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L'Affaire Plame

Wow. I don't have anything to add to the reporting and insight available from the Washington Post, from and from others. Just two small thoughts:

First, for many years I've assumed that those "in the know" always understood who was meant by the words "a senior administration offical" in the Times or Post. (I think the term was invented for Kissinger, but I'm not sure.) I always thought there should be a way for the rest of us to gain access to this special info. After a few years in Washington, I know that it's not always obvious. But with blogs, there finally is a way to at least generally narrow the sources down. In fact, I didn't even know for sure that "senior administration official" means cabinet or first-tier subcabinet, or a handful of people in the White House. It's good to democratize that knowledge.

Second, now that we know that these people revealed the name of an undercover CIA operative working on weapons of mass destruction just to get revenge on her husband for reporting facts that showed their own previous statements to be untrue, perhaps its time for a permanent moratorium on the phrase, "The Clintons would do anything..." Because they wouldn't, and they didn't, do this.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 30, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack


Mixed reviews on the first ten-person Democratic debate, but I want to focus for a minute on General Clark's answer to the first question: Brian Williams' Drudge Report-inspired call on Clark to account for his praise of Bush, Rumsfeld, Rice, etc. in March 2001. There was a simple brilliance to Clark's response that no one I've read seems to quite understand:

Generalizing broadly, there are two big groups of voters that will make up a Democratic majority in 2004. There are people who never liked or trusted George Bush, and now are crazed with anger and frustration. That includes me, most everyone I know, and the entire Dean following. Then there are voters who might have at one point, whether they voted for him or not, thought Bush wouldn't be all that bad, or might even be great, and are increasingly dismayed, even shocked, by the economy, Iraq, dishonesty, etc. This is not the result of some great insight or public opinion polling -- it's mathematically certain that when a president goes from popularity in the mid-70s or higher (discounting the immediate post-September 11 when we all at least wanted to believe that this man was capable of leadership) to the high 40s, there is a large portion of the population that used to like him and no longer does.

Clark's answer basically said to the used-to-like-hims, "I'm one of you." And that's incredibly important to the election. Dean's boldness has him in good standing with the never-liked-hims, but there obviously aren't enough voters who never lapsed for a moment into thinking George Bush was maybe o.k. to make a majority. The used-to-like-hims include Republicans who voted for him as well as Democrats who didn't but weren't quite so unhappy that Al Gore wasn't president. And it includes a lot of independents.

You may protest that these used-to-like-hims don't vote in Democratic presidential primaries. And generally, that's true. But there's one place where they do vote, and sometimes decide the outcome: New Hampshire. With independents and Republicans free to vote in the Democratic primary, there's a thread of independent-minded voters, who at the very least are indifferent to charges that Clark isn't a good Democrat and at best might really take to his post-partisan, "I've served Democratic presidents and Republican presidents" appeal.

This group, which is concentrated in Southern New Hampshire and tends to vote late, is notoriously hard to poll accurately. New Hampshire polls depend on assumptions about the level of turnout by non-registerd Democrats in the Democratic primary, assumptions that can easily be off by an order of magnitude. In recent months, when the race was Dean vs. Kerry, those independent-minded voters seemed to be attracted to Dean. Polls that estimated a higher turnout of non-Democrats consistently had Dean higher. Not surprising: Kerry is seen as an establishment Democrat (not to mention that some of the independents are refugees from Massachusetts, usually with a reason), and Dean an outsider.

But none of them agreed to marry Dean, and there may be significant reason to think they could go over to Clark. Roll the clock back to 1999-2000. I was working for Bill Bradley at the time. He had a significant lead over Al Gore in New Hampshire and, like Dean, was drawing the independent-minded non-Democrats to offset his weakness among establishment Democrats. But as soon as John McCain became a real figure in the race, which was barely a month before the primary, those voters seemed to decide they were happier voting for the war hero, reformer in the Republican primary, and Bradley's bubble burst.

Ask yourself: If those voters could switch from the liberal Bradley to McCain, who holds Barry Goldwater's seat in the Senate and at the time a nearly identical voting record, doesn't it seem plausible that they could switch from Dean to Clark? It doesn't even require them to change the primary they'll vote in, and there's nothing happening in the Republican party.

