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Setting up the State of the Union

David Shuster blogs, "We‘re going to be looking at a couple keys tonight.  It‘s not only going to be was the president factually accurate, and you think the White House is going to be far more careful this time, but when he talks about the Iran, what are the main themes and how often does he repeat those themes? "

Setting the stage for State of the Union (David Shuster)

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The more you pound a particular issue or particular phrase, that‘s the way you frame the national agenda. 

We‘re going to be looking at a couple keys tonight.  We‘re told the president will focus on health care, energy, Iran.  What‘s so interesting about tracking the number of times the president refers to Iran is when you look at the 2005 State of the Union, the president only mentioned Iran three times.  He talked about Social Security 18 times which was his big domestic agenda. 

This year, being the big agenda, health care, how many times does he talk about health care and how many times does he not talk about Social Security.  That will be fascinating. 

Think about it, the number of times the president can say we need to stay in Iraq because it‘s necessary, we need to keep troops there because it‘s necessary.   He mentioned necessary eight times in the press conference last week.  When the people hear the president say something is necessary, it becomes difficult to argue against. 

Likewise, the president has an opportunity this time in the State of the Union speech to hit themes over and over.  We‘ll be counting how many times he hits the themes.  Remember there won‘t be much of an opposition except in the Democratic response.

It‘s not only going to be was the president factually accurate, and you think the White House is going to be far more careful this time, but when he talks about the Iran, what are the main themes and how often does he repeat those themes?  Does he talk about Iran being a nuclear threat, having weapons we don‘t want them to have, or does he mention Iran in the context of democracy, liberty, three people having more of a vote as far as reformist issues. 

The way he frames that and the number of times he repeats that I think is going to be very telling and our viewers should find very telling.  Was the speech effective?  How many people thought the speech did what it was supposed to do? 

We'll be all over this story both on-air and on-line.  Tonight in Hardball's special State of the Union coverage, we'll go to the Capitol Hill hot spot where Senators, Congressmen, celebrities and powerbrokers gather, the Bistro Bis restaurant.  As legendary House Speaker Tip O'Neill put it, "here in Washington, we're all friends after six o'clock."  We'll see if that still holds, when we bring you live reports on MSNBC TV from Bistro Bis for reaction to the President's State of the Union address. 

I, along with my other Hardblogger All-Stars, will also keep you up-to-date all night right here. 

We'll see you on-line and on-air.

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Can Hillary win in 2008?  (Chris Matthews)

Chris Matthews vlogs about what recent polls may indicate about Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the White House in '08.


'You get the Democracy you deserve'  (Craig Crawford)

If our Democracy really works, Roe v. Wade should be reversed. That’s what the politics of the past couple decades demand, and Samuel Alito seems to be right Supreme Court pick to help do it.

Republicans control the House, Senate and White House for lots of reasons, and promising voters to produce a pro-life Supreme Court ranks high on the list. Alito said nothing in his Judiciary Committee hearing to suggest that as a justice he would veer from his past stands against abortion rights. Most significantly, he refused to clearly say Roe is “settled law,” a legal code phrase that even President Bush’s first pick, John Roberts, agreed to.

While plenty of pro-choice voters backed the President and his party, there is no ambiguity about the GOP’s pro-life position. It’s been in their national platform since Reagan days. That’s why elections matter. As the saying goes, “You get the Democracy you deserve.”

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Bin Laden emerges from obscurity  (Evan Kohlmann)

After over a year of deafening silence, Al-Qaeda’s top commander Osama Bin Laden has once again emerged from obscurity with a new audio recording broadcast on Al-Jazeera, boasting of Al-Qaeda’s role in recent terrorist bombings in Europe and promising to carry out similar operations in the United States in the coming months.  Though Bin Laden professed to be speaking directly to the American people, it seems more likely that this latest message was directed primarily towards his supporters in the Muslim world.  If this is the case, there is really no need to search for hidden codes or secret messages—the meaning is quite apparent.  Indeed, while Al-Qaeda continues to prosper in certain areas of the Middle East and South Asia, Osama Bin Laden’s personal image has begun to wane slightly as other extremist leaders vying for the throne have achieved equal, if not greater infamy.  In particular, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has presented an unusual dark horse challenge to Bin Laden’s leadership position at the top of Al-Qaeda.  In contrast to Bin Laden, Zarqawi is known for releasing a steady stream of communiqués and audio recordings, keeping in regular contact with his constituents.  It took nearly 18 consecutive months of bloody ambushes and suicide bombings masterminded by Zarqawi to convince Bin Laden to grudgingly unify ranks with him. 

