIA successes in cyber-war have come from targeting a specific bank account or from shutting down an adversary's computer system, not from altering data simultaneously in a large number of computers."

The skeptics – correct or not in their claims of fraud – are right to be concerned in general about the vote-counting system. Reps. John Conyers, Jerrold Nadler and Robert Wexler have asked the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office) to investigate the "voting machines and new technologies used in the 2004 election." Blackboxvoting.org – a group that has long decried electronic voting and now claims that "fraud took place in the 2004 election" – has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain internal computer logs and other documents from 3,000 counties and localities, in an attempt to audit the election. The public does deserve any information that would allow it to evaluate vote-counting. Beyond that, extensive election reform is necessary. Electronic voting ought to produce a paper trail that can be examined. There should be national standards for voting systems and for verifying vote tallies. And vote counters should be nonpartisan public servants, not secretive corporations or party hacks. The system ought to be so solid that no one would have cause even to wonder whether an election has been stolen.

The Great Divide Continues

It's 3:30 AM. Ohio looks bad for John Kerry. He's down 180,000 votes. There may be 175,000 provisional ballots. But can Kerry win practically every single one and find other votes there? Kerry is losing by 1700 votes in New Mexico and 15,000 in Iowa. John Edwards appeared before Kerry supporters in Copley Square and promised that the Kerry campaign will fight to count every vote. But the Kerry ticket is behind in the national numbers, on the short end of a 51-48 split, trailing Bush by almost 4 million votes, with 93 percent of the precincts reporting. The election was close, achingly close. There may be an odd bounce or two yet to come. But the safe assumption is that George W. Bush will emerge the winner of the electoral vote and the popular vote. It's a sad morning in America.

The electorate almost engaged in a much-needed political correction. It almost undid the asterisk of 2000. Instead, voters legitimized the fellow who gained the White House against the will of the majority and who then pretended he had a mandate and subsequently pushed tax cuts for the well-to-do and launched a war predicated on untrue assertions. So there will be no good-bye to reckless preemptive war, an economic policy based on tax breaks tilted toward the wealthy, a war on environmental regulations, a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, excessive secrecy in government, unilateral machismo, the neocon theology of hubris and arrogance, a ban on effective stem cell research, no-bid Halliburton contracts, John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and much more. Did I mention Dick Cheney?

Bush lied his way into office and lied his way through his presidency. His reelection campaign was based on derision and disingenuousness; he mischaracterized Kerry and his positions and touted successes that did not exist. And now, it seems, he got away with it. He was not punished for leading the country into a war that was not necessary. He was not booted for having overstated the WMD threat from Iraq. He paid no price for failing to plan adequately for the post-invasion period. Iraq remains his mess. And the United States and the world remains at the mercy of a gang that, no doubt, will feel even more emboldened to pursue their misguided policies.

The good news: America is a divided nation. Despite the pundit hand-wringing over this fact, it is a positive thing. Nearly – nearly – half of the electorate rejected Bush's leadership, his agenda, his priorities, his falsehoods. From Eminem to the chairman of Bank of America to 48 Nobel laureates to gangbangers who joined anti-Bush get-out-the-vote efforts in swing states. Nearly half of the voting public concluded that Bush had caused the deaths of over 1100 American GIs and literally countless Iraqis (maybe 100,000) for no compelling reason. Nearly half saw the emperor buck naked and butt ugly. Nearly half said no to his rash actions and dishonest justifications. Nearly half realized that Bush had misrepresented the war in Iraq as a crucial part of the effort against al Qaeda and Islamic jihadism. Nearly half desired better and more honest leadership. Nearly half knew that Bush has led the country astray.

Other good news: Second-term presidents often hit the skids. The last three second- terms were marked by scandal (Watergate, Iran-contra, Monicagate). And as top officials sprint through the revolving door to snag high-paying jobs (while their contacts are fresh), the job of running the government during the second administration often falls to the B Team. In the post-9/11 world, this is not all that reassuring. But the historical trend does suggest that Bush will have trouble enacting his various schemes. Yet – let's be realistic – the Senate results indicate that the GOP will expand its majority in the Senate, which means Bush will have more allies for his wrongheaded missions.

