David Corn

David Corn

Washington Bureau Chief

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.

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Breaking Campaign Laws: Crime That Does Pay

| Tue Nov. 20, 2007 5:32 PM EST

Crime does pay...when it comes to breaking campaign finance laws.

A few days ago, the Federal Elections Commission settled a case against the Media Fund, a pro-Democratic 527 group that spent more than $50 million in so-called soft money in 2004 trying to influence the presidential election that year. What was the penalty assessed? $580,000. The Media Fund--which was partly bankrolled by George Soros--will have to pay that much in a fine. It sure sounds like a lot, but it's only a wee bit more than 1 percent of the money the group, which was headed by Harold Ickes, the former White House deputy chief of staff for President Bill Clinton, pumped into the campaign.

The FEC declared that the Media Fund, which is no longer active, had violated campaign finance laws by using unlimited contributions from labor unions and other financial benefactors (soft money, that is) for ads supporting John Kerry and attacking George Bush. (Here's one critical deconstruction of a Media Fund ad.) Lawyers for the Media Fund and other 527s have argued that in 2004 such activity was believed to be legal by the folks running 527s (which take their name from the provision of the tax code that applies to them), and the FEC has stated that the Media Fund did operate in accordance with the advice it received from its attorneys. But the FEC has ruled that only political committees that register with the FEC and abide by contribution limits and public disclosure requirements can directly attempt to influence a presidential election.

The Media Fund is the latest target of the FEC's crusade against the largely unregulated 527s that were operating in 2004. It has also gone after America Coming Together, another pro-Democratic campaign group, and two pro-GOP outfits: Progress for America Voter Fund and the Swfit Boat Veterans for Truth. (After the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law, groups like these became major recipients of the soft money that used to flow to the political parties.) All together, these four groups spent $200 million in what the FEC has determined to be illegal soft money. All together, these four groups have to pay $2.4 million in fines.

These punishments--while historic for the FEC--will hardly serve as a deterrent. Such fines, which come long after the offending activity transpired, can easily be considered an inconvenience, the cost of doing business. They will do little to persuade political operators on both sides to throttle back.

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Edwards Slams HRC on Iraq: Justifiable (Political) War or Desperate Act?

| Mon Nov. 19, 2007 1:09 PM EST

I don't fancy taking Hillary Clinton's side against John Edwards, especially when it concerns the Iraq war. But the former North Carolina senator is trying too darn hard to pick a fight with the junior senator from New York on Iraq. Yesterday, at a town hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, Edwards said that Clinton's unwillingness to announce a timetable for removing troops from Iraq is tantamount to "continuing the war."

That's not so. It's true that Edwards has been more specific than Clinton in calling for a troop withdrawal. He has vowed that he would, if elected president, immediately pull out 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops and fully withdraw US. forces from Iraq within ten months. (Barack Obama has said he would remove one to two brigades a month; there are about 20 combat brigades in Iraq.) Clinton's position regarding withdrawal, according to her website, is this:

Starting Phased Redeployment within Hillary's First Days in Office: The most important part of Hillary's plan [to end the Iraq war] is the first: to end our military engagement in Iraq's civil war and immediately start bringing our troops home. As president, one of Hillary's first official actions would be to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff, her Secretary of Defense, and her National Security Council. She would direct them to draw up a clear, viable plan to bring our troops home starting with the first 60 days of her Administration. She would also direct the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to prepare a comprehensive plan to provide the highest quality health care and benefits to every service member -- including every member of the National Guard and Reserves -- and their families.

Clinton promises she will bring the war to a conclusion. Edwards and others may have good reason to doubt she is sincere or committed to this position, given her earlier support for the war, which continued after the invasion. After all, she did come late (later than Edwards) to the withdrawal position. Yet Edwards is attempting to transform their present differences--offering a timetable now for removing troops versus vowing to create quickly a viable withdrawal plan for removing troops--into a foundational battle. Edwards said in Reno,

She says that she will end the war, but she also says she will continue combat missions in Iraq and keep combat troops stationed in Iraq. From my perspective, that's not ending the war. That's continuing the war. In fact, it's continuing the occupation. So we have really different views about that.

