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Down in the Mud


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Down in the Mud

By Howard Kurtz

Washington Post Staff Writer

Thursday, October 26, 2006; 9:40 AM

Let's review the rather low state of this campaign season:

A GOP ad against Senate candidate Harold Ford -- featuring a white seductress who says she met the black lawmaker at a Playboy party and that he should call her -- is so odious and racially tinged that Ford's Republican opponent, Bob Corker, denounces it.

Republican Wyoming congresswoman Barbara Cubin tells a wheelchair-bound Libertarian candidate after a debate: "If you weren't sitting in that chair, I'd slap you in the face."

Hillary Clinton's opponent says she used to be ugly -- and why did Bill marry her, anyway? -- but now looks okay thanks to millions in plastic surgery.

Rush Limbaugh says Michael J. Fox is exaggerating his Parkinson's in political ads.

A John Kerry spokesman calls carping liberal bloggers "cowards."

Anybody out there feel like taking a shower?

Look, politics is a contact sport. Sharp attacks are part of the game. So is negative advertising. But there's such a thing as going too far, and suddenly we're awash in case studies.

Besides, dissing Parkinson's victims and people in wheelchairs and making fun of women's looks is probably going to backfire, no?

Meanwhile, President Bush now seems to have news conferences all the time, doesn't he? I wonder if that ends on Nov. 7.

His new talking point -- that the Iraq government will try to meet some benchmarks to demonstrate progress -- kind of blew up on him yesterday:

"Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki put himself at odds with the American government that backs him on Wednesday, distancing himself from the American notion of a timetable for stabilizing Iraq and criticizing an American-backed raid on a Shiite militia enclave.

"Speaking in Baghdad just hours before President Bush gave a news conference in Washington," says the NYT , "Mr. Maliki tailored his remarks for his own domestic audience, reassuring the millions of Shiites who form his power base that he would not bend to pressure by the American government over how to conduct internal Iraqi affairs.

"His comments stood in stark contrast to the message given on Tuesday by the two top American officials in Iraq, General George W. Casey Jr. and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said the timetable for political measures was one the Iraqi government had accepted."

Could there be a bigger embarrassment?

This kind of undercut the Bush presser, covered here by the LAT :

"President Bush admitted today that the situation on the ground in Iraq is not following the script he would have written, but he pledged to keep U.S. troops there as long as necessary to prevent terrorism from spilling into the United States. 'If I did not think our mission in Iraq was vital to America's security, I would bring our troops home tomorrow,' he said at a news conference."

Joe at Americablog notes that the White House had billed the appearance as making major news on the Mess O' Potamia:

"Okay media: where's the substantial statement on Iraq? You were DUPED again by the White House. You are all like Charlie Brown kicking the football. The Bush team does this to you over and over. It's a scam for free air time on all the networks. The funny thing is that this time, it hurts the GOP. Bush is making Iraq THE ONLY ISSUE and that hurts the Republicans."

Slate's John Dickerson says the problem with Iraq isn't Bush's rhetoric:

"The linguistic gamesmanship may be absurd, but it's true that 'stay the course' hasn't been President Bush's policy for a while, if it ever was. On the ground, U.S. military tactics have been shifting all the time. Unfortunately, this semantic truth should comfort no one, least of all Republicans. The problem in Iraq is not that new tactics haven't been tried. It's that they have been, and they've failed.

"Democrats have enjoyed using the 'stay the course' expression in their campaign ads to suggest that the administration, and Republican candidates, are oblivious and rigid. Recently Republicans have started to embrace a similar sentiment to distance themselves from Iraq policy. 'We can't continue to keep doing the same things and expect different results,' said Sen. George Allen. 'We must adapt. We must adjust our tactics.' Sen. Lindsey Graham said, '[W]e're on the verge of chaos, and the current plan is not working...It's [the administration's] job to come up with a game plan' to end the violence.

"If simply adjusting tactics or drawing up a new game plan were all that were necessary to reduce the violence in Iraq, then U.S. forces would already be on their way home. Since at least early 2004, the administration has been asking military leaders to be more flexible. After the particularly gory March 2004 murder of four civilian contractors, Gen. John Abizaid's initial plan was to flatten the city of Fallujah, but the administration took a different path after talking to locals. Their sources told them such an overwhelming and indiscriminate response would permanently alienate the Iraqis and spoil the chance for political progress.

"Since then, the U.S. military has tried a series of different tactics. And on the stump, the president has increasingly tried to show that he and his military advisers have learned lessons and adapted . . .

