The Has-been

No Idea

Republicans unveil their new line for the fall.

Wednesday, Mar. 22, 2006

Still Searching: With their poll numbers in free fall, GOP strategists had to do something to stop the midterm bleeding. So, in the last week, congressional Republicans began unveiling a new strategy: Promising not to have an agenda. As Dan Balz and Jonathan Weisman pointed out in Monday’s Washington Post, “While it is a Republican refrain that Democrats criticize Bush but have no positive vision, for now the governing party also has no national platform around which lawmakers are prepared to rally.”

For five years, Republicans trashed Democrats as bereft of ideas. Now that they see Democrats up by 10 points, Republicans are rushing to claim the mantle of no ideas for themselves. Caught by surprise, Democratic consultants quickly fired back: Hey, we had no ideas first.

Just two weeks ago, the very same Post ran another front-page story giving Democrats the edge in being slow to unveil an agenda. But when a sitting president uses the full power of incumbency to generate no ideas, a minority party can’t keep up. The whole country saw Bush put his lack of an agenda on display in a prime-time State of the Union address. Moreover, when it comes to tired ideas, Democrats can’t possibly compete with a Republican Party whose sole remaining bedrock principle is a tax cut theory that didn’t work a quarter century ago, either.

The truth is, Democrats are increasingly eager to get out of the no-idea business and leave that turf to the Republicans. Many Democrats actually have ideas, so it has become a real burden for the party to pretend otherwise.

There has always been an inherent contradiction in the Republican rap: Democrats have no plan for the country—and it will do irreparable damage if they have the chance to carry it out. Fred Barnes captures this cognitive dissonance in the Weekly Standard: “Some Republicans insist it doesn’t matter whether Democrats finally offer a party agenda. ‘The question is not what they promise,’ [RNC Chair Ken] Mehlman told me. ‘It’s what they are going to do’ that is important.’ “

Barnes says that Republican strategists want to make 2006, like 2004, a “choice election”—another way of saying they intend to bomb Democrats with attack ads until they can see the rubble bounce. The White House is terrified that many congressional Republicans, wary of Bush’s unpopularity, have already made their choice: to run as far away from the president as possible.

Barnes does reveal one new idea on House Republicans’ agenda: “legislation to bar all federal courts except the Supreme Court from ruling on the constitutionality of the Pledge of Allegiance.” Conservatives don’t like judges legislating from the bench, so Republicans will do the opposite: benching from the legislature. Now that they have a reliable majority on the Supreme Court, Republicans want to send the rest of the judiciary home.
Sounds of Silence: Because they are so deeply divided on issues like immigration and fiscal discipline, Republicans have decided to avoid making the election a referendum on their agenda. Given our success with a similar strategy in recent elections, I think I can speak for most Democrats in saying to the GOP: Good luck with that.

Republicans’ goal is to keep Democrats from nationalizing the midterm election. The chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Rep. Tom Reynolds, told the Post, “All politics is local.” That way, Republican incumbents can reassure constituents that while they have no ideas, the agenda they don’t have is designed to ignore problems at the local level.

The most remarkable assertion in the Post story was attributed to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt: “Blunt said it is more important for Democrats to produce a governing agenda because Republicans have a record to run on.” Never mind that their record is what has Republicans running scared to begin with.

Democrats should seize the opportunity to put forward a new agenda for the country’s sake, and their own. If the GOP wants to turn the midterms into a choice between the potential consequences of Democratic ideas and the current impact of the Bush record, that’s a deal worth taking. There’s a good answer to rebut the Republican charge that the Democrats’ plan will run the country into the ground: You ran the country into the ground first. … 9:46 A.M. (link)

Monday, Mar. 20, 2006

Ichiro Sí, Castro No: As Republicans abandon his sinking ship, George Bush is focusing more than ever on foreign policy, where a president has the authority to screw up without help from Congress. Today, he gave another pep talk to mark the third anniversary of the Iraq War. Tonight, he’ll get briefed on his latest foreign policy setback: the World Baseball Classic final between Cuba and Japan.

The president isn’t having much luck selling his message that we’re winning in Iraq. In the World Baseball Classic, the White House can’t even pretend to have a Plan for Victory—we already lost. Despite help from bad umpiring that went in our favor, the U.S. team lost half its games, falling to unheralded teams from Canada and Mexico. Across America, barrooms must be buzzing with debate over whether to blame immigration or NAFTA—or would be, if any Americans had been watching the games.

Bush can brush off the loss for Team USA, since most Americans are too worried about their NCAA brackets to notice. His real problem is the prospect of a Cuban victory. If Cuba defeats Japan, the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community in Florida will be livid. They won’t blame Ichiro—their Bronx cheers will be directed at George Bush.

Back in January, at Major League Baseball’s behest, Bush personally intervened with the Treasury Department to grant the Cuban team a waiver to play in the WBC. Baseball executives were afraid that if Cuba couldn’t play, other Latin American teams would boycott, and the Classic would fall apart. Scouts assured them that the young Cuban team, without a single major leaguer, would lose in the first round.