By hiding in the shadows for too long, Bin Laden risks allowing younger and more ruthless competitors like Zarqawi to change the very momentum and direction of Al-Qaeda—similar to the way that a young, fanatical Bin Laden once seized the reigns of the organization from its original founder, Shaykh Abdullah Azzam.  As questions mounted around the world over whether Bin Laden was dead or alive—and as a steady stream of top associates like Abu Faraj al-Liby and Abu Hamza Rabia were reported captured and killed—it became necessary for Bin Laden to personally reassure his stalwart followers that he still “signs the checks” and that Al-Qaeda continues to progress forward in orchestrating terrorist plots inside the continental United States.  Perhaps there is a small minority in the Western world who endorse negotiating with terrorists and they will certainly point to Bin Laden’s farcical suggestion of a “truce” to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that we should immediately withdraw our military forces there.  Those naïve enough to believe Bin Laden in this regard should be reminded that in April 2004, when Bin Laden issued an audio recording offering the same “truce” to Europe, his organization was simultaneously planning deadly suicide bombing attacks in London and elsewhere.  Bin Laden’s latest audio recording should serve as a warning of how politically and technologically sophisticated Al-Qaeda remains—an organization that is still quite capable of striking devastating blows on its adversaries, including the United States.

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Proposed Lobbying Reforms Don’t Change the Basic Problem (Hilary Rosen)

How strange to be a former lobbyist sitting back watching the hand wringing debate over lobbying reforms and ethics.  To date nothing I’ve seen from Capitol Hill makes sense to me and the media is too consumed with ethics and revelation to talk about the real problem. 

Damn straight when I gave a $1,000 or $2,000 to a lawmaker I wanted him to listen to my business proposition.  And when I helped organized an event that raised $50,000 or $100,000 you bet I expected their vote.  Why else do it?  Now you can argue that the Member of Congress already took that position and my colleagues and I were just showing our support for their position.  But how can the public really be sure of that?   

The proposed reforms that everyone is talking about limit relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers – no trips, no lunches, no ball games, etc.  EXCEPT FOR ONE THING!  It turns out that when you limit access to lawmakers for all of these things, the only time a lobbyist can talk to a lawmaker is at fundraisers.  Any kind of fundraiser by the way.

A lobbyist friend told me yesterday that enacting these reforms is like creating a “restraint of trade” on behalf of current lobbyists.  Only those who already know members of Congress are sure to succeed.  Anyone else coming in - forget it, no new relationships.  The old school will be raking it in.

Members of Congress are CONSUMED with raising money for their re-elections.  It has become a burden.  And no matter how cavalier they are about it in public, their hand wringing in private is certain.   And anyone, including lobbyists, who lessen that anxiety, is considered a better friend than those that don’t.  It is just a fact.  No lobbying reforms will change that fact.

Corruption is sometimes obvious, like with Jack Abramoff, but just as often in Washington it is a subtle thing that happens to decent people. 

The ONLY answer to all of this is public financing of elections.  Then lobbying becomes genuine “education” and relationships are built on respect and constituent interest.  It seems so obvious.

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Martin Luther King's legacy in the voting booth (Chris Matthews)

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Iran: What are our military options?  (Lt. Colonel Rick Francona)

Iran's recent restart of its uranium enrichment program again raises the specter of military action, be it American, Israeli, combined American-Israeli, or in the abstract, European. Can a military operation be successful, and who has the capability to execute it? Good questions. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the option of military action has been selected.

First, it is important to define the objective of any military action. That will determine what and how military assets are used. I think it is a fair assumption that no one is seriously considering the actual invasion of Iran to remove the present regime. It is also safe to assume that no one is contemplating the use of large conventional ground force formations to defeat the Iranian military. The goal of this operation would be to cripple Iran's suspected nascent nuclear weapons program. The most viable option is the use of aerial-delivered munitions and possibly the introduction of special operations forces.

Assuming that the goal is to cripple the Iranian nuclear program, I think that will be difficult - not impossible, but certainly difficult. The Iranians are a smart and resourceful people. Like the rest of the world, they saw what the Israeli Air Force did to Iraq's French-supplied Osirak nuclear reactor outside Baghdad at At-Tuwaythah in June 1981. In one air raid, the Israelis virtually brought the Iraqi nuclear program to a halt. It would have taken years for the Iraqis to reconstitute this critical element of their nuclear weapons effort.

