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Capital Games

 Washington: a city of denials, spin, and political calculations. The Nation's former DC editor David Corn spent 2002-2007 blogging on the policies, personalities and lies that spew out of the nation's capital. The complete archive appears below. Corn is now the DC editor at Mother Jones.

Iran/contra: 20 Years Later and What It Means

It's the 20th anniversary of the Iran-contra scandal. Two decades ago, the public learned about the bizarre, Byzantine and (arguably) unconstitutional actions of high officials in the post-Watergate years. But many Americans did not absorb the key lesson: the Iran/contra vets were not to be trusted. Consequently, most of those officials went on to prosperous careers, with some even becoming part of the squad that has landed the United States in the current hellish mess in Iraq.

Before tying the then to the now, let's revisit the basic narrative. When Congress, by fair vote, decided in the 1980s that the United States should not assist the contras fighting the socialist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, the Reagan White House concocted several imaginative ways to pull an end-run around democracy. This mainly entailed outsourcing the job to a small band of private sector covert operators and to foreign governments, which were privately requested or pressured by the Reaganites to support the secret contra support operation. The "Iran" side of the scandal came from President Ronald Reagan's covert efforts to sell weapons to Iran to obtain the release of American hostages held by terrorist groups supposedly under the control of Tehran--at a time when the White House was publicly declaring it would not negotiate with terrorists. The two clandestine projects merged when cash generated from the weapons transactions with Iran was diverted to the contra operation.

Conservatives for years--make that decades--have argued there was nothing really criminal about the Iran/contra affair and that it was merely a political dispute between the pro-contras Republicans in the White House and the Democrats controlling Congress. Yet at the time the architects of these schemes worried they were breaking laws and placing Reagan in jeopardy of being impeached. Look at how the National Security Archive, a nonprofit outfit that gathers national security records, summarizes a memo documenting a key White House meeting on the clandestine contras program:

At a pivotal meeting of the highest officials in the Reagan Administration [on June 25, 1984], the President and Vice President [George H.W. Bush] and their top aides discuss how to sustain the Contra war in the face of mounting Congressional opposition. The discussion focuses on asking third countries to fund and maintain the effort, circumventing Congressional power to curtail the CIA's paramilitary operations. In a remarkable passage, Secretary of State George P. Shultz warns the president that White House adviser James Baker has said that "if we go out and try to get money from third countries, it is an impeachable offense." But Vice President George Bush argues the contrary: "How can anyone object to the US encouraging third parties to provide help to the anti-Sandinistas…? The only problem that might come up is if the United States were to promise to give these third parties something in return so that some people could interpret this as some kind of exchange." Later, Bush participated in arranging a quid pro quo deal with Honduras in which the U.S. did provide substantial overt and covert aid to the Honduran military in return for Honduran support of the Contra war effort.

The Iran arms-for-hostage-deal was also illegal--or so Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger thought. At a December 7, 1985 White House meeting, Weinberger argued the Iran missile deal was wrong and criminal, according to his notes of the session. Weinberger pointed out to Reagan that selling missiles to Iran would violate a U.S. embargo on arms sales to Iran and that even the president of the United States could not break this law. Nor, Weinberger added, would it be legal to use Israel as a cutout, as was under consideration. Both Secretary of State George Shultz and White House chief of staff Donald Regan, who were each present, agreed that a secret weapons deal with Iran would be against the law. Reagan, though, insisted on proceeding, noting he could answer a charge of illegality but not the charge that he had "passed up a chance to free hostages." Weinberger then quipped, "Visiting hours are Thursdays"--meaning the deal could land someone in jail. After the meeting, Regan told Weinberger he would try to talk Reagan out of the deal. He failed to do so.

Soon both the clandestine contras program and the secret Iran deal were underway, with the relevant agencies--most notably, the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department--providing back-up and National Security Council officers Robert McFarlane, John Poindexter and Oliver North overseeing operations. In supporting the contras project, the CIA worked with individuals it suspected of being involved in drug-dealing, according to a subsequent CIA inspector general's investigation.

The skullduggery began to unravel in the fall of 1986. On October 5, 1986, a C-123 aircraft ferrying supplies to the contras was shot down by the Sandinistas, and an American named Eugene Hasenfus was captured. He told the Nicaraguans that his flight was part of a CIA-approved operation. Days later, Reagan said of the Hasenfus operation, "There was no government connection with that at all." He was not telling the truth. Shortly after that, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams testified in Congress that the administration had arranged for no foreign donations--"not a dime"--to the contras--even though he had arranged for a $10 million contribution to the rebels from the Sultan of Brunei.

On November 3, 1986, a Lebanese weekly revealed that the previous May National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane had secretly flown to Tehran. McFarlane's covert mission had been part of the arms-for-hostages deal--which now stood exposed. On November 25, Attorney General Edwin Meese held a press conference and disclosed that funds from the arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the contras support program. (I happened to be watching that press conference with Abbie Hoffman, the former Yippie, who exclaimed, "I couldn't make this stuff up.")

A full-scale scandal was born. Investigations were convened. The Reagan presidency was hobbled. But impeachment never became an issue--in part because Democratic congressional investigators removed it from the table at the start of their inquiries. White House partisans threw up a defense of spin and obfuscation that turned the affair into a political muddle. (That is, mission accomplished.) Oliver North became a hero to conservatives. Bush the Elder, who lied about his involvement in Iran/contra (saying he had been "out of the loop," though noting in a private diary that he had been one of the few officials in-the-know), was elected president in 1988.

The investigations continued. Abrams, McFarlane (who botched a suicide attempt), and a CIA officer named Alan Fiers pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress. Two other CIA officers--Clair George and Duane Clarridge--were indicted on perjury-related charges. Former General Richard Secord and Albert Hakim, who managed the secret contra supply operation, pleaded guilty to minor charges. North and Poindexter were convicted of various counts, but their convictions were overturned on legal technicalities. Weinberger was indicted for illegally withholding his notes from special counsel Lawrence Walsh.

The affair came to an ignominious finale on Christmas Eve, 1992. George H.W. Bush, who had been defeated by Bill Clinton seven weeks earlier, issued pardons for Weinberger, Abrams, McFarlane, Clarridge, George and Fiers. Only Thomas Cline, a former CIA officer and partner of Secord and Hakim, who was found guilty of tax charges, ended up going to jail due to the Iran/contra scandal.