More good news; Bush will not be able to hand off his own wreckage – Iraq and the gargantuan deficit – to a new man. But this does not mean he will accept responsibility and deal with it. Bush has the ability to deny and defy reality. And if he cannot see that the trash has piled up, he will not be hauling it to the curb.

Okay, no more good news. I can't stand all this good news. Bush has bamboozled and frightened just enough Americans to gain the opportunity to flimflam them for another four years. And the rest of the country – and the globe – will be along for the dangerous ride.

As for John Kerry, he and his advisers looked like geniuses early on Election Day, when exit polls showed him ahead in the critical states There will be time – plenty of time – to critique Kerry and his crew and second-guess their various decisions. Had he swatted down the Swift Vets earlier would that have saved him just the right number of votes? Had he voted against granting Bush the authorization to launch an elective war against Iraq anytime Bush damn well pleased, perhaps Kerry would have presented a clearer picture for the electorate and inoculated himself from the trumped-up flip-flop charge. Perhaps. He, too, will have years to ponder all of this.

Kerry was no top-gun campaigner. His rhetoric often meandered. More than once he shot himself in the foot with inartful language. But he did vigorously criticize Bush for misleading the country into war and for screwing up (big time!) the planning for the post-invasion period. He called for expanding health care coverage and for dramatic investments in alternative energy. He slammed Bush for ignoring the middle class crisis. He advocated raising the minimum wage and vowed to take on such special interests as the prescription drugs lobby. He excoriated Bush's assault on environmental safeguards and defended abortion rights. And he effectively used the three debates to counter the Bush camp's claim that he was a finger-in-the-wind pol and a weak-kneed opportunist with no convictions. Those encounters hurt Bush. Of those voters who say they decided in the past month, Kerry led 60 to 37 percent. All of this – it almost worked.

There was a clear difference between the two candidates. They disagreed on many basic issues. But – perhaps more importantly – they represented vastly different ways of engaging the world. One has adopted an ask-no-questions, nevermind-the- nuances, don't-look-back, tough-guy style of leadership. The other promised to consider and reach out before leaping. One said – practically boasted – that he read no newspapers. The other came across as a man who absorbed much information before rendering a decision. The voters chose the wrong man.

But not all is lost. The Red-Blue battle – a war of culture, ideology, politics and psychology – will not end with the final tally in Ohio. The forces of Bushism appear to have triumphed this day. But life – if we are lucky – is long, and history never ends. Let the great divide in America continue.

I Want to Shout

This past Saturday I was in the green room in the Reuters television studio overlooking Times Square, waiting with others to appear on the Dutch equivalent of Nightline, and it felt like my heart was going to explode. I was staring at Cathy Heighter. Her 21-year-old son Raheen, an Army private, was killed when a convoy in which he was riding outside Baghdad was attacked. Sitting across the room from Heighter was Ivan Medina, a 23-year-old veteran who served in Iraq. His twin brother, Irving, an Army specialist, was killed in Baghdad when his convoy struck an improvised explosive device. I tried to envision their sense of loss. Medina, a co-founder of Iraq Veterans Against the War, handed me a business card that had on it his brother's photograph and an American flag. Heighter offered me a magnet bearing the image of her son and the address for a scholarship fund created to honor him. It was not possible to fathom fully their bottomless grief.

In the room and the adjoining hallway, other guests milled. I spotted Dan Senor, the former spokesman for the U.S. authority in Iraq. There was a Republican lawyer who spins for the White House. There was a member of the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Vets outfit that was spending millions of dollars on attack ads against John Kerry in order to keep George W. Bush in office. All in one setting: the victims of George Bush and Bush's lieutenants – there to discuss calmly and reasonably the war in Iraq and the upcoming U.S. election. I wanted to scream.

