Barone: Nation Shifts Democratic

The invaluable Michael Barone takes a look at the latest polling and sees trouble for the Republicans in 2008. Over the last five years, party identification in the US has shifted in favor of the Democrats. Part of it, Barone says, comes from a lack of demonstrated competence on the part of the administration, which erodes one of the GOP’s key arguments for Republican rule. Will this allow the Democrats to sweep the 2008 elections? Barone looks at a similar situation in Britain and thinks not:

In the early 1990s, Britain’s Conservatives were regarded as nasty but competent. Then, Britain was forced to devalue its currency. Mortgage payments shot up, and the Conservatives’ reputation for competence vanished. The result: Tony Blair’s Labor Party won huge victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005.
The scenario here would be for Democrats to enlarge their congressional majorities and sweep to a 40-state presidential victory in 2008. The Republicans’ reputation for competence was damaged by Iraq and Katrina. Under the Blair scenario, they would go further downhill, especially if Iraq is still seen as a losing cause.
Why it won’t happen: Labor won only after Tony Blair rebranded the party as New Labor, with moderate policies. If the Old Labor-party leader John Smith had not died suddenly in 1994, to be replaced by the 41-year-old Blair, Labor might have lost or won only narrowly — or so the British political experts I trust believe.
Here, Democrats don’t seem to be rebranding themselves as “new Democrats,” as Bill Clinton did successfully in 1992. As for competence, Republicans will have a new leader in 2008, and the candidates now polling the highest — Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney — can plausibly claim that quality.

To the list of perceived incomptencies, one has to add the mess at the Department of Justice. The firings of the eight US Attorneys, the process used, and the absolutely self-immolating manner in which they were handled has done nothing to bolster confidence in Alberto Gonzales or the administration. Barone is right in that these will come into play in 2008, but the lack of any administration official in the race will minimize the impact.
The Democrats have missed an opportunity, at least thus far. With the GOP floundering a bit, they have a chance to aim for the moderates and the centrists. Instead, however, their leading presidential contenders are spending most of their time pandering to the anti-war base. Hillary may be the only candidate who has shown willingness to defy them, but only occasionally. No Democrat wants to get outflanked on their left in this race so far, and that will leave the center unattended.
What does this mean? It bolsters the argument for Rudy Giuliani or perhaps John McCain. If the Republicans can woo back the center for 2008, they may be able to hold onto the White House even if they cannot win back majorities in Congress. With the party affiliation numbers coming up the way they are, Congress looks more and more like a long shot.

Roll Tape

One of the fired US Attorneys got ousted for protesting an FBI policy that forbids taping interrogations of suspects in most criminal investigations. According to the New York Times, Paul K. Charlton tried to demand taped interviews before filing criminal charges in his district in order to press the agency to change its policy. Instead, after a couple of high-profile plea bargains, Charlton found himself out the door:

Paul K. Charlton, the United States attorney in Arizona, was ousted after spending months protesting a Federal Bureau of Investigation policy that, for practical purposes, forbids the taping of almost all confessions, in stark contrast to the practice of many local law enforcement agencies in Arizona and other locations across the country.
Mr. Charlton blamed the F.B.I. policy for the resulting plea bargain in the Navajo reservation assault case, as well as the acquittal of a defendant in a child sexual abuse case and a suspect in a prison murder indictment.
Eight states, by law or court action, mandate taping of interviews with suspects in at least serious felony cases, turning a tape recorder or video camera into an important tool in convictions, like DNA tests, fingerprints and ballistics. More than 450 law enforcement agencies in major cities and smaller jurisdictions also require the taping of certain interrogations.
The F.B.I., a division of the Justice Department, has strenuously resisted the practice unless special permission is granted by supervisors, under the theory that it may discourage suspects from talking and expose juries to interrogation methods that the department would rather not highlight.
But the inability to tape suspects, especially those accused of sexual abuse and domestic violence, can seriously compromise a case, Mr. Charlton and other prosecutors said.