But history never ends. Twenty years later, Abrams is deputy national security adviser for global democracy in the George W. Bush administration. A fellow who admitted that he had not told Congress the truth and who had abetted a secret war mounted by a rebel force with an atrocious human rights record now is supposed to promote democracy abroad. Other Iran/contra figures are leading players today. Here's a partial list from the National Security Archive:

* Richard Cheney - now the vice president, he played a prominent part as a member of the joint congressional Iran-Contra inquiry of 1986, taking the position that Congress deserved major blame for asserting itself unjustifiably onto presidential turf. He later pointed to the committees' Minority Report as an important statement on the proper roles of the Executive and Legislative branches of government.

* David Addington - now Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and by numerous press accounts a stanch advocate of expanded presidential power, Addington was a congressional staffer during the joint select committee hearings in 1986 who worked closely with Cheney.

* John Bolton - the controversial U.N. ambassador whose recess appointment by President Bush is now in jeopardy was a senior Justice Department official who participated in meetings with Attorney General Edwin Meese on how to handle the burgeoning Iran-Contra political and legal scandal in late November 1986. There is little indication of his precise role at the time.

* Robert M. Gates - President Bush's nominee to succeed Donald Rumsfeld, Gates nearly saw his career go up in flames over charges that he knew more about Iran-Contra while it was underway than he admitted once the scandal broke. He was forced to give up his bid to head the CIA in early 1987 because of suspicions about his role but managed to attain the position when he was re-nominated in 1991.

* Manuchehr Ghorbanifar - the quintessential middleman, who helped broker the arms deals involving the United States, Israel and Iran ostensibly to bring about the release of American hostages being held in Lebanon, Ghorbanifar was almost universally discredited for misrepresenting all sides' goals and interests. Even before the Iran deals got underway, the CIA had ruled Ghorbanifar off-limits for purveying bad information to U.S. intelligence. Yet, in 2006 his name has resurfaced as an important source for the Pentagon on current Iranian affairs, again over CIA objections.

* Michael Ledeen - a neo-conservative who is vocal on the subject of regime change in Iran, Ledeen helped bring together the main players in what developed into the Iran arms-for-hostages deals in 1985 before being relegated to a bit part. He reportedly reprised his role shortly after 9/11, introducing Ghorbanifar to Pentagon officials interested in exploring contacts inside Iran.

* Edwin Meese - currently a member of the blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, he was Ronald Reagan's controversial attorney general who spearheaded an internal administration probe into the Iran-Contra connection in November 1986 that was widely criticized as a political exercise in protecting the president rather than a genuine inquiry by the nation's top law enforcement officer.

* John Negroponte - the career diplomat who worked quietly to boost the U.S. military and intelligence presence in Central America as ambassador to Honduras, he also participated in efforts to get the Honduran government to support the Contras after Congress banned direct U.S. aid to the rebels. Negroponte's profile has risen spectacularly with his appointments as ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and director of national intelligence in 2005.

Another Iran/contra veteran has dramatically returned to the scene recently: Daniel Ortega. On November 7, as the Bush White House prepared itself for congressional elections that would be widely seen as a repudiation of its war in Iraq, the morning newspapers carried the news that Ortega, the Sandinista leader whom the Reagan administration had targeted, had won a presidential election in Nicaragua. The old contras backers now running the Bush administration had to watch their old nemesis (not that Ortega was ever much of a threat) regain power, as their hold on power was slipping. The arc of history is indeed long.

As for the current relevance of Iran/contra, one could argue that the affair taught Reaganites and neocons a lesson, the wrong lesson: you can get away with it. Though the operations ended up being exposed and the Iran deal crashed and burned, the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration did create enough pressure on Nicaragua and forced the expulsion of the Sandinista government in a 1990 election. Perhaps more important for this crowd, no one involved in the shady activity was held accountable. Bush the First was elected. Abrams and other scandal vets were rewarded with prominent posts in the next Republican administration--that of Bush the Younger. The Reaganites had lied to Congress and the public about Iran/contra and ultimately escaped retribution.

This sordid episode hardly served as a warning--either for the Iran/contra alumni who would lead the United States into the debacle in Iraq or for voters who would support an administration staffed with people who twenty years earlier had made their bones in a scandal involving war and truth. One can hope, though, that the disingenuous, reality-defying engineers of the current disaster will be too old or too discredited to return to power two decades from now.

******

DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Pelosi's Next Big Problem

Having unsuccessfully supported Representative Jack Murtha for the No. 2 slot in the House of Representatives, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi moves on to her next hard decision: whether to name Representative Alcee Hastings as chairman of the House intelligence committee.

This is a tough call for Pelosi. The current senior Democrat on the committee is Representative Jane Harman from California, and Pelosi wants her out. There has long been bad blood between Harman and Pelosi, who preceded Harman as the top Democrat on the panel. Pelosi, according to several Capitol Hill sources, has been upset with Harman's performance on the committee and has faulted Harman for not sufficiently confronting the Republicans and the White House. Next in line for the Democrats on the committee is Hastings. But he, too, poses a problem. In the late 1980s, Hastings, then a federal judge, was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House on bribery and perjury charges and removed from office by the Democratic-led Senate. He was later elected to the House and subsequently joined the intelligence committee.

Can Pelosi pick a fellow impeached and convicted on corruption charges to run a committee handling the most sensitive secrets of the government? But can she bypass Hastings, an African-American, and alienate the Congressional Black Caucus? Should she choose the third-ranking Democrat, Representative Silvestre Reyes of Texas? That would upset the CBC but win plaudits from the Hispanic Caucus. To duck the whole knotty issue, should she simply let Harman have the job for a short spell?

In a closer to perfect world than this one, the answer would be obvious: do none of above and name Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat on the committee, to lead the panel. (More on Holt in a moment.) But since the House is far from perfect, this is not likely to happen.

Hastings has come a long way since being impeached by the House Democrats. He is currently the senior Democrat on the intelligence panel's subcommittee on terrorism and homeland security. He also serves ably as a Democratic whip. But now that he is close to taking over the intelligence committee, his past has become an item of renewed controversy. Prior to the congressional elections, conservatives and Republicans started raising the obvious question about Hastings: Should a person kicked off the federal bench for conspiring to receive a $150,000 bribe be placed in charge of the intelligence committee? The attack on Hastings was part of the GOP's campaign to frighten voters into not electing Democrats. (Charlie Rangel will be in charge of the tax-writing committee!) But it was a justifiable query; the Republicans had a point. History is not on the side of Hastings or his present-day supporters.

