Hardball

Nov. 1, 2006 | 10:01 a.m. ET

The five nastiest ads
(MSNBC Corresondent David Shuster)

Candidates across the country are pulling out all stops to attack their opponents. Watch the nastiest ads of this political season and vote below:

Video: Five nastiest campaign ads

Oct. 31, 2006 | 2:32 p.m. ET

The viral revolution
(Tony Maciulis, MSNBC senior producer)

After some much-publicized candid camera moments on the campaign trial, we were quick to dub this “the YouTube election.”

And, without a doubt, YouTube and other video sharing sites are changing the political game rapidly.  There is George Allen’s “macaca” moment, Senator Burns nodding off at a hearing, and Harold Ford balking in Memphis, just to name a few.

Gone are the days when a candidate could make a mistake or test a stump speech in a small district without the fear of national humiliation.  Any cell phone at any venue can become a weapon for the opponent.

But the Internet is changing the political landscape in a very positive way, as well.  The Web provides an opportunity for every American to participate in the political process.

First, both parties have made use of the Web to make inroads in previously neglected districts.

For Republicans, that came in the form of a “netroots” campaign through websites like GOP.com.  That site has a social networking section called “My GOP,” just like the popular site “My Space.”  Operatives use it to identify registered Republicans in every district and then connect with them, whether in the virtual or the real world.

Democratic bloggers have made a real push to get more would-be Dems into the game.  This election, Democratic candidates are running in 425 congressional races, up from 400 two years ago.

With just 15 seats standing between “minority” and “majority” in the House, this kind of effort is invaluable.

And the Web also provides a chance for unknowns or third party candidates to attract attention.

The 5th District in Oklahoma is considered “safe” for Republican candidate Mary Fallin, but there is a third part candidate on the ticket—Matthew Horton Woodson, an Independent with some, well, unique views on 9/11.

I discovered him, and his “Send Me a Buck” campaign, on MySpace.  You’ll find lots of other candidates there, as well, all hoping for some help from their cyber buddies.

And it isn’t so crazy.  Iraq vet and Democrat Paul Hackett came really close to beating Rep. Jean Schmidt in the solidly GOP Ohio District 2.  Almost his entire war chest came from bloggers.

Of course, the gold standard today is still Howard Dean’s amazing Web campaign in 2004.  He raised nearly $25 million in online donations from people who each gave $100 or less.

Joe Trippi was correct, the revolution will not be televised.  But it will be viral!

Oct. 27, 2006 | 11:39 a.m. ET

Democrats must keep cool

It is hard when each day you see a whole new crop of nasty attack ads coming from the Republicans.  It does bother me that Democrats have never been very good at the 11th hour attack, but it doesn’t bother me too much.  I don’t want to win at any cost – (unless of course the alternative is a corrupt Supreme Court decision deciding the presidency).  This election season has been heated because the stakes are high.  And given how badly the war is going, it is literally a matter of life and death.   But in this final stretch we all need to breathe and be careful.    Mistakes will be made by those who are too desperate to get the last bit of dirt out or get in the last word.  Voters want grace, leadership and skill and they will judge it often by how a candidate AND their supporters act in the final days before an election.

Video: Campaign ads get downright nasty

I liked Harold Ford’s reaction to the racist ad put up against him by the Republican national Committee.  His opponent was trying to have it both ways and said the ad should come down.  But the RNC kept it up.  Instead of jumping on the bandwagon and screaming and yelling about racism, Ford merely asked “if my opponent can’t get the powers that be to take down a 30 second ad, how is he going to be able to do anything for Tennessee?”  Cool.

We are days away from a sea change in the national conversation.  Democrats need to stay vigilant over the next week, but we also must stay cool.

Oct. 25, 2006 | 5:45 p.m. ET

The elephants in the room

Thirteen days until the congressional elections, and there was more evidence today that even the White House has grudgingly accepted that voter perceptions of Iraq will determine who controls Congress.  In the midst of the worst Iraqi violence and the greatest number of U.S. troop casualties in 12 months, today a sober President Bush stepped into the East Room of the White House and admitted that most Americans have been saying for a year that the Iraq war is not going well. 

"I know many Americans are not satisfied with the situation in Iraq," Bush said.  "I'm not satisfied either.  And that is why we are taking new steps to help secure Baghdad and constantly adjusting our tactics across the country to meet the changing threat."

But the only change from President Bush today seemed to be his words, not his Iraq policies.  The president did not offer a new strategy for stopping the loss of American lives or preventing an all out Iraq civil war.  The when it comes to civil war, the president declared something that all U.S. lawmakers and policy analysts agree on:  "Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle."

The president did give one nugget to Republicans who are getting bludgeoned by Democrats over the occupation when he said, “America's patience is not unlimited.”  And he spoke of pressuring the Iraqi government to produce "benchmarks" that could help measure progress.

What exactly is a benchmark?  The President described it this way:  "What we are asking (Iraqi officials) to do is to say when you think you are going to get this done, when can you get this done.  So the people themselves in Iraq can see that the government is moving forward with a reconciliation plan and plans necessary to unify this government."

That assumes, of course, that the government is able to move forward with such a plan.  And war critics argue the president is engaged in wishful thinking.

Video: Fourth quarter offensive In any case, one of the proverbial elephants in the room today was the language President Bush used previously about Iraq.  In June of 2005 he said, "There's not going to be any timetables."  That same month he said, "Don't bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it's not going to happen."

Now, of course, the president is facing the prospect of losing both houses of Congress.  And Mr. Bush is caught between his own party getting bludgeoned over the Iraq war and suggestions his administration is at least trying to sound flexible because of domestic politics.  So the President explained the new pressure on the Iraqi government this way:  "There is a significant difference between benchmarks for a government to achieve and a timetable for withdrawal." 

If Republicans were hoping their party leader would provide a little more breathing room on Iraq, they were disappointed.  The president heartily embraced Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, even though Maliki today rejected the imposition of benchmarks. Moreover, President Bush left open the possibility of permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, meaning the U.S. may never leave.  And the President once again stood by his embattled secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, declaring "I'm satisfied with how he's done all his jobs.  He is a smart, tough, capable administrator."

Despite all of the controversies over Iraq, the President said he believes his party will keep control of Congress.  Referring to pundits predicting big Democratic gains, the President remarked, "You know, we got some people dancing in the end zone here in Washington, D.C.  They got them measuring their drapes.  They're going over to the Capitol and saying, 'Well, my new office looks beautiful;  I think I'm going to have this size drape there or this color.'"  The president seemed to be referring to minority leader Nancy Pelosi.  And a few Democrats today suggested the remarks smacked of sexism.  A Republican suggested that was ridiculous.

Yes, election season has made the parties as feisty as ever.  Republicans would dearly love to have an election based only on security issues and keeping taxes low.  But polling in most states indicated that the Iraq war is the number one issue for voters.  And in Virginia, where differences over Iraq are at the heart of a U.S. Senate race, the latest polling was dramatic. Until recently, much of the focus on Republican Senator George Allen has been over his “macaca” moment and alleged use of the n-word, not Allen's support for the Iraq war.  Democrat Jim Webb has a son serving in Iraq.  And the Webb campaign has been ratcheting up their commercials pledging for a change in course.  And now, for the first time in this campaign, the latest polling courtesy of Bloomberg/LA Times shows Webb beating Allen.

Allen supporters note that another poll just days ago showed Allen slightly ahead.  In any case, in races across the country the debate over Iraq is here to stay.  The question is, will voters agree with President Bush who said today the U.S. is winning the war in Iraq or, will voters reach a different conclusion and make the Republicans pay?

Oct. 24, 2006 | 7:46 p.m. ET

Election fever at the Knoxville airport
("Hardball" correspondent Norah O'Donnell and "Hardball" producer Jen Yuille)

Everyone is talking about the Tennessee Senate race, even the ticket counter agents and TSA agents at the airport. We told them what liquids we were carrying in our bags and then the conversation quickly turned to politics.