This isn’t the first time the FBI policy has generated controversy. In the trial of Terry Nichols for the Oklahoma City bombing, the failure to tape Terry Nichols’ interrogation caused the jury to openly question the policy, and may have contributed to their decision to give Nichols consecutive life sentences rather than the death penalty. In the plea-bargain case that Charlton cites, a Native American man attempted to kill his girlfriend. The FBI got a confession, but the defense raised objections based on his potential intoxication and questioned his ability to understand English. A taped interrogation, Charlton claims, would have answered both questions. Since he had none, and since the victim would not cooperate and had a history of suicide attempts, Charlton had to get a plea bargain.
It sounds like a strange excuse in any case. The FBI says that the tapes would possibly offend juries who heard legally acceptable interrogation techniques, and that may be true. However, most juries expect these interviews to be taped, and when disputes arise as to what was said, would find it more than a little odd that an organization like the FBI would not have recorded it.
The agency also told the Times that it would be expensive to have a broad tape-recording system and that suspects might not offer their confessions if they knew they were being recorded. Those sound like excuses. Local and state agencies don’t seem to break the bank by installing audio and video recording systems. Some local police and sheriff’s offices even install them on their patrol cars to record traffic stops. And it’s hard to imagine that a suspect would spill his guts to an FBI agent, but then balk because a tape deck is running.
I suspect that the FBI won’t change its policy because of the inherent obstinacy of bureaucracies. If they’ve never done it before, it would be hard to overcome the organizational inertia to change the policy. This is one policy the FBI should seriously rethink.

Transplant, Day 3: It Gets Better

The First Mate has made remarkable progress in the last 24 hours. Yesterday, she had little energy and felt exhausted, but today she was a bundle of energy. It’s a good thing, too, because the donor and his family came down from the floor above hers to spend some time with us. The Little Admiral finally got to visit her grandma, and the FM was delighted with the company.
Today they removed her NG tube, which allowed her to start on a liquid diet. She tolerated that well, so we’re hoping she will move to solid food tomorrow. She got out of bed and sat up in a chair for part of the morning, and tomorrow will begin walking. Her creatinine levels had been over 10 before the surgery, which is very bad. Yesterday they were down to 4, and today it came in at 2.2. We’re hoping for a normal range (0.6-1.3) before her expected release on Wednesday.
Thanks again for all your support. I’ve gotten kind wishes from people outside of the conservative blogosphere as well. John Amato at Crooks and Liars put his kind regards on his site tonight, not normally one where I get many links. John and I met at the CNN Election Night bash, and besides being a nice guy, he proved again tonight that it’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable. It’s much appreciated.

Obama: Senate Will Abandon Timelines After Veto

Barack Obama made clear that Senate Democrats will wind up voting for an Iraq supplemental without the mandatory timetables for withdrawal. Saying that the Democrats would not “play chicken” with the troops, he told the AP in Iowa that the entire exercise was designed to pressure Bush into changing policy:

If President Bush vetoes an Iraq war spending bill as promised, Congress quickly will provide the money without the withdrawal timeline the White House objects to because no lawmaker “wants to play chicken with our troops,” Sen. Barack Obama said Sunday.
“My expectation is that we will continue to try to ratchet up the pressure on the president to change course,” the Democratic presidential candidate said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I don’t think that we will see a majority of the Senate vote to cut off funding at this stage.” …
Given that Bush is determined to veto a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, Congress has little realistic choice but to approve money for the war, Obama said.
“I think that nobody wants to play chicken with our troops on the ground,” said Obama. “I do think a majority of the Senate has now expressed the belief that we need to change course in Iraq.
“Obviously we’re constrained by the fact that a commander in chief who also has veto power has the option of ignoring that position,” Obama said.

Interesting. If Obama speaks for the Senate Democrats, then we should see a new supplemental after the spring recess, when Congress will go into conference to resolve the differences between the two bills. That would put the new spending bill at least three weeks out.
We can expect Obama to take a major hit from his base on this statement. He has pushed the anti-war base to the forefront in the coming election, and he has made significant inroads into Hillary’s support. They will not take kindly to a maneuver they will see as a retreat from his opposition to the war in Iraq.
But that’s the risk Obama ran with his gamesmanship. The Democrats knew all along that they could not win by enough to override a veto. They also realize that they cannot withstand the political fallout that will ensue if the troops do not get their funding. They have no place left to go — and so they will provide the funding Bush needs without to timetables he will refuse to adopt. After having taken the base to the mountaintop, Obama and the rest will now lose their credibility in the end.