Before me was one price of Bush's war in Iraq – or 0.18 percent of it. I did the math, multiplying the suffering in this room by the tens of thousands of relatives and friends of Americans whose lives ended too early in Iraq. I added in the pain and misery of those wounded in Iraq and their families. And none of this included the suffering on the Iraqi side. In terms of past wars, the number of killed and wounded U.S. troops in Iraq has not loomed large, but the collective grief I was imagining seemed overwhelming.

If Bush had been in the room, I would have had the strong urge to throttle him and ask, "Was it absolutely, 100 percent, without any doubt, necessary for these people to lose their loved ones?" Before the invasion, Bush said the primary reason for war was to address the "direct," "immediate" and "gathering" threat Saddam Hussein's regime presented. And Iraq was such a threat, Bush asserted, because it possessed biological and chemical weapons and a revived nuclear weapons program and because it was "dealing" with Al Qaeda. None of that has proven true. The Duelfer report concludes that Hussein had neither WMDs nor any active WMD programs (and that Hussein's WMD programs were in a state of decay – that is, de-gathering). The 9/11 Commission and the CIA found no evidence of an operational relationship between Hussein's government and Al Qaeda. There was no pressing threat that required a war. There was plenty of time to pursue other options. In fact, the inspections and sanctions had worked. These days, Bush hails the war in Iraq as an essential part of an overall crusade to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East. But that is not how he sold the invasion originally. The main reason for which those two men – and others – have died was bunk. Bush failed the most solemn obligation of his office: to order men and women to their death for good cause and only if there is no other choice.

I confess: I find it increasingly difficult to be civil about this. I certainly can argue politely and passionately with conservatives about welfare reform, school choice, faith-based initiatives, tax cuts, antiballistic missile defense. I can see how people of good faith might disagree in good faith over these contentious issues. But I am losing my patience with anyone who refuses to acknowledge that Raheen Heighter, Irving Medina and many others died under George Bush's false pretenses. And given that the war in Iraq was indeed an elective war, I want to grab advocates of the war by the lapel and say, "Unless you're willing to put your butt – or that of a precious son or daughter – in an unreinforced Humvee in Iraq, why should anyone die for your and Bush's assertion that the war in Iraq is essential for America's safety?"

What compounds the ill will I feel for Bush and the war-backers is the manner in which Bush discusses the war while campaigning. Rather than strive for a high-minded and somber debate about the most critical issue of the campaign, he has resorted to cheap shots and derision. He blasts Kerry for advocating "pessimism and retreat" and for considering terrorism a "nuisance." when Kerry merely said is that it would be desirable to reach a day when terrorism is nothing more than a "nuisance." (That sounds like a decent goal, particularly when Bush says, "Whether or not we can be ever fully safe is – you know – is up in the air.") Bush claims Kerry would submit U.S. national security decisions to other nations for a veto. At a campaign rally on Monday, he declared that Kerry "believes that instead of leading with confidence, America must submit to what he calls a global test. I'm not making that up....That means our country must get permission from foreign capitals before we act in our own self-defense." That is not what Kerry has said. He has explicitly stated he would not allow other governments to block actions he deemed necessary. But he did say that if a U.S. president orders a pre-emptive strike, he ought to do so for a reason that is compelling enough to convince the American public and people abroad. Bush responds to that with mockery based on a falsehood.

Bush has belittled any discussion of the war that is not black and white. For example, he attacked Kerry foreign policy adviser Richard Holbrooke, a former UN ambassador, for saying "We're not in a war on terror in a literal sense" and for calling the so-called war on terrorism a "metaphor" like the war on poverty. "Confusing food programs with terrorist killings reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face," Bush exclaimed, "And that is very dangerous thinking." This is not serious debate about a serious matter: the war in Iraq and the best way to counter the threat of Islamic jihadism. This is a shallow-minded Bush putting politics over all else. Accusing Holbrooke of not knowing the difference between "food programs" and "terrorist killings" – there is a word for that: stupid.