One of the agents had asked if we had attended the big Ford rally earlier. We explained to him that we actually interviewed Harold Ford. That caught everyone's attention. The other agents Video: Ford: Opposition is 'desperate' came out of their office, all eager to engage in the political discussion. They told us how Ford has been attending all of the University of Tennessee football games, holding tailgates and encouraging college students to register to vote. One woman explained that she is a Democrat but that the race has become so nasty that she doesn't know which way she is going to go on November 7. She said that she got a big laugh out of Ford when he confronted his opponent at a Corker event last Friday. The three of them said they are probably the only three Democrats in East Tennessee.

The conversation then shifted to 2008. Norah grew up in Texas and she asked her fellow Southerners what they thought about a Senator Hillary Clinton run in 2008. All the women said they liked her and they'd vote for her. Just an unscientific sampling from the South!

Oct. 24, 2006 | 7:36 p.m. ET

Year of the online videos

In 2000, the big trend was campaign websites - every candidate had to have one. In 2004, blogging and online fundraising was all the rage. And this year?

Call 2006 the year of online videos. Video sharing sites like You Tube have become so popular and populated with politics that a simple search yields close to 15,000 video postings in the political category alone. And with more than 20 million people visiting You Tube a month, it’s clear that video sharing sites are having an impact and perhaps even changing the political landscape.

Remember the old political mantra “stay on message?” It has never been more relevant thanks to video sharing sites.

Video: You-Tube-Politics

Oct. 24, 2006 | 6:32 p.m. ET

Anything can happen in Pennsylvania

I am writing this blog as I sit in a satellite truck across from Love Park in Philadelphia. We’re here for MSNBC's Day of Politics. There is no better place to be if you’re a political junkie. Some of the tightest - most exciting - races are in Pennsylvania. And if you have doubt it, just look at how much money has been spent on races in this one state by both political parties.

An interesting day. First, a visit from Joe Sestak—the Democratic challenger in the 7th Congressional district. He is looking to unseat Congressman Curt Weldon - a 10-term incumbent. Before the interview, my producer Alice Rhee and I talked to him about what matters—his five-year old daughter who is being treated for a malignant brain tumor. I use these pre-interviews to get to know the candidates a little bit more. To find out what makes them “tick.” I generally try to save my political questions for the interview itself.

In this late stage—two weeks before the elections—it’s especially hard to get an answer out of politicians that makes “news”—i.e., that clarifies their positions. They know what they want to say. They’ve heard the questions before. They know what their answers will be.

I asked Sestak to respond to the headlines on the front page of this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer:  “Weldon campaign tied down, struggling.”  My question - does Sestak believe those headlines are more a function of his candidacy, or rather, due to the latest headlines regarding the FBI’s inquiry into Weldon’s daughter? Sestak said he believes it’s both.

Later in the day  Democratic challenger Bob Casey stopped by. The latest MSNBC-McClatchy poll shows Casey 12 percentage points ahead of incumbent Senator, Rick Santorum. Despite the huge lead, Casey has been criticized by some as running a campaign whose only platform is “I am not Rick Santorum.” Casey vehemently denied it. He says his record as state treasurer should speak for itself.

My own personal view - both candidates seemed relieved that the bulk of the campaign is behind them. I’m sure that’s one thing all these candidates share. But with two weeks to go before the election, as they say in politics.. anything can happen!

Oct. 24, 2006 | 3:37 p.m. ET

Schwarzenegger: 'I’ll be back'

It’s a gorgeous, sunny 73-degree day in Santa Monica, Calif., the city where an immigrant named Arnold Schwarzenegger got his start as a bodybuilder at the local Gold’s Gym.  Now running for a second term as California Governor, Schwarzenegger looks like he’s got a lock on the election, with a double-digit lead in most polls over his Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides.  And even in places like Santa Monica, a place so liberal it’s been called the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, Schwarzenegger has successfully wooed over half of the independents and a fair number of Democrats to his side.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Schwarzenegger, whose poll ratings a year ago were in the high thirties after he backed a series of losing partisan initiatives and fought with powerful labor unions representing teachers and nurses.  Some pundits wondered whether he’d wind up as a one-term governor, like his pal Jesse Ventura in Minnesota.

But in Hollywood, if your career is fading, you can always get a makeover, and that’s exactly what Schwarzenegger did.  He went for a political makeover.  In recent months he’s backed legislation favored by the Democrats, such as measures to combat global warming and hike the minimum wage. He’s appeared in a non-stop series of photo ops with key Democrats as he signs their pet bills into law.  One of the Democrats appearing with Schwarzenegger in a recent photo was his opponent’s campaign manager!

Video: Schwarzenegger's political makeover In mostly Democratic Hollywood, a number of major players have jumped on the Schwarzenegger bandwagon, with heavyweights such as Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg contributing to his re-election campaign.

It apparently turned the trick for Schwarzenegger.  A recent MSNBC/McClatchy poll showed him with extremely broad support, winning over half of the independent vote and even 17% of the Democrats.  If you talk to these so-called “Schwarzenegger Democrats” on the Streets of Santa Monica, you find them saying that they like his centrist approach and that they feel he’s an effective governor.

The Democrats have tried to link Schwarzenegger to President Bush, a highly unpopular figure with California voters.  But the tactic hasn’t worked, with no dent in his huge lead.  Schwarzenegger jokes about it, telling Jay Leno on the Tonight Show: “I think to link me to George Bush is like trying to link me to an Oscar.”

Some observers say there’s a possible lesson for candidates nationwide -- that voters fed up with partisan bickering like candidates such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, reaching out across party lines to get things done, even if it is motivated by the desire to win more votes, and in Schwarzenegger’s case, a desire to make good on that old movie line of his:  “I’ll be back.”

Oct. 24, 2006 | 3:04 p.m. ET

New Jersey: Competitive for the wrong reasons

I’m standing outside the PATH subway station where commuters are dashing for trains to New York. I used to take the same train to get back and forth from high school in New Jersey. Not much has changed with the trains since then, nor has much changed with political campaigns in my home state. Races are mean, aggressive, and corruption is usually a central issue.

That’s how Thomas Kean, Jr. has made this a race. The semi-incumbent Robert Menendez is a former seven-term Congressman, who was appointed to the Senate when Jon Corzine left the seat to run successfully for governor. Menendez never has run for statewide office. He has a big war chest in a deep Blue state that hasn’t sent a Republican to the Senate since the early 70’s. Winning should be a snap.

But Tom Kean has something else going for him -- his family name. Dad was a popular two-term moderate Republican governor. He won more accolades running the 9/11 commission.

Menendez has fought back by tying the younger Kean to all things George Bush, especially the Iraq war.   What’s striking about this campaign is how nasty the TV ads are. I see them bombard my own TV in New York City. Suffice to say the Kean has essentially called Menendez a crook. The Democrat responds with ads pummeling President Bush, Republicans and Kean by association for all that’s wrong in DC.

Look for the barrage to continue.  This is the state where the GOP hopes to take a Democratic senate seat. Some Republican heavy hitters have come through --  McCain, Bush senior, and Cheney to name a few.

The question is how much more money will the GOP invest here to offset the Blue advantage.

The voters here in Hoboken, Menendez territory, believe he’ll weather the storm. The national party hopes he doesn’t shoot their efforts to take the senate in the foot.

It’s been a long time since New Jersey has played a prominent role in the nation’s midterm elections. With ethics and corruption issues out front, Jersey is competitive for many of the wrong reasons.

Oct. 24, 2006 | 1:55 p.m. ET

Battle for the Heartland

They call Indiana the “Crossroads of the Nation,” and these days there’s a battle raging for the hearts and minds of the Heartland.

Indiana hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in over 40 years, but this time around at least three of this state’s fire-engine red districts are being hotly contested.

In the second, challenger Joe Donnelly reminds voters of the scandal in Washington as he goes up against incumbent Chris Chocola.

“In the words of some of the farmers in Rochester,” Donnelly says. “Joe, go to Washington and clean out the barn.”

If that’s to happen, Donnelly must sweep aside Chocola who suggests he’s seen it all before.

“We’ve been written off before...I think we’re in a position to surprise people again,” Chocola counters.

What is notable this time round, is the amount of attention being paid to Indiana  from inside the beltway.  Both the president and vice president have trundled through the 9th district to stump for incumbent Mike Sodrel.  The Democrats have rolled out Bill Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama in support of challenger Baron Hill.

And, in a state where coffee shop issues usually revolve around farming, toll roads and time zones, these days the talk, at least on the campaign trail, is of security, scandal and Iraq.