If Karl Rove is really as scared of Dean as I heard he was a year ago, and as his leaks to Drudge suggest, then perhaps the best thing he can do is get McCain back in there to pull some votes back into the GOP primary. Then, when his usefulness is done, he can destroy him in South Carolina again, for old times sake.

Is this a prediction that Clark will win New Hampshire? No, and that's not an expectation that he should want to create anyway. Three other candidates are from New England. But that means a second-place or even a third-place finish in New Hampshire would be treated as a "better-than-expected," surely reducing the race to Dean and Clark. And then it's down to South Carolina, where the electorate is very different. African-Americans will make up a majority of the vote. My guess is that an army veteran will have a greater ability to relate to these voters than the ex-governor of a state that could put every African-American in the state on the public payroll without anyone noticing..

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 26, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Hit me with your best shot, part 3

Some great comments on the absurdity of the White House orchestrated attack on General Clark, particularly the story, attributed to Colorado Republicans, that Clark claimed, "seriously," that he would have been a Republican "if Karl Rove had returned my phone calls."

Marshall points out that the Weekly Standard's subsequent revelation that White House records show Clark never called Rove actually discredits the Colorado Republicans who made the claim, not Clark. And commentators at Calpundit notice that, if the White House is suddenly in the business of turning phone records over to journalists, there are a few others we'd like to know about.

I don't intend to get too deep into this, except to point out again that all of today's attacks on Clark are coming from the White House. They're not coming from Dean or the other Democrats, each of whom is paralyzed by the fact that, while Clark is a serious problem for them, they all still believe that they can win the nomination and want to have Clark available as a credible running mate. But the White House must destroy Clark, and must do it now, before he learns not to flinch, before he has the staff in place to handle it, before he has the reputation and name recognition that will partially protect him. So this is it -- the best shot. Maybe they have something better in the works, but it's been almost a year now since I first heard the rumor that the only opponent Rove was really scared of was Clark. So this is what they've come up with in a year, and even twisted and distorted as it is, it's hard to see exactly what the charge even is. Clark's still got a lot to prove, but my biggest worry -- that something in his record would completely discredit him -- is almost gone.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 23, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Josh Marshall on Clark

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall

As usual, I agree with every word of Talking Points' assessment of General Clark. Like him, I've learned to resist unconventional candidates, and I know how quickly the gloss of a perfect candidate can rub off. But, so much about this seems just right -- frankly, even the timing. Maybe it would have been better if he started earlier, but as it is, Clark is entering at the very moment that a general consensus among moderate/liberal Democrats seems to have formed that (1) none of the other candidates can stop Dean and (2) Dean has some strengths, but also some real weaknesses -- of style, not ideology -- that actually will make it very difficult for him to beat Bush. And I don't worry about the money. If Clark clicks, it will roll in. The reason candidates like Gary Hart stumbled in the past was not just that they didn't have the Internet. It was that they were relying on a victory in New Hampshire to generate enthusiasm and enough funds to get them into other states, that is, to build an organization and buy time just a few weeks later. If Clark clicks in October, he will still have five months to come up with the money for New Hampshire and the rest of the primary cycle.

I would add just two things to watch to TPM's list:

1. How fast can Clark sideline the www.draftclark crowd, without totally alienating them? It's great to have enthusiastic support from people who aren't traditionally political. But a campaign can't be driven by people who are so obsessed with the candidate that they produce "fanfic" about him! (I've seen that movie before.) Part of Dean's sudden problem is that he mistakes the intensity of his supporters for depth of support. People like Ron Klain understand that politics is about flawed people contesting for support among millions of people who don't have either much time or much trust to offer. People who are devoting every waking hour to blogging every single mention of Clark in some other blog or local paper are not too likely to understand that.

2. A point I mentioned in an earlier post:: How hard does the White House hit him, and what do they hit him with? TPM points out that he will be tested by fire, but it strikes me that most of the Democrats have to hold back a bit, or operate by stealth (hint -- Chris Lehane is available), simply because everyone would still want the option to take Clark as the Vice Presidential nominee. The White House, on the other hand, can ignore all the other Dems and slam them later, but they must take down Clark before he gains any momentum at all. Facing the Republican machine is not at all similar to the barbs Dean and Kerry have slung at each other. It's real war, with weapons. If Clark survives it, it's further proof that he will be a strong nomine.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 16, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

A History Lesson


Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 15, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

How I Commemorated 9/11 -- I Voted!

