Kevin Drum

The Spin Within

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:32 PM EDT

THE SPIN WITHIN....I haven't yet read The War Within, Bob Woodward's "secret White House history," but I've read the excerpts in the Washington Post and my reaction so far is pretty similar to Derek Chollet's. Far from being a critical account of George Bush's management of the war, it reinforces exactly the narrative of himself that Bush himself is so fond of:

Beneath the surface, the core of Woodward's account actually seems to reinforce the narrative that Bush is trying to spin about Iraq — that against mighty resistance inside and outside the government, a small group made the gutsy decision to double-down with the surge. As with every Woodward book, there's a story within the story. His sources share their tales (or in some cases, secret papers) to settle a score or shape the historical narrative. And here we see National Security Adviser Steve Hadley taking over Iraq decision-making and guiding Bush as he stared down leery Generals and worried political advisers to push the 2007 surge.

....Now, former White House aides and loyal Bush defenders like Peter Wehner are using Woodward as Exhibit A to support their depiction of a heroic President. But perhaps the happiest reader will be John McCain. After all, he has as much at stake as Bush in having this "surge victory" narrative take hold. Woodward's story also enables McCain to have it both ways, distancing himself from the chaos of the Bush Administration's internal battles, while associating with the core message of defying conventional wisdom to support the surge. Woodward's account of McCain is exactly as McCain's campaign wants it to be.

That seems about right. Woodward has a pretty standard m.o. on these books, and it looks to me like the White House has finally figured out how to make that work for them instead of against them. Hadley looks good because he drove the planning of the surge, Bush looks good because he stayed out of the muck but nonetheless stood by his principles, and in the end, the mythology of the surge being solely responsible for the security improvements in Iraq gets a big boost. The White House must be pretty happy with Woodward right about now.

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The Bridge to Somewhere

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:18 PM EDT

THE BRIDGE TO SOMEWHERE....ThinkProgress reports that the McCain campaign has now repeated the lie about Sarah Palin opposing the Bridge to Nowhere 23 times since Friday last. That's as of an hour ago, though, so the total might be higher by now.

And not to get too sanctimonious about this, but this really is a test of some kind for the press. This lie is unusually egregious given the plain facts of the situation (Palin was eagerly supportive of the bridge until after Congress pulled the earmark, at which point she reluctantly decided to take the money but use it for other projects), and if the media allows the McCain campaign to get away with this — if they relegate it to occasional closing paragraphs and page A9 fact checks — well, that means McCain knows he can pretty much get away with anything. The press will be writing its own declaration of irrelevance. Interesting times indeed.

Quote of the Day

| Tue Sep. 9, 2008 1:39 AM EDT

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From David Brooks, commenting on our current political environment:

"The Republicans are intellectually unfit to govern right now...."

OK, I'll buy that. But how about expanding on this theme a bit, David? I'd like to hear more — much, much more — about it.

Gaffe Watch

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 6:39 PM EDT

GAFFE WATCH....Sarah Palin, peeking out from a thicket of pre-scripted talking points in Colorado Springs, goes off message briefly and explains what went wrong in the home mortgage market:

The fact is, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, they've gotten too big and too expensive to the taxpayers.

A gaffe! But how does it measure up? On a technical basis, I'd say it's impressive. Until now, Fannie and Freddie haven't cost the taxpayers a dime and their current problems aren't really related to their size either. This leaves only a few conjunctions and proper names as sensible parts of this sentence.

On artistic merit, however, the judges have to score this one for Palin. Nobody cares about the minutiae of how GSEs work, after all, and liberal attacks on this score are almost certain to backfire because (a) we're obviously harrassing her unfairly over trivia because she's a small town mom and (b) we're just trying to show off how smart we are. Besides, as Palin said, John McCain is in favor of "reforming things," so he's obviously the right guy to tackle whatever problem it is that Fannie and Freddie suffer from. For liberal critics, then, there's no there there.

Actually, what's really impressive about this is that even though Palin obviously didn't know what she was talking about, she managed to dig smoothly into the standard movement conservative playbook to say something pleasing to the base anyway. Got a problem? It must be government's fault! Something somewhere got too big and too expensive and conservatives need to rein it in. Nice work.