In the 8th District, Congressman John Hostettler accuses his competitor of trying to look too much like him.  That competitor, Brad Ellsworth, counters he’s out to change the way Washington works, not copy it.

In the end, the voters in this Midwestern-Middle American state may help decide to takes control.

As Hostettler says, “Hold tight and be ready for the fireworks!”

Oct. 24, 2006 | 1:47 p.m. ET

A Barack Obama moment

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re having a Barack Obama moment. The junior senator from Illinois is everywhere: he’s on the weekend chat shows; he’s stumping for fellow Democrats; he’s even got a book on the best seller list.

These are the sorts of things politicians do when they’re seriously considering a run for the white house.  Obama was seen as future presidential material even before he electrified the democratic convention in 2004. He’s intelligent, articulate and he’s got a great personal story. He’s young but not too young, forthright without seeming confrontational, even handsome but without the blow-dried anchorman look.

But Obama has only two years in the senate under his belt. The conventional wisdom has long been that he should wait till 2012 to make his move. Now that wisdom is being questioned.

Fifty-two senators have run for president since John F. Kennedy’s election. None have won. That’s 0 for 52. The skills valued and cultivated in the senate—conciliation and compromise—don’t seem to lend themselves to presidential ambitions. All those awkward, go-along-to-get-along votes take their toll, politically and perhaps psychologically. Ask a senator for the time, he’ll tell you how to make a watch. Ask about his vote for the Iraq War and you’ll get a tap dance.

Obama seems made of sterner stuff (he’s been vocally opposed to the Iraq misadventure from the get-go). Some folks are wondering whether six more years in the senate will spoil him.

On the other hand, there is also realistic concern as to whether he could actually win his party’s nomination. And even if he did, could a novice on the national stage with little foreign policy experience really take on the likes of John McCain?

Another possibility, of course, is that Obama runs in the primary not to win but to position himself as a likely vice presidential candidate. This could be the best of both worlds: Obama sets himself up as a leading contender for the top spot in 2012 or 2016, at the same time escaping the senate curse. 

Either way the question remains, will Barack Obama do something for the country before his years in the senate do something to him?

Oct. 24, 2006 | 11:44 a.m. ET

Pulse of Connecticut voters

I’m at the Goldroc Diner in West Hartford, Conn., talking to customers and some local newspaper reporters about the fascinatingly unpredictable Senate race here.

Last night was the third and final debate and the reviews are all good: lively, spirited, smart, funny, substantive. But will it change any minds?  Ned Lamont, who became an overnight sensation when he beat incumbent Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary, is hoping for a boost. He needs one badly - down 17 points in the latest poll. He just put another $2 million dollars of his own money into the campaign, for a total of almost $13 million. Lieberman’s raised $15 million and the Republican, Alan Schlesinger, less than $200,000, which is one reason why he can’t hit double digits in any poll.

What’s really interesting here is how Lieberman has surged ahead in spite of his support for the Iraq war, in a race considered a referendum on the war. In fact, while polls show the war is an important issue here, it isn’t dominant. And voters I’ve talked with are skeptical any individual senator will affect what happens next in Iraq. They also tell me they remember Lieberman - and his seniority - saving the Groton submarine base from what looked like certain closing.

A local newspaper reporter came by to talk with me after watching our morning coverage. Residents here clearly love the interest this race is generating (and TV stations love the money they’re making from the political ads). But the campaign that kicked off with a stunning upset, may be heading for a status quo finish. 

Oct. 24, 2006 | 11:00 a.m. ET

The tsunami is coming

There’s no way to spin a tsunami except in advance. Karl Rove is busy trying to convince people that it’s not coming or that retread arguments like terrorism and taxes are a seawall that will protect Republicans against it in the midterm elections. But come November 8th, I believe the Republican majorities in the House, and even the Senate, are likely to be under water. The domestic political equivalent of Cheney’s absurd claim that we’re making progress in Iraq -- the pretense that nothing fundamental has changed in Washington -- would only carry the White House from defeat to derision.

The amazing thing about elections is that they count the votes -- usually. And the voters get to decide why they’re casting their ballots. The Republican ads featuring Osama bin Laden -- how I wished they’d captured him for real instead of on film -- represent worn-out appeals that no longer have the credibility to persuade Americans that Democrats, as Bush crudely put it recently, don’t want to win the war on terror. The country knows all too well that Bush is losing in Iraq, and now maybe even in Afghanistan, while North Korea tests nuclear weapons, Iran develops them, and terrorist cells have proliferated across the globe. Similarly, beating the tin drum of taxes has little or no resonance with the American people. A decisive majority in this election can’t be built on an appeal to repeal estate taxes for those poor souls who have over $10 million. It might have been clever to call it “the death tax,” but this trick is all but dead right now.

The Republicans and Rove may not have noticed what every poll is reporting -- that the top issues are Iraq, stagnant wages, outsourcing and healthcare. They may not have noticed, as they celebrate the rise in the Dow Jones average, that there are now two economies—the economy of stock quotes and GDP stats—and the economy of standards of living that haven’t risen since Bush raised his hand and took the oath as he entered an office that was handed to him by a one-vote margin on the Supreme Court.

The Republicans have also seen their ultimate political safety net -- a claim to superior moral values -- shredded by Mark Foley’s e-mails, the House leadership’s cover-up, Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Tom DeLay, and Bob Ney. The party of moral values stands revealed as the party of moral bankruptcy. Gay-baiting about same-sex marriage -- sometimes from within some congressional closet; have all the doors been opened yet? – is becoming as ineffective as it is unworthy.

So the more lurid the Republican attack ads are, the wider the Democratic margin in the polls seems to be. In November, I believe America will send a clear message: the era of unaccountable government is over; the time for corrupt government has passed; the politics of fear and smear, which nearly failed in 2004, has finally had its ugly day.

I know that as a good Democrat, I’m supposed to keep expectations low. But I can see the tsunami coming. When I said it a year ago on “Hardball,” people were skeptical, but more than ever, I’m convinced the House will be Democratic; I think Republican members who don’t even think they’re in much danger may lose their seats. What about Senate Republicans? The sanctimonious Rick Santorum, the misnamed Jim Talent, the hapless Mike DeWine, the Conrad Burns who singed his own chances by ridiculing firefighters—what a collection. Add to it Bob Corker, whose best hope seems to be that his fellow Tennesseans are lying when they say they’ll vote for an African-American; George Allen, whose best hope seems to be that his fellow Virginians can’t read or hear what he’s said; and Lincoln Chafee, whose best hope seems to be that Rhode Island can’t figure out that this “moderate” votes to preserve the right-wing grip on the Senate. Ditto for Tom Kean Jr.—as he is assiduously called—the son of a former governor. Junior, voters are deciding, is wrong on Iraq, wrong on Bush, and wrong for New Jersey. The Senate was a long shot, but I like these odds.

On November 8, with a new Democratic majority in the House and perhaps the Senate, I can’t wait to hear Rove’s spin as he frantically dog-paddles the waters of the tsunami.

Oct. 24, 2006 | 9:44 a.m. ET

Election season ends as it began -- Bush doesn’t get it

A few of us started off this election season at “Hardball” with some hopeful views.  When I look back on the Hardblogger archives, it is obvious that I had joined a chorus of those who thought we were doomed to do nothing but complain  until the 2008 election, and I thought I was prepared to wait it out.

But the voters had more faith in the system and more impatience for the status quo than I had hoped.  Despite the most aggressive dominance of one-party control that I have ever seen in my 30 years in Washington, DC, community dissent has risen above power and money.  People from all walks of life across this country have expressed a dissatisfaction often bordering on outrage at the direction of our country.  For sure, the leading crisis for those views is the failing war in Iraq.  But it is clear from the current election polling in so many congressional districts that concern about the domestic agenda is also on voter’s minds.

It is not trite to say nor can it be repeated enough that we are living in a country with great gifts – in our land, in our prosperity and in our constitutional democracy.   But surely our greatest gift must be in our people – in the natural empathy that our citizens have for each other.  And when we feel the election tide swelling as are experiencing it right now, it is because the people of this country know that we are more connected and interdependent than ever before and we need leadership that listens to all of us, not just half of us.