On August 3, 1988, the House voted to impeach Hastings by a vote of 413 to 4. The floor manager of the impeachment resolution was Representative John Conyers, a CBC stalwart to this day, who declared that there was "damning evidence" that Hastings had plotted with another lawyer to obtain a payoff in exchange for reducing the sentences of an undercover FBI agent posing as a convicted racketeer. Five years earlier, Hastings, appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter, had been acquitted of these charges by a Miami jury. But Conyers maintained that Hastings had lied at his trial. (A post-trial investigation conducted for the U.S. Court of Appeals had concluded that Hastings had sought the bribe and then faked evidence and testified falsely.)

During the impeachment, Conyers declared, "I looked for any scintilla of racism. I could not find any." He noted that "race should never insulate a person from the consequences of unlawful conduct." No House members defended Hastings during the impeachment proceedings. When the Senate tried Hastings in October 1989, Conyers, who was part of the House prosecution team, told the senators, "We argue that he must be removed from office so that he does not teach others that justice may be sold." The Senate voted 69 to 26 to oust Hastings from office. He became the sixth judge in U.S. history to be removed from the bench by the Senate. In an act of revenge, retribution, or redemption, Hastings three years later ran for a House seat and won.

Hastings has been scandal-free since he entered Congress. House Democratic staffers praise his leadership of the terrorism and homeland security subcommittee. "He's been a hardworking member of the committee," one Democratic aide notes. "For years, no one has raised any issues about him being on the committee." Still, how can Pelosi name to a sensitive position a man once denounced by his fellow Democrats as corrupt? Were he to become chairman, all his actions and statements would be tainted by his past. As the newly empowered Democrats challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the so-called war on terrorism, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees will assume lead roles in the various debates. (Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia is slated to become head of the Senate intelligence committee.) Hastings' past will hobble him as a spokesman for the Democrats on national security.

Under House rules, seniority--which usually dictates which legislator becomes chair of a committee--does not apply to the intelligence committee. Pelosi is not obligated to hand the gavel to Hastings should she bounce Harman from the top Democratic spot on the committee. But Pelosi, according to several senior House Democratic staffers, has already promised Hastings the position. And the Congressional Black Caucus has indicated it would be quite displeased if Pelosi shoved him aside. The CBC was angry at Pelosi last June for forcing Representative William Jefferson, who's under investigation for accepting bribes, to quit the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Pelosi has not named Hastings yet. Some Hill Democrats have floated the option of giving the job to Reyes. Such talk is partly motivated by racial considerations: trade a Hispanic for a black, and it's a wash. Meanwhile, Harman, according to a senior Democratic consultant, has made an offer to Pelosi: let me remain the top Democrat on the panel, and I'll only chair the committee for two years. Granting Harman this wish would relieve Pelosi--at least, temporarily--of making a decision about Hastings. But House Democratic staffers say that Pelosi's antipathy for Harman is so pronounced that no one expects her to take this easy way out. "Other members, too, are not enamored of Harman," says an aide to a Democrat on the intelligence committee. "She has not been nearly aggressive enough in pushing back on the Republicans--though she has improved a bit on this in recent months."

Which brings us to Rush Holt. He is a former Princeton University physicist and past intelligence analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He specialized in nuclear matters. He knows much about the intelligence bureaucracy and about weapons proliferation and loose nukes, critical national security priorities. First elected in 1998, Holt has not been shy about confronting the administration and the intelligence agencies. He voted against granting George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq. He has challenged the administration's policies on the detention and questioning of suspected terrorists, arguing the White House has not been mindful enough of civil liberties. He also was one of the few Democrats to charge on to the House floor to oppose the Republicans when they sought to intervene in the Terri Schiavo affair. The Courier News of Bridgewater, New Jersey, endorsed Holt's reelection this year and noted, "Holt offers the kind of intelligence, reasonable and decisive voice that has been all too lacking inside the Beltway during the partisan wars of recent years. But Holt's value in Congress goes beyond that; he has developed a reputation as a thinking man's congressman, a scientist by trade who provides more thoughtful analysis on issues than most lawmakers." Holt calls for beginning a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He has warned the administration not to hype the intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapon program, noting the "intelligence on Iran is poor, contradictory, or both."

Tapping Holt, the seventh-ranking of the committee's nine Democrats, would be an unconventional move. The CBC would be agitated--even though its members are already claiming three major chairmanships: Conyers at the judiciary committee, Rangel at the tax-writing committee, and Representative Bennie Thompson at the homeland security committee. The Hispanic caucus could be peeved, too. Other House Democrats might be uneasy about such a sharp slap at the seniority principle (though younger members would be heartened). But this would be a chance for Pelosi to send a signal: the Democrats do regard national security seriously and are willing to put aside political concerns to do the right thing. She would be saying, merit matters most when it comes to protecting the United States. Yet if she sticks with Hastings, she is going to have to defend the quasi-indefensible. It will appear--rightly or wrongly--that she cannot shake free of racial politics and institutional imperatives. She ought to instead adopt a radical stance and give this most important job to the most qualified person.

UPDATE: On November 28, 2006, Pelosi released a statement:

Congressman Alcee Hastings and I have had extensive consultations, and today I advised him that I would select someone else as Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Alcee Hastings has always placed national security as his highest priority. He has served our country well, and I have full confidence that he will continue to do so.

It was slightly curious that she announced her decision not to choose Hastings without saying who would get the position. Holt is not lobbying for the post, according to Democratic Hill sources. But he certainly would like to get it. The betting, though, has to be on Representative Silvestre Reyes. With such a pick, Pelosi could please the Hispanic caucus as she peeves the Congressional Black Caucus. If merit ruled--yeah, right--Holt would get the nod. But that's not how business is done in Congress.

******

DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Democrats and Withdrawal from Iraq: Asking Too Much?

For Democrats, here's the bad news: now that they have won control of Congress, they are expected to not only criticize President Bush's policies in Iraq but to derive a solution to the mess he has created.

On Thursday morning, incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid met with several journalists, including yours truly. In his opening remarks, he outlined his plans. He noted that he will compel senators to work longer hours and dramatically expand the Tuesday-through-Thursday-at-noon work week that has become routine in the Senate. He said he would cut back on recess time. The first bill he intends to introduce as majority leader, he declared, would target sleazy campaign tactics, and he pointed to the misleading robocalls and false campaign literature used by Republicans in the final days of the recent congressional elections. He then turned to Iraq and called for some form of a "phased withdrawal."