Tommy Thompson Hits The Hustings

Add another entrant to the 2008 Republican Presidential Sweepstakes, and another Thompson. Former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson has entered the primary race, declaring himself the “reliable conservative” in a race that has seen a few candidates claim that mantle:

Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson on Sunday joined the crowded field of Republicans running for the White House in 2008 and proclaimed himself the “reliable conservative” in the race.
Thompson, who was health and human services secretary during President Bush’s first term, also said he is the only GOP candidate who has helped assemble both a state and federal budget.
Since announcing last year he was forming a presidential exploratory committee to raise money and gauge support, Thompson has lagged behind better-known rivals.
Thompson, 65, has focused his strategy on Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucuses for presidential nominees. He has made weekly visits to the state and sought to make the case that it will take a candidate who can carry the Midwest to win the nomination.

Thompson has several built-in advantages. First, as a popular governor in the Upper Midwest, he will have plenty of pull in Iowa. A good start there — perhaps a third-place finish would be enough — could give him enough credibility to push into New Hampshire and the February 5th Super Tuesday.
Can THompson push his way into the top tier? Perhaps. Thompson could be the doppleganger for Bill Richardson in the Democratic race. He has plenty of executive and legislative experience, serving 14 years as Governor of our neighboring state. During that time, he championed school choice, a point which conservatives will love.
Thompson served four years as Secretary of Health and Human Services, not exactly known as a center of conservative thought, but he did some work that could allow him to lay claim to a broad swath of the electorate. Thompson pushed for increased organ donations — obviously a topic of great interest for my family — and he pushed to allow the government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical manufacturers in the Medicare expansion of 2003. He lost that battle, but has some credibility among centrists and independents on health care.
He has the best resume of any Republican in the race so far. With fourteen years of executive experience, he has more than Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney combined. He has a national presence, and his continuing popularity at home in a purple state cannot hurt him, either. John Kerry barely won Wisconsin in 2004, and Thompson won four gubernatorial elections there by wide margins. He has the CV to make a run at the top tier, if he can campaign effectively.
UPDATE: Michael Stickings has a very interesting rebuttal from the left on Thompson’s chances at TMV. Here’s a sample:

It is very likely that the Democrats will select a “celebrity” candidate, that is, a candidate with enormous name-recognition and national popularity: Obama, Clinton, Edwards, or perhaps (just perhaps) Gore. With this in mind, I cannot see the Republicans going into the ‘08 election with a non-celebrity candidate, even one, like Thompson, who has a great deal of experience and local/regional popularity. If presidential elections were about competency, then, yes, by all means, Thompson would be a leading Republican candidate, just as Richardson would be a leading Democratic one. But they’re not. They’re about image — about style, not substance. Even if Thompson manages to rise into the top tier, which is hardly likely, he is too lackluster a candidate, with too lackluster a personality, to secure the nomination. This isn’t fair, but it’s the way it is.
What’s more, Republicans rarely select non-celebrity candidates to run for the presidency. Think about it. Democrats have gone with non-celebrity candidates five times since World War II — Clinton in ‘92, Dukakis in ‘88, Carter in ‘76, Kennedy in ‘60, and Stevenson in ‘52 — but how many non-celebrity Republican candidates have there been during that span?

Be sure to read the whole post. Michael is one of the best writers on the Left, and this shows why.