When I heard the second plane hit the World Trade Center two years ago, it was from inside a voting booth, where I was casting a vote that ultimately didn't count, in one of the most interesting city elections (primary) of my lifetime.

So two days ago, when there was a sign at the polling place that there was another primary, and my two-year-old daughter said, "Let's go in there." that's what we did. The only thing on the ballot was a minor judicial race, and the only thing I knew about it was that one of the candidates "rose from Brooklyn public housing to appearing as a legal commentator on Court TV." ("As Seen on TV" seems to be the political slogan of the year.) But Claire and I voted anyway -- and my wife voted, but for the other candidate, so our votes cancelled each other -- but it was the right thing to do this week, not just to remember where we were, but to remember that this, not military might, is what makes us strong.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 11, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

"When a Fight Starts, Look at Who Joins"

That aphorism about politics, from E.E. Schattschneider's The Semi-Sovereign Nation, will be a good rule if and when General Wesley Clark joins the Democratic contest for president. Leaving aside all the usual questions about whether he's too late, can raise the money, etc., let's look at who joins the fight with Clark. Most of the candidates, even those most threatened by Clark, like Kerry, will probably hold back, simply because Clark must remain available as a vice-presidential option, and no one wants to a vicious attack to come back and haunt their choice of a running mate.

But, if Clark really gets momentum, he is a mortal threat to the White House. Rove can't even let him get the first bit of traction and name recognition. So, expect to see the first test of the Republican take-down machine against Clark. And, if he can survive it, we'll know something about him that we don't yet know about any of the other candidates.

By contrast, the White House's interest is in holding back on all of the other Democrats, letting them knock each other down a bit, and then saving the real ammunition for next year.

Again, this isn't an endorsement of Clark, just an interesting note about how different his role in the race will be.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 9, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Poll: Who has the tougher job -- Howard Dean or Marty Markowitz?

In my increasing skepticism of Howard Dean, I've begun to wonder less whether he has the foreign policy or military experience to be president, but whether he has the domestic experience. No disrespect to Vermont, but does being governor of that state expose one to any of the real problems we face, at the scale at which they have to solve them?

Or, put another way, I wonder whether Howard Dean is really any more qualified, by experience, than Marty Markowitz, the borough president of Brooklyn. (Who, for those of you outside New York, is not qualified to be president of the United States.) Let's start collecting some statistics:

Number of people in poverty in Vermont: 65,000
Number of people in poverty in Brooklyn: 480,000

I remember the late Senator Moynihan once blowing up at some smug governor, perhaps Tommy Thompson when he was governor of Wisconsin, who claimed to have solved the welfare problem in his state. The differences in scale between poverty in New York, Illinois, California, etc., and a state like Wisconsin where essentially the entire problem of poverty and welfare was concentrated in a single small city (Milwaukee) made it absurd to draw analogies between the two. Moynihan was right about Wisconsin, and it goes double for Vermont.

Again, this is not to say that Dean isn't capable, brilliant, able to solve all our problems. But the Vermont experience just doesn't prove it.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 9, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Democratic Debate

Two things I noticed:

First, for the first time, every candidate referred to Bush's "failure of leadership," or some variation on that phrase. It's about time! It took months to understand that phrases like Daschle's "failure of diplomacy" don't seem all that bad to Americans. Our isolation is not just that we're not making nicey-nice with all these other countries, it is a failure to lead. It's about time to say it, and say it again and again for 15 months.

Second, I still think John Edwards has a lot of what it takes, and might yet break through. He did his hair differently, so he doesn't look quite as much like a 20-year-old, but most of all, he just talks like a normal person. A friend said recently that he was just looking for a candidate who could talk to high school graduates, and Edwards seemed better suited to that than anyone else up there. Talking to juries must be good practice.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 5, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

My Article on tax reform in the Financial Times

Since linking to the FT requires a subscription, here's the full text. This is an argument that I've been making to some of the presidential campaigns.