Worse, Bush refuses to acknowledge he sold the war with false information. Even after the Duelfer report was released, Bush insisted Hussein had been a "gathering" threat. And if the mission in Iraq was, as Bush now describes it, "to help Iraq become a free nation in the midst of the greater Middle East," why did he have to invade Iraq on March 19, 2003 – before the inspections process was done, before more of the United States' major allies were recruited for the coalition, before the U.S. troops were fully equipped with body armor and reinforced Humvees, before plans were readied for the post-invasion period and the economic, social, legal, political and security challenges to come?

Bush has not been honest about this war. That means he has not been honest about the immense loss suffered by Cathy Heighter, by Ivan Medina and by thousands of other Americans. What an insult. And those who stand with Bush share in the deceit. They are the masters of war who force others to be their servants of sacrifice. And I appear with them in television studios so we can debate the finer points of the latest developments in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism. I am not sure if I hate them. But I do despise what they have wrought and what they defend. And I do want to shout – I mean really shout – at them for supporting and enabling the callous miscalculations of a reckless and disingenuous president. But that would make for bad and ineffective television. So I sit politely and wait to have my say, as do Heighter and Medina, and hope that somewhere, somehow, sometime (perhaps even this coming Tuesday) what we say rather than scream – as well as what Heighter and Medina feel – will matter.

Low-Impact Collision

Vice presidential picks haven't mattered in the past. And vice presidential debates haven't mattered. Neither will this one. Dick Cheney and John Edwards each argued the case well for their man, probably better than George W. Bush and John Kerry did for themselves five nights earlier. They scored points and blocked attacks, reinforcing each campaign's major talking points of the moment. For Cheney it was, Kerry is weak on national security and too inconsistent to be an effective commander-in chief at a time of war. For Edwards, it was, Bush and Cheney have not told Americans the truth about the war in Iraq and the ongoing mess there, and we have a plan to do better in Iraq and at home. But neither succeeded in their attempts to knock the other out of the ring. Edwards went after Halliburton, but Cheney was hardly defensive about his old company. And he did not come across as a dark, behind-the- scenes force. Cheney accused Edwards of amassing a do-nothing record in the Senate, yet Edwards demonstrated he was as well-versed on the issues as Cheney and denied Republicans the chance to shout about a stature gap between the two.

Did I already say this debate won't matter? Voters don't think about vice presidential candidates on Election Day. (Didn't Dan Quayle prove that?) This 90-minute session at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland was political sport – an exhibition game that only would have an impact if a player suffered a major injury. And there were none. But the debate did show that neither campaign is departing from its established gameplan. Cheney emphasized national security, suggesting that only Bush can keep the nation safe. Edwards attacked the Bush-Cheney record in Iraq, but he also expanded the critique to encompass domestic matters, slamming Bush and Cheney for cutting taxes for the wealthy and for doing nothing to provide health care coverage to the uninsured. It was a sign the Kerry campaign, after Kerry's successful outing in the foreign policy debate last week, wants to land some blows on Bush regarding kitchen-table issues.

Let's go to the (irrelevant) highlights.

The first question of the night – which moderator Gwen Ifill partially flubbed – concerned Iraq and the alleged connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Cheney once again claimed that Hussein had "an established relationship" with al Qaeda. But the day before the debate, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had said he had not seen "hard evidence" of any operational alliance. And, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the 9/11 commission, and the CIA had also concluded there was no working relationship. Yet Cheney cannot drop this bone. He noted, "The effort that we've mounted with respect to Iraq focused specifically on the possibility that this was the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction." But there were no WMDs in Iraq, and no al Qaeda terrorists – at least before the invasion. Al Qaeda at that point was more likely to obtain loose nukes originating in the former Soviet Union or WMD assistance from sympathizers in the Pakistan military.