"What we need to do first of all is implement the laws of the land," Reid said, referring to a resolution passed months ago by Congress calling for 2006 to be a year of significant transition in Iraq. "This law has been ignored," he complained. And he noted that 39 senators did vote for a Democratic amendment--another non-binding resolution--urging the beginning of the redeployment of troops from Iraq (without setting any deadlines for their departure). Reid indicated that he and the Democrats would continue to press for initiating a withdrawal: "We're an occupying force." But Reid also said that the United States had "to do a better job" on counterinsurgency and the training of Iraqi security forces. Pointing out that Baghdad now has less than fours of electricity a day, Reid said, "We need to revitalize reconstruction." He also called for a regional conference to work out a path ahead for Iraq.

But here's the rub: can the United States rebuild Iraq and remake its security forces while intense sectarian conflict is under way? And can it do so while removing troops? I asked Reid if the revitalization of Iraq and the creation of an Iraqi military and police force that is not beholden to sects and militias is at this point "a bridge too far." His reply: "It may be a bridge too far, but at least it's a bridge somewhere....There has to be a plan to get us out of there...This is my plan."

There seems to be a contradiction between the two sides of this plan: disengage (via troop withdrawals) but make reconstruction and training work. Reid noted the recent testimony of General John Abizaid, the head of Central Command, who said that progress needed to happen in Iraq in the next four to five months, and Reid compared this remark to the comment of Senator Carl Levin, the Democrat who will become chairman of the armed services committee, who said that redeployment of US troops should begin in four or five months. He appeared to be suggesting that under a Democratic plan there would be a window of opportunity--four or five months--for the Bush administration and the Iraqi government (such as it is) to work things out before US troops would start to leave. But it isn't realistic to expect significant (and positive) change within this time, especially when the situation in Iraq appears to worsen by the week.

As Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus reported on Friday--in an article headlined, "Violence in Iraq Called Increasingly Complex"--the dynamics of the conflict in Iraq are becoming harder, not easier, to sort out and address. He wrote:

Attacks in Iraq reached a high of approximately 180 a day last month, reflecting an increasingly complicated conflict that includes sectarian clashes of Sunni and Shiite militias on top of continuing strikes by insurgents, criminal gangs and al-Qaeda terrorists, according to the directors of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency.

"No single narrative is sufficient to explain all the violence we see in Iraq today," Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the CIA director, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

Attempting to describe the enemy, Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, the DIA director, listed "Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, former military, angry Sunni, Jihadists, foreign fighters and al-Qaeda," who create an "overlapping, complex and multi-polar Sunni insurgent and terrorist environment." He added that "Shia militias and Shia militants, some Kurdish pesh merga, and extensive criminal activity further contribute to violence, instability and insecurity."

These descriptions suggest an increasingly difficult state of affairs that will not be much improved in four or five months.

And if the president does not heed the Democrats' call to start withdrawing troops by the spring, what will they do? After all, Reid noted that when he met with Bush the previous week he did not sense much "willingness to change." So will he, House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who has also advocated a withdrawal of troops, and the Democrats try to choke off funding for the war or attempt to impose legislative mandates upon the commander in chief? "We're not going to back off this," Reid said--without mentioning any specific steps. If Bush stays the course or elects to send more troops to Iraq, Reid said, "We'll speak out loudly." Speaking out loudly, though, will not likely persuade Bush at this stage or lead to any course corrections.

Reid noted that Iraq is "the number-one issue" for the Senate's new Democrats and the war is "hurting our country." He added, "the whole situation [in Iraq] is breaking down." But can Iraq be saved? As Democrats establish their opening position in the coming fight with the White House over Iraq--a battle that will be shaped by whatever former Secretary of State James Baker's Iraq Study Group recommends next month--they are asking for a lot: disengagement from Iraq and a US policy that results in a better Iraq (one with a functioning central government, a revived economy, and effective security forces not under the control or influence of sectarian militias). Redeployment is certainly achievable; making Iraq work may not be. There certainly is no guarantee that the withdrawal will quickly lead to a stable and secure Iraq. Pulling out American troops might remove a possible obstacle to a political accommodation among Iraqi parties that leads to less chaos and violence. The removal of troops, though, could cause the opposite and render it tougher for the Iraqi government (even with much U.S. assistance) to rebuild the nation's infrastructure and to train a worthwhile military and police force--particularly if other nations, including those of the region, do not become more involved in repairing Iraq.

In calling for a phased withdrawal, Reid, Pelosi, and the Democrats need to be careful not to promise that the removal of troops will be accompanied by political, economic, and security improvements. They might have to choose between disengagement and the continuing (though failing) effort to stand up an effective government and Iraqi army. The Democrats also must ponder how oppositional to be should Bush adhere to Vice President Cheney's pre-election vow to go "full speed ahead" with their current Iraq policy.

As the Democrats take over the legislative branch, they are assuming fifty-fifty ownership of one of the most vexing foreign policy challenges in the nation's history: how to undo Bush's war in Iraq. They have to realize that disengagement--even if the correct call--might carry with it ugly consequences and not bolster the prospects for rebuilding and stabilizing Iraq. Sadly, those aims, due to Bush's blunders, may be beyond America's control. So far that has been tough for the Democrats--or Bush--to admit.

******

At the breakfast meeting with journalists, Reid also said:

* The Senate intelligence committee will finish its so-called Phase II inquiry, which is supposed to evaluate how the Bush administration used the prewar intelligence to garner public support for the invasion of Iraq. A year ago, Reid closed down the Senate to protest the Republican delay in producing this report. "That will be completed now," he said. "It may not help us in the future, but it will give us the historical background of what got us into the war." He added, "We're going to get the answers to that out....We have been jerked around....And we're not going to take it anymore."

* He intends to target tax breaks for the oil industry and the monopoly exemption enjoyed by the insurance industry. "We have to rise up," he said.

* He fully backs Howard Dean as the Democratic Party chairman. "I didn't support his running for the chair of the DNC," Reid said. "I was wrong. He was right....I support his grassroots Democratic Party-building."

******

DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Murtha Loses--And So Does Pelosi

The vote count is in: Steny Hoyer defeated Jack Murtha 149 to 86 for the majority leader post in the House.

There's no way to spin this: this was a big loss for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The vote wasn't close. Her ally was rejected. This reflects poorly on her. And it will be remembered by her political opponents--particularly those who want to undermine Pelosi's efforts to enact lobbying and campaign reform--that in this contest she endorsed a fellow who has long been accused of slippery ethics. (See the posting below.)