Republicans Join Pelosi In Undermining Foreign Policy

Three House Republicans paid a visit to Bashar Assad today to open up their own diplomatic channels. strengthening Syria’s hand against the US and providing cover for Nancy Pelosi’s attempt to do the same:

U.S. House members meeting with President Bashar Assad Sunday said they believed there was an opportunity for dialogue with the Syrian leadership.
The U.S. House members, who included Virginia Republican Frank Wolf, Pennsylvania Republican Joe Pitts and Alabama Republican Robert Aderholt, also said they had raised with Syrian officials the issue of stopping the alleged flow of foreign fighters from Syria to Iraq.
In a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, the congressmen said they had talked about “ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas, recognizing Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and ceasing interference in Lebanon.”
“We came because we believe there is an opportunity for dialogue,” the statement said. “We are following in the lead of Ronald Reagan, who reached out to the Soviets during the Cold War,” it added.

Perhaps they missed this one particular difference, but Ronald Reagan was President and the Constitutional determiner of American foreign policy. Congress doesn’t have the authority to conduct negotiations on behalf of the United States, just as they do not have the authority to take command of the military. If these three stooges want to shape American foreign policy, then let them run for President. In the meantime, they should stick to legislating.
When politicians conduct these unauthorized negotiations, it reduces the bargaining power of the President. In Nancy Pelosi’s case, that’s her explicit goal, because she wants to force Bush out of Iraq to deliver on campaign pledges. In the case of these loose cannons, the motivation seems to be self-aggrandizement more than anything else.
Jimmy Carter and to a lesser extent Jesse Jackson have made a career of screwing up international relations. Nothing good has ever come of it. I found this type of thing distasteful when it happened to Bill Clinton as well. The President, regardless of the party to which he belongs, needs to present American policy as a united front. It’s bad enough when the opposition party undermines that credibility; it’s astoundingly idiotic for the President’s own party to destroy it.

Does This Sound Familiar?

Tony Blair had better dust off his study material about the Jimmy Carter presidency. It looks like the Iranians have begun another embassy standoff:

About 200 students threw rocks and firecrackers at the British Embassy on Sunday, calling for the expulsion of the country’s ambassador because of the standoff over Iran’s capture of 15 British sailors and marines.
Several dozen policemen prevented the protesters from entering the embassy compound, although a few briefly scaled a fence outside the compound’s walls before being pushed back, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene.
The protesters chanted “Death to Britain” and “Death to America” as they hurled stones into the courtyard of the embassy. They also demanded that the Iranian government expel the British ambassador and close down the embassy, calling it a “den of spies.”

The British say that the police presence has kept the compound secure, but that supposedly was the case in November 1979, too. As then, Iranian clerics fuel the violent protest and have attracted Iranian youths to demonstrate. This fellow here with the rock is an Iranian imam.
Given the rhetoric from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it doesn’t appear as if the mullahcracy wants to de-escalate the crisis on the ground. It will not take long before the police allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the anger of the mob — and then the Iranians will find themselves in possession of yet another Western embassy. They have seen no reason not to allow its “students” to capture the British compound, certainly not by the EU’s embarrassing show of moral cowardice last night. All of this “reasonable” talk has encouraged Ahmadinejad to bolster his own domestic position by turning Britain — Iran’s trading partner and interlocutor with America — as its new Great Satan.
A CQ reader, Lee A, posed an interesting question in response to my earlier post on this subject. Britain belongs to NATO, and even if the EU can’t find the testicular fortitude to stand up to Teheran, NATO has to do so if Iran commits an act of war against a member. The capture of the sailors and Marines qualifies as such, and the capture of an embassy puts the matter beyond all doubt.
What happens if Blair goes to NATO? If NATO refuses to respond, then NATO is finished. However, the US will do its best to keep it together, and that means the US has to come to Britain’s assistance. If Congress tries to block it, the Democrats will have destroyed the alliance that they insisted the Bush administration use for its efforts in the Middle East.
This could get very, very interesting.

