The Has-been

Desperate Housewives

George Bush learns you can’t go home again.

Saturday, July 16, 2005 Knowing Who’s Boss: The Washington Post agrees with The Has-Been: First Ladies come first. … Rehnquist may not believe the Constitution includes a right of privacy, but he wants one for the Supreme Court. His decision to stay proves Robert Novak wrong on all counts. For some reason, Novak’s sources aren’t as good as they used to be. … 5:42 A.M. PT

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Friday, July 15, 2005

Friday, July 15, 2005

Thursday, July 14, 2005

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Thursday, July 14, 2005

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

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My Kingdom for a Department:  Today, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced another plan to reshuffle his 180,000 employees.  According to Scotland Yard, last Thursday’s devastating attack in London was the work of four suicide bombers with backpacks. Whose organization chart would you rather have?

There is no better symbol of what’s wrong with Washington’s uninspired response to Sept. 11 than the Department of Homeland Security.  DHS is another example of that old political standby:  Don’t just stand there; do something that will keep people from noticing that you’re just standing there.

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The blue-ribbon experts who designed DHS meant well, as did the Democrats who championed it in Congress. That’s more than we can say for George Bush, who reflexively opposed the notion because it wasn’t the administration’s idea, then flip-flopped to embrace it when he was under fire for doing too little, then demanded minor changes in work rules so Democrats would reflexively vote against it, then used their opposition to take back the Senate so he could spare the country from Democratic ideas.

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Like many well-meaning, blue-ribbon proposals, DHS has a fundamental flaw: it’s about how government works in theory. Terrorists with backpacks have a tendency to work in practice.

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Chertoff is a step up from Tom Ridge, a bumbling bureaucratic infighter with a Bush-like gift for looking firm and clueless at the same time. You don’t even have to read the details to know that Chertoff’s reorganization scheme will make sense, because DHS is like the New York Mets lineup – every reshuffle makes at least as much sense as the last. In  just two short years, DHS has clearly found its core mission – reorganization.

With admirable understatement, the Washington Post sums up Chertoff’s plan: “Many Americans will notice no immediate impact from the changes.” Except those who work for the Federal Air Marshal Service, which will switch agencies for the fourth time in three years.  Before Sept. 11, we were vulnerable because warning memos from the front lines sat unheeded in higher-ups’ mailboxes. Now a terrorist who wanted to send us a detailed warning directly would have a hard time finding the right email address. 

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Women and Children First: DHS has 22 “component agencies,” in addition to 180,000 employees. The department is just a start-up, yet it’s growing faster than GE. In its first term, the Bush administration proved it was possible to mismanage the smallest Cabinet department, Education, which has about 4,000 employees.  But as a failsafe, DHS doesn’t have to rely on top-down mismanagement:  it has subdivisions like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that were impossible to manage even in a smaller organization. 

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As the official leaker told the Post, this isn’t another plan “to rearrange the deck chairs.”  DHS already has a full-time staff 180,000 to do that.

Chertoff says he is still “fine-tuning” DHS’s famous color-coded warning system, which is now Orange if you’re riding the Yellow or Red line, but Yellow if you’re riding JetBlue. The DHS secretary did agree today to one color change: Passengers flying into Washington National can finally leave their seats to go to the bathroom.

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I wish Chertoff well. Organization does matter, and I’d rather go into the war on terror with the DHS we want, not the DHS we have

But confronting a new problem like terrorism requires us to take on tasks we didn’t do before, not just write memos on letterhead we didn’t have before.  Instead of stealing the Democrats’ idea for DHS, Bush should have borrowed the British idea for a domestic security agency like MI5, which is helping the U.K. respond with inspiring swiftness to last week’s attacks. 

Until recently, Bush has caved to bureaucratic pressure from the FBI, which wants to keep doing things the way it always has, only with a new flow chart.  A few weeks ago, Bush’s homeland security advisor at the White House announced baby steps that could take us closer to developing the capability of MI5. 

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Book Group:  Some CEOs have been known to give their workforce copies of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  If he can find them, Chertoff might want to email his 180,000 employees  the chapter on “the Whole Science of Government”  from Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit

     The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office… . If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

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Did Rove leak on purpose?
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Look Who’s Talking: Over the past four years, the press has written hundreds of articles describing the Bush White House as “tight-lipped.” How do reporters know this? The Bush White House told them. “It’s not our job to be sources,” Andrew Card told Ken Auletta of the New Yorker last year. “The taxpayers don’t pay us to leak!”

Look Who’s Talking: Over the past four years, the press has written hundreds of articles describing the Bush White House as “tight-lipped.” How do reporters know this? The Bush White House told them. “It’s not our job to be sources,” Andrew Card told Ken Auletta of the New Yorker last year. “The taxpayers don’t pay us to leak!”

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Monday, July 11, 2005  

The Long Goodbye: According to well-informed and unindicted  rumormonger   Robert Novak, Chief Justice William Rehnquist will announce any moment that he has hung up his Gilbert and Sullivan robes for the last time. His resignation won’t change the court, but it could dramatically change the court battle. If Rehnquist joins Sandra Day O’Connor in retirement, the key question will be who—if anyone—has the capability to fight a two-front war:  conservatives, liberals, or the White House?Here’s a brief history of two-front war: One way or another, it’s a losing battle.  Napoleon conquered Europe but couldn’t beat the Russians.  Hitler knew better but made the same mistake. Bin Laden slipped through our fingers in Afghanistan while the Pentagon diverted forces to Iraq.  Hitler, Napoleon, Rumsfeld … you can see why Neas, Gray, and Rove might not want to add their names to that list.The conventional wisdom is that a two-front war would be bad news for Democrats, who have the most to lose. But Democrats aren’t the only ones who should be nervous. A two-justice war could turn into a nightmare for everybody, depending on which strategy Bush picks.You Scratch My Back: For the last 10 days since O’Connor announced her retirement, we’ve seen the competing pressures on the White House.  Pro-life conservatives want a court that will expand states’ rights and stop abortion.  Pro-business conservatives want a court that will curtail states’ rights and stop trial lawyers.  O’Connor’s retirement scares the White House because the president might have to choose one faction over the other. A double vacancy means he can bow to both: Give the social conservatives a justice the business crowd doesn’t mind, and give the corporate conservatives a justice the pro-lifers can stand. Then both factions can logroll for each other’s nominee.This strategy is more than enough to placate Bush’s business wing, which views noisy confirmation battles as a distraction from the more important work of doling out tax cuts and subsidies. Faced with a mainstream conservative and an activist one, Democrats also might decide to let one hostage go.  Potential Waterloo: The right wing, however, might not go so quietly. For pro-lifers, the second verse is same as the first: They want every nominee to be a vote they can count on. If the president has to disappoint the right by picking one mainstream conservative, he might try to atone by making his other choice a card-carrying extremist. While that might satisfy the right, such a nominee would be much easier for Democrats to Bork. If the Senate confirmed the moderate but blocked the right-winger, the odd man out would turn into an even bigger martyr—and ensuing right-wing demands would grow harder, not easier, to meet.Double or Nothing: Some Democrats fear that Bush will use two vacancies to do what the right wants and flood the zone with two activist conservatives. He has a flair for the bold and unreasonable and might conclude that his best shot to get at least one hard-right candidate confirmed is to nominate two. Against two strong conservative nominees, Democrats might indeed have to cut their losses and accept one. But in the field of activist conservatives, it’s hard enough to find one who won’t have some trouble threading the needle. The Gang of 14, which prides itself on the virtue of political balance, would have a hard time accepting an unbalanced ticket. Liberal groups preparing to go in the ring with the far right see a twin billing as offering twice the targets.    Oddly enough, that may be precisely the defining war that many liberals and conservatives want most, and the White House wants least. The biggest danger for Bush is that giving the right everything it wants on the court might be enough to wake the rest of the country, which will otherwise wait to watch the replay on Saturday Night LiveGonzales, Gilbert and Sullivan, and an A.G. to Be Named Later: The real question is, what does Bush want? My guess is, he wants to promote his friend Alberto Gonzales, name the first Latino justice, and keep the right wing on the reservation. I happen to think Bush could accomplish all that with one vacancy; if he does what he wants, and not what the groups want, it should be even easier with two.In the end, the biggest advantage of having two picks is that you get to make them and the next president doesn’t. So, instead of looking for a two-front war, Bush should go looking for a separate peace. Make history with Gonzales. Pick a Rehnquist conservative—creepy, but not wacky—as chief justice. If the ravenous right demands more, give them back the Justice Department, which might as well have a right-wing head considering how much right-wing dirty work  it’s doing.By the way, Rumsfeld has already weighed in with his advice. After the dual strain of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon just announced a review of its long-standing policy that the military should be able to win two wars at once. They’re thinking about settling for one and a half. … 7:55 A.M.  (link)

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Thursday, July 7, 2005 Off Base: Give Alberto Gonzales credit—for the first time in Bush’s presidency, right-wingers are genuinely nervous that the President might not do everything they want. Until now, the Bush White House made it easy: Send Karl Rove your shopping list and wait for a reply e-mail with the number to track your order. While such first-class customer service has kept conservatives happy, it spoiled them as well. Now that they have a real fight on their hands, they don’t know which buttons to push. After all that care and feeding from the White House, conservative groups no doubt assume they have the power to cross names off Bush’s list. In the end, perhaps they will. But their first salvo—an all-out attack on Gonzales—seems to be having the opposite effect. Bush has testily defended his friend two days in a row, and the White House had to tell the right to pipe down. Yesterday, Bush lashed out at “special interest groups, particularly those on the extremes that are trying to exploit this opportunity … for their own fund-raising capabilities.” In five days, the far right has managed to make the president do what the rest of us have tried in vain to get him to do for the last five years: go after his base. Bush has finally discovered the downside of interest-group conservatism. One morning you wake up and realize you’re not president anymore—you’re not even executive director. The right wing wants the White House to think that if Bush picks Gonzales, conservatives will take to the streets and weep like Parisians. But from a sheer political standpoint, the case for Gonzales isn’t even a close call. No matter how much conservatives pout, Bush will do far more to expand the Republican party’s reach by putting the first Latino on the court. Gonzales will probably be a much more reliable conservative than the right fears—and their attacks guarantee that the press and many Democrats will hail him as a moderate. Like any president, Bush is interested in his legacy. Even if he packs the court with Ashcrofts, Luttigs, and Coulters, he can’t count on them to secure his place in history. There’s no guarantee Roe v. Wade would stay overturned for long, and an activist court might drive the Republican Party back into minority status. Appointing the first Latino Supreme Court justice is a legacy no one can take away. Bush has done the right’s bidding for so long, he may not know how to quit. But remember the first rule of interest-group politics: If you can’t pander to the one you love, pander to the one you’re with.  Political Bonus: Picking a right-winger ensures that the battle will be about abortion, an issue that politically savvy Republicans don’t like to fight in public. By contrast, if Democrats choose to fight Gonzales, they’ll only help Bush cement Republican inroads with Latinos. Some Democrats won’t be able to help themselves from going after the Gonzales torture memos. Rove’s consolation prize to the right: another chance to fight Democrats on terror—and now there’s not only 9/11, but 7/7. Honest Harry Reid joined Bush in attacking “the far right,” and defended Gonzales as “qualified.” At least he didn’t say Gonzales is “not so bad.” Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Counsels: If you’ve been worrying that the president would lose valuable time in the war on terror rereading Judge John Roberts’ 1991 brief in Rust v. Sullivan, relax. Bush said yesterday he would let his “legal experts deal with the legal ramifications of legal opinions.” He’s going to assess “their character” and “their interests.” Maybe the right should stop worrying about Roe and let Bush know which candidates have right-wing hobbies. We know Scalia likes to hunt. Of course, the justice most enthusiastic about Bush’s hobby is Stephen Breyer, who botched his first job interview with Clinton because he was in so much pain from a bicycle injury. … 12:54 P.M.

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Take Me to Your Leaders: Sooner or later, you may find yourself wondering whether a political apparatchik like me can write honestly without fear of reprisal. A few years ago, for example, I wrote an op-ed  in USA Today urging Major League Baseball to abandon its plans for contraction and give Washington a team. Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos wrote a terse letter to the editor pronouncing me “intemperate, abusive, and outrageous” as well as “irresponsible, uninformed and completely unfit to serve” the Democratic party. Such a nice man—it’s a shame the Nationals are doing so well.

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Take Me to Your Leaders: Sooner or later, you may find yourself wondering whether a political apparatchik like me can write honestly without fear of reprisal. A few years ago, for example, I wrote an op-ed  in USA Today urging Major League Baseball to abandon its plans for contraction and give Washington a team. Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos wrote a terse letter to the editor pronouncing me “intemperate, abusive, and outrageous” as well as “irresponsible, uninformed and completely unfit to serve” the Democratic party. Such a nice man—it’s a shame the Nationals are doing so well.

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Not So Bad:Like most Americans, I spent the Fourth of July weekend waving flags, watching fireworks, and checking my e-mail for Democratic talking points on the Supreme Court vacancy. In the two dozen mass e-mails that have come in so far, the most interesting advice has been what to do in the unlikely event that Bush’s nominee isn’t a right-wing nut. The word from HQ is: “Avoid off-the-cuff declarations like ‘he’s not so bad.’ ” This seems like superfluous advice, because people who speak off-the-cuff don’t read talking points, and people who read talking points would never say anything Bush did was “not so bad.” But isn’t it the wrong strategy as well? The best way to stop an otherwise unbeatable nominee might be for Democrats to praise him. Then, the right wing might rush to block the nomination out of sheer paranoia.

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Not So Bad:Like most Americans, I spent the Fourth of July weekend waving flags, watching fireworks, and checking my e-mail for Democratic talking points on the Supreme Court vacancy. In the two dozen mass e-mails that have come in so far, the most interesting advice has been what to do in the unlikely event that Bush’s nominee isn’t a right-wing nut. The word from HQ is: “Avoid off-the-cuff declarations like ‘he’s not so bad.’ ” This seems like superfluous advice, because people who speak off-the-cuff don’t read talking points, and people who read talking points would never say anything Bush did was “not so bad.” But isn’t it the wrong strategy as well? The best way to stop an otherwise unbeatable nominee might be for Democrats to praise him. Then, the right wing might rush to block the nomination out of sheer paranoia.

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Conservatives don’t know what’s good for them, either. For the last four days, key Republicans have been insisting that nominees shouldn’t have to reveal their views on divisive issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Republicans think a nominee who keeps quiet stands a better chance of confirmation than a Bork-like nominee with clearly articulated conservative views. Will they never learn?  The right’s greatest disappointments have been Republican nominees who failed to define their views up front: Warren, Souter, O’Connor, Kennedy. Conservatives, not Democrats, ought to be the ones demanding that nominees put their cards on the table. Remember Grover Norquist’s rule: Always get it in writing.

Another pillar of the Democrats’ strategy is to make it harder for Bush to appoint an ultra-conservative by extolling O’Connor as an ultra-centrist. O’Connor has earned an important place in history as the first woman on the Supreme Court, and paved the way for more women on the bench. But let’s not get carried away with her jurisprudence. Being a swing vote on this Court does not make her a principled centrist. Even her admirers concede that she was a high-class hack, joining conservatives when she thought the Court could get away with it, ducking when her political antennae sensed a losing issue. 

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Full Disclosure:  Before covering the Martha Stewart trial for Slate, Henry Blodget wrote an exhaustive statement disclosing potential conflicts of interest. It is a classic of the genre, more direct, self-aware, and revealing in its disclosures than most of us could ever hope to produce.        

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Full Disclosure:  Before covering the Martha Stewart trial for Slate, Henry Blodget wrote an exhaustive statement disclosing potential conflicts of interest. It is a classic of the genre, more direct, self-aware, and revealing in its disclosures than most of us could ever hope to produce.        

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I owe you the same respect, because like Henry Blodget, I am not a journalist. I have spent the last 20 years in politics. No one involved in partisan politics can pretend to be objective. It is hard enough pretending to be honest.

Two decades in any profession is bound to produce its share of biases, grudges, and conflicts of interest. Here are a few of mine:

1. Some bloggers view the mainstream media as a vast conspiracy. My view of the mainstream media is that of any disgruntled job seeker. I spent my twenties trying unsuccessfully to write for magazines instead of politicians. I am a reluctant blogger. If I have a blog, it means the barriers to entry must be as low in the blogosphere as they are in politics.

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2. I am what used to be known as a neoliberal, and is now somewhat nostalgically called a New Democrat. Politicians always say labels don’t matter. I disagree. Politics is a contest of ideas and principles; without them, all is lost. My ideology is summed up here and here.

3. I am an avid Democrat, as are the people I work with and most of the people I know. I grew up in one of the reddest states (Idaho), but live in the bluest (D.C.). I spent my youth handing out party leaflets at rodeos and county fairs, so I learned about rejection at an early age. I have spent my life working to return Democrats to power, and even when I disagree with my party, that is my ulterior motive. Has-Beens are all the same: We liked our old jobs better.

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4. By the standards of the people I grew up with, I have never had a real job. I spent the first 15 years of my career working for Al Gore and Bill Clinton. For the past five years, I have been president of a centrist think tank, the Democratic Leadership Council. Click here for what the DLC’s critics say. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own, not Slate’s or the DLC’s. 

5. I am an unabashed Clintonite. While I can’t match Sidney Blumenthal in the cheerleading department, I did once wear a skirt to a Clinton tribute. 

6. I have worked for and admire most of the Democrats expected to run for president in 2008. Ivan Schlager, an old friend from Capitol Hill, says the true test of a politician’s character is whether he knows you by name. He calls this the “Hi, Ivan!” test. I am partial to politicians who pass the “Hi, Bruce” test. However, there is no evidence that politicians who know me like me better than ones who don’t.

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7. I am not a Bush man. I met George W. Bush once, when the nation’s governors came to the White House in 1999. He asked about private accounts for Social Security. I introduced him to Gene Sperling, who explained why Clinton proposed add-on accounts instead.

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8. Even though I’m not a journalist, I adore John McCain. He gave my son his first squirt gun.

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Preoccupied with 1985 Twenty years ago this summer, I moved to Washington to take on the Democratic Party’s problems. Unfortunately, we’re both still here. 

Preoccupied with 1985 Twenty years ago this summer, I moved to Washington to take on the Democratic Party’s problems. Unfortunately, we’re both still here. 

In most professions, you know when you’re washed up. Apart from a few Julio Francos who linger past their prime, most of American life is up-or-out. Politics is just the opposite: In this business, you never have to admit you’re washed up, because there’s always a chance the tide might change and wash you in again. Anyone can talk about raising the retirement age. In politics, we actually do something about it.

Look at Donald Rumsfeld. By any standard, Rumsfeld’s a Has-Been. Ex-Congressman for over 35 years. Former CEO of two former companies. Waited 25 years to get back his old job as Secretary of Defense, and now won’t leave even though he lost it again a long time ago. Rummy is an inspiration to Has-Beens everywhere. When I left the White House in 2001, Rumsfeld’s appointment kept me going. For the past four years, I’ve been telling myself I have 7 more presidential elections until I’m Rumsfeld’s age. Maybe I’m not a Has-Been. I could be a retread-in-waiting.

That’s what this blog is about. In the old politics, the losers could only fail every four years. Now, thanks to the blogosphere, we can fail every day.

The Internet is teeming with blogs that promise the next new thing. Has-Beens love new ideas—we vaguely remember once having some—but we like old ones, too. This blog will offer the best of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, including a number of opinions that have gone out of style: The purpose of politics is to solve problems. Results matter. Responsibility begins at the top. 

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