Maintaining troops in Iraq for training purposes or for combating the remnants of the local al Qaeda franchise--wise or not--would not be continuing the occupation. In fact, Edwards has not said that he would pull out every single soldier.

Las Vegas Smackdown? Nah, Clinton, Obama, and Edwards Play to a Draw

| Fri Nov. 16, 2007 1:14 AM EST

Is that the best they got?

Anyone who watched Thursday night's Democratic presidential debate hoping to see Barack Obama or John Edwards tear Hillary Clinton apart had to be disappointed. In the run-up to the this face-off in Las Vegas, both Edwards and Obama had intensified their attacks on the woman leading in the polls. And with the most recent survey in Iowa showing the race in that all-important state tightening to almost a three-way tie, there was reason to assume that Edwards and Obama would continue the assault.

They did try, but at the end of the two-hour event it was hardly apparent that they had scored any new points. Why not? There were two main reasons. First, Clinton was well prepped for the slams. Second, the attackers had no new ammo to fire at her. Moreover, the audience at the debate was not eager to see Dem-on-Dem violence, and people in the crowd booed when a knife came out.

The first question addressed the meme of the evening. CNN's Campbell Brown asked Clinton to respond to the Obama/Edwards charge that she avoids taking stands on tough issues and practices the politics of parsing. She had her lines down. Joking that her pants suit was made of asbestos, she insisted she had been fighting for women, children, working families, and union members for 35 years and that in this critical election the Democrats must pick a candidate "who's been tested and who is ready to lead on day one." This has been her pitch from day one--and it's a jab at Obama, the freshman senator.

Next Wolf Blitzer gave Obama the chance to advance his offensive against Clinton. Noting that Obama a few nights ago had suggested that Clinton is "triangulating" and "running a textbook Washington campaign," he asked Obama what he meant by that. Obama essentially repeated what he had previously said: Clinton's botched answer in the previous debate to a question about awarding driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and her less-than-specific response to queries about Social Security show she cannot provide "straight answers to tough questions" and cannot respond to the American people's desire for a "different kind of politics" that challenges the "standard practices of Washington."

This was not a major blast. Clinton retorted by accusing Obama of not "stepping up" on universal health care because his health care proposal would not create mandates that force people to obtain insurance. The two then engaged in a rather wonkish back-and-forth on their health care plans. Actually, a calm and detailed discussion about the differences in their plans would have made for an interesting debate. But this exchange looked more personal than policy.

Then it was Edwards' turn. Blitzer asked Edwards to explain his charge that Clinton is a politician who parses. The former one-term senator suggested Clinton could not be trusted because she has said she will end the Iraq war but would still keep some troops there and because she recently voted (with 70-plus other senators) to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist outfit (which could help the Bush administration cook up a case for war). Edwards also maintained that Clinton is a defender of a "broken" and "rigged" Washington system.

She fired back, saying she didn't mind taking shots on the issues but she resented anyone throwing mud at her that is "right out of the Republican playbook." Not content to play defense, she went on the offense, pointing out that when Edwards ran for vice president in 2004 he did not advocate universal health care but does so in this campaign. So perhaps he's the flip-flopper.

In these opening skirmishes, no one gained ground. But that was good news for Hillaryites. She held her own, and neither Obama nor Edwards advanced their critique of her.

Nixon on Tape: Reagan Was "Shallow" and of "Limited Mental Capacity"

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 11:02 PM EST

Richard Nixon, say what you will of this criminally minded president, was a keen observer of politics. But he seems to have underestimated fellow Republican Ronald Reagan (or the American public). On the morning of November 17, 1971, Nixon, while meeting with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, shared a few sharp--and negative--comments about California Governor Ronald Reagan, who had recently told Kissinger that Nixon had a "real problem" with conservatives who believed Nixon was not sufficiently hawkish on foreign policy matters.