Anyway, I'm sure more like this will crop up soon. In the meantime, though, I'll be a little quiet for the rest of the afternoon because the U.S. Open is um, I mean, because I have some important research to do for an upcoming article. Yeah. That's what I meant.

Meanwhile....

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 2:25 PM EDT

MEANWHILE....Over in Thailand, it's possible that a constitutional crisis will be averted because the prime minister also hosts a cooking program on state TV. From the Guardian's report, here's a sentence you don't see every day:

The cooking show, Tasting, Grumbling, a mix of tips on traditional Thai cooking and rants on subjects of his choosing, represents the most immediate threat to his power.

That's right. If a court rules that Samak Sundaravej's show violates the constitution, then he'll be out of office with no muss and no fuss. Perhaps we could import a similar system into our country?

The Expectations Game

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:30 PM EDT

THE EXPECTATIONS GAME....Time's Karen Tumulty says that Sarah Palin was very good in her 2006 gubernatorial debate and offers this advice:

That's why Joe Biden should be wary, especially since she will have expectations very much in her favor.

I know this is a dumb question, but why exactly should expectations be in her favor? It's true that she's going to be relying on four weeks of intensive briefing rather than a lifetime of experience, but high school juniors do this in debate competitions all the time. There's really not much reason to think that's a big problem. And all the other critiques of Palin (Bridge to Nowhere, Troopergate, book banning, tax raising, lack of vetting, etc.) have nothing to do with whether she's likely to be effective in debate.

Conversely, it's almost universally acknowledged that (a) Palin is a natural politician and a good speaker, (b) she has a nice folksy manner, (c) Biden has a lifelong habit of running off at the mouth, and (d) he's going to have to walk on eggshells to keep from looking like a boor who's hammering away at a poor little housewife from Wasilla. Given all this, why is the press once again playing the game of insisting that the Republican candidate will be the de facto winner if she merely avoids catastrophe? I mean, I know that's the spin coming out of Steve Schmidt's shop, but it's not really true, is it? The fact is that, all things considered, Palin is the favorite in this contest — though perhaps also a bit of a wild card since catastrophe is always a possibility for someone so new to the national stage.

In any case, this game ought to cease. There's simply no reason that Palin's expectations should be low for October's debate. If anything, it probably ought to be the other way around.

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The Bailout

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 1:10 PM EDT

THE BAILOUT....So what would have happened if we'd just let Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac fail? I mean, we've got to draw the line somewhere, right? Tyler Cowen provides the nightmare scenario:

But let's say that the Treasury did not support the debt of the mortgage agencies. The Chinese bought over $300 billion of that stuff and they were told that it is essentially riskless. The flow of capital from them and from other central banks, sovereign wealth funds, and plain old ordinary investors would shut down very quickly. The dollar would fall say 30-40 percent in a week, there would be payments system gridlock, margin calls at the clearinghouses would go unmet, and only a trading shutdown would stop the Dow from shedding half its value. Most of the U.S. banking system would be insolvent. Emergency Fed/Treasury action would recapitalize the FDIC but we would lose an independent central bank and setting the money supply would be a crapshoot. The rate of unemployment would climb into double digits and stay there. Many Americans would not have access to their savings. The future supply of foreign investment would be noticeably lower. The Federal government would lose its AAA rating and we would pay much more in borrowing costs. The deficit would skyrocket.

Well, um, OK then. I guess rescuing them was the right thing to do. I'm still a little taken aback by the apparent fact that American banks are now almost flatly unwilling to make mortgage loans unless they're backed by Fannie or Freddie, but that seems to be the case whether it takes me aback or not. So rescue them we must. I suppose my next question is whether it's worth thinking about how to restructure the American home mortgage industry so that it can operate efficiently even in the absence of massive levels of government backup. Or is Fannie/Freddie style backup just the way the world works these days and there's no point fussing over it?

