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.
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.
When John McCain wants to talk economic policy with voters—especially female voters—he sends out Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, a senior adviser to McCain's presidential campaign, and chairwoman of the Republican National Committee's Victory Fund. For example, days ago, after Barack Obama accused McCain of proposing an additional $300 billion in tax breaks for "big corporations and the wealthiest Americans," Fiorina appeared on CNN to defend the Arizona senator. (She first claimed that Obama was wrong to say that ExxonMobil would receive additional tax breaks from McCain, but then she acknowledged McCain's tax cuts for all corporations would cover big oil companies.) And this week, McCain dispatched Fiorina on a speaking tour in Ohio and Pennsylvania targeting female voters. She's even been mentioned as a possible McCain running mate.
But why should anyone listen to—let alone vote for—Fiorina?
Her stint as a corporate titan was more mixed than master-of-the-universe. In 1999, Fiorina took over Hewlett-Packard, the troubled computer company, becoming one of the top women in Corporate America. Previously, she had built a successful career mostly in marketing and sales at AT&T and Lucent, but she had the not-so-good fortune to be taking the helm of an engineering-driven tech company as the tech boom was ending. Her solution to HP's ailments was controversial: buying Compaq. She pushed the $19 billion acquisition over the opposition of many HP stockholders, including, most notably, Walter Hewlett, the son of the company's founder, who argued the merger would not make HP more competitive.
A friend of Jim Johnson, the Washington player who resigned Wednesday as an unpaid veep-vetter for Barack Obama, tells me that Johnson woke up that morning, looked at the newspapers, saw that he had become a front-page problem for Obama--after The Wall Street Journal a few days earlier had reported that Johnson had received too-sweet home loans from Countrywide Financial--and made the snap decision to quit. By the end of the day, Johnson, who had canceled appointments he had lined up for the day, had left Washington and was in Sun Valley.
It was a quick end to the controversy. Obama fans can be encouraged by the fact that decisive action was taken fast. But Obama initially defended Johnson. So perhaps Obama himself was hoping to ride this one out, even though the episode had the potential to undermine his message of change.
The selection of Jim Johnson was itself troubling--whether or not Johnson did anything wrong regarding his dealings with Countrywide. He's a longtime Democratic Party insider, a "big-business Democrat," as Craig Crawford put its, who headed Fannie Mae in the 1990s and forged a close relationship with Countrywide. He's no agent of change in Washington.
The Democratic Party is full of "wise" men and women who jump between government jobs, campaigns, and well-paid private gigs. They can be campaign strategists one year, and corporate consultants or lobbyists the next--or sometimes, as in the case of Mark Penn, both at once. They are part of Washington's permanent establishment. And some will be making a beeline to the Obama campaign, now that he's the party's presumptive nominee.
To keep his message of change clear and honest, Obama is going to have to say no to these folks, even though they might come with experience and the best of intentions. He's already told Democratic lobbyists they cannot contribute to his campaign. And he will have to extend the rope-line further. Here's a suggestion: he should designate within his campaign an aide to be a "change ombudsman." This person will vet the vetters and everyone else working at a high level for the campaign to make certain none are agents of the status quo.
I'm being only semi-facetious. The Obama campaign will be growing now that he's the all-but-nominated nominee and absorbing Hillaryites and others. Someone on the Obama staff ought to be watching so that no other "big-business Democrats" are placed in positions where their mere presence could undercut Obama's overall message.
Obama's going to have a tough time working and calculating his relationship with the party establishment. (Remember all the corporate-sponsored sky boxes at past Democratic party conventions?) Some party insiders have gotten used to doing well in addition to doing good. Jim Johnson, for instance, was an advocate of extremely generous compensation packages for CEOs, made his own bundle at Fannie Mae, and benefited from accounting manipulations there (though he was never accused of wrongdoing).
Johnson is a warning for the Obama campaign. Beware the consummate Washington players who stock campaigns, transition teams, and administrations. Many are not in it for the change.