For years, the Presidential Recordings Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia has been transcribing and analyzing the tape recordings Nixon secretly made in the White House. Even though it's been 33 years since a disgraced Nixon left office, his tapes are still being processed by the National Archives, and the Miller Center has only recently gotten to the tape of this particular conversation. According to the newly created transcript of the meeting, both Nixon and Kissinger believed Reagan was not the brightest bulb in the GOP. Here are some key excerpts:

President Nixon: What's your evaluation of Reagan after meeting him several times now.

Kissinger: Well, I think he's a--actually I think he's a pretty decent guy.

President Nixon: Oh, decent, no question, but his brains

Kissinger: Well, his brains, are negligible. I--

President Nixon: He's really pretty shallow, Henry.

Kissinger: He's shallow. He's got no...he's an actor. He--When he gets a line he does it very well. He said, "Hell, people are remembered not for what they do, but for what they say. Can't you find a few good lines?" [Chuckles.] That's really an actor's approach to foreign policy--to substantive....

President Nixon: I've said a lot of good things, too, you know damn well.

Kissinger: Well, that too.

Later in the 24-minute-long discussion, the two discussed the possibility of Reagan running for president:

President Nixon: Can you think though, Henry, can you think, though, that Reagan with certain forces running in the direction could be sitting right here?

Kissinger: Inconceivable.

So much for Kissinger's powers of prognostication. As they were finishing up--after discussing other matters--Nixon slammed Reagan again:

President Nixon: Back to Reagan though. It shows you how a man of limited mental capacity simply doesn't know what the Christ is going on in the foreign area. He's got to know that on defense--doesn't he know these battles we fight and fight and fight? Goddamn it, Henry, we've been at--

Kissinger: And I told him--he said, "Why don't you fire the bureaucracy?" I said, "Because there are only so many battles we can fight. We take on the bureaucracy now, they're going to leak us to death. Name me one thing that we have done that the bureaucracy made us do."

President Nixon: The bureaucracy has had nothing to do with anything.

Kissinger: No, no. They've made our lives harder. They've driven us crazy. But that doesn't affect him.

Shallow, negligible brains, limited mental capacity? Well, Reagan did manage to get elected twice, and he served out his two terms--a feat Nixon did not accomplish. And Kissinger happily served on Reagan's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

How Ugly Will the Democratic Race Get (Tonight and Afterward)?

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 10:37 AM EST

How nasty will it get in Vegas?

Tonight, the Democrats will gather in family-friendly Sin City for yet another debate, and as they prep for this face-off, John Edwards and Barack Obama must be calculating how far to go in assailing front-runner Hillary Clinton. And she must be wondering how sharp to be in return.

The latest Iowa poll from The New York Times and CBS News depicts the race in the Hawkeye State as virtually a three-way tie (Clinton, 25 percent; Edwards, 23 percent, and Obama, 22 percent). Such results presumably scare the Clinton machine. If she falls in Iowa, so too does her campaign's double-sided argument of inevitability and electability. These poll numbers are obvious encouragement for the two men with the best shot of toppling her--and a sign that their recent moves might be working.

In the past week, both Obama and Edwards have intensified their attacks on Clinton. At the Jefferson Jackson Day dinner in Iowa on Saturday night, Obama, in a fiery speech, declared:

The same old Washington textbook campaigns just won't do in this election. That's why not answering questions 'cause we are afraid our answers won't be popular just won't do. That's why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won't do. Triangulating and poll-driven positions because we're worried about what Mitt or Rudy might say about us just won't do. If we are really serious about winning this election Democrats, we can't live in fear of losing it....

I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over....They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House....

I am sick and tired of Democrats thinking that the only way to look tough on national security is by talking, and acting, and voting like George Bush Republicans. When I am this party's nominee, my opponent will not be able to say that I voted for the war in Iraq; or that I gave George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran....I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s.

Whether or not the tired Iowan Democrats realized it, this was all an attack on HRC the hawkish, triangulating, hyperpartisan kingpin of conventional, lobbyist-fueled Washington politics--though Obama never mentioned her by name. He was offering a contrast deeply unkind to Clinton without coming across as a slasher.

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