President Bush’s threats and fear mongering in the closing weeks of this campaign are and will continue to be nothing more than an attempt to drive a wedge deeper into this country.  Each day we hear of a new Congressional district he or Vice President Cheney is visiting to scare those who would consider voting for a Democrat because Democrats want to let terrorists roam free and our citizens to be taxed into bankruptcy.  Of course it isn’t working.  The President’s inability to understand that people inherently want leadership that brings us together rather than dividing us further apart will be his failing in this election.  And I predict it will be  the single most dominant reason for a failed 43rd Presidency. 

Mr. President, the partisan Democrat in me is glad you are so miscalculating your bully pulpit opportunity as this election winds down.  But the American in me is still saddened by your failure to rise to the challenge and inspire America to embrace its greatest gift.

Oct. 24, 2006 | 7:30 a.m. ET

Battleground America: The Challenge

The Challenge! 

That is what the 2006 elections are: an historic challenge to the policies of President George W. Bush.

The Democrats are telling the American voter to choose them over the Republicans.  They are telling us to reject the Bush war policy in Iraq, to reject President Bush himself. 

The Republicans are warning voters to beware of the Democrats who they say will be weak on terror, strong on raising taxes.   They say it’s safer for the country to “stay the course.”

Local issues and the candidates themselves will play a role in these elections.  But don’t underestimate the influence of national issues like Iraq and voter attitudes toward President Bush.   Watch for the trend the Thursday before the election.    Experience tells me to count on that trend accelerating through election day. 

Election eve is a fascinating time in any case. Every two years the authority to the federal government reverts back to the people, to you and me.  For a brief period of late-autumn daylight the power to tax, to regulate, to wage war, to outlaw behavior, all the power of government, leaves Washington and heads back to the citizens.   Then, throughout the day, each of us individually, and together as a country, decide with whom to invest that power.  Do we give the Republicans another chance or the Democrats a shot?  Do we give George W. Bush a vote of confidence or a boot in the backside? 

And here’s the interesting question: do we vote the way our parents did?  Do we back the same political party with the same predictability we pray at the family church, buy the familiar gasoline, pick up the inherited family toothpaste?  Or do we make a switch, to register a new allegiance or to stiff, to stick it to, a long-trusted politician or party?  Do we use our ballot to say, “This war in Iraq is a disaster?” or “We’re still waiting to feel the good economic times our leaders have been so busy regaling?”

Oct. 23, 2006| 5:41 p.m. ET

Obama in 2008?

Like many of you, when I first saw Barack Obama's answers yesterday to “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, I just about fell out of my chair. 

Obama is the Democratic Party's great young hope, and there he was, dangling the prospect of running for president in 2008.  There was no politically correct restraint like, "I'm focused on 2006, period."  He didn't hide behind the often ambiguous phrase "not planning," as in, "I'm not planning to run."  Instead, Obama was clear. 

"After November 7," he said, "I'll sit down and consider..."  When Tim Russert asked Obama, "But it's fair to say you're thinking about running for President in 2008?"  Obama answered, "It's fair, yes."

Obama's response was dramatic in several respects.  Not only is he a young, dynamic, commanding political figure.  But he also seemed to rule out a 2008 presidential run just 10 months ago.  Asked by Russert in January, "So you will not run for President or Vice President in 2008?"  Obama responded, "I will not." 

On Sunday Obama brushed off his previous pledge with, "Well, that was how I was thinking at the time.  And, and, you know, I don't want to be coy about this, given the responses that I've been getting over the last several months, I have thought about the possibility."

In recent weeks, it's been hard to miss Barack Obama.  The Junior Senator from Illinois, 45, has landed on the covers of Men's Vogue and Time magazine.  He has made dozens of appearances promoting a new book, and he recently charmed Oprah Winfrey.  When the talk show queen asked Obama if he would announce his presidential campaign on her show, Obama cooed, "Oprah, you are my girl."

Political experts say the gushing over Obama could be just the beginning.  My colleague John Harwood notes that Obama, "has a different profile, somebody who is positive in his own right.  He presents optimism and enthusiasm.  Democrats are going to be hungry for that in 2008."

Two years ago, Obama took the political world by storm with a riveting speech that was one of the highlights of the Democratic National Convention.  The son of an African immigrant spoke in a soaring voice about America as the beacon for freedom and opportunity.  With the crowd in Boston sensing the sudden emergence of a new African-American political superstar, Obama intoned, "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth, is my story even possible."

Following the usual protocol for freshman senators, Obama started his career in the Senate very quietly.  He avoided media appearances, rarely granted interviews and kept an extremely low profile.   However, all of that began to change earlier this year.  And since the summer, Obama has been criss-crossing the country giving speeches and raising money for Democratic congressional candidates.  He has even helped actor George Clooney bring attention and legitimacy to concerns about the crisis in Darfur. 

Along the way, Obama has captured the imagination of Democratic Party activists.

The leading public and private advocate for an Obama presidential run is fellow Illinois senator, Dick Durbin.  And party strategists, including some advising John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson agree that Obama could leapfrog much of the potential 2008 Democratic field and become the top challenger to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

However, Obama has no executive experience and he has never been tested on the national stage.  He has been in the U.S. Senate for only two years; he has not sponsored any bold legislative initiatives or ideas.  And his views on some top issues remain unclear and at times contradictory.  For example, a few months ago Obama suggested that a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would cause more harm than good.  Now, Obama says a U.S. troop withdrawal should begin within 60 days.

Asked by Tim Russert if he is ready to be president, Obama replied:  "Well, I'm not sure anybody is ready to be president before they're president. You know, ultimately, I trust the judgment of the American people that, in, in any election, they sort it through. And that's, you know, we have a long and rigorous process, and, you know, should I decide to run, if I ever did decide to run, I'm confident that I'd be run through the paces pretty good, including on Meet the Press."

However, running for president is even more challenging and difficult than just being "run through the paces."  Your entire life is turned upside down.  Every comment made by you or a campaign staffer is put under a spotlight, and your temperament is tested in ways far more expansively than most candidates could ever possibly imagine. 

Is Barack Obama ready for all of that and more?  Maybe, maybe not.  But in the meantime, Obama's media appearances are being carefully choreographed.  It's all part of an effort to position Obama in case he decides to run.  Possible fundraisers, campaign organizers, and 2008 rivals have noticed, and they are all preparing for what could be of the most dramatic and intriguing presidential contests in years. 

Oct. 23, 2006 | 12:40 p.m. ET

Madame Speaker

No Bush bashing today. I am going to learn from my leader, soon-to-be-Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi. It is time to look forward, not backward. 

Much has been written lately about the tough lady leader who has pushed the Democrats into unity over the past year.  But not enough has been written about the heart of the person who will bear a huge responsibility for restoring the optimism of a divided nation.

Video: High hopes for Pelosi I’ve known Nancy Pelosi for almost 25 years, since I worked for then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco.  She was a dear friend of Dianne’s and an even closer friend of former Reps. Phil and Sala Burton who she followed into Congress.  Sala took Phil’s seat after he died.  Phil was a thunderous, brilliant lion who, though I learned so much from him, scared me.  Sala was a brave, intuitive woman who treated me like a beloved granddaughter. And though I know she treated many the same way, I worshipped her.  Nancy did too.  No one was a better friend than Nancy to the Burton family when Phil and then Sala were sick.  And when Sala was dying, she anointed Nancy to be her successor.  I was caught between my loyalty to the growing cadre of AIDS activists who wanted openly gay supervisor Harry Britt to win the seat and my loyalty to the Burton machine.  Nancy was very kind and never pressured me.  And when she won, she showed grace and friendship instead of resentment. 

She worked hard for the people of San Francisco.  She was as aggressive as any member of Congress to represent the broad array of interests in her district.  But I will never forget her doggedness in those early days of the AIDS crisis when few people were listening, much less using their precious chits with the Appropriations Committee to begin funding critical research and care for people with AIDS.  Since then I have worked with her on issues as diverse as housing, economic development and artist’s rights.  She consistently brings a personal touch and a legislator’s skill to the table.  Those who see her simply as an unwavering liberal have never clashed with her.  She has progressive views for sure but she is practical and hard nosed when a broader coalition of views is needed to win. 