Unlike the Iranians, the Iraqis had placed their eggs in one basket - the core part of the Iraqi program was located in one place, above ground, in a lightly defended area. Conversely, the Iranians have dispersed their program facilities over much of the country, mostly underground or least somewhat buried. Many of the facilities are protected by recently-acquired state-of-the-art Russian air defense systems, or at the least, aging Shah-era (but still capable) American-supplied air defense systems.

An air attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would have to strike multiple hardened or semi-hardened targets over a widespread area. Even if we know where the facilities are, getting them all will be difficult. Could we or the Israelis do it? The Israelis have the talent and I am sure at least the same intelligence we have. Of course, in the post Iraq-WMD (weapons of mass destruction) era, that raises the question: is the intelligence accurate?

As a Middle East specialist/intelligence officer, I focused on this area for almost three decades. I am fairly confident that we have adequate imagery intelligence on the facilities we know about. I can't really speak to the signals intelligence - I have been out of that business too long. As for the human intelligence, unless things have changed since I retired, Iran remains one of the most difficult targets, even tougher than the Iraqi target.

For argument's sake, let's assume the intelligence is accurate. How would we cripple the Iranian program most effectively? The usual first answers are "the Israelis will do it" or "the U.S. military would do it, if they were not already fully engaged fighting counterinsurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan."

Let's look at the Israeli options. The option is not a good one. I doubt the Israeli Air Force can project enough power that far from home base. They can certainly project limited power that far (as evidenced by their strike on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunis in 1985) or massive power to neighboring countries, but Iran is probably two countries too far for this size of an operation. Israel's best (and only realistic) option is get overflight permission from Turkey, a country with whom they have a long-standing defense cooperation agreement. Given Turkish sensitivity to Iranian, Arab and other Muslim public opinion, I doubt that Turkey would cooperate in this instance. If, and I stress the word, Israel gets overflight permission from Ankara, the complexity of this type of operation will require concentration on limited targets, choosing the most critical piece of the Iranian program and destroying that. It is not a good option, but the leaders in Tel Aviv may regard the Iranian program as a seriousenough threat to try it anyway.

As for American capabilities, we come back to the common argument that the U.S. military is already fully engaged, fighting counterinsurgencies in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On the surface this may be true, but if you consider the different resources of the American armed forces, you will find that the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps are bearing the brunt of the commitment to operations in those two theaters. The two services that that will be the main force behind any operations against Iran, the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy, currently are relatively unencumbered and capable of offensive operations on the scale required.

Again, if the intelligence is accurate, the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy have the means to cripple the Iranian program if ordered to do so. Let's examine some of the possibilities. The USAF could use Iraqi air bases, but I doubt we would get permission from the Iraqi government - the Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government is not inclined to antagonize Shi'a Iran. Using air bases in any of the Gulf countries or the central Asian republics (that have supported U.S. operations in Afghanistan) is equally implausible. While these are definite limitations, they are not show-stoppers. Over the years, the Air Force and Navy have developed a family of weapons that do not rely on host nations for support. The Air Force's long-range air launched cruise missiles can be fired from aircraft flying from the United States. The Navy can fire sea launched Tomahawks from international waters. Can these stand-off weapons deliver the punch needed? Probably not alone. However, when combined with stealth-capable bombers delivering precision guided munitions against a series of targets across Iran, the objective of the operation can be achieved. Remember - we are not trying to topple the regime in Tehran, merely cripple its nuclear program. We are not trying to defeat them - we are trying to modify their behavior.

In the best of all worlds, it will not come to this. However, I am certain that somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, just this kind of planning is already taking place - just in case.

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Alito: Calm and measured tones (Ben Ginsberg)

Courtesy Ben Ginsberg

Watching the hearings, I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between the calm and measured tones of Judge Alito and the, um, not so calm and measured tones of some Democratic Senators.  The Democrats’ approach to the nomination hearings became defined Wednesday by Senator Kennedy’s guilt-by-association questioning and Senator Biden’s endless elocution.  Judge Alito never took the bait.