More Counterintelligence Computers Missing

An internal audit has discovered that twenty computers have disappeared from a critical counterintelligence agency tasked with protecting America’s nuclear secrets. Fourteen of the computers contained classified material, marking yet another in a string of embarrassments for the Department of Energy:

The office in charge of protecting American technical secrets about nuclear weapons from foreign spies is missing 20 desktop computers, at least 14 of which have been used for classified information, the Energy Department inspector general reported on Friday.
This is the 13th time in a little over four years that an audit has found that the department, whose national laboratories and factories do most of the work in designing and building nuclear warheads, has lost control over computers used in working on the bombs.
Aside from the computers it cannot find, the department is also using computers not listed in its inventory, and one computer listed as destroyed was in fact being used, the audit said.
“Problems with the control and accountability of desktop and laptop computers have plagued the department for a number of years,” the report said.

The White House fired Linton Brooks in January for the security problems noted in this report. Earlier audits had revealed over 140 computers which investigators could not find. The National Nuclear Security Agency got its start because of the DoE security breaches of the 1990s, including the Wen Ho Lee scandal, but it appears just as plagued by incompetence as the DoE was back then.
Only two months have passed since the departure of Brooks, and these problems will not be solved overnight. However, one would hope that the NNSA could conduct an accurate inventory of its computers, especially considering the kind of material stored on them. Most likely, the discrepancies come from paperwork errors, but that gives little confidence in the ability of the NNSA to secure the nation’s secrets.
The new management at NNSA should improve this immediately. The new Congress will not be shy about hauling managers into committee hearings, if the protection of our nuclear secrets does not provide enough incentive itself during a war on terror.

Risky Business

The Iraqi government will start relocating Arabs from Kirkuk, where Saddam Hussein put them in an effort to dilute Kurdish claims to the city. The move could create a flash of ethnic violence, as the provenance of the oil-rich area has implications for Kurdish autonomy and the unity of Iraq as a nation:

The Iraqi government will soon begin relocating Arabs who were moved to Kirkuk under an edict by Saddam Hussein to force Kurds out of the disputed northern city, officials said Saturday.
The controversial step for the oil-rich city could help determine whether it becomes part of an autonomous Kurdish region, but critics warned that it would stoke sectarian tensions.
Iraq’s cabinet on Thursday endorsed a committee’s recent recommendation to compensate eligible Arabs who voluntarily leave the city, said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a political adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Those who choose to move will receive about $15,000 and a plot of land in their home town. Officials will soon accept applications to determine eligibility, he said.

The Kurds will vote on their policies towards autonomy in a Kirkuk referendum soon, and the relocation could help the pro-autonomy advocates win the election. That might create a problem with the Sunnis, who want Kirkuk within their sphere of influence in order to gain the oil revenues. The recent passage of legislation that shares oil revenue on a national basis may ease the loss of Kirkuk, but it will not eliminate the tension altogether.
Saddam Hussein conducted ethnic cleansing against the Kurds in several ways. He gassed the residents of Halabja in the most infamous of his campaigns, but he conducted more subtle operations, too. He destroyed thousands of Kurd villages and drove them into the moutains. Saddam also transplanted Shi’ites from the south to Kirkuk, an effort that had a dual payoff. He could dilute the Kurds in the north and the Shi’ites in the south in one fell swoop, and at the same time set the Kurds and Shi’ites against each other in the competition for land in Kirkuk.
The latest effort by the Shi’ite-dominated government has not gone without its consequences. The Justice Minister resigned his post Thursday after the approval of the plan to offer voluntary relocation. Ayad Allawi, a Shi’ite but secular in his outlook, has tried to garner a new governing coalition to replace Nouri al-Maliki, but so far with little success. The Arabs in Kirkuk, who have been there now for years, staged public protests that could destabilize the security situation there eventually.
Maliki’s plan makes sense, at least theoretically. The government will provide financial incentives for Arabs to voluntarily move back to their home towns. Those incentives appear rather significant; $15,000 goes a long way in Iraq, and the plot of land would be very valuable in a nation that now recognizes private property, depending on its size. The question for the Arabs is how “voluntary” this program will become, especially with the Kurdish security forces in the region ready to enforce a government policy they enthusiastically support. Many of them have married into the local culture, and a forced relocation would tear apart their families.
It’s a difficult situation, and Maliki shows some courage and confidence in addressing it now. If the Iraqi government can deliver on this plan without any large-scale violence breaking out in Kirkuk, they will have shown some real mettle and perhaps the most significant independent governing to date. If it doesn’t work, Maliki will have a meltdown on his hands.