Edwards did not immediately challenge Cheney on any of this. Instead, he led off with the credibility and competency issues: "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people. I mean, the reality you and George Bush continue to tell people, first, that things are going well in Iraq – the American people don't need us to explain this to them, they see it on their television every single day. We lost more troops in September than we lost in August; lost more in August than we lost in July; lost more in July than we lost in June.... And it's not just me that sees the mess in Iraq. There are Republican leaders, like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel, who have said Iraq is a mess and it's getting worse. And when they were asked why, Richard Lugar said because of the incompetence of the administration.... We need a fresh start." But moments later, Edwards blasted Cheney for having implied a connection between 9/11 and Hussein.

Cheney tried to argue this point. "The senator has got his facts wrong," Cheney commented. "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but there's clearly an established Iraqi track record with terror." But after 9/11 Cheney did suggest there was an Iraqi role in the attacks by repeatedly referring to the allegation that Mohamed Atta, the lead 9/11 hijacker, had once met with an Iraqi intelligence officer in Prague. He even cited this allegation after it was debunked by the CIA and the FBI. Yet tonight he claimed he had done no such a thing. A senior moment? Or a flip-flop?

Edwards did a fine job – and perhaps was more effective than Kerry – in explaining Kerry's position on Iraq. He remarked, "Saddam Hussein needed to be confronted. John Kerry and I have consistently said that. That's why we voted for the resolution. But it also means it needed to be done the right way. And doing it the right way meant that we were prepared; that we gave the weapons inspectors time to find out what we now know, that in fact there were no weapons of mass destruction; that we didn't take our eye off the ball, which are al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden."

Cheney countered by insisting that Kerry does not have the mettle to do what needs to be done in the fight against terrorists: "The big difference here, Gwen, is they are not prepared to deal with states that sponsor terror. They've got a very limited view about how to use U.S. military forces to defend America. We heard Senator Kerry say the other night that there ought to be some kind of global test before U.S. troops are deployed preemptively to protect the United States." That is not what Kerry said at the first debate, but it is the spin that the Bush campaign has been hurling since the moment Bush and Kerry walked off the state.

Cheney revived the criticism he has been pushing on the campaign trail, arguing that Kerry has spent 30 years voting against weapons systems and funding for intelligence and the military: "It's a consistent pattern over time of always being on the wrong side of defense issues." He also derided Edwards for having "a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished." Cheney observed,

"You've missed 33 out of 36 meetings in the Judiciary Committee, almost 70 percent of the meetings of the intelligence committee. You've missed a lot of key votes: on tax policy, on energy, on Medicare reform. Your hometown newspaper has taken to calling you 'Senator Gone.' You've got one of the worst attendance records in the United States Senate. Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session. The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."

Meow. And Edwards gave as good as he got:

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The Bush-McCain Face-Off

Months ago, when the Republican senator who is often dubbed a maverick finally started campaigning with George W. Bush – after news reports noted that John Kerry had delicately discussed with McCain the idea of McCain becoming Kerry's running mate – the question asked by political commentators (and cable talk show consumers) was, what does McCain want? Did he want to make peace with the GOP establishment so he could run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008 (when he would be 72 years old)? Was he looking to be secretary of defense? Was he hoping that Bush would bounce Dick Cheney and put McCain on the ticket?

The obvious answer was that McCain was just yielding to the overwhelming D's-and-R's dynamic of Washington's binary culture. In his case, the issue was whether McCain was a Republican or not. And if he did want to continue being a GOPer in good standing, then he had to do right by the Family. (Think The Sopranos.) That meant putting aside the resentment and anger he must have felt toward the Bush clan, which – take your pick – ran or countenanced an ugly and vicious campaign against McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000 that included questioning McCain's commitment to veterans and spreading rumors that McCain had been brainwashed in a Vietnamese prison camp, that his adopted daughter was a love-child he had had with a prostitute and that his wife was a junkie.

So this year McCain sucked it up and hit the trail for Bush, even as the Bush brigade was mounting the same sort of trash-and-slash attack against McCain's colleague, John Kerry. At least, McCain could point to the war in Iraq as a point of agreement with Bush. Though McCain, according to a McCain adviser, has not accepted the neoconservatives' argument (adopted by Bush) that the Iraq war is necessary as an initial step in remaking the region, he believed that because Saddam Hussein posed a possible threat and was such a tyrant he needed "to be taken out."