While those in Washington not personally obsessed with the lobbying scandal paid rapt attention to the hearings, it’s hard to imagine that: (1) many people outside Washington watched for a long time or (2) when they did, felt any warmer and fuzzier about their nation’s Capital.  Here, after all, was an obviously brilliant jurist with a nice family getting hammered for listing on a 20-year-old job application an organization of which he now has no recollection and many of whose positions he repudiated; for an obscure recusal issue involving a mutual fund investment that a series of legal ethics experts found not germane, and for not committing to a liberal Democratic litmus test to secure those Senators’ votes for his confirmation.

It’s enough, I suspect, to make even partisan Democrats who know the man take umbrage.  Look for some of them to want to set the record straight. 

As for the hearings themselves, it’s hard to see how the Democrats succeeded in reliving their judicial Woodstock otherwise known as the Bork hearings.  No issues that would allow them to rationalize the demands of their special interest groups to obfuscate have yet arisen.  While Democratic Senators may stall to appease those special interest groups, it doesn’t look like Samuel Alito’s elevation to the United States Supreme Court is in doubt.

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And the winner is - Alito (Pat Buchanan)

After a full day of interrogation by Senate Judiciary, it’s a good bet Sam Alito will be confirmed -- but a better bet Joe Biden is never going to be president.

Lord Almighty, can no one shut this man down?  Friends don’t let friends go on like this.  Biden took thirty minutes to throw five pitches, averaging a six-minute wind-up, then saw Alito slap every one through the infield for a base hit.  Send this boy to the showers and give his time to Schumer.

As of mid-day in the third day of hearings, the winners are Alito, the conservatives who derailed Harriet Miers, and the President who took his rout on Miers like a man and sent back a judge who is everything a Supreme Court nominee should be: a person of character, deep knowledge and judicial temperament whose polestar is the Constitution and now some mushy liberal concept what our world ought to look like.

With Roberts as Chief Justice, Scalia and Thomas likely to be around a decade or more, and the 55-year-old Alito joining them, as Court liberals getting long in the tooth, it looks like the coming Catholic and conservative hour on the Supreme Court.  Aquinas and Natural Law are in; the “living Constitution” of Warren, Brennan, Douglas and Marshall is yesterday.

And though Alito dissented from Bob Bork and said he has an “open mind” on Roe v Wade, he signaled what may be coming when he declared that Roe is not some “super-duper precedent” or “inexorable command.” 

Roe could go, and Schumer & Co. know it, but can do nothing about it.  Unless Democrats have a hole card no one knows about, George W. Bush is one justice away from succeeding where Nixon, Ford, his father and even Ronald Reagan all failed -- in recapturing the United States for constitutionalism for the first time since Earl Warren raised his hand to take the oath and began violating it by imposing a social revolution from above that ignited the conservative backlash that endures to this day.

The dismal performance of Judiciary Committee Democrats may be due not just to their predilection for preening and pontificating, but to the pathetic case they have been given to make against the judge.

Alito only joined Concerned Alumni of Princeton after the ROTC building was firebombed and his unit was booted off campus by snotty students and the customarily cowardly Ivy League administrators.  CAP did not object to blacks on campus, but to affirmative action.  As for “Machine-Gun Sam’s” overturning of a ban on buying automatic weapons, Judge Alito only ruled that the law had been mistakenly grounded in the wrong constitutional principle, as he pointed to the purblind legislators how it might more correctly be done.

As for “strip searches” of girls, let me suggest the Democrats might want to give those questions to someone other than Teddy.  

Democrats are said to be mulling over a filibuster.  A word of advice to my liberal brethren.  Unless you have every Democrat lined up behind you, and six solid Republicans, don’t go there. 

For among the Republican Gang of Seven who agreed not to oppose a filibuster on “extraordinary” grounds are Mike DeWine who seems just wild about Sam and Lindsay Graham who is said to have taken part in the “murder boards.”  As for McCain, do any Democrats really think someone who is looking at the GOP nomination in 2008 is going to support a Harry, Hillary, Teddy and Chuck filibuster to kill the nomination of Sam Alito.

Prediction: If Democrats filibuster, they will get rolled, they will get Alito and they will be stripped of the filibuster weapon forever, which they are going to need when Michael Luttig and Edith Jones arrive for their confirmation cross-examination -- by Joe Biden.  O happy day!

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American at odds with news out of D.C.  (Chris Matthews)

Check out Chris's lastest vlog.