I think those who hope or expect Speaker Pelosi to falter under the pressure, or fail to show the strength required of a new speaker when the majority changes hands, are going to be sorely disappointed.

Looking at the way she has campaigned for the past few months on behalf of House Democrats gives the country a glimpse of this formidable leader who will soon be the most powerful elected woman in US history.

She doesn’t waste her time complaining about how things are.  She encourages people to believe that it can be different.  And I dare say I am starting to feel the optimism she exudes.  Not for the election - I’ve been optimistic about the election for a long time.  Rather I am hopeful a balance in the country is about to be righted.  Other perspectives and progressive values will finally see the light of day again.

For those who haven’t heard what Pelosi has been saying about her fist 100 hours in office, here goes:

Day One: Put new rules in place to “break the link between lobbyists and legislation.”  I’ve had my doubts about the merits of spending time on this issue, but given the past year with Jack Abramoff, Tom Delay and the K Street project, a corrupt project developed to enrich republican lobbyists and increase republican campaign contributions; I am convinced that this issue must be addressed.

Day Two: “Enact all the recommendations made by the commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” Doesn’t this seem so obvious?

Time remaining until 100 hours: “Raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour; cut the interest rate on student loans in half; allow the government to negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients; broaden the types of stem cell research allowed with federal funds, etc.”  These are issues that affect people’s lives rather than issues that give red meat to a right wing base.    She committed to  “Pay as you go, meaning no increasing the deficit, whether the issue is middle class tax relief, health care or some other priority.”  I am confident that we will finally be hearing about our lives being discussed on the floor of the House by someone who actually cares about them.

Throughout her time in the House, Nancy Pelosi has been able to connect with the human needs of Members of Congress and mesh them with the political needs of the Democratic caucus.  She jokes about the skills learned herding her family of five kids and an independent minded husband.  What she doesn’t say is how those kids (they aren’t kids anymore) revere their mother – there is no more meaningful personal testament.   So when the Republican attempts at caricaturizing Pelosi as either a dragon lady or a foolish liberal fail, Americans will be left with a woman who will be more than ready to bear the weight of our expectations on her small strong shoulders.

Oct. 20, 2006 | 5:34 p.m. ET

Iraqi insurgency and the jihadist Tet?

For at least the last two years, government officials and military officers have shied away from comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam – with good reason.  There are few parallels between the two situations.  New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently called the current violence in Iraq “the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive.”  I am sure the leadership – both civilian and military – at the Pentagon cringed when President Bush said that Friedman might be right.

The Tet (lunar new year) Offensive of 1968 was a concerted effort by the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army to strike a decisive blow at South Vietnamese and American forces.  Militarily, it was a defeat for the North Vietnamese and effectively destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force.  However, it created what military strategists call the “significant emotional event” that turned the tide of public opinion in the United States against the war and led to the eventual withdrawal of American forces from Southeast Asia.  The creation of a “significant emotional event” is an acknowledged tactic for an insurgency, along with attempts to influence the media.  Most successful insurgencies do not succeed on the battlefield – they succeed in the national psyche of the occupying country.

Other examples of a “significant emotional event” involving deployed U.S. forces:

  • The bombing of the Marine barracks at Beirut airport in 1983 by Hizballah in which 241 American servicemen were killed.   Less than four months later, President Reagan ordered the Marines to withdraw.
  • The battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in which 18 Army Rangers were killed in a day-long firefight with forces of guerilla leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid.  Although the raid technically achieved its objectives, the loss of two helicopters and the mistreatment of the bodies of American troops caused President Clinton to withdraw the troops a few months later.

Foreign militaries and insurgents alike took note of these events.  Prior to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein provided copies of the book Blackhawk Down (which chronicled the Mogadishu battle) to his senior commanders.  Knowing full well his forces could not effectively fight American troops force-on-force, he believed that using such tactics might either delay the battle long enough or cause enough American casualties to achieve some negotiated settlement.

President Bush, his spokesman Tony Snow and Multinational Forces-Iraq spokesman Major General William Caldwell have all stated that they believe the timing of the increase in violence is not coincidental.  All three have commented that the insurgents may be trying to influence the upcoming U.S. elections.

It could be – we have seen numerous examples that the insurgents, be they Iraqis or foreigners, are well versed in the American media’s impact on public opinion.  They may be increasing the level of attacks on American forces – this has been the bloodiest month for U.S. troops in two years – rather than attacking each other.  Their likely goal: creating that significant emotional event that will either turn American public opinion against the war or influence the upcoming election, or both.

Oct. 19, 2006 | 5:28 p.m. ET

Testimony will come out

In most investigations in Washington, D.C., when a witness is asked to testify and feels that he or she doesn’t really have anything that would damage anybody, they usually say so publicly.  That’s why the situation involving former House clerk Jeff Trandahl is so intriguing.  There he was today, walking into the House Ethics Committee hearing on the Foley affair, and the usually talkative Trandahl was stone.  Hours later, after he finished testimony, Trandahl was stone silent again.  Then, his lawyer issued a statement saying only that Trandahl “has cooperated fully with the investigation.”

That is not the mark of somebody who knows little or has information that won’t damage anybody.  That’s all a big sign pointing to trouble for somebody.  The question is, who?

One of the biggest issues on the table right now is the credibility of House speaker Dennis Hastert.  Hastert has maintained repeatedly that he didn’t know anything about Mark Foley’s contacts with pages until a news organization reported the story publicly three weeks ago.  But House majority leader John Boehner, who also testified today, has stated publicly he told Hastert about Foley’s “page problems” last spring.  And according to Boehner, Hastert replied “it has been taken care of.”  New York Republican Congressman Tom Reynolds has also said he talked to Hastert about Foley last spring.  Foley’s former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, testified last week that he spoke to Hastert’s office three years ago.

Trandahl’s testimony is at the heart of the case over whether the House Republican leadership, led by Speaker Dennis Hastert, deliberately looked the other way in order to protect a Republican House seat.  At this moment, we do not know exactly what Trandahl said today.  But we have other witnesses, including Fordham, who say Trandahl new about Foley’s problems three years ago.  And there is already testimony before the Ethics Committee that Trandahl was involved in the decision to have Fordham talk to Hastert’s office.

In the meantime, almost three weeks after this story first broke and Foley’s lawyer said the congressman didn’t want to “excuse his behavior,” the excuses keep coming.  Foley’s representatives have repeatedly tried to put some of the focus on allegations a priest abused Foley when he was a teenager.  A few days ago, a Foley lawyer held a news conference to say Foley was prepared to tell the name of the priest to the Miami archdiocese.  Now, Rev. Anthony Mercieca, 72, has confirmed that he was the priest who had “contact” with Foley in the 1960’s.  But Mercieca says they never had sex and that the allegations of abuse have been “exaggerated.”  Mercieca’s comments came after the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a story describing several encounters in the 1960’s that the priest admits he had with Foley.  These encounters included massages and skinny dipping.

All of this, of course, may have been horrific for Foley.  None the less, several conservatives have pointed out that there are plenty of adults who were abused as children who do not become abusers themselves.  And for the Republican party, which has repeatedly trumpeted the mantra of “accountability” and “responsibility,” the ongoing handling of all of this by Team Foley is giving Republicans heart burn.  The election is now just over two weeks away, and yet the scandal keeps going.   Sooner or later, the testimony of former House clerk Jeff Trandahl is going to come out, and then it may not just be a scandal about Mark Foley.

Oct. 19, 2006 | 5:25 p.m. ET

John McCain on the College Tour

Check out photos "Hardball's" College Tour at Iowa State University with guest John McCain.  Photos are courtesy of David Walden

David Walden
  
David Walden

David Walden
   
David Walden

David Walden
 
David Walden

Oct. 13, 2006 | 6:11 p.m. ET

Another barrage of GOP scandal

There are just over three weeks until the Congressional elections, and Republicans found themselves facing another barrage of scandal news today.  In the Foley page affair, Congressman John Shimkus, co-chair of the board that oversees the page program, testified to the house ethics committee.   Shimkus said he confronted Congressman Foley a year ago about a sexually suggestive e-mail Foley sent to a former page from Louisiana.  Shimkus testified he did not ask Foley if there were other e-mails or contacts with pages.  And in brief comments to reporters today he said, “I think there’s stuff everybody would have done differently.”