EU To Blair: It’s A YP, Not An OP

The European Union declined last night to provide any substantial support to Britain in its standoff with Iran over the captured sailors and Marines. While the European foreign ministers called for Iran to release its captives, they refused to offer any sanctions on the Iranians:

European foreign ministers failed last night to back Britain in a threat to freeze the €14 billion trade in exports to Iran, as the hostage crisis descended into a propaganda circus.
Tony Blair could only issue a new statement of disgust as Iran tormented him with another sailor’s video confession and a fresh letter from the young mother detainee. …
EU foreign ministers meeting in Germany called for the sailors to be freed but ruled out any tightening of lucrative export credit rules. The EU is Iran’s biggest trading partner. British officials are understood to have taken soundings on economic sanctions before the meeting but found few takers.
France, Iran’s second-largest EU trading partner, cautioned that further confrontation should be avoided. The Dutch said it was important not to risk a breakdown in dialogue.

Well, what a shock to see the French bail out on an ally for commercial gain! Once again, Europe shows that it has no sense and no courage. That fourteen-billion-pound trade with Iran will come in handy when the mullahs get the bomb. Perhaps they’ll wait to invade Europe last. They have told Blair and the Brits that the Iranians are their problem, not Europe’s.
George Bush stood up with the UK yesterday, after keeping a low profile on the crisis. Referring to the captives as “hostages”, Bush emphatically supported Britain’s assertion that Iran invaded Iraqi waters to carry out the capture:

Bush said the sailors had been operating legally in Iraqi territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, as the British have insisted, and not in Iranian waters, and he offered support for British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts “to resolve this peacefully.” But he rejected any “quid pro quo” trade of Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq and ducked a question about whether military force would be justified to free the captured sailors.
“The Iranians must give back the hostages,” the president told reporters at a brief question-and-answer session at Camp David after a meeting with the visiting Brazilian president. “They’re innocent, they were doing nothing, and they were summarily plucked out of the water. As I say, it’s inexcusable behavior.”

The Telegraph has concluded that Europe is useless as a foreign-policy partner as well:

It is one thing to be disliked; quite another to be despised. Iran would not have kidnapped our Servicemen without having considered our rules of engagement, our diplomatic isolation and our likely military response, and made a rough calculation of how likely they were to get away with their piracy. …
There is also, perhaps, a feeling of impotence: if we can’t invade Iran, what else can we do? Plenty of things. We can, of course, pull diplomatic and economic levers. This will involve going through Brussels, not so much because we need a favour as because we have no independent trade policy: the only way that Britain can impose sanctions on Iran is if the EU does so. At the same time, we could be seizing Iranian assets. Longer term, we could be putting pressure on the regime by sponsoring its opponents. We could launch tactical strikes at Iranian military installations.
We could even, in extremis, impose the kind of armed siege, complete with no-fly-zone, that paralysed Saddam in the years between the two Iraq wars: we already maintain large coalition garrisons on both Iran’s flanks. Limiting ourselves to trivial resolutions will be treated by the ayatollahs as a sign of weakness. If they hate us, let them also fear us.

All of a sudden, those “large coalition garrisons” look pretty strategic, don’t they? I’m always amazed by the people who claim that we screwed up the war on terror by going after Iraq rather than Iran. If people could learn to read a map, they could see what we have attempted — a military and political encirclement of Iran that no one could have dreamed six years ago. Why do people think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pulled this stunt? He wants to drive the UK out of the coalition in order to break that encirclement.
It may finally dawn on Britain that the failure to have an independent trade policy has hamstrung them politically and militarily. Iran attacked a British ship, and yet Britain cannot stop trading with Iran because Brussels controls their trade policies. When one gives up sovereignty, these are the consequences.
If Britain wants their people back, they have two choices. They can either submit to Iran, or they can escalate the conflict to the point where it damages the mullahcracy. They had better commence deciding between the two. (links via Memeorandum)