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Alito hearings question morals of nominee  (Bob Shrum)

The first day of the Alito hearings were a fascinating exercise in Kabuki theater. Judge Alito sat impassively as members of the Senate Judiciary Committee spoke at him and the cameras, laying the groundwork for the questions to come in subsequent days. Yet everybody realizes that Alito will do his best not to answer the questions that actually matter, including the Senators who promised to ask them. Instead we’ll hear more bromides, as we did when he finally spoke briefly and irrelevantly, about how he played baseball in high school. In any event, why should anyone assume that Alito’s answers are worth the air they’re spoken on? To extricate himself from the embarrassing memo he wrote importuning the Reagan Administration for a promotion—a memo in which, for example, Alito Borked himself by attacking the Supreme Court ruling that elections should be decided by one person, one vote—we’re now told to disregard  his statements because the memo was just a “job application.” Maybe that’s a fitting rationalization from a Republican Party whose poster-boy lobbyist Jack Abramoff, lied on a multi-million dollar loan application, but it raises a fundamental doubt about these hearings. In effect, the hearings are a job application too – and if we are supposed to assume that Alito’s words in 1985 were unreliable, why should we trust what he says now?

So as the Kabuki theater continues, with senators congratulating Alito before trying to pose the question that may nudge him onto the road to defeat, we ought to face the fact that we know more about what Alito will do on the court than we have known about any other first-time Supreme Court nominee since Thurgood Marshall, whose record was unequivocally progressive and who never attempted to hide it. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, the moderate sounding chairman of the Judiciary Committee who always ends up voting with Bush, brought the play-acting to a high (or low) point when he said there were Alito decisions that made the judge look like a flaming liberal.  Specter didn’t cite any in his opening statement; if he searches some out, they’ll be few and far between; and seeing them through Specter’s spectacles would require labored explanation and the suspension of common sense. The problem with Alito isn’t that he isn’t a liberal; Sandra Day O’Connor, the justice he hopes to replace, isn’t one either. The problem is that Sam Alito is a very bright ideologue who’s out of the mainstream, and who was picked by the president precisely because he could pass muster with the neo-cons and far right forces that found Harriet Miers insufficiently and unreliably reactionary.


Washington's new gilded age (Craig Crawford)

Jack Abramoff opened Pandora's Box. We are about to witness Washington's biggest corruption scandal in decades.

Republicans obviously stand to lose the most as the shocking array of "money-for-favors" revelations from Abramoff almost exclusively involve the GOP. But that is only because Republicans control both chambers of Congress and the White House. Democrats are too weak to be worth bribing. If they were in power, or if they regain some power in November's fight for control of Congress, a bribery scandal would envelop them too.

All of Washington could and should lose face in this scandal. Money is the dominant political party in the nation's capital. This is an era where the average House incumbent spends $1 million to stay in office, and senators spend far more. Sure, there will be efforts to argue that Abramoff's web of corruption was the exception, an isolated case involving a handful of greedy politicians and their friends. Not true. Washington has become a modern "Gilded Age," the title of Mark Twain's devastating novel about the city's corruption in the 1800's.

A reform era will likely follow this scandal, as voters throw the bums out. But another round of flawed reform laws will not stop the tide of cash from subverting democracy. The only true reform is for voters to stop reflexively electing the candidates who spend the most money. For those candidates are the ones who must grant favors to people like Abramoff in exchange for the flow of cash they desperately need to stay in office. For starters, the electorate should ignore political ads on TV, which is where most of this corrupt money goes. Anyone who bases their vote on TV ads should not vote at all. Electing representatives and senators who spend the least money is the only reform that would prevent another Abramoff scandal.

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Stay on message, And their effort was powerful and effective. But it went nowhere in the Congress because the moderate republicans didn’t want it to.   They were the extra votes the majority didn’t have in the Finance Committee and the Ways and Means Committee to get the President’s priority off the ground.

Just recently again, We saw Olympia Snowe of Maine lie in front of social spending cuts and prevent the majority from moving that money into more tax cuts for the wealthy.  And the President’s Iraq agenda won’t get much more support in the Senate until he accommodates John McCain on prison torture.

In a dramatic moment several years ago, Jim Jeffords, tired of being ignored and dismissed by the Republican majority and the White House, switched parties in a fashion that put the Democrats back in the majority.

It is critical in the next few months for the Democrats in the Congress to unveil their programs showing how America will do better with change and stick with a good message.  It might be even more critical for them to work harder to make alliances with the people who truly hold the power in the Congress today, the Republican moderates and John McCain.

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