Yet again, a colossal failure of American intelligence. Cuba sailed through the first two rounds. On Saturday, the Cuban team defeated the heavily favored team from the Dominican Republic, which had an all-star lineup of two dozen major leaguers and a payroll to match the New York Yankees.

Somos Los Campeones: The cigars are out in Havana. If the Cold War had gone into extra innings, this would be Castro’s finest hour. After Saturday’s game, Cuba scored another public relations triumph when the translator hired by Major League Baseball refused to translate the Cuban left-fielder’s post-game clichés. As the Washington Post reported, when the player said, “This is a revolutionary team. Baseball is not judged by the price of the athletes, but by the heart of the people,” the translator tried to censor the comment as too political—which only made the statement a bigger story.

For those who miss Cold War rivalries, Cuba has turned the WBC into an old-timer’s game. In trash-talking the other teams, the Cuban second baseman sounded like Khrushchev: “They rent themselves. We play for the love of the name across our jerseys and our cities.”

By contrast, the second baseman who struck out to send the Dominican Republican home on Saturday was the Washington Nationals new prima donna, Alfonso Soriano, who went 0 for 12 in the WBC and seems intent on becoming the first major league star to sit out the season because his new team wants him to play a position where it won’t matter as much that he can’t catch the ball.

Attention, Michael Lewis—your whole Moneyball theory may be in jeopardy. Lewis wrote a best seller about the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, who believes statistics like on-base percentage are the key to a small-market team’s success. So far, the A’s haven’t made it past the playoffs on that theory. Now Fidel Castro is on the brink of a world championship with players who earn 20 pesos a month. Apparently, the key for small-market teams like Oakland and Pittsburgh is to find an aging totalitarian owner who’ll fill players’ heads with Marxist-Leninist nonsense.

Of course, there could be other explanations—for example, while major leaguers are still working off their winter flab, the Cuban players are already in shape. In the height of the Cold War, we used to envy the steroid-riddled physiques of East German Olympic teams. Now that international competitions have stricter anti-doping rules than the United States, the needle is on the other cheek—our steroid-riddled physiques have to stay home instead.

Tonight, it’s up to Japan to go to bat for freedom. George Bush and Karl Rove will have their rally caps on, praying for a Japanese victory. If those Cuban revolutionaries win, that choking sound coming out of the president’s quarters won’t be from a pretzel. … 6:16 P.M. (link)

Thursday, Mar. 16, 2006

43 Winks: Nobody ever promised them a Rose Garden, but for the Bush White House, it’s been a tough year. The vice president shot a senior citizen. The domestic policy adviser faces up to 30 years on felony theft charges for applying Bush’s economic policy  at a box store. The White House pastry chef left after just 18 months to work for a more reputable outfit: a casino chain in Atlantic City and Las Vegas.

Nervous Republicans, who thought nothing could be worse than 2005, are increasingly desperate for a White House shakeup in 2006. Sen. Norm Coleman threw down the gauntlet on Tuesday, accusing a White House that thinks about politics 24/seven of having a political “tin ear.”

Bush aides offer a more sympathetic excuse: They’re bushed. “We’re all burned out,” a White House official told Peter Baker of the Washington Post. “People are just tired.” Chief of Staff Andrew Card sets the pace by waking up every morning at 4:20. If he got up any earlier, the president’s approval might fall below 30 percent.

When Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked whether the Bush team was tired, he reportedly “joked” that he was “tired of some of the questions.” But according to Baker, the staff’s condition is serious: “While there are few stories of aides nodding off in meetings, some duck outside during the day so the fresh air will wake them up.” All this time we’ve worried about terrorists—and now we learn the nation has been taken over by zombies.

Then again, why is the Bush crowd so tired? In five years, they haven’t done much. Cheney misfired on the last day of vacation. If the charges against him are true, Claude Allen spent more time in the Target parking lot over the past few months than my former White House colleague Gene Sperling spent outdoors in eight years.

Wake Up, Little Bushie: There’s only one good explanation for Bushie fatigue, and Stephanie Saul of the New York Times has the answer: Ambien. Last week, Saul reported on the remarkable phenomenon of driving while asleep. All over the country, people apparently have taken the drug Ambien before bed, then proceeded to sleepwalk to their cars and sleep-drive into the nearest ditch. A Colorado woman “got into her car wearing only a thin nightshirt in 20-degree weather, had a fender bender, urinated in the middle of an intersection, then became violent with police officers.” A parole officer in South Carolina woke up in jail after going on a joy ride in his sleep.

Harriet Miers, Hurricane Katrina, Dubai Ports World—could there be a better word to describe the Bush administration’s past year than “sleep-driving”? The Bush team doesn’t have a tin ear; they were just road-testing the prescription drug bill.

Unfortunately, sleep-driving isn’t the only potential side effect. According to the Ambien Web site, sleep medicines can also cause memory loss.