Democrats charge that Shimkus was part of a Republican cover-up a year ago.  And they point to the decision by Shimkus not to inform other members of the page board about the Foley e-mail.  Shimkus would only say today that it was his decision not to inform anybody else.  But he wouldn’t tell reporters today what drove him to make that decision.

Today’s testimony by Shimkus followed an appearance on Thursday by Foley’s former chief of staff Kirk Fordham.  Fordham told the committee he warned Dennis Hastert’s office about Foley three years ago.  Two members of Congress, John Boehner and Tom Reynolds, have said publicly that they spoke directly to Hastert about Foley last spring.  But Hastert has maintained he didn’t know anything until two weeks ago.  Polls show most Americans believe Hastert engaged in a cover-up to protect the GOP control of Foley’s seat.  Still, President Bush gave Hastert another endorsement last night at a fundraiser in Chicago.  The president said, “I am proud to be standing with the current Speaker of the House who is going to be the future Speaker.”

But according to top Republican pollsters, the reality is that Democrats are poised to gain more than enough seats to take control of the House. It’s mostly due to the Iraq war.  But sleaze is also an issue.  And on that front, Republicans were also battered today by the Jack Abramoff influence peddling and corruption scandal.

Republican Congressman Bob Ney pleaded guilty this morning to conspiracy and making false statements.  He acknowledged taking money and gifts in return for Congressional actions on behalf of Abramoff and his clients.

Ney faces up to 10 years in prison.  In a written statement he said today, “I never intended my career in public service to end this way, and I am ashamed it did.”

Ney is the first member of Congress to lose his job thanks to the Abramoff scandal.  But he is just the latest in a string of powerful Republican insiders to get convicted in the probe.

Abramoff pleaded guilty in January.  Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy—former aides of Tom Delay—have pled guilty.  Neil Volz, Congressman Ney’s former chief of staff, has pled guilty.  And this summer, David Safavian, formerly the Bush administration’s top procurement official, was convicted of covering up his actions for Abramoff.

Meanwhile, today in another big development related to the Abramoff scandal, a senate finance committee report authorized by Republican Chairman Charles Grassley, says Abramoff’s dealings with five conservative non-profit organizations shows the groups, “appear to have perpetrated a fraud on taxpayers.”  One of the non-profit organizations, Americans for Tax Reform, is run by conservative activist Grover Norquist.  The report says his group and others violated their tax exempt status by, “laundering payments and then disbursing funds at Mr. Abramoff’s direction,” And by “taking payments in exchange for writing newspaper columns or press releases.”

Over the last decade, the Washington Times has published approximately 50 Norquist op-eds, and e-mail evidence from the Senate report indicates Norquist did get money from Abramoff in exchange for placing columns friendly to Abramoff’s clients.

A spokesman for Norquist calls the pay to publish allegations “political non-sense” pushed by Democratic staff on the Senate committee.  But the FBI has now been asked to investigate Norquist and his organization.

FBI agents are also following a new lead related to a potential congressional witness in the Mark Foley page scandal.

Retiring republican Congressman Jim Kolbe, who says he knew of Foley’s sexually charged contacts with pages at least five years ago, is himself now under investigation.  The FBI is reviewing a camping trip Kolbe took with pages ten years ago in the Grand Canyon.

There may be nothing to the 1996 camping trip.  And the preliminary review may show Kolbe is completely innocent.  Still, Republicans in Congress just can’t seem to get away from the Foley page scandal or the Abramoff corruption probe.  And it is now just 24 days until the Congressional elections.

Oct. 12, 2006 | 4:00 p.m. ET

Many faces of Robin Williams

I hate to say that any one “Hardball” edition is better than all the rest these past nine years.   But I will never forget the afternoon we spent with Robin Williams at Georgetown.

Robin is an endless font of ingenious humor.  Mention a public figure, whether from today’s politics, or from the pages of history, and this incredible man can mimic him on the spot.  I mentioned my hero Winston Churchill, the British WW II prime minister.  Instantly, I’m hearing the great man speak from the stage before me.   He does “Popeye”  on command.  I mentioned the old vaudeville figure George Jessel in the “green room” and I hear “Toastmaster General of the United States” brought back to life by Mr. Williams. 

As we saw at Georgetown before those hundreds of students, Robin can be a serious fellow.  He’s traveled to Iraq several times to entertain the American troops.  He’s also thought deeply about the Iraq War and what it means to our country.

You’ll have to assess the politics of Robin Williams from what you see on “Hardball” tonight.  As for the entertainment, I can only say I have not laughed this long or this often or this hard in as long as I can remember.  I hope you will, too. 

Oct. 10, 2006 | 8:54 p.m. ET

Georgetown loves politics and Robin Williams
(Vidhya Murugesan, "Hardball" intern)

Some of the best interactions in broadcast news occur off-camera. Take the typical "Hardball" set-up and insert a wildly unpredictable comedic genius as well as an audience of adolescent political diehards, and you’ve got a recipe for what was certainly the most irreverent and hilarious production that I’ve seen.

As a Georgetown University student, I eagerly anticipated the 2006 Hardball College Tour’s stop on my campus. In a school where most students secretly (or not so secretly) cultivate a desire to one day run for public office, the taping of a political news show at Georgetown would elicit the same degree of interest as a marquee football game at Notre Dame. That Robin Williams and director Barry Levinson would be on-set to promote their new movie, “Man of the Year,” provided yet another unusual element to the mix.

The day of the show, Chris Matthews and Levinson walked onto the set amidst chants of “Hard-ball,” “Rob-in” and “Bar-ry” in the packed hall. Williams followed soon after, playing drum major to the marching band behind him and muttering wisecracks to the lucky students within earshot as the procession waded through the crowd and made its way to the stage. His manic entrance set the tone for the rest of the show.

A few minutes in, it became clear that that there was no line between Williams and his on-camera persona. He saved some of his best one-liners, which often came in the form of stream-of-consciousness musings, for the commercial breaks. Here are some gems:

On George W. Bush being our next Winston Churchill: “Yeah, and Paris Hilton is our Margaret Thatcher.”

His take on an Oprah vs. Condi 2008 Presidential contest: “That’s a great pay-per-view event. Dr. Phil mediates – be there!”

After being invited to a campus party later that night: “No, I’m just out of rehab. Thanks for offering. Vodka luges are just about the worst thing you can do.”

Williams quickly picked up on the sentiment that the administration was an easy target, as he turned to Matthews during the show and said with a straight face, “George W. Bush is the greatest gift a comedian has ever had.”

Though Georgetown has traditionally been a Catholic school, the increasingly diverse student body has come to lean left of center. This shift can quickly be confirmed by a search on the college networking phenomenon, Facebook.com, where the most popular Georgetown political groups are “Clinton for Dictator” and “Bush is Legally Retarded.”    

Throughout the show, Williams seamlessly wove in and out of one impersonation to the next – Ross Perot, John Kerry, Gary Coleman, you name it. He never stopped being an entertainer, and students seemed to feed off his spontaneity, bursting into impromptu versions of Georgetown’s Fight Song and “Hey Baby.”

Williams knew he had the audience. He could dole out serious life advice without fear of seeming pretentious or out-of-touch. After imploring some students not to drink, “You know who you are,” Williams suddenly waxed philosophical. “Vote—the world is waiting for you,” he said. “I believe that you can do it, so get out there and good luck.”

There was a long pause at the end of this declaration, as students anxiously awaited a punch-line which never came. They soon erupted into applause anyway and waved their “Hardball” flags as Williams and Levinson said their goodbyes and the marching band came on stage to play its final song. The first stop on Hardball’s College Tour was over.

Despite widespread reports of disillusionment among college students, stories of corruption and scandal on Capitol Hill have yet to phase Georgetowners. With so many comedians around to make light of the American political process, students have chosen to find relief in satire rather than lose interest in Washington’s woes altogether.

Oct. 10, 2006 | 5:25 p.m. ET

Foley scandal not going away

Today it became abundantly clear to all of us in the press corps and those of you tracking the story at home, that the Mark Foley page scandal is not about to disappear and that it is proving to be a major distraction for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.  How distracting?  Even Hastert’s advance team and office aides seem a bit befuddled today.  When we first saw the Speaker step to the microphones this morning for a rather hastily arranged news conference, off to the side in some of the camera shots was a cemetery. 