"What's being lost in the semantic game over 'stay the course' is the new set of choices that really confront the administration. They are not tactical. They are strategic and they are all painful: partitioning Iraq into semiautonomous regions, changing the Al-Maliki government, asking for diplomatic cooperation from neighboring countries like Syria and Iran, or adding more U.S. troops."

Speaking of Iraq, my profile of NBC's Richard Engel and how he became the longest-serving American TV reporter in Baghdad is here .

On the campaign front, the scary Halloween music and "Speaker Pelosi" are back:

"Seeking to boost turnout and sway voters, Republicans are issuing dire warnings about a Democratic victory that would make Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House and put key Democrats in charge of committees with power to raise taxes, launch investigations and impeach the president," says the Chicago Tribune .

"On Web sites, in news releases and on the campaign trail, the GOP portrays such Democratic lawmakers as New York's Charles Rangel, Michigan's John Conyers, California's Henry Waxman and Massachusetts' Barney Frank as political villains who would overturn or trim major GOP initiatives."

Kos is among those spanking Kerry spokesman David Wade in the flap I mentioned over how he was quoted about a campaign, spearheaded by blogger Chris Bowers, to pressure Democrats who are cruising to reelection to give some of their war chest to candidates in tough fights. Said Wade: "Cowards can hide behind anonymous Web sites, but Democrats out in the country, party leaders and real net-roots activists know how hard John Kerry has fought to win these elections."

Responds Kos: "Bowers doesn't look that anonymous to me. Nor am I. But to Wade, here's a hearty '[blank] you.' We have long memories.

"Here's the bottom line -- safe Republican incumbents are ponying up in an effort to keep control of Congress -- to the tune of $2.3 million more than Democrats. It's why they win -- they work harder and sacrifice more than our safe, lazy, entrenched incumbents who would rather stew in the minority than actually extend themselves out a bit.

"Ask any campaign around the country at this stage what they would prefer -- a campaign visit from Kerry (or anyone else save the Big Dog), or cold hard cash, and guess what they'll answer? Money and volunteers will help us close this election strong. Not campaign appearances that is more about Kerry building support and chits for 2008 as it is about helping our guys this year.

"Ante up. It's that simple. Those of us in the rank and file have been doing so, taking money out of our household budgets. We're expected to sacrifice, yet these incumbents act like it's an insult to their honor to expect the same out of them?

"And insulting people like Bowers doing heroic work to change the stultified culture in DC Democratic establishment circles isn't the best strategy." Kos later said Wade appeared to be referring to another blogger who is anonymous, but still finds the remarks insulting.

Rick Santorum's new ad pictures Bob Casey's face next to a mushroom cloud. Could he be worried?

Captain Ed takes issue with a NYT piece on Bush's role as stealth campaigner:

"The basic premise of the Times is that Bush will only go to where his presence can't do any more damage to electoral hopes of floundering Republicans. A president appearance, according to Sheryl Gay Stolberg, amounts to something of the last gasp for desperate candidates. It once again paints Bush as an enormous liability, a theme we saw in 2004 and one proven wrong by the results, where the GOP widened its Senate majority considerably. It also serves as an excuse to provide an omnibus scandal sheet of various accusations against Republicans around the nation, as the desperation theme gets tied to these allegations rather neatly.

"Stolberg undermines her own thesis, although readers have to press several paragraphs into the piece to figure that out. First, Bush has raised a lot of money in the areas where he has campaigned; the Sarasota visit raised $375,000 for a Congressional campaign, a rather impressive showing; the average cost of an entire Congressional campaign hovers around $2 million as of 2004. Bush raised 20% of that in one showing. He has also campaigned for George Allen, who now leads James Webb, as well as incumbents likely to win re-election such as Richard Pombo in California -- hardly a place where a Republican albatross would show up. Once again, Bush seems to have confounded political analysts."

Another liberal media conspiracy! Except the Washington Times has run the same story.

Is Hillaryland worried about a possible new 2008 rival? Absolutely, says Newsweek's Jonathan Alter :

"The latest iteration of the Barack Obama boomlet: Hillary Clinton's folks are quaking about the possibility of his running in 2008. There's even speculation an Obama race might preclude her getting in. Here's why: Hillary's game plan is to raise enough money and generate enough momentum to survive a loss in Iowa (perhaps to John Edwards, who is well-organized there) or New Hampshire (to the flavor of the moment), but then secure the nomination by running the table on Super Tuesday. The reason she thought she could do that is that Super Tuesday primaries in the Democratic Party are dominated by African-American voters, who generally love the Clintons. But there's someone they would love even more, namely a certain senator from Illinois.

