Corn has broken stories on presidents, politicians, and other Washington players. He's written for numerous publications and is a talk show regular. His best-selling books include Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War.
David Plouffe looks ready to roll. At a Washington, D.C., press conference, Barack Obama's campaign manager surveyed the general election political landscape for several dozen reporters, and he spoke confidently, like a man who will have the money to do all that he believes is necessary and optional. Which he is, because he can expect to have $200 to $300 million to deploy--now that Obama has decided to sidestep the public financing system (which awards $85 million to party nominees) and raise much more from individual donors.
Plouffe repeatedly noted that the Obama campaign will have the resources to challenge John McCain in practically every state and to pursue multiple strategies for victory. That is, the campaign can attempt to win by holding on to every state John Kerry won in 2004 and swinging only Ohio from R to D, or it could win by bagging Iowa plus Colorado and New Mexico. Or how about losing Pennsylvania but winning Virginia and North Carolina? Plouffe claimed that Obama was already competitive in states that are not traditionally Democratic in presidential races, such as Alaska and Montana and that he can make a run at McCain in Georgia (where Libertarian Party candidate Bob Barr, a former GOP congressman from Georgia, might draw votes from McCain). Plouffe has the money to invest in a number of game plans--to run ads and set up staff in various states. And as the election approaches, he will be able to determine which states to stick with or abandon. He's in a candy store with plenty of allowance.
How will he use the money? Plouffe told the reporters that a top priority is to "shift the electorate." He wants to spend a lot on registering African-Americans and voters under the age of 40 to "readjust the electorate" in assorted states so the voting pools in these states are more pro-Obama. "A couple of points here, a couple of points there," he says, and red states can go blue. Especially smaller states, where a swing of 10,000 votes could be decisive. And, he emphasized, his campaign will have sufficient resources to identify the people it needs to register, contact them directly, and mount targeted get-out-the-vote efforts. The campaign, he said, is not just going to set up registration tables outside community events.
In the decades after Watergate, the basic thrust of campaign finance reform was this: limit the flow of big-money private contributions to candidates. No more bags of money for the pols. Now, only donations of up to $2300 from individuals are acceptable. And in the presidential race, there is public financing: the nominees--if they agree to forgo fundraising--receive full underwriting of their general election campaigns. This year that subsidy is about $85 million.
This system has been an imperfect reform. There have been loopholes. Well-heeled private interests have poured money into independent efforts to support a preferred candidate or, more often, blast that candidate's opponent. And parties could raise money, while corporations could donate unrestricted amounts to presidential conventions. So the opportunity for one side to outspend the other (using unlimited donations from wealthy individuals, corporations or unions) has remained. The influence of big money has not been eradicated. Still, presidential candidates, once nominated, could focus on campaigning, rather than cash-hunting.
Now comes Barack Obama.
He has run for president as an agent of change who slams the money-talks ways of Washington. As an Illinois state senator and as a U.S. senator, he has passed reform measures. Yet on Thursday, in an email to his supporters, he announced that he would not participate in the public financing system in the general election, despite an earlier promise to stay within this system. He will be the first major presidential nominee to reject public financing for the general election since Watergate. Instead of relying on that check from the U.S. Treasury, he will continue his record-setting fundraising operation. John McCain's campaign immediately and predictably proclaimed that this decision "undermines his call for a new type of politics" and will "weaken and undermine the public financing system."
Is this the best a prominent conservative writer can do?
In the latest issue of National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru claims I penned a "hit piece" on Phil Gramm, the cochairman of John McCain's presidential campaign. Ponnuru does so in an article that accuses Mother Jones, Salon, Huffington Post, The Nation and Keith Olbermann of "smearing" Gramm with the threefold mission of discrediting Gramm, McCain, and deregulation. (Gramm, when he was the Republican chairman of the Senate banking committee, was the king of financial deregulation.) Ponnuru has little to say about the fact that Gramm is now an executive at Swiss banking behemoth UBS, who has lobbied Congress on behalf of the bank. Is it appropriate for a campaign official to be working for a foreign-based transnational? Several lobbyists have had to depart the McCain campaign because they toil for private interests. Does Ponnuru believe they should be welcomed back?