But maybe there was another reason beyond loyalty to the party and to the commander in chief why McCain saddled up with Bush. Perhaps he wanted to get near enough to knife Bush – metaphorically speaking, of course. As in, keep your friends close and your enemies closer. (Think The Godfather.)

Yesterday on Fox News Sunday, McCain whacked Bush on Iraq. He accused Bush of making "serious mistakes after the initial successes by not having enough troops there on the ground, by allowing the looting, by not securing the borders. There was a number of things that we did. Most of it can be traced back to not having sufficient numbers of troops there." When he said "we," McCain actually meant Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice. He noted that the Bush administration has allowed insurgents to establish sanctuaries – such as in Fallujah – where anti-American rebels or terrorists can be trained and harbored. McCain, saying he still supports the US mission in Iraq, was making a serious charge: that Bush and his gang have screwed things up tremendously.

Anchor Chris Wallace then asked what seemed to be a Bush-friendly question: "Some have suggested that what we're seeing, to use a Vietnam analogy, is kind of a rolling Tet offensive to try to break the will of the American and Iraqi people and to play a role in defeating President Bush. Do you think that's what's going on?"

While other GOPers have tried to make such a point to shore up support for Bush among potential voters, McCain would not. "I don't think they're interested so much," he replied, "in defeating President Bush."

McCain challenged Bush's assertion that progress is under way in Iraq, noting "the situation has obviously been somewhat deteriorating, to say the least." Bush, he remarked, "is not being "as straight as maybe we'd like to see." McCain called for the declassification of the recent National Intelligence Estimate that raised the possibility of civil war in Iraq. "The key," said McCain, who urged more extensive US military action in Iraq, is to "recognize those mistakes, correct those mistakes, and prevail." He added, "I'd like to see more of an overall plan articulated by the president."

McCain's remarks were not what a consultant would call politically useful to the fellow whom McCain is supposedly trying to help get reelected. These comments came the day before John Kerry was to give a major speech blistering Bush for mistakes and miscalculations in Iraq. McCain – as well as Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Richard Lugar, who on other talk shows each said the administration's handling of postwar Iraq has been incompetent – softened up Bush for Kerry's blows. But McCain's words, given his standing in the media, hit the hardest.

Earlier this month, an editor at The Nation, dreaming of magic-bullet scenarios, asked me whether Secretary of State Colin Powell might break with Bush in October and swing the election to Kerry. Not a chance I said, read this. Powell is completely in the tank for the Bush crew, enabling the neocons. But McCain – now he might cause further difficult for his "good friend" in the White House in the final weeks of the election.

The Bush campaign eagerly embraced McCain early in the summer when Bush was slipping in the polls due to the mess in Iraq. So when McCain (rather than Kerry) says Bush hasn't articulated a plan for Iraq, can the White House dismiss this serious statement? It sure cannot be pooh-poohed by Bush's mouthpieces as partisan rhetoric. Might such a remark cause Bushies to wonder whether McCain infiltrated the Bush campaign in order to better zing the man whose lieutenants once bitterly and scurrilously attacked McCain's family and questioned McCain's loyalty to veterans?

The McCain-Bush face-off has been one of the most-watched soap operas in Washington. Now it appears that when McCain hit the campaign trail for Bush this summer, the conflict was not ultimately resolved. A few more twists and turns could come, and in this relationship, McCain at the moment has more power. (Remember McCain's home state of Arizona could end up being a key state on November 2.) With his recent comments, McCain has essentially called out the administration and undermined Bush's spin. If McCain continues to talk so candidly, he will be serving as a wingman for Kerry. Is this calculation or coincidence? Revenge being served out of a deep-freezer? McCain likes to promote his reputation as a straight-talker, but next time I see him in a green room, I'm not going to bother asking him to answer the question. Let him do what he's gotta do – especially if it's personal. Anyway, who would want to know the end of this melodrama before the final page?

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