Moreover, Murtha, the candidate with the most ardent antiwar credentials, lost--and did so decisively. How will this be interpreted (or exploited) by pundits and politicos who oppose the Pelosi/Murtha call for the withdrawal of troops? Murtha champions did try to turn the majority leader race into a debate on the Iraq war. Can the vote be read as an indicator that many House Democrats don't support Pelosi all the way on her opposition to the war?

It certainly is true that these sort of leadership races are often decided (via a secret ballot) not by ideological issues but by personal and managerial factors. Think of it this way: how would you vote if you could vote for one of your bosses? You might not pick the person who agrees with you on policy matters. You might select the guy or gal with whom you have--or could have--the best personal relationship. Or whom you think would be more effective as a manager. Or whom you owe a favor.

Still, this vote will be depicted as a slam on Pelosi and on the start-withdrawing-now Democrats. (It perhaps did show that Pelosi has to improve her vote-counting skills.) Pelosi did not have to choose sides in this fight. But because she fiercely lobbied her fellow House Democrats for Murtha--after first saying she would remain neutral in this bitter battle--she begins her tenure as speaker with a loss that was self-inflicted. Now she moves on to what might be a harder task than getting her fellow Democrats to elect Murtha her No. 2: forging a Democratic alternative to George W. Bush's policy in Iraq.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Pelosi Backs Murtha for No. 2: Iraq over Ethics?

This morning, I called Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, to ask about the potential congressional reforms House Speaker-To-Be Nancy Pelosi is expected to push on Day One. But before we got to that, Sloan teed off on Pelosi for having endorsed Representative Jack Murtha, the hawk turned Iraq war critic, in his fight against Representative Steny Hoyer to be the House Democratic majority leader, the powerful number-two job in the body. "Murtha has lots of ethics issues," Sloan exclaimed. "What the hell is she thinking? Corruption turns out to be a major issue in the campaign, and you endorse the guy with the more ethics problems?"

Sloan was referring to exit polls that noted that 42 percent of voters considered corruption and congressional scandals critical to their voting decisions. And she pointed to her outfit's Beyond DeLay site that lists the "20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress." Murtha was not on that roster, but he garnered one of five "Dishonorable Mentions" (along with Republican Representatives Dennis Hastert, the outgoing speaker, J.D. Hayworth, who was defeated in Arizona last week, and Don Sherwood, who was accused by his mistress of choking her and who also lost his bid for reelection).

CREW's low-down on Murtha charges that he abused his position as the senior member of the defense appropriations subcommittee to steer contracts to military firms represented by his brother, a registered lobbyist. The report also notes that Murtha routinely inserted funding earmarks into defense spending bills for contractors that funded his campaigns and hired a lobbying firm run by a former aide on the defense appropriations subcommittee.

Murtha, according to Sloan, was also instrumental in undermining the House ethics committee. In the late 1990s, he successfully pushed (with other legislators) to change the committee's rules to prevent it from accepting ethics complaints from parties outside Congress. He also pressed Democratic leaders to name Representative Alan Mollohan of West Virginia the senior Democrat of the ethics committee. Mollohan has had his own ethics troubles--which have forced him off the ethics committee--and is a member of CREW's Top (or Bottom) 20. (See here.) "Murtha really doesn't like the ethics committee," says Sloan, speculating this may be due to Murtha's involvement in the Abscam bribery scandal of the late 1970s and early 1980s. (The ethics committee chose not to file charges against Murtha, after which the panel's special counsel resigned in protest.) "Murtha seems like a bad choice from our perspective," Sloan said.

The fight to be Pelosi's No. 2 has its odd dynamics. Hoyer is regarded as a centrist sort of Democrat. He's no virgin when it comes to the institutional corruptions of House, readily hitting up corporate interests for campaign cash. But Hoyer has not been accused of ethical violations. Though Murtha advocates a get-out-of-Iraq-now position, he is a hawkish conservative who has attacked Hoyer for being too liberal.

By publicly endorsing Murtha--who has voted more with the Republicans than almost every other House Democrat--Pelosi has backed the fellow who has been less loyal to the party, who has engaged in liberal-baiting, and who is widely considered to be the underdog in the race. Murtha is indeed the Democrats' leading critic of the war, and he and Pelosi, another war opponent, have found themselves in the same foxhole. (Hoyer, like Murtha, voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, but he has not turned on the war and has criticized Democratic calls for withdrawal.) Perhaps Pelosi figured that with the Iraq war likely to be the major source of dispute between her and the White House (and congressional Republicans), she needed an antiwar hawk right by her side. But much of this present tussle might be more personal than policy. Pelosi and Hoyer have long been rivals; she defeated Hoyer to become the Democratic minority leader.

In the Murtha-Hoyer face-off, is the choice ethics versus opposition to the war? Conservative versus centrist? A Pelosi ally versus a Pelosi rival? Whatever it is, siding publicly with Murtha is risky for Pelosi. Should Murtha lose, Pelosi will look like a weak leader--at the start. This is a contest between two imperfect candidates, each carrying different baggage. It might have been wise for her to duck.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Hooray for Robert Gates?

Hooray for Robert Gates. Well, almost.

At first glance, the appropriate reaction to George W. Bush's decision to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld with Gates might be, here's more of the same: another retread from the Bush I clan with a problematic past. Gates served as CIA director for the first President Bush in the early 1990s--and did so after contentious nomination hearings aired accusations that Gates had skewed intelligence analysis when he was a senior CIA manager. The allegations were quite serious. Several CIA analysts testified he had "politicized" intelligence reporting by making certain that estimates conformed to the conservative political viewpoints favored by the Reagan White House--most notably, that the Soviet Union was a more threatening adversary.

Gates' accusers, including former CIA division chief Mel Goodman, presented a strong case against him, detailing several instances when Gates pushed Soviet-related intelligence in an ideological direction. Larry Johnson, a onetime CIA analyst, recently recalled,

I remember talking to the South African analyst back in 1988, who told me about the time Bob Gates tried to change the lede on an intelligence piece, which argued that Nelson Mandela was NOT a communist. Gates wanted the lede to say that Mandela was a communist. The analyst kicked back hard and ultimately prevailed, but this behavior was consistent with his reputation as a political animal willing to curry favor with the political masters downtown and sacrifice sound analysis.

After the confirmation hearings, Senator Ernest Hollings, a Democrat, concluded that the "cancer of politicization" had spread in the CIA during the period when Gates was a top deputy to CIA chief William Casey.