Graveyard references are not exactly what a political leader wants when he or she is facing a scandal that could cost them their post.  But, so it goes right now with Speaker Hastert.  And today, he all but sacrificed his own staff.  Asked about who in his office knew what and when in the Foley page scandal, Hastert replied, “If there was a problem, if there was a cover-up, we should find that out through the investigative process.  They should not continue to handle their jobs.”

Two members of the House Republican leadership, John Boehner and Thom Reynolds, both say they told Hastert last spring about Foley’s sexually suggestive contacts with pages.  And former congressional aide Kirk Fordham told the FBI this week he provided details three years ago to Hastert’s chief of staff Scott Palmer.  Last week, Hastert defended Palmer by suggesting Fordham told Palmer nothing.  Today, Hastert offered a different response, saying, “If anybody is found to have hidden information or covered up information, they really should be gone.”

In the midst of the Foley mess, Hastert is desperately trying to change the subject.  Today, for example, he began his news conference by talking about tax cuts and the economy.  But half a dozen republican congressional candidates have now cancelled previously scheduled appearances with Hastert over the past week.  And the revelations in the Foley scandal keep coming.

Today, retiring Republican lawmaker Jim Kolbe issued a statement saying he knew of a contact Foley made to a page at least five years ago.  Last week, Hastert maintained that no member of Congress knew about Foley’s problems until this year.  It’s quite possible that Hastert wasn’t aware of what Kolbe knew.  Still, Kolbe said he spoke to Foley’s office and the page clerk at the time of the incident in either 2000 or 2001.  And the House Speaker is responsible for oversight of all issues related to that clerk.  So today, there was Hastert, in the awkward position of trying to defend himself by claiming ignorance about the page program and about any issues brought to the  clerk’s attention by Congressman Kolbe.  Hastert said, “He (Kolbe) was on the page board.  That was his job to do that, that confrontation.  I don’t know anything more about that.”

The latest polls show a majority of Americans believe speaker Hastert engaged in a cover-up until two weeks ago and should lose his job.

Meanwhile, some of the former Congressional pages are starting to talk to federal investigators.  Today in Oklahoma, Jordan Edmund spoke to the FBI for two and a half hours.  After the session was over, his lawyer Stephen Jones spoke briefly to reporters and said, “I am not able to discuss the interview except to say it occurred and our client answered all of the questions he was asked.”    

All of this, now less than 4 weeks before the Congressional elections, continues to take a toll on the Republican party.  Virginia Republican Tom Davis, one of the most well-regarded campaign experts in Congress told us today, “You can’t get your message out when this stuff is on the front pages every day.”  Davis was part of a panel this morning sponsored by the National Journal and MSNBC and moderated by "Hardball’s" Chris Matthews.  For an hour, 150 people heard the nation’s top political experts talk about the election.  Several analysts stated that if the election were being held today, the GOP would lose 35 house seats and 8 senate seats.  The National Journal’s Charlie Cook said it’s because the page scandal comes on the heels of new and deeper problems in Iraq.  “The focus was already shifting back to Iraq,” he said, “Then the page scandal hit, which pushed the GOP back even more.”

But taken together, these two issues are putting Republicans in the worst position their party has been in for a decade.  The president’s approval ratings have dropped again into the 30’s; Democrats are now seen as the party that is stronger on values and moral issues; and dozens of Republican-held seats that were once considered safe are now in play.

As Republican Congressman Tom Davis said today, “Individual races still count.  But no matter who you are, there is a breeze coming against you that enables democratic candidates to start about 20 yards ahead of where they would ordinarily be.”

And as far as the Foley scandal is concerned, the winds from that story are not about to die down.  Because on top of the investigation into who new about the  Foley page contacts when, and who is telling the truth now, the House Speaker has now opened up the question of whether the buck really stops with him, or whether accountability will only apply to his staff. 

The GOP’s control of Congress is not dead yet.  But even top Republicans say hopes for a rebound are fading.

Oct. 9, 2006 | 8:13 p.m. ET

When real news becomes fake news

Anyone with an appetite for both news and comedy has noticed over the past few years a strange transformation in progress. While mainstream media news outlets come to seem increasingly timid and irrelevant, comedians like Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and, of course, Jon Stewart are cutting through the B.S. and delivering news in an engaging, incisive way that’s attracting a wider and wider audience.

Think I’m joking? Nope, I’ve got academia to back me up.

A new study by the University of Indiana makes it official. They’ve found that Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” is just as substantive as the broadcasts of the network news outlets.

What’s really striking about these results is that they’re completely unsurprising.

Anyone who’s watched Stewart knows that while he plays it for laughs, he almost always hits the sweet spot of a major story.

Sure, the networks and cable news shows get their share of big interviews, but so does Stewart; John McCain and Pervez Musharraf were recent guests.

Mostly, Stewart and company seem unafraid. They’ll say the things many of us say when we’re not on TV (and they’ll say them funnier). They don’t pander. They cut to the chase.

For instance, President Bush has been traveling the country telling people that Democrats don’t want him to intercept terrorist communications. Stewart would probably call that what it is: a lie. Think any of the big time anchors would dare use the l-word?

More to the point, why was the MSM so quaveringly reluctant to challenge the Bush Administration’s more dubious claims in the run-up to Iraq? Why so slow to expose Bush’s fallacious assertions that his privatization scheme for social security would address the system’s long term fiscal problems? Or to point out that his “moral” stance regarding embryonic stem cell research -- no innocent lives sacrificed even to save lives -- is, given his conduct elsewhere, hypocritical?

There are notable exceptions, of course. Happily, some of them work for MSNBC. The fact that they stand out is a warning in itself.

That Stewart et al don’t even pretend to be journalists just makes the situation all the more embarrassing.  

Strange times we live in. Real news delivered by jokesters while the “real news” too often seems like something of a joke.

Oct. 5, 2006 | 6:15 p.m. ET

Republicans' Hastert dilemma

Dennis Hastert’s pledge today to stay on as speaker and even run again in January is generating statements of support from top Republicans in the House.  But it is also not the decision some rank and file Republicans had wanted.  So, we’ve been asking lawmakers and sources all across the GOP spectrum about Hastert’s calculations.  And here’s what we’ve learned:

According to members of Congress and a Republican activist in contact with Hastert, the speaker felt that if he were to resign, the succession battle would be awfully bloody.  John Boehner, who is next in line, faces his own set of questions in the Foley scandal and has given conflicting accounts of what he knew and did.  Hastert is apparently convinced the allegations of a republican leadership cover-up are going to stick around through the election anyway.  So, according to our sources, Hastert felt it was better to draw the line today, make it clear to all republicans that he is not going anywhere, and try to unify the GOP behind a counter attack strategy against the media and democrats.

The problem, said one Republican, is that Hastert did not give the rank and file Republicans a vehicle for taking the steam out of the current story line.  And the current story line, as this Republican acknowledges, is that the GOP leadership appears to have been more concerned about protecting a congressional seat than looking closely at whether a lawmaker was acting inappropriately towards House pages.  The comment from Hastert that Republicans thought was surprising today was this one.  Hastert spoke of his own race this November and said, “I’m going to run, and when we win, I expect to run for speaker.”

If Republicans keep control of Congress, that leadership election would be in January.  And one top Republican said today that every lawmaker running for re-election now faces the prospect of being asked, “Do you support how Dennis Hastert handled this or not?”  The Republican noted that some GOP candidates comfortably ahead in their re-election effort may be able to dodge this issue by saying the question about Hastert and his handling of the Foley scandal is “premature.”  However, the top Republican said this is going to be an “awfully tough” issue for incumbent GOP lawmakers who are already facing a tight re-election battle.

In the meantime, the house ethics committee investigation has begun.  While there has been no confirmation on who received subpoenas... one democrat said today that the leading democrat on the committee, Howard Berman, would have never signed off on this investigation unless there were subpoenas for testimony and evidence from all of the house leadership, including Hastert.  However, a spokesman for Hastert says the speaker has not yet received a subpoena. 

