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IN DEFENSE OF THE TAX CUT MUDDLE: The conventional wisdom all over the talk shows yesterday--and magnified in today's campaign coverage--was that the Democrats have been unable to make headway on the economy because they didn't call for the repeal of (portions of) the Bush tax cut. There is clearly something to this proposition. One can't help but think some Democrats could have scored points with ads claiming that unemployment benefits weren't being extended because Bush prefers to give the money to the rich. (Strictly speaking this isn't true, but it's true enough to be a campaign ad by contemporary standards.) Over time, as deficits and unemployment continues to rise, and as the president's war-time popularity fades, one has to believe that the tax cut issue will be a winning one for Democrats.

But, on balance, that is certainly not the case this fall, when the only thing a strident anti-tax cut message would have gotten Democrats is the Senate minority. Vulnerable Democrats--like Max Cleland, Mary Landrieu, Tim Johnson, and Jeanne Carnahan--would have suffered all of the drawbacks of being identified with the anti-tax cut party, but, since they voted for the tax cut themselves, none of the benefits of being able to make a coherent economic critique of the administration. Worse, advocating repeal would have helped deprive Democrats of some important potential pickups, like Mark Pryor in Arkansas and Jean Shaheen in New Hampshire, whose outspoken support for the tax cut has positioned her to win (albeit by an extremely slim margin) in a reliably Republican state. Democrats in Texas and North and South Carolina probably also owe their competitive races to the muddled Democratic message on the tax cut.

But the bigger problem is that losing the Senate on an anti-tax cut platform would have had the disastrous effect (not just politically, but on the country's well-being) of appearing to ratify it. Having been burned on the issue in 2002, Democrats would probably conclude that the tax cut is so radioactive as to render it untouchable in 2004. At the very least, this would have made a successful vote to make the tax cut permanent almost inevitable (both because Republicans would control the Senate and because even fewer Democrats would dare vote against it).

On the other hand, if the Democrats (wrongly) conclude that they under-performed because they refused to take a stand on the tax cut, party leaders may decide to reverse course and make the tax cut the centerpiece of their economic critique. (Or, if they've already decided to do this after the election, they will have a much more receptive caucus when they announce their intentions.) And they will be doing it at a time when Bush is growing increasingly vulnerable on the issue. Likely post-election recriminations notwithstanding, Tom Daschle may know exactly what he's doing.

posted 12:45 p.m.

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TWO CHEERS FOR THE DO-NOTHING PRESIDENCY: It's no secret why the president is supposedly so intent on helping elect Republicans this fall. As The Wall Street Journal's Jeanne Cummings explains it:
Most of [the President's] major proposals are languishing in Congress--his faith-based initiative, judicial appointments, the proposed Homeland Security Department, an energy-policy overhaul, pension protections and a prescription-drug benefit. Mr. Bush hopes to break through that logjam in the two-year ramp up to 2004--when swing voters will be crucial to his re-election hopes--and the best if not only way to do so is to help Republicans retake the Senate and keep the House.
But the more you think about it, this doesn't entirely make sense. To take just one example, it's tough to see how George W. Bush improves his reelection prospects if Republicans retake the Senate and ram through all those backed-up, right-wing judicial nominees. Cummings's article quotes the president telling participants in a Colorado rally that "We need to change the Senate for a lot of reasons, and one reason is to make sure we've got a sound judiciary. There's no question where [incumbent Colorado Senator] Wayne Allard stands when it comes to good, conservative judges." But if all those good, conservative judges actually do get confirmed, it seems like the backlash would help Democrats a lot more than the victory would help Republicans. We'd guess most voters wouldn't describe their judicial philosophy as good and conservative. (A similar logic probably applies to Bush's energy policy.)

Which raises two questions. Why would Bush push for an outcome that's ultimately likely to hurt him? And why don't most reporters point that complication out? On the second question, we think the problem is that political reporters have a tendency to conflate a president's ability to enact his agenda and the overall quality of his leadership. (This tends to be particularly true on economic policy.) But they're actually two completely separate issues. After all, if most of the items on your agenda are colossally bad ideas, then implementing your agenda should, in some objective sense, make you a failure, not a success. (It should also make you a failure at the polls, though being an actual failure doesn't always make you an electoral failure.) In that case, not accomplishing much would be best for your record.

That brings us to the second question: It's precisely because political coverage has so conditioned us to equate accomplishment with success that politicians who don't accomplish much get a bad rap. (The origins of this probably lie in the 1930s, when FDR's activist leadership was wildly appealing alongside Herbert Hoover's do-nothing approach to the Great Depression--and justifiably so.) George W. Bush would be eaten alive if he actually tried not to accomplish anything.