Gates' nomination to be CIA head was imperiled by other controversies. He had directly engaged in secret intelligence sharing with Iraq in 1986 that critics claimed was illegal. Gates, who apparently possesses a photographic memory, testified that he could not recall key aspects of the Iran-contra affair. Senator Bill Bradley, a Democrat, accused Gates, a career Soviet analyst, of having ignored the changes under way in that country in the late 1980s. "Mr. Gates got it dead wrong," Bradley complained in 1991. Bradley also charged that when Gates was the deputy CIA chief he had neglected the important task of collecting intelligence on Iraq. Despite all this, the Democratic-controlled Senate approved the Gates nomination, and he served as CIA director for fourteen months. (In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Gates to be CIA chief, and then the White House pulled his nomination in the midst of the Iran-contra scandal.)

Considering that he launched a war justified by fraudulent intelligence misrepresented by the White House, the current President Bush might have thought twice before installing at the Pentagon a former intelligence official once accused of cooking intelligence for political reasons. Critics of the administration quickly denounced the Gates-for-Rumsfeld swap, resurrecting the old charges (which I covered extensively at the time). But allow me to offer a limited cheer for Gates.

First off, he's not Donald Rumsfeld. That's a good start. Rummy, the fellow once hailed as a matinee idol for older women who watch C-SPAN, bungled every major decision in the war: how many troops to send (not enough); whether or not to dissolve the Iraqi army (he did); whether or not to mount an extensive de-Baathification campaign (he did); how to respond to the looting and the incipient insurgency in the weeks and months after the invasion (not expeditiously). Of course, Rumsfeld was wrong on the WMD question, and he was wrong to declare before the invasion that the war would last less than six months. His Pentagon was a home to neoconservative war advocates who cherry-picked intelligence data and factoids to craft the false case that Saddam Hussein was in league with al Qaeda. In the years after the invasion, Rumsfeld routinely and falsely claimed the Pentagon was making significant progress in training Iraqi security forces. Looking at his management of the war, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a local weatherman using a Magic Eight Ball could have done better.

Second, Gates is a conservative but a realist; he's no neocon. For instance, he's advocated trying to reach an accommodation with Iran. That impresses Gary Sick, who during the Jimmy Carter years worked on the National Security Council with Gates. Sick points to the fact that in 2004 Gates co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force that urged "a revised strategic approach to Iran" incorporating selective engagement with Tehran. This was a polite slam against the Axis-of-Evil approach of the Bush-Cheney administration. Sick, a critic of the administration and the Iraq war, views the Gates' nomination as a possible indicator that the Bush administration is turning from "neocon ideology to political realism."

Gates, currently the president of Texas A&M University, hasn't said much about the war in Iraq. In May 2005, he did remark, "For better or for worse, we have cast our lot and we need to stay there as long as necessary to get the job done." But he has also proposed a more narrow definition of success than Bush, noting that the United States could leave once there is "a government that can survive and that will be very different from what preceded it."

More important--and this is what's intriguing about the Gates nomination--Gates is a member of the Iraq Study Group, a panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, a Republican, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, a Democrat. The bipartisan commission's mission is to assess the situation in Iraq and propose policy options. Baker has already said that he believes a strategic shift is needed in Iraq and that his commission will produce specific recommendations in this regard. (The commission is reportedly considering different versions of disengagement, among other ideas.) Baker picked Gates to be on the commission, presumably with knowledge of Gates' thinking on the subject. Thus, it's no stretch to see Gates as an envoy (or a sleeper agent?) of the commission assigned to (or planted within) the Bush administration. Given other possible choices for the Pentagon job (Joe Lieberman?), it's somewhat heartening that Bush has invited into his Cabinet a non-neocon who has been working with Baker to find a way out of Iraq.

Am I yielding to the bigotry of low expectations? You bet. With the mess in Iraq worsening, I am rooting for Baker--and any mole he manages to place within the administration. There's no telling whether Baker will come up with worthwhile and workable alternatives or whether Bush will actually consider a significant course correction (even one concocted by a stand-in for his father). Bush remains the decider-in-chief--and he has been a stubborn one until now.

Though Gates' past government career was marked by troubling episodes, he is now part of a group--essentially, the adults of the Bush I clan--trying to inject some reality into the stay-the-course mentality of the Bush-Cheney White House. That's something Rumsfeld never did. By Bush standards, this is monumental progress.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Payback Time

Payback's a bitch.

There is no way to spin the election results. They were a repudiation of George W. Bush, his party, his agenda, and his war. The commander-in-chief argues that he is fighting a war in Iraq that is essential to the survival of the United States. The electorate sent a message: we don't buy it. Political genius Karl Rove and GOP chieftain Ken Mehlman, with their scare tactics (defeatist Democrats will surrender to the terrorists; Nancy Pelosi will destroy the nation) and below-the-belt ads, were not able to defy popular sentiment. Comeuppance was the order of the day. Because of Bush, R became a scarlet letter. In Rhode Island, incumbent Republican Senator Lincoln Chafee, a moderate who voted against the war in 2002 and against Bush in 2004, enjoyed a 66 percent approval rating; still, voters sent him packing. Children, pay attention. If you're a president who misleads the nation into war and then mismanages that war, you might sneak past a reelection but then bring ruin upon your party. The Bush-wreaked reality trumped the Rove-designed rhetoric--finally. The voters chose not to stay his course. The market worked.

The Democrats won control of the House and came close with the Senate. As of 1 am, in Virginia, Reaganite-turned-Democrat Jim Webb was barely ahead of Senator George "Macaca" Allen--though a recount seemed likely. In Missouri, the Senate race was a virtual tie. If the Democrats should win in each, the Senate would be theirs. However, Tennessee--where Democrats were trying to elect Representative Harold Ford Jr., an African-American--was a bridge too far. [See update below.] But even without the Senate, the Democrats will now be able to counter Bush and advance a platform of their own.

At a victory party at a Capitol Hill hotel--attended by thousands of Democrats, many wearing a badge proclaiming, "A New Direction for America"--a senior House Democratic staffer said, "The word has come on down from on high: no gloating. Those of us who were around in 1994 remember Republicans telling us that we were no longer needed and could get lost--literally. We've been told to handle this differently." But it's certainly true that the House Democrats have assumed power in a slightly less triumphant manner than did the GOP in the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994. Though Democrats did have an agenda for the campaign, they know that the election was a referendum on Bush and the rubber-stamp Republicans, not their pet legislative ideas. As Senator Chuck Schumer, the head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee proclaimed, "the message of this election came down to one word: change." That is, boot Bush's compatriots out of office. To do this, voters had to go Democratic.