Sebastian Mallaby Has Had Enough

| Mon Sep. 8, 2008 2:54 AM EDT

SEBASTIAN MALLABY HAS HAD ENOUGH....Sebastian Mallaby, not exactly a raging liberal, on the transformation of John McCain from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:

McCain used to be a real straight talker. On campaign finance, spending earmarks, Iraq and immigration, he has fought bravely for his principles; and that record might have been a trump against an opponent who has taken almost no such risks. But we are now witnessing what might be called McCain's Palinization. McCain once criticized Christian conservatives as agents of intolerance, but he has caved in to their intolerance of a pro-choice running mate. McCain claims to be devoted to his country, yet he would saddle it with a vice president who is unprepared to serve as commander in chief. In the same sad way, McCain has caved in to his party's anti-tax fanatics. The man of principle has become a panderer. The straight talker flip-flops.

The question is: how many other people are going to finally notice this? The second question is: how many will care? Tune in a couple of months from now for the answer.

Charlie and Sarah

| Sun Sep. 7, 2008 4:58 PM EDT

CHARLIE AND SARAH....I see that the McCain campaign has decided that two weeks is enough time for Sarah Palin to become plausibly knowledgable enough about national affairs to face an actual reporter. It's not official or anything — and presumably depends on the continuing good behavior of ABC News in the meantime — but AP is now reporting that an interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson is scheduled for "later this week in Alaska."

I expect the interview to go fine. After all, two weeks is a lot of briefing time and Palin is, by all accounts, both a quick study and a good politician who knows how to change the subject, run out the clock, and provide vague answers whenever necessary. She should be OK.

Unfortunately, part of the reason she'll be OK is that I expect Gibson to screw the pooch. So here's a tip: there are several questions that Palin is obviously going to be prepared for. "What makes you prepared to be vice president" tops the list, so don't bother using up your time on that one. Ditto for questions about her daughter, her Christian faith, and moose hunting. Conversely, Troopergate, the Bridge to Nowhere, and earmarks are probably good subjects, but only if you really know your stuff. She's not exactly going to be surprised by those topics either. And I'm sure you know this already, but idiotic gotcha questions ("Can you name of the president-for-life of Berserkistan?") are also no-nos.

So: pick some serious topics. Pick some unexpected topics. Don't be an nitwit but don't go easy on her either. Mix it up a little. After all, this is probably your last chance to speak with her until after the election. You might as well make the most of it.

And now, back to the U.S. Open.

Drill, Baby, Drill

| Sun Sep. 7, 2008 2:14 PM EDT

DRILL, BABY, DRILL....Daniel Larison watches the Republicans in St. Paul:

When the theme of the convention seems to have been, "Drill, baby, drill," which is an energy policy in exactly the same way that, "Tax, baby, tax" is a fiscal policy (i.e., it isn't), slogans are obviously all that the party has left. Even if you think that increasing oil exploration and supply through more offshore drilling makes sense, you cannot really take these people seriously.

Unfortunately, yes you can. This, by the way, was the moment when I completely gave up on the convention. It wasn't Giuliani, it wasn't Palin, and it wasn't McCain. They were just the closing acts. It was when I realized that the most reliable applause line on the convention floor was "Drill, baby, drill." Even by the low standards of political campaigns, this is a slogan so imbecilic that it makes you fear for the future of the Republic.

Then again, you can hardly blame them, can you? Here is the LA Times doing one of those obligatory man-in-the-street pieces in Uniontown, Pennsylvania:

Waitress Judy Artice, "Miss Judy," as she is known at Glisan's roadside diner, declared Palin "the perfect candidate" after watching her Wednesday speech. That said, Artice had already decided that her vote would go to the first candidate who mentioned gasoline prices.

"And — I'll be danged — it was Obama," Artice, 46, said between servings of liver and onions during the lunch rush.

Needless to say, Obama will have the same short-term impact on gasoline prices as McCain: none whatsoever. But apparently he won a vote in Uniontown merely by the good fortune of holding his convention first and making sure to mention gasoline prices in his acceptance speech. If that's what you're up against, I suppose that "Drill, baby, drill" makes perfect sense.

In other words, we're all doomed. In the meantime, though, I have named my cat consul of the empire and plan to repair to the living room to watch the Hannah-delayed remnants of the U.S. Open. I might as well enjoy myself while I can, right?