Also today, a key player in the question of “what did Hastert know and when” gave testimony today to the FBI.  Kirk Fordham, who resigned yesterday as Congressman Thom Reynold’s chief of staff, says he notified Hastert’s staff three years ago about page problems with Foley.  Fordham also says he was told, “Hastert is aware.”  Hastert’s office suggests Fordham is lying.

Somebody in this scandal is not being truthful.  But in the end, it may not even matter.  As it stands, a new AP poll found that half of all registered voters said the recent disclosures will be “very or extremely important” in their vote next month.  That is very bad news for the GOP.  As one Republican has suggested, “we are facing the perfect storm.”  And no Republican we’ve spoken to, away from the cameras, is willing to predict the GOP will keep control of the House.

Oct. 5, 2006 | 2:42 p.m. ET

The Gay purge?

Interesting rumblings going on in Washington right now.  The right wing and its allies in Congress have never liked the wing of the  Republican Party that "tolerated" the gays. Now, that relationship is  inconvenient for Denny Hastert, John Boehner and Tom Reynolds—all of  whom are close to gay Republican staffers—they have adopted a new  strategy.  They support a whispering campaign to say that it is the  staffers fault that Foley was protected.  That whispering campaign is  the aggressive under story in this Foley scandal this week and the  leadership is hoping that it saves their own hides.

Mark Foley is a sick and troubled man whose life in the closet was  only made more painful by his overwhelming need to be accepted by the  Republican leadership.  The leadership did not protect him out of  political correctness.   They protected him because he was a lapdog  for their agenda.  Not only did he raise lots of money for them from  his Palm beach contacts, but to have the "gay" guy support their  legislative agenda  gave them some sense of comfort that they weren’t  really discriminators or bigots.

Foley and his gay Republican friends thought that they were accepted.   It is sadly ironic and unfortunate that legislative discrimination has  not had the same painful impact on them that this week’s whispering  campaign has had.

It is time for the Republican leadership to acknowledge what the rest  of the country already knows:  they screwed up and in a surge of power  abuse protected disgusting behavior and they, not the staffers around  the edges,  must take responsibility for their actions.

Oct. 3, 2006 | 12:10 p.m. ET

Former page reflects on Foley scandal
(Craig Crawford)

If I had not been a Capitol Hill page decades ago, I would not be writing this blog today. Serving as a page in the U.S. Senate during the Watergate era is what turned me on to pursuing a life and career in Washington, D.C. And that is why it always pains me to see these stories of lawmakers abusing the awe and reverence that these young people hold for them. I worry about parents not letting an ambitious child become a page out of fear that they could be harassed in some way. When I was a page, no one imagined such things. For me, it was the single most formative experience in choosing to make politics and government my life’s focus.

These are not bust-out kids spending all day watching videos on their cell phones. Almost by definition, pages are among their generation’s most politically motivated. They look up to members of Congress. Many want to be one someday. Indeed, the rest of the Washington community has become so jaded that pages might be the only people left in town who actually respect the average member of Congress. Which is why it is so upsetting to see the innocence lost when a 16-year-old is the target of such inappropriate advances. That young man is most likely now among the jaded. How sad.

Read more of Craig’s thoughts on www.crawfordslist.com.

Oct. 2, 2006 | 8: 27 p.m. ET

October surprise of a different sort

When Karl Rove told a gathering of right wing media-types to expect an October surprise in the run-up to the mid-term elections, you get the feeling he had something in mind altogether different from the bad news shotgun blast now peppering the Republican party like it’s one of Dick Cheney’s hunting buddies. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

First, there was the leak, then partial release of a classified national intelligence estimate that concluded the Iraq occupation was fueling terror. Hot on its heels comes the new Bob Woodward book which portrays the bush warriors as consistently, even defiantly, inept.

None of that was good news; but it is old news. Iraq has been a boot camp for jihadists for years. And while the Kissinger connection is both fascinating and revealing - back to ‘Nam! -  Woodward is not exactly ahead of the curve. Anyone who hasn’t realized by now that the Bush team is in over its collective head has been on an extended lost weekend.

Inevitably, though, things get sleazy. Turns out, criminal uber-lobbyist Jack Abramof was a lot chummier with Karl Rove’s chief aide than anyone saw fit to admit. Front row seats to Springsteen anyone?

The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, also seems to have been inordinately cozy with Abramof, despite previous denials.

And, whaddya know? The Republicans have their own sex scandal. You’d think Congressman Mark Foley - who once promised to make life a living hell for predatory online pedophiles - would understand that texting 16-year-old congressional pages to ask them how they, er, measure up, is a really, really stupid idea. No privacy in electronic communications, right? as a bonus, the Republican leadership may have known about Foley’s “problem” for months and covered it up.

Then there’s former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, insisting that no one in the White House is giving much thought to the fighting in Iraq and his successor, Bill Frist, proposing to invite the Taliban back into the Afghan government. Talk about coddling terrorists!

Top it all off with Republican congressional candidates in key races falling behind in the polls and you have an October surprise of a different sort - not the sort that’ll put a smile on Karl Rove’s face.

Sept. 28, 2006 | 4:19 p.m. ET

Traps are set for Dems

We knew it was coming.  That moment when the “silly” season (as we call election time  in Washington) morphs into the “mean” season. 

The moment when every action by the Congressional leadership is intended to provide fodder for the attack ads running the last few weeks of the campaign of vulnerable incumbents and challengers is here.

There will be a few big votes over the next few days.  Will they markedly change anything going on in our country that people care about?  No.  Will they affect the war in Iraq? No.  Will they affect the economy? No. Healthcare, wages or taxes? No.

Here are the two Senate votes to look for:

Torture:  The Democratic leadership is stuck.  They had too much faith in the independence of Senators John Warner, Lindsay Graham and John McCain who last month were girding for a showdown with the White House over the torture of prisoners.  The Dems said at the time, “We’re with those three Senators and will vote to back them up.”  Of course now those three Senators, by most experts’ accounts, have caved and given the President and the CIA largely what they sought – to be able to torture people when they want to – and the Dems have to decide now whether they will vote for a bad bill or be subject to the attack ad that they are soft on terrorism.

Immigration – what a disaster.  A few weeks ago the conventional wisdom was that George Bush failed massively in his push to pass immigration reform.  Now the White House and the Republican leadership in both houses are behind an immigration bill that calls for a big wall to be built around the country.  The proposal deals with nothing that was important to Bush or anyone who really wants to solve this issue, like what we do with illegal immigrants who are already here, how we integrate them, judge them or enforce with other countries other than Mexico.  No, the vote is on building a wall.  Here’s the thing nobody is telling you – the Bush Administration already has the authority to build a wall.  INS has the starter funds and they don’t need another act of Congress.  But doing nothing wouldn’t give them a potential attack ad suggesting that Democrats don’t care about illegal immigrants taking jobs from hardworking Americans. 

These are pathetic traps that further no public purpose.  Yet, they will be the most hotly debated issues in Congress over the next few days.  Will Democrats take the bait?

Sept. 25, 2006 | 1:55 p.m. ET

Not safe. Not safer. Less safe.

“We are fighting them on the streets of Baghdad so we don’t have to fight them here at home.”

This has been the mantra of the bush administration regarding an invasion and occupation they’re pleased to lump into the category “war on terror.” It’s usually paired with, “we’re safer but not yet safe.”  In other words, we the Republicans have made you more secure through our steadfast efforts in Iraq, but not safe enough that you should consider voting for the “cut and run” democrats.

Now, we have word of a comprehensive national intelligence estimate reflecting the combined assessments of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies that reveals both assertions to be utterly false.

If you are an Iraq War diehard, an ardent believer in “staying the course,” you now have to face the fact that the best opinion of our government - the real opinion, not the Rose Garden spin - is that our presence in Iraq has made us less safe, more vulnerable to terrorism. Not safe. Not safer. Less safe.

“The Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse,” is how one Intel official summed it up. The report says Iraq is now a training ground for terrorists and the primary cause of a metastasizing jihadist ideology around the world.

With that, the last vestige of an excuse for this misbegotten war evaporates. Those who continue to support placing young American lives in danger to support this dubious mission will now have to explain why we must do so, not for the enhancement, but at the expense of national security.

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