The voters have "reluctantly given us the keys," said Terry McAuliffe, a former head of the Democratic Party. And, he added, the Democrats will have to prove themselves--quickly. How to do so? By briskly passing legislation on popular issues--boosting the minimum wage, increasing homeland security funding, lowering interest rates on college loans, empowering the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical comapnies to achieve lower drug prices for Medicare. Even if such legislation dies in a Republican-controlled Senate or is vetoed by Bush, the Democrats can shape the the coming presidential election. (Another major win in a night of wins for the Democrats was the election of Representative Ted Strickland as governor of Ohio. "You can't win the presidency without Ohio," McAuliffe noted. And with a Democrat running the state, the Ds will have an advantage there in 2008.)

As for the Republicans, this election will unleash the furies within that party. In sorting out this defeat, GOPers will find themselves confronting their internal conflicts. Social conservatives will square off against economics-first libertarians. The party could split along other line--between those who stick with Bush and those who want to cut and run from the albatross-in-chief. It could all get quite acrimonious, especially with 2008 politics influencing the blame-game. Republicans could end up looking like Democrats.

But the bottom line is clear: the Bush presidency is over. At least, as Bush and Dick Cheney have envisioned it. They can no longer act imperiously. They have lost the public. And there is now an opposition that can check and investigate their actions abroad and at home. But the Democrats still have to complete the sale. At the victory bash, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi declared, "We need a new direction in Iraq." She didn't say what it would be. The Democratic victory--as sweet as it is for the Democrats--is very much an unfinished work.

UPDATE: As of 2:00 AM, Democrat Claire McCaskill had been projected the winner in the Missouri Senate race, and Jim Webb was leading George Allen in Virginia, by 12,000 votes, with 99 percent of the precincts reporting. Webb was also ahead in all of the counties not fully reported. It looked as if the Democrats would finish election night ahead in enough races to take control of the Senate. But in Virginia, there will probably be a recount--and perhaps a major legal battle.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Looking Like Losers

Is it possible the White House doesn't want Republicans to win the congressional elections? I know this sounds crazy. But consider the evidence.

1. Last week, George W. Bush vowed to retain Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense until the end of his presidency. (He said the same about Dick Cheney.) The debacle in Iraq is responsible for Bush's political decline and the GOP's poor electoral prospects. And Rumsfeld is the poster boy for that debacle. (Days ago, the Army Times called for his resignation.) Bush had no obligation to say whether Rumsfeld would remain at the Pentagon for another two years. He went out of his way in the homestretch of an election to tether himself to the fellow who symbolizes the mess in Iraq. Why do that--unless he has a political death wish?

2. On Friday, Dick Cheney said that the administration would indeed stay with its current course in Iraq and move "full speed ahead." He said, "We've got the basic strategy right." He added, "It may not be popular with the public--it doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right." Perhaps. But the previous week, his boss held a press conference and tried to convey the impression (though false) that the administration was going to rejigger its Iraq policy by introducing and aiming for "benchmarks." Bush's benchmark comments were not sufficient to win the confidence of the electorate. Days later, a New York Times/CBS News poll noted that only 29 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is handling the war in Iraq. So if 71 percent do not have faith in the White House's Iraq policy, why would Cheney make a point of declaring--defiantly--that he and Bush are committed to racing down that unpopular road? It was as if he were shooting the bird at the American public.

3. Speaking of which, on the weekend before the election, Cheney's office had an announcement: Cheney would spend Election Day on his first hunting trip since he shot a friend while trying to kill quail on a private ranch last February. Was this the right time for the White House to remind voters of Cheney's hapless moment? Couldn't Cheney wait until after the election before picking up a gun again? Why won't he be in a toss-up state stumping for a Republican candidate on Election Day? Or knocking on doors? And why does he get the day off? Election Day is not a federal holiday.

All of the above is quite puzzling behavior for a president and vice president facing the possibility their agenda, their war, and their party are about to be soundly refuted by American voters. Do they already know all is lost? On Sunday, I spoke with a former senior Bush administration official who has publicly predicted the Republicans will retain a one- or two-seat majority in the House and keep control of the Senate. But his manner indicated he didn't believe it. "This is what I have to say," he told me. "This is my public position." I asked what his private view was. He rolled his eyes.

Of course, the Republican Party is doing all its can to beat back what appears to be an anti-GOP wave--and that includes airing far-below-the-belt negative ads. Bush and Cheney have been campaigning in conservative areas--in spots where they won't do harm to Republicans. (On Monday, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida elected not to campaign with Bush in the Sunshine State.) And GOPers are talking up the vaunted get-out-the-vote machine created by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman that is now in motion. So it is bizarre that in the closing days of this critical election Bush and Cheney would so dramatically remind voters of what they don't like about the Bush-Cheney administration. If these episodes are not indicators of a secret desire to lose, they are additional signs that Bush and Cheney are woefully out of sync with the public. This prompts a question: if the electorate does rise up against Bush, his party and their war, will Bush and Cheney be able to process that? If not, the republic may be in for a rather bumpy ride.

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DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Does Dick Armey Believe the GOP Deserves To Lose?

Last week, I noted that when I was interviewing former House Republican majority leader Dick Armey for PajamasMedia.com, the retired congressman told me that his Republican pals in Congress might deserve to lose the coming elections for having made the wrong call on Iraq. I did not quote Armey directly on this point; I paraphrased our conversation. And Armey's office complained to Pajamas about my posting, saying that Armey had expressed no such sentiment. I have reviewed the audio of the entire interview--a video excerpt of which can be viewed here--and below is what he said. You can decide if my "might deserve to lose" formulation fits Armey's remarks.

Armey noted that "the war in Iraq is the 800-pound gorilla in the room." He remarked that the war was of "questionable necessity" and "questionable execution." He added, "As long as Democrats can keep the discussion on Iraq, our party loses ground. That's why you see Republicans, particularly in Senate campaigns, expressing some different points of view....The war in Iraq, is, I think, the big, big issue of the election." I reminded Armey that he is quoted in the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, saying he deeply regretted his vote to give President George W. Bush the authority to launch the war on Iraq. I asked:

Do you still regret that vote today and if so, if people like you, if Republicans voted the wrong way, is it not, according to the rules of the marketplace, a good thing to sort of pay a price now, at least in political terms. Should people hold your party to account for making the wrong vote?