Of course, that poses a problem if you have an agenda full of duds. One way to deal with that problem is simply to coopt your opponents' best ideas--and pass versions of them that are more to your liking. (A Homeland Security Department, pension protection, and prescription drug benefits are all Democratic ideas.) A Republican Congress would help Bush in this regard. But the other way to deal with it is to talk a good game about your agenda to partisan audiences while secretly hoping you never actually have a clear shot at enacting it. And in this sense a Republican Congress would hurt. Which is why we can't help feeling that deep down, despite all the time and effort invested in these elections, Karl Rove (the president's brain when it comes to these things) won't be that disappointed if Republicans don't retake the Senate.

posted 8:00 p.m.

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WHO ARE THE AD WIZARDS ... PART II: Of all the ham-handed things Harvey Pitt has packed into his brief tenure at the SEC, quite possibly the most pathetic came after he apparently withheld relevant information from fellow commissioners about former FBI and CIA director William Webster, whom the commissioners elected as head of a new public accounting oversight board last Friday. (The information concerns Webster's position as head of the audit committee of a scandal-plagued company called U.S. Technologies, which fired its auditor after that auditor found "material weakness" in the company's internal bookkeeping systems.)

As news of the revelations was about to break yesterday, the SEC announced that Pitt had himself ordered an investigation into the matter by the agency's inspector general. But if the idea of Harvey Pitt ordering an investigation of himself--out of some sudden pang of concern over the appearance of impropriety--strikes you as a bit odd, there's good reason: It didn't happen. As today's Wall Street Journal reports, it was Commissioner Harvey Goldschmid, a Democrat, who got the ball rolling when he "stormed into the office of fellow Commissioner Cynthia Glassman and said the two should demand an investigation." The two then sought out the remaining two members of the commission, who promptly agreed that an inquiry was necessary. It was only when Pitt realized that the inquiry was inevitable that he preempted it by calling for an investigation by the agency's own inspector general.

But the truly beautiful part of the whole episode is that even this little gambit has blown up in Pitt's face. As The New York Times reports today, "The announcement about the inquiry was amended later in the day ... The agency initially announced that Mr. Pitt had called for the investigation. The announcement was modified after some commissioners complained that they, and not Mr. Pitt, had pressed for the investigation."

Our first instinct was that Harvey Pitt should fire the adviser who's been giving him all this cockamamie advice. Then we learned that that person's name was Harvey Pitt.

posted 12:32 p.m.

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MISTAKES WERENíT MADE: For much of the past year William Safire has flogged the theory that Saddam Hussein had a hand in the September 11 attacks, devoting several columns to the claim by some Czech government officials that lead hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi agent in Prague shortly before his suicide mission in America. In a November 12, 2001 column Safire even called this claim "an undisputed fact." When that fact quickly was disputed by the CIA, Safire waved off the denials. But when The New York Times reported last week that Czech President Vaclav Havel had thoroughly investigated the story--which turns out to have come from a single Arab informant--and concluded that it was false, it finally looked like Safire would have to admit defeat.

Not a chance. Instead, Safire has produced a defiant column in which he defends himself on wildly specious grounds. Here's the key excerpt:

But lo and re-behold, two days later The New York Times reported this denial from Havel's spokesman: "The president did not call the White House about this. The president never spoke with any American government official about Atta, not with Bush, not with anyone else."
Safire gleefully pronounces "the discrediting officially discredited." But thatís wildly misleading. Havel's spokesman did deny the Times account of a personal call from the philosopher-president to Washington. But in the very same story the spokesman added that, "Mr. Havel was still certain there was no factual basis behind the report" of an Atta-Iraqi meeting. In other words, the denial only applied to the relatively picayune diplomatic question of whether Havel had personally picked up the phone and called the White House. The substance of Havel's conclusion--that loose-cannon lower-level officials exaggerated a vague report--is absolutely not in doubt.

AND ANOTHER THING: The Prague meeting turns out to be only one of the unsubstantiated "hunches" Safire pushes in the column. More absurd is the one he closes with--that on Election Day the Senate will go Republican by two or three votes and the House Democratic by "by a dozen votes." Safire doesn't bother to offer any theory behind this prediction--"it's just a hunch generated by wishful thinking," he says. It's also one as likely to be validated as the Atta-Iraq connection.

posted 3:45 p.m.

