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Hows Democrats Strike a Match...Terry McAuliffe Strikes a Nerve

Fire Away

It seemed like a good idea at the time. After a spate of bitter investigations in the mid-‘90s, House Democrats and Republicans forged a “truce,” agreeing not to use flimsy ethics charges as political tools against their opponents. But the case of Nick Smith shows that truce may now be doing more harm than good. Shortly after GOP leaders narrowly passed their prescription drug plan last fall, Smith, a Republican representative from Michigan, said that, with the fate of the bill uncertain in the wee morning hours of November 22, unnamed GOP leaders desperate for a couple more votes approached him with an explicit quid pro quo. Support our bill, they said, and we’ll steer $100,000 to your son's campaign. (Smith is retiring, and his son, Brad, is running to succeed him.) Smith refused. The shocking allegation obviously merited a House Ethics Committee investigation, but after Smith retreated––he unconvincingly said the promises of assistance had been vague––the committee's GOP chairman, Joel Hefley, suggested he would not take action. House GOP leaders like Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert, who said there was “nothing of substance there,” heartily agreed.

But, last week, the Democratic whip, Steny Hoyer, sent a letter to Hastert urging him to initiate an ethics investigation into Smith's allegation, and Democrats vowed to file a formal complaint if the speaker continued to brush off the charge. Republicans predictably decried Hoyer's move as a political stunt, with DeLay fuming that Democrats were trying “to burn down the House.” But, the next day, the Ethics Committee made a curious announcement, telling Roll Call it had done some “informal fact-finding” inquiries into the Smith case in December. That either means the committee is actually taking Smith's allegation seriously, which should shame Republican leaders like Hastert and DeLay. Or it means that the committee took a cursory look at Smith's story but didn't take it seriously enough to open a formal inquiry––which would be twice as shameful for the party. If it’s the latter, and an ethically warped GOP is trying to maintain its grip on power through abusive and even corrupt means, then maybe it's time to burn, baby, burn.

Investigative Distorting

We don’t say this very often, but kudos to Terry McAuliffe. Last week, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair gave his imprimatur to a meme that, until then, had been little more than a gleam in Michael Moore’s eye––namely, that in 1972 President Bush left his Texas Air National Guard post to campaign for an Alabama politico without the military’s approval. “He didn’t show up when he should have showed up,” McAuliffe told George Stephanopoulos. The charge, of coure, is nothing new, having first arisen in a series of Boston Globe pieces during the 2000 election, but it has never gotten much media traction. Republican operatives clearly want to keep it that way. Bush adviser Tucker Eskew leaped to the president's defense Tuesday, telling CNN’s “American Morning” that the charge was absurd because “the Annenberg Center has recently completely overturned any of those crazy ideas”––a reference to a report released January 23 by a University of Pennsylvania public policy institute. But Bush supporters might want to think twice before citing that study, which is but a slight paper showing about the level of rigorous analysis you'd expect from a White House press release. For starters, it merely compares different media accounts, ignoring the fact that the Globe’s investigation drew on hundreds of records and numerous interviews with military officials, whereas other news stories counted the rebuttals of Bush’s staff as heavily as military documents and testimony by his commanding officer. Indeed, the only original research the Annenberg folks seem to have done is an interview with, of all people, White House spokesman Dan Bartlett, who dodges the entire question by saying that “the bottom line is he met his minimum requirements for that year.” Absurdly, the report presents this as proof that Bush never skipped town, even though Bartlett was talking about what Bush did in 1973, when what’s in question is what he did in 1972. But the report’s biggest idiocy is its premise that, just because Bush did not technically desert or go AWOL, the criticisms of his military record are somehow irrelevant. But no one believes that Bush fled combat––he was never even in combat. Rather, critics charge––and, Bartlett notwithstanding, the evidence concurs––that Bush didn’t fulfill his military obligations during a time of war. Needless to say, if the Annenberg study is the best dog the GOP can muster, then the DNC chairman has picked the right fight.

9/10 President Watch, Cont'd

According to The Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial on February 4, the ricin-laden envelope delivered to Senator Bill Frist's office this week justifies the Iraq War: “There’s been a lot of talk lately that the failure to discover any stockpiles of [weapons of mass destruction] in Iraq proves that the terror threat isn’t ‘imminent’ and that we can return to our pre-9/11 way of countering it. Is ricin’s arrival in a Senate mailroom imminent enough?” We're not sure who exactly believes terrorism isn’t an imminent threat, nor do we understand what role the Journal thinks Saddam Hussein played in germing the Senate. But we’re most confused by the implication that President Bush’s security priorities are emblematic of post-September 11 thinking. The Journal’s editors ought to read the president’s new budget, which took a $779 million request from the U.S. Post Office for a new biohazard detection system––which, sniffing the air hundreds of times each hour, could detect a single granule of ricin––and cut it to $37 million. We’re not sure Saddam’s lack of weapons of mass destruction proves that there is an imminent threat to the United States, but we’re quite certain the 2001 anthrax attacks did.

Upward Mobility

“You can feel the momentum of Senator Kerry, can’t you?” –– New Mexico Governor (and vice presidential hopeful?) Bill Richardson to John Kerry supporters, January 30

“General Clark has a great aura of electability. He’s surging in New Mexico.” –– Richardson to Wesley Clark supporters January 31

“Senator, your momentum is incredible. And you can see it here in the heart of New Mexico.” –– Richardson to John Edwards at a campaign rally February 1

This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.