Yesterday, the Times reported another troubling side effect:

The sleeping pill Ambien seems to unlock a primitive desire to eat in some patients, according to emerging medical case studies that describe how the drug’s users sometimes sleepwalk into their kitchens, claw through their refrigerators like animals and consume calories ranging into the thousands.

A California woman woke up “to find candy bar wrappers next to her bed and Popsicle sticks on the floor near the refrigerator.” A Minnesota woman in a full body cast sleepwalked to her kitchen, where her son found her sleep-frying bacon and eggs. Researchers have linked this sleep-eating with amnesia: Patients gain weight, but have no recollection of their late-night binges.

Let’s see—a pattern of bloating and chronic overindulgence by people who say they can’t remember why it happened. Come to think of it, that’s the way Bush has Republicans talking about spending.

Listen to one Ambien sufferer quoted in the Times: “I got a package of hamburger buns and I just tore it open like a grizzly bear and just stood there and ate the whole package. [My husband] said a couple things to me and then he realized I was asleep.” The woman was from Dickson, Tenn.,—but she could just as well have been a Republican presidential candidate in Memphis. … 9:02 A.M. (link)

Sequels:As a politician’s politician, George W. Bush must have smiled to hear what Republicans who dream of succeeding him had to say in Memphis this weekend. Like any second-term president, he wants the wannabes to run for his third term. Yet Bush understands better than anyone how hard winning a third term can be. In 1988, when the country had tired of Ronald Reagan, he helped his father hold on by promising a kinder, gentler version. In 2000, when the country had given up on Gingrich Republicans in favor of Clinton centrism, Bush repeated the trick by inventing compassionate conservatism. Bush ran away from congressional Republicans and tried to convince voters that he’d give them a third term of the Clinton economy instead.

Now Republicans find themselves in an even deeper hole than in 1988 or 2000. Bush’s approval rating in the Gallup Poll has sunk to a record low of 36 percent. His disapproval rating is back up to its high of 60 percent (third on the all-time list, with three years to keep trying). With numbers like that, the political junkie in Bush would tell his would-be successors to do just what they’re doing: run away.

Much of the 2008 field, however, has nowhere to run. Those successful sequels in 1988 and 2000 promised to expand conservatism’s appeal by rounding off its hard edges. In 2008, that’s not really an option. No one—except, ironically, Newt Gingrich—is likely to run as the heir to compassionate conservatism. It’s easy to contemplate a kinder, gentler Cheney—a Republican who promises to shoot blanks. But it’s almost impossible to imagine what a kinder, gentler Bush might be. No wars? Less spying? An even more expensive drug benefit? And if Republicans can’t run as kinder and gentler, the alternative is worse: meaner and rougher. Maybe Tom DeLay isn’t finished after all.

As Adam Nagourney reports in the New York Times, Republican contenders so far have found one word to differentiate themselves from Bush: cheaper. All weekend, wannabes invoked the memory of Ronald Reagan, who was such a true believer in fiscal conservatism that the national debt only tripled on his watch, to nearly $3 trillion. Bush has presided over the disappearance of a $5.6 trillion projected surplus, and by the time he’s through will have added another $4 trillion to the debt.

Of course, Republicans conveniently forget that not only did the country tire of Reagan’s budget busting, but they tired of the paradoxical antigovernment tone that went with it. That’s what led the elder Bush to promise “a kinder, gentler nation” in the first place.

A genuine fiscal conservative like John McCain—who aspires to be Reagan without the tax cuts—will have no trouble distinguishing himself from Bush. But Nagourney points out that other prospective candidates in Memphis offered little idea what to cut, and that senators who promise to cut spending as president might have an obligation to actually vote for doing so in Congress. The headline in today’s Washington Post suggests how well that’s going: “Republicans on Hill Resist Party Leaders’ Spending Cuts.”

Spending, I Wish I Could Quit You: Nagourney says the candidates “are not alone in seeing political benefit in returning to the spending issue”—the White House sees advantage in it, too. A White House strategist suggests that talking about spending cuts could help rally the Republican base in the fall. Old spin: Deficits don’t matter. New spin: Deficits are a brilliant political ploy to get the Republican base exercised about Republican overspending. Bush has his message for November: “Vote for us—we’re spent!”

Once again, Republicans seem to have doubled back on their contradictions. In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, party strategists discovered a serious design flaw in conservatism: The country wouldn’t let Republicans cut government spending anywhere near as much as Republicans wanted to cut taxes. Compassionate conservatism was concocted to correct that glitch by just cutting taxes and letting government spending soar. The new design flaw: Voters don’t like that, either.

Bill Clinton once summed up compassionate conservatism as a way to tell voters that we really wish we could help solve their problems with health care, education, and wages, but we just can’t, and we’re really sorry about it. In Memphis, the refreshingly candid Sen. Lindsey Graham came up with a new twist. He drew big cheers for telling delegates, “I am sorry for letting you down when it comes to spending your money.”

Republicans have come full circle: These days, compassionate conservatism means even saying you’re sorry for having been a compassionate conservative. … 9:46 A.M. (link)