Copyright 2003 The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times (London)

September 4, 2003, Thursday USA Edition 2


LENGTH: 932 words

HEADLINE: A Bush tax plan for the Democrats: MARK SCHMITT:


It is worth recalling just how George W. Bush distinguished himself on the issue of taxes in the 2000 presidential campaign. It was not by promising tax cuts: both Mr Bush and Al Gore, then vice-president, pledged to use much of the projected budget surplus to reduce taxes. Nor did Mr Bush emphasise that his cuts would be bigger, or that he would cut taxes "every single year", as his advisers now suggest.

Instead, Mr Bush sold voters a simple and wise principle: unlike Mr Gore, who put forward a tortured programme of incentives to encourage certain activities and benefit certain categories of taxpayers, Mr Bush promised that his policies would not "pick and choose" among taxpayers based upon their source of income or expenses but would benefit everyone and "simplify the code . . . particularly for those at the bottom end of the income ladder".

As Democratic presidential candidates face up to the fact that they cannot restore fiscal sanity or improve healthcare without reclaiming some or all of the Dollars 3,000bn in revenues lost in the three Bush tax cuts, they should not forget this decisive exchange, which was repeated in all three of the 2000 presidential debates. For it contains two lessons in how they should talk about taxes and economics.

First, there is the fact that it is a broken promise. The tax code now does more "picking and choosing" than at any time since the 1970s. While a decade ago there were just three income tax rates, there are now in effect dozens of rates, depending on what year it is and whether your income comes from work, dividends or capital gains. Dividend income alone will be taxed at 10 different rates. The expansion of benefits for the working poor is good, but involves at least four different credits with different requirements, forcing a single parent earning Dollars 20,000 to fill in a tax return as complicated as a millionaire's.

Such a system rewards dishonesty and accounting gimmicks over hard work and real investment. When some investment income is still taxed at both the corporate and the individual level, while other profits are never taxed at all, countless incentives are created to alter business plans to shift income into tax-favoured categories. These transactions absorb money that could otherwise be used to generate growth.

There may be a larger vision here, albeit an unspoken one. Perhaps it is the ideology that investment income should not be taxed at all. Perhaps it is a plan to sow such chaos that a flat tax or consumption tax becomes inevitable. But in any case, the administration has asked to be judged by results - and the results so far are a mess.

Stanley Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, has argued that the most appealing tax changes for voters are reforms such as closing the loophole that allows companies to incorporate tax-free in Bermuda. This is where the second lesson of the Bush-Gore exchanges comes in: such changes are policy specifics, not principles.

Imagine instead that Democrats learnt from Mr Bush and, instead of battling about the details of revenue sources, loopholes and the like, simply put forward a set of principles that should guide the next president and Congress. These might comprise the following. People in the same situation should pay the same tax, whether their income comes from work or investments. Tax rates should be predictable, so people can plan for the future. Total revenues, over the long term, should be based on the cost of the services that voters decide they want from government, so tax cuts, in a time of deficits, cannot be separated from either cuts in services or future tax increases. Middle-class people should not need accountants to do their taxes; and the tax code should encourage low-income working families and reward work, but without unnecessary complexity.

Voters should have a chance to choose between these principles, which are similar to Mr Bush's 2000 promise, and the reality of the current tax code. A Democratic presidential candidate might propose a commission to revamp the tax code from scratch, or some specifics, such as a single tax credit for working families that brings together the four existing, complex credits.

Once before, US politicians confronted a tax code that had gone wildly awry (the top rate was supposedly 70 per cent but with so many exceptions that many wealthy individuals and companies paid nothing) and revamped the code around sound principles: low rates that applied to everyone, incentives for low-income families and simplicity. It was a bipartisan breakthrough, ultimately signed into law in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan. But it met opposition - from a few liberals who liked the higher rates, even if they were entirely symbolic; from lobby groups; and, above all, from powerful Texans, whose oil and gas industries benefited the most from tax shelters.

The lobbyists and the Texans are today even more powerful than in the 1980s. They would love the debate in 2004 to focus exclusively on whether to repeal the tax cuts. Instead, the choice should be between a tax code that distorts the economy and picks winners, and one based on sound principles of fairness and economic neutrality. Such a choice would not only give Democrats an opportunity to spotlight Mr Bush's broken promise but also offer a chance to put America's economy on a sounder footing for the future.

The writer is director of policy and research for the Open Society Institute's US programmes, and was a senior advisor to former Senator Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 4, 2003 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack