Sinking the unsinkable.

Sinking the unsinkable.

Sinking the unsinkable.

Notes from the political sidelines.
Sept. 10 2005 7:25 AM

Hack of a Job

The president learns that a good hack is hard to find.

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Hack & Sack: Across America, communities have bravely fought through federal red tape to help find new homes for the victims of Katrina. After its miserable performance under political appointees like FEMA Director Michael Brown, the Bush administration faces another dilemma: Where to relocate all the hacks?

Belatedly, the president took the first step Friday by relieving Brown of his duties and returning him to Washington. According to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown will remain as head of FEMA to "manage other disasters"—for example, his career.

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In 10 days, Brown went from being another faceless federal bureaucrat to needing the federal witness protection program. More Americans have called for his resignation than ever heard of his able predecessor James Lee Witt. If Bush had stood by his man at FEMA any longer, he would have had to change his nickname from "Brownie" to "The Unsinkable Michael Brown."

But as the Washington Post explains today, Brown isn't the only hack at his agency; FEMA is now home to an entire troop of Brownies. Brown's chief of staff was an advance man for the 2000 campaign. The deputy chief of staff was an advance man for the White House. His predecessor at FEMA had been a Bush campaign consultant in 2000. It's as if they all responded to the same classified, "Must Lack Relevant Experience."

Fire When Ready: Brown wasn't actually fired—that would require the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to admit error. "Michael Brown has done everything he possibly could," Chertoff said. "I want to make sure FEMA continues to be run the way it needs to be." In other words, we have only just begun to fail.

Brown's tragicomic survival parallels the long-