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ACCEPTANCE, THEN DENIAL: Anyone who heard (or, as the case may be, read) Walter Mondale's acceptance speech before the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party faithful in Minneapolis last night might have picked up on a couple of warning signs. For starters, you got the impression at certain points that Mondale was trotting out his rubber-chicken-circuit speech without bothering to update it. This line stood out in particular: "We need to do something about the scandal of big money in American politics that is compromising and shaming this most sacred of American processes." Now it's perfectly legitimate for a candidate to be raising the issue of money in politics. But since the president just signed campaign finance reform into law a couple of months ago, you'd think a candidate for Senate might have alluded to that somehow. May he'd argue that McCain-Feingold doesn't go far enough. Or that the FEC has gutted it. Or that he's worried it'll get tied up in the courts. Whatever. Just let us know you're reading the papers, Fritz.

Then there was Mondale on Iraq. It's true that the way Mondale stated his position last night--"Iraq is dangerous, but going it alone is dangerous, too. We have a United Nations. Let's use it. We have allies. Let's enlist them."--probably strikes most people as fairly uncontroversial. It may even be where most of the country is. Still, you can't help but wonder if Mondale might be forced to state explicitly in the next couple of days how he would have voted on the use of force resolution that passed Congress this month. Based on what we know about the former vice president, there's no reason to think he would have voted any differently than Wellstone (which is to say, against). But this could expose him to a vulnerability Wellstone didn't have to deal with. After all, much of the apparent benefit to Wellstone came not from the substance of the vote itself but from the integrity he showed in casting it in the face of enormous political risks. But Mondale can't possibly benefit from the integrity factor because he never had to cast the vote.

But easily the most disturbing point in Mondale's acceptance speech was this little doozy:

I think I know how to start being effective on the first day in the Senate. I've been there. I know the rules. I helped shape them.... Under the rules, when I return, if the voters will let me, I will become part of the leadership on the first day because I'm a former vice president [emphasis added].
Granted, that may be appealing to Minnesotans. As for the rest of the country, if that's not reason enough to vote against Democrats this fall, we don't know what is....

posted 3:30 p.m.

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I NEVER SAID A WORD ABOUT HIS HEMORRHOIDS EITHER: "He says his problem with alcohol was twelve years ago, and I know that's not true. I've had personal experience with it, but I haven't brought that out. He could hardly stand up at the governor's gala last Christmas."

--Arkansas first lady and secretary of state candidate Janet Huckabee discussing her opponent's well-known drinking problem in a televised debate on October 16.

posted 1:30 p.m.

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FIFTY-FIFTY FOR A LITTLE WHILE: We have to admit to being pretty intrigued by Mickey Kaus's "Fifty-Fifty Forever" thesis--the idea that having achieved parity, the two political parties are pretty much stuck there. Kaus argues that this makes perfect sense if you think of parties as having fairly flexible ideological principles (not much of a stretch), which allows them to continually adjust their positions to increase their share of the vote. Eventually the parties would have learned sufficiently from their mistakes to completely stalemate one another and we'd reach the end of the dialectic. According to Kaus, that end looks an awful like right now.

Meanwhile, today's Washington Post fleshes out an additional case for why we're likely to stay at parity: Once we're there, neither party has an incentive to do anything bold since they both know they can win by making only marginal adjustments. A Democratic candidate would never, say, advocate a repeal of the Bush tax cut. Nor would a Republican ever get specific about privatizing Social Security. Why should they if they can pretty much muddle those big issues and score a marginal, though temporarily decisive, advantage on something relatively trivial like infant car seats or jet ski licenses (to borrow the article's examples). As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg told the Post, the parties "are so evenly matched at the moment that all the incentives are to be careful.... We have tactical elections, we don't have big elections, because there's every prospect that you can win by thinking small." In fact, there's no incentive to make big adjustments even if you lose since you're not going to lose by much.

So is this really the future of the country? It's possible. But we think it's unlikely. What Kaus overlooks is the enormous temptation (and pressure) on a party to implement a radical agenda when it wins control of the government. And if it does so when the country is basically evenly divided (like right now), it would be implementing its radical agenda with only the narrowest of electoral mandates. But once you start doing things you don't have a mandate for, you pretty quickly galvanize the opposition and open the door to a sharp swing in the opposite direction.