But on to his specific complaint about the article I wrote about Gramm. The piece focused on what I called a "sly legislative maneuver" pulled by Gramm in December 2000 that "greased the way to the multibillion-dollar subprime meltdown." During a week of chaos in Washington--Bush v. Gore was being decided by the Supreme Court, and Congress was trying to pass quickly an omnibus spending bill--Gramm attached to that massive spending bill a 262-page measure called the Commodity Futures Modernization Act. That bill deregulated financial instruments known as "credit default swaps," which, according to Michael Greenberger, who directed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission's division of trading and regulation in the late 1990s, have been at "the heart of the subprime meltdown,"
In a press release issued today, the Barrack Obama campaign announced 14 new senior staff appointments. Most notably, Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Hillary Clinton's campaign for the first half of the primary season, was named chief of staff to Obama's vice presidential nominee (whoever that might be). Doyle's Obamafication was not much of a surprise. More intriguing was the appointment of Jim Messina, chief of staff for Senator Max Baucus, as the campaign's chief of staff (with David Plouffe remaining the top dog).
Messina has been working for Baucus, the chairman of the Senate finance committee, on and off since 1995, serving as his campaign manager in 1996 and 2002. Baucus, a Montana Democrat, has been dubbed "one of corporate America's favorite Democrats." And according toThe Missoulian, his Senate office has produced a high number of staffers-turned-corporate-lobbyists. Last year, Ari Berman of The Nationnoted that Baucus, then the senior Democrat on the finance committee, in 2005 asked 50 lobbyists to raise $100,000 for his reelection campaign. In other words, Baucus is not about change in Washington.
But should the sins of the senator be attributed to the chief of staff? In Washington, plenty of people work for legislators without personally agreeing with all of their boss's stances and actions. But a few years ago, Messina was interviewed for a newsletter produced by the Gallatin Group, a corporate lobbying firm specializing in issues of interest to the Northwest, and he was asked to name the "most important bipartisan accomplishment of your boss." His answer: "Senator Baucus was the chief reason bipartisan tax cut legislation was enacted in 2001."
Messina was referring to the George W. Bush tax cuts of 2001 and Baucus's instrumental role in the passage of that legislation. And Messina was right. Baucus, bucking his fellow Democrats, was a key supporter of Bush's massive, tilted-to-the-rich tax cuts. His defection helped make the tax cuts happen. At that time, Messina was managing Baucus' reelection campaign.
Tim Russert suffered a heart attack at NBC News' Washington bureau on Friday afternoon and died at the age of 58. As he was eulogized on air by NBC colleagues Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, David Gregory, Howard Fineman, Keith Olbermann, and Andrea Mitchell, I thought of a moment when he tried to give Vice President Dick Cheney a decent grilling days before the invasion of Iraq.
That March 16, 2003 edition of Meet the Press was a good moment for Russert. By this point, it was clear George W. Bush was committed to attacking Iraq. Still, Russert hurled sharp queries at Cheney, questioning several fundamentals of the Bush-Cheney case for war. Cheney did manage to slip by--but only because he was willing to deny reality:
MR. RUSSERT: If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators .
MR. RUSSERT: The army's top general said that we would have to have several hundred thousand troops there for several years in order to maintain stability.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I disagree. We need, obviously, a large force and we've deployed a large force to prevail, from a military standpoint, to achieve our objectives, we will need a significant presence there until such time as we can turn things over to the Iraqis themselves. But to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don't think is accurate. I think that's an overstatement.
MR. RUSSERT: We've had 50,000 troops in Kosovo for several years, a country of just five million people. This is a country of 23 million people. It will take a lot in order to secure it.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: Well, but we've significantly drawn down our forces in Kosovo and in the Balkans ..
MR. RUSSERT: Every analysis said this war itself would cost about $80 billion, recovery of Baghdad, perhaps of Iraq, about $10 billion per year. We should expect as American citizens that this would cost at least $100 billion for a two-year involvement.
VICE PRES. CHENEY: I can't say that, Tim .
There were plenty of times when Russert--like most prominent figures in the media--could be criticized. But this was one of many instances when he posed the right questions and did so in a vigorous and facts-based manner. He did not succeed in forcing Cheney to speak candidly about the challenges of the Iraq war, but, then, Russert was responsible only for the questions he asked, not the answers the politicians gave.