"To make matters even tougher for any other Democrat, an Obama adviser told me that if he runs, he would launch a huge voter registration drive in the South. The aim would be to so expand black registration that Southern states would no longer be gimmees for the GOP. At a minimum, it would pin down Republicans defending their base in the South. The little-known clincher is that Obama has personal experience in voter registration. Before entering the state Senate in 1996, he ran a registration drive that registered more than 100,000 new black voters in Chicago alone."

Kevin Drum looks forward to a new Democratic era:

"Conservatives have been lecturing liberals for the past few years about the fact that George Bush will be our president for the next few years whether we like it or not, so for the good of the country we ought to be supporting him instead of gleefully hoping for a failure that just hurts all of us. The stakes are high, war of civilizations, madmen with nuclear bombs, etc. etc.

"So if Democrats win control of Congress this year, I expect we'll see plenty of sober, thoughtful support for Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid from conservatives, right? Gotta do what's right for the country, after all.


Even some conservatives are slamming Rush over his skewering of one of the country's favorite actors, including Rightwing Nuthouse man Rick Moran :

"Rush Limbaugh should be royally ashamed of himself.

"In a shocking display of insensitivity, not to mention gracelessness and incivility, Limbaugh accused actor Michael J. Fox, who carries on a daily battle with Parkinson's disease, of exaggerating the symptoms of the disease in several political commercials for Democratic candidates:

"To Rush Limbaugh on Monday, Michael J. Fox looked like a faker. The actor, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, has done a series of political ads supporting candidates who favor stem cell research, including Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who is running against Republican Michael Steele for the Senate seat being vacated by Paul Sarbanes.

" 'He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," Limbaugh told listeners. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act. . . . This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting.'...

"Limbaugh must have realized how extraordinarily stupid and insensitive his remarks were because he apologized for them later in the show. What possible good that did except highlight the broadcaster's utter contempt for common decency is beyond me. Apologies don't get it done in this case."

But Rush unearthed video in which Fox told Diane Sawyer that sometimes he doesn't take his medication before public appearances, such as his 1999 testimony before Congress, so people can get a true picture of the disease. Limbaugh also said that journalists have misrepresented his argument:

"They could have heard what I said, but they don't listen. They simply get their reports from the AP or whoever, but if they listen to this program, there's no way they could report on it the way they have -- well, take that back. Yes, there is an action line to every story in the media. I am a story to the media, and thus I have an action line. The action line is, I personify -- I'm the poster boy -- for all of the negative stereotypes that they have created about conservatism, and anything they think fits that action line, moves it forward, they are happy to report, but what did you hear me discuss yesterday? You heard the discussion about stem cells versus embryonic stem cells, versus the controversy over federal funding."

Blogger Michael Yon is a former military man who goes to place like Iraq, which gives what he writes here an added punch:

"While our enemies have 'journalists' crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an 'embed' media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.

"Many blame the media for the estrangement, but part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn't manage the media so much as manhandle them. Most military public affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, but it takes only a few well-placed incompetents to cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.

"My experiences with the U.S. military as a soldier and then as a writer and photographer covering soldiers have been overwhelmingly positive, and I feel no shame in saying I am biased in favor of our troops . . .

"The government has no right to withhold information or to deny access to our combat forces just because that information might anger, frighten, or disturb us.

"By allowing only a trickle of news to come out of Iraq, when all involved parties know the flow could be more robust, the Pentagon is doing just that. Although the conspicuous media vacuum can be partly explained by the danger -- Iraq is arguably more dangerous for journalists than Vietnam or even World War II, when reporters were allowed to land on D-Day -- some of the few who will risk it all are denied access for no good reason.

"This information blockade is occurring at the same time that the Pentagon is outsourcing millions of dollars to public relations firms to shape the news. This half-baked effort has the unintended consequence of putting every reporter who files a positive story under scrutiny as a possible stooge . . .

"The media are far from perfect. War reporters, like everyone else, get things wrong. Some of them, unsympathetic to the war aims, undoubtedly try to twist the news. But no coverage at all is even worse. It does a disservice to American soldiers. It is cruel to their families. It leaves the American public in the dark. If we lose the media war, we will lose Iraq, Afghanistan, and the entire 'war on terror.' "If our military cannot win the easy media battles with writers who are unashamed to say they want to win the war, there is no chance of winning the hearts and minds of Afghans and Iraqis, and both wars will be lost. And some will blame the media. But that will not resurrect the dead."

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