Here's how Armey replied:

I think it was the wrong vote. I felt it at the time....And yes, if you make a bad vote, in the final analysis, you need to expect to live with it. And to some extent that is happening now--with current officeholders. You might say, "Well, Armey, he dodged the bullet because he made his bad vote and then retired by the time the country woke up to it." But right now I don't think very many people seeking office are going to be running around to very many constituents and saying, "You better reelect me because I voted to get us into Iraq."

Armey went on to say

I'm not clear why we got in here [in Iraq] in the first place. We're mired down here. It doesn't seem to me we're making any progress. I wonder if they're doing it right and how in the heck are we ever going to get out of it. And then you take a look at that and say, who's to blame? Well, there's only one guy to blame, and that's your commander in chief...I don't know how you get out of [Iraq]. Sooner or later, there's going to have to be a decision to get out, probably with some disregard for the consequences.

This is how I read Armey's remarks: (a) he believes invading Iraq was misguided and that Republican members of Congress should not have voted to hand Bush the authority to launch that war; (b) legislators sometimes have to pay for a "bad vote." Does that mean he wants the Republicans to be voted out of office? Clearly, not. He hopes that his party--despite this grave mistake--keeps its stranglehold on Congress. And he's certainly not calling for Bush to resign. But, at the same time, he recognizes that the Republican party's unabashed and across-the-board support of the Iraq war is indeed legitimate cause for voters to boot it out of power.

Armey's great passions in life are free-market economics and country and western music. He cannot deny the workings of the political marketplace: you screw up, you ought to be voted out of office. Does that mean he believes the Republicans "might deserve" to lose?

For Hubris, Armey recalled for us a moment in December 2002--two months after he had voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq. He was driving along a stretch of Texas highway when a country song came on about a fellow who looked in the mirror and saw a stranger. The line hit him hard. Against his better instincts, he had voted for the war, though he had serious doubts about the intelligence on Iraq's WMD that had been presented to him personally by Vice President Dick Cheney. Listening to this song, Armey thought that he had become that stranger. He had been untrue to himself. And he was thankful that he was about to retire from the House.

Now it seems that he will have no beef with those voters who on Election Day punish his Republican colleagues for having committed the same mistake he did. Armey might even be able to suggest an appropriate song for his party-mates that day: "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

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FOR INFORMATION ON HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, click here. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

How Big Will the Anti-GOP Wave Be?

This morning at a briefing on the congressional elections, an event that featured former Representatives Dick Armey, Jennifer Dunn, and Dick Gephardt and that was sponsored by a Washington law firm, political analyst Charlie Cook--an independent handicapper trusted by Ds and Rs--offered good news for the Democrats. He compared 2006 to 1994, the year when Republicans shockingly seized control of both houses of Congress, netting a whopping 52 House seats. Cook noted that in October 1994, 39 percent of Americans said they believed the country was heading in the right direction and 48 percent thought it was on the wrong track. Now the right direction/wrong track numbers are far more negative: 26 percent to 61 percent. In October 1994, President Bill Clinton's approval rating was 48 percent. These days, President George W. Bush is about 38 percent. The approval rating for Congress in 1994 was 24 percent (with 67 percent disapproving). Today, it's lower: 16 percent (with 75 percent giving Congress a thumb's down). In 1994, Republicans had a 6 point lead in polls asking respondents to say whether they preferred a GOP or Democratic candidate. Now the Democrats have a 15 point edge. But when asked if their own member of Congress deserved reelection, 49 percent in 1994 said no; now only 45 percent say no. (In both years, 39 percent said boot the bum out.)

The bottom-line: out of five key indicators of the national politicalmood, four are significantly worse for the Republicans in 2006 compared to the Democrats in 1994. As Cook put it, the 2006 political wave (at this moment) is bigger than that of 1994. But that does not mean the Dems are going to win as many seats as the GOPers did twelve years ago. Gephardt cautioned that congressional districts are far more gerrymandered these days than they were in 1994 (which means fewer are in play) and that Republicans have had a year to prepare for this election and build a wall to hold back the coming storm. In 1994, he said, the Democrats were taken by complete surprise. And Dunn--perhaps trying to convince herself--maintained that her party had plenty of money to dump into the limited number of House contests up for grab and would be able to prevent the Democrats from picking up more than a dozen House seats. The Democrats need 15 seats to obtain control of the House.

Still, Cook, who attributes 70 percent of the electorate's sour mood to Bush's war in Iraq, was predicting a Democratic gain in the House of at least 20 seats and perhaps 35. As for the Senate, Cook described it as a toss-up, with control of that body resting on what will happen in Missouri, Virginia, Tennessee, and New Jersey. The Democrats, according to Cook, probably will need three of these four races to win the Senate. He warned that there is a fair bit of "volatility" within the electorate and that it is nearly impossible to predict what will happen by adding up outcomes in individual House races. In 1994, he recalled, he and other trackers foresaw a GOP gain of 20 to 30 House seats--but nothing like what happened. "When there is a wave," Cook said, "they always go bigger than you expect."

Democrats, who have not done much to shape the current political dynamic, can hope so. For nail-biters, the immediate questions are obvious. Can Bush and Karl Rove do anything in the last two weeks of the campaign to change the weather? There's not much time left for an October Surprise. Can they pull off a November Surprise? If not and the forecast doesn't shift, can the Republicans construct fortifications to beat back the wave in just enough spots to keep their majority afloat in Congress? Cook thinks not. I'm not going to be as gutsy and make any predictions except this: Rove is either about to meet his Waterloo or to confirm his reputation as an odds-defying political genius.

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It's always gratifying to know you got something right. At this pre-election briefing, I conducted interviews with top-dog Washingtonians (former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, Armey and Dunn) for the Pajamas Media website, and I had the chance to talk to Armey about Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, the book I co-wrote with Michael Isikoff. In the book, we chronicle how Armey first objected to the idea of going to war in Iraq, questioning the necessity of such an action and telling President Bush an invasion would lead to a quagmire. But after Dick Cheney pressured Armey, the Texan relented and voted in October 2002 to give President Bush the authority to launch a war against Iraq. In the book, we quote Armey saying he regretted that vote. So this morning I asked Armey if we portrayed his story accurately. Yes, he said: "I still think it's one of the worst votes I made." The Republican Party, he added, might deserve to lose the coming elections for having made the wrong call on Iraq.

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FOR INFORMATION ON HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, click here. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

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