The Has-been

Shadow Games

Can anyone in politics bat clean-up?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

A Couple of Ringers: President Bush isn’t the only one looking for relief these days. In the wake of the bestselling expose Game of Shadows about Barry Bonds’s alleged steroid use, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig today  named former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to lead an inquiry into steroids and the game. Earlier this week, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is working as an MLB consultant and tried unsuccessfully to get Selig an advance copy of the book.

There’s no question that baseball is good for politics. Presidents have been throwing out first pitches for a century. Politics had a lot to do with MLB’s decision to bring baseball back to Washington, and while many locals grumbled, the political class led the cheers.

But this week’s moves to bring in a righty and a southpaw raise a question that many MLB insiders have no doubt been pondering since the Washington Nationals ordeal began last year: Is politics good for baseball?

Mitchell is a director of the Red Sox; Fleischer a diehard Yankee fan – so Selig has his bases covered. As a respected statesman and former judge who loves the game, Mitchell is a capable choice. Running the Senate and bringing peace to Northern Ireland were just a warm-up for the job of studying superstars’ past urine tests.

Fleischer didn’t exactly do much to buff his last big client’s image, but no one doubts his enthusiasm for baseball. He used to play catch with Bush on the White House lawn and clown around with big leaguers who came to visit. White House reporters who suffered through Fleischer’s non-responsive press briefings must have laughed during his book tour when he told Sports Illustrated that Bonds is the one who’s “not media-friendly.”

Whiffs: But setting these two relievers aside, the real question is whether the political world has any credibility left to bring the baseball world. While the Bonds probe leads today’s sports page, the front-page headlines across the country are about the sentencing of longtime Washington insider and skybox sleazeball Jack Abramoff. Yesterday, the Senate passed an ethics bill that prohibits elected officials from accepting free tickets to ball games. The Republican point man on ethics (and leading steroid critic), John McCain, voted against the bill as too weak. “The good news is there will be more indictments, and we will be revisiting this issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Fan-in-Chief’s popularity ratings are so low that he seems to have brought not only “The West Wing” but also “Commander in Chief” down with him. Jessica Simpson won’t meet with him, Republican congressmen won’t campaign with him, and if Bush wants to throw out the first pitch at RFK, the Washington Nationals catcher will probably go along only if he can wear his mask.

Perhaps Selig had no other choices. When baseball turned to Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis to clean up the game after the Black Sox scandal, judges stood head and shoulders above scruffy ballplayers. Today, judges are often as tainted by politics as politicians. Much as Sam Alito might have jumped at the chance to don his Little League uniform again, even a Supreme Court justice would no longer be seen as impartial on the issues in the Bonds case – drug testing, privacy, the league’s contract with the players union.

In the end, unless federal prosecutors press charges against Bonds, the dilemma for Selig and Mitchell will be whether to toss the Giants star from the game for using substances that weren’t prohibited, or put an asterisk in the record books to say his home-run marks don’t count. If Selig wanted a magic asterisk, perhaps he should have beaten Bush to the punch, and brought in former OMB director Josh Bolten.

Selig finds himself in this mess because he waited too long to take action against steroids, but now the writing is on the clubhouse wall. Whether or not baseball gets its clean-up hitters, baseball will get its clean-up. On that score, politics isn’t even in the same league. … 4:59 P.M. (link)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Bullpen:   In last week’s story, “Are Late Innings the Time for a Relief Pitcher?,” a leading Republican told the New York Times that President Bush should look at a shakeup as “replacing a struggling pitcher in the later innings of a baseball game, rather than as a vote of no-confidence in a friend.” I figured that this week might be the time Bush went to the bullpen, so over the weekend I did some research to find out what kind of relievers this old baseball owner used to pick.

The answer surprised me. With the exception of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, the Texas Rangers have always been a team of sluggers, not pitchers. But in the five seasons that Bush ran the team, from 1989 to 1993, the Rangers’ bullpen finished near the bottom of the American League only once.

In Bush’s first year as managing partner, his bullpen ace was Jeff Russell, who had led the National League in losses in his first full season with the Cincinnati Reds. As a Ranger, Russell led the league with 38 saves, enough to win the 1989 Rolaids Relief Award.

In his last year before stepping down to run for governor, Bush turned to Tom Henke, a superb reliever who spent most of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays and finished with 311 saves and a 2.67 career earned-run average. For the Rangers, Henke pitched even better than Russell, saving 40 games in 1993.

The sole blot on Bush’s bullpen record has nothing to do with the men who pitched. Russell earned his footnote in baseball history not as a Rolaids award-winner, but as one of three players Bush traded to the Oakland Athletics for steroids peddler Jose Canseco. If Canseco can be believed, he used the Rangers clubhouse to start juicing other major leaguers, including Rafael Palmeiro—whose later failure to pass a drug test earned him the distinction of being one of the few miscreants in any field to be investigated by the current Republican Congress.

To the Showers: Back when Bush was running the Rangers, his relievers were better than his starting staff. Today’s decision to go to the bullpen and tap Josh Bolten to replace Andrew Card as chief of staff suggests that Bush is still following the same pattern.

Bolten is not what disgruntled Republicans in Washington wanted in a shake-up: an outsider who would listen to them and knock some sense into a White House gone awry. But he is everything Bush wanted: smart, loyal, competent—in general, a step up from the struggling Card.

Bolten’s experience mirrors that of two of Bill Clinton’s successful relievers. Like Leon Panetta, who took over as Clinton’s chief of staff in 1994, Bolten served as director of the Office of Management and Budget—the one post that rivals White House chief of staff as a place to learn everything the government is up to and how an administration works. Like John Podesta, who closed out Clinton’s second term, Bolten spent time as deputy chief of staff—an ideal perch to earn the loyalty of the White House staff, learn its strengths and weaknesses, and understudy for the top job.

As a bonus, Bolten is the only senior White House official with any real expertise in domestic policy. He developed Bush’s policy agenda in the 2000 campaign and oversaw all policy operations as deputy chief of staff. Bolten may not know how to get his money back at Target, but he’s a relative wonk in a White House full of hacks.

Of course, his track record on policy is no better than Bush’s. As OMB director, Bolten set the all-time record for largest single-season budget deficit.

That points to the biggest problem for Bolten: the administration he inherits. In the box score, Card will take the loss, not Bolten. But no reliever ever made it to the Hall of Fame by coming in to mop up for a team this far behind. … 11:58 A.M. (link)

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)