Then there's the loss of three laptops, containing secret files, that State Dept. employees have been allowed to tote around. The news that one of them belonged to Morton Halperin, perennial scapegoat to the right, ensures that the incident will turn into a scandal. Madeleine Albright was even moved to assume in front of her whole staff that petulant, assistant-principal tone that passes for diplomacy when she inflicts it on foreign leaders of twice her intelligence. "If you are not a professional about security," Albright sniffed before a mandatory assembly of State Dept. hacks, "you are a failure."
Okay, then, what would you call the Clinton aides who spent last week trying to explain to a congressional committee how they came to "lose" 246,000 subpoenaed e-mails at the height of the Lewinsky scandal? The excuses the witnesses came up with for this "oversight" were dazzlingly disingenuous. Then-White House counsel Charles Ruff tried to claim that his "immediate focus" on the Starr investigation distracted him from the e-mails (which had been requested by the Starr investigation). A White House administrator said that he and his colleagues were so busy ensuring that the executive-branch computers were Y2K-compliant that they didn't have the time to retrieve those e-mails.
But couldn't the White House counsel's office?which at the time of the investigation had dozens of lawyers in it?assign one lawyer to the e-mails and the rest to the more general Starr investigation? And how many techies are we supposed to think the White House has? One guy who comes in part-time?
This is a classic Democratic dodge. They spend decades bloating every single department of the federal government with twice the staff it needs and running it like the far-flung, high-tech corporate leviathan that it is. Then, whenever they're asked to offer some minimal gesture of accountability, they make believe they're still working in the Age of Jackson, when congressmen wrote their own letters and a cabinet secretary's staff consisted of a 14-year-old boy who refilled the inkwells. When they're demanding the right to regulate, say, the entire health industry, they claim omniscience and expertise; but if you ask them to forward an e-mail, they explain that they can't walk and chew gum at the same time.
Good in Theory In the wake of George W. Bush's victory in the Republican primaries, Al Gore supporters were through the roof with glee, treating the elections as if they were already decided. Gore hasn't run a particularly bad campaign thus far, but things are going alarmingly wrong for him. Pollster William Schneider discovered that voters in their 20s back Bush almost 2-to-1. Gore is in trouble in that whole tier of progressive states in the northern Midwest?trailing in Iowa, tied in Wisconsin?that have turned into must-wins for Democrats. He's also behind in Washington and Oregon, which have arguably become part of the Democratic presidential base. Then, last week, a pretty good Ohio State poll showed Bush up by 9 points in West Virginia. You have to be a real stiff to lose West Virginia as a Democrat; the last three presidential candidates to manage it were Adlai Stevenson (in Eisenhower's 1956 rout), George McGovern and Walter Mondale. We seem to be in the hands of a hard-to-explain but hard-to-shake dislike. The cliche that gets applied by old Washington beat reporters in such circumstances is: "The dogs just aren't eating that dog food."
In the abstract, it looked like Gore had a lot of good stuff to talk about?guns, prescription drugs, Social Security and the like. But "where the rubber meets the road," as Gore used to say, he gets wrapped up in contradictions. He's trying to mix a Stonewall Tavern strategy in the Northern states with a Stonewall Jackson strategy in the Southern ones. Last week in Atlanta, he made a call for 50,000 new policemen (in a country that is now arguably over-policed), and sprinkled his appeal with scripture quotes. Unfortunately for Gore, there's not much crime left to get "tough" on; so he's sunk to urging tougher sentences for telemarketing crimes against the elderly. (He wouldn't dream of making a more general assault on the powerfully connected telemarketing companies that profit by selling private information about non-senior citizens.) After having criticized Republicans for their zeal to muck around with the Constitution, Gore himself urged a constitutional amendment to protect "victims' rights." Victims' rights is one of the emptier ideas that came out of the right-wing outrage over crime in the late 1980s. It basically consists of allowing the family of a murder victim to hang around in a courtroom after sentence has been pronounced and taunt the murderer. So what's left?
Probably the best example of a strategy that ought to work in theory but is a dud in practice is Gore's warning that Bush would nominate justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Bush has made it crystal-clear that he doesn't want to do that. Voters know this. So the National Abortion Rights Action League's tv campaign against Bush is looking like a huge mistake. It has no effect on hard-line pro-choicers, who'll vote for Gore anyway. It doesn't scare pro-choice swing voters. Its only effect is only to convince pro-lifers that they can stick with Bush rather than defecting to Pat Buchanan.
And what would happen if a Bush Supreme Court did overturn Roe v. Wade? The decision is only important because we have no Federal legislation permitting abortion. With Roe gone, a frightened Congress would be moving on a law to permit abortions within 48 hours. Granted, it might ban partial-birth abortions, but all that would do is remove an electoral albatross for Democrats.
Hammer and Tongs As its electoral strategy hit unexpected bumps, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee decided to sue House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, arguing that his fundraising practices constitute a "scheme to extort political contributions from individuals and entities with interests before Congress." In other words, the DCCC is trying to get a sympathetic judge to tie up all Republicans' campaign funds, on the grounds that Tom DeLay is doing exactly what every single other politician in both parties does for a living.
Robert Bauer, DCCC counsel, says of DeLay: "These are not random acts of coercive fundraising. This is a systematic effort to build a political organization based on illicit fundraising and the use of organizations to conceal that money." What does the word "systematic" mean in that sentence? C.S. Lewis, in his great book, Studies in Words, notes that, since most people are ideologues at heart, it is the tendency of all adjectives to gravitate toward the status of synonyms for "good" and "bad," which is what (to use just a few of Lewis' examples) "noble," "gentlemanly," "kind" and "knavish" have done over the years. "Systematic," as Tom DeLay's foes apply the word, means nothing more than "wicked, wicked bad."
Even sloppier is Pat Kennedy's allegation that DeLay's tactics constitute "systematic extortion." Extortion is always systematic?otherwise, it's not extortion. The Mafia says: "Pay me money by 5 p.m. or your windows will be broken." Imagine what un-systematic extortion would look like: "Hey, let's get Joey the Lip to smash some windows at random and hope someone will pay us some money!"
Kennedy accused DeLay of "hammering contributors for money." You could see what he was getting at here. A 1995 Washington Post article by David Maraniss and Michael Weisskopf began: "In the annals of the House Republican revolution, a pivotal moment came last April when an unsuspecting corporate lobbyist entered the inner chamber of Majority Whip Tom DeLay, whose aggressive style has earned him the nickname 'the Hammer.'"
Earned from whom? Over the years I've known a lot of people on DeLay's staff. I've talked to other members of the Republican leadership about him. I've talked to DeLay's worst Democratic enemies. The conclusion I've reached is that this "Hammer" nickname was invented for DeLay by Democrats for no other purpose than slandering him. DeLay gets called "the Hammer" about as often as I get called Pedro Martinez.