After all, just consider what will happen if the Republicans win back the Senate and keep control of the House this fall. As an article in today's Los Angeles Times suggests, we'd pretty quickly see Arctic oil drilling, a wildly conservative federal bench, and the Bush tax cut made permanent (including the repeal of the estate tax). Down the road we'd probably get things like medical savings accounts, a partially privatized Social Security system, significantly weaker environmental regulations, and a whole host of corporate tax breaks. Bush, ever conscious of his reelection chances, might try to triangulate--playing the presidential good cop to Congress's bad cop--but it's not like he could veto bills forever (if at all, given the influence of his base). Democratic strategists around the country would be salivating.

Which means that far from a pattern of Floridas as far as the eye can see, we're more likely to get periodic landslides, followed by a gradual adjustment process that brings us back to parity, only to create another landslide, and on and on. Not that you'll see that on the cover of Newsweek....

posted 6:00 p.m.

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FLYING THE COOP: We tend to agree with Michael Kelly's rebuttal of the dubious "chicken hawk" charge that's lately been leveled at civilian officials like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, who support attacking Iraq but have no military experience. (In fact, we've been sympathetic to the argument since our boss, Peter Beinart, made it two months ago.) But Kelly's emphasis on the wartime leadership of "such notable 'chicken hawks' as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt" leaves a little to be desired as debating tactics go. Lincoln, after all, served with federal forces in the Black Hawk War. In 1832, biographer Benjamin Thomas recounts, Lincoln, "with no job and no family ties ... enlisted at once" as a volunteer in the state militia being organized by Illinois Governor John Reynolds to fight the Indians. At the mouth of the Rock River, "they joined a detachment of U.S. regulars and were sworn into the Federal service." After his 30-day enlistment expired, Captain Lincoln enlisted for 20 additional days as a private under Elijah Iles, whose company "rushed to the relief of Galena when the Indians threatened to cut off that isolated mining settlement." And Lincoln enlisted for still another 30 days before finally tiring of the soldier's life in July. He received $125 for his 80 days of military service.

posted 2:30 p.m.

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DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO: Regardless of what you think of the economic merits of White House economic adviser Glenn Hubbard's response to news that consumer confidence took its largest hit since 1990 this month, its political merits are worse than useless. (Not that we want the Council of Economic Advisers chairman to have a great aptitude for politics....) As Hubbard tells it, "Economists will be watching what consumers do more than what they say. Confidence has declined since May, but household demand has been strong. With rising incomes, consumer spending should grow reasonably well during the next year of the recovery." But even if that's true--and there's no reason to believe it is (rising incomes could easily be swamped by rising unemployment, and fears of rising unemployment)--from a political standpoint it doesn't really matter if what consumers say differs from what they do. That's because what consumers say is probably a pretty good reflection of what they think. And if they think economic conditions are 15 percent worse in October than they thought they were in September, that can't bode well for incumbents--particularly incumbents who've been ignoring the economy these last few months--at the polls this fall.

posted 10:30 a.m.

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BACK TO HOPE: What's the best way to use Bill Clinton on the campaign trail? The conventional wisdom on the matter was best summarized by E.J. Dionne in a Washington Post piece last week: Clinton should campaign in person in the moderate-to-liberal states--California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Connecticut--where the benefits of exploiting his rockstar status outweigh the risks of a backlash among cultural conservatives. Conversely, the former president should only raise money and record phone messages for candidates running in states--mostly in the south and interior west--where the Clinton association would be deadly.

But today's Wall Street Journal suggests a different model of Clinton involvement--at least in the South, where the former president remains extremely popular in certain precincts. As the Journal reports, "The man from Hope made headlines with a recent politically tinged visit to his home state, which Mr. Gore lost in 2000. While [Democratic Senate nominee David] Pryor kept his distance, the former governor is a close ally of [Jimmie Lou] Fisher, the gubernatorial candidate, and is due back Sunday to energize African-American voters."

The idea would be a sort of tactical spurning by the mainstream candidate--in this case Pryor, who most polls put well ahead of incumbent Senator Tim Hutchinson. That candidate could even explain how Clinton doesn't represent (pick-your-Southern-state) values. Meanwhile, the long-shot candidate--in this case Fisher, though she's recently closed the gap on incumbent governor Mike Huckabee--would bask in Clinton's reflected glory.

The payoff seems pretty obvious. The long-shot candidate is clearly better off than she would have been without Clinton, who provides instant legitimacy in the eyes of voters. And the mainstream candidate gets the best of both worlds--a Sister Souljah-like opportunity to condemn Clinton's anything-goes morality, but the high turnout that Clinton-energized voters could provide.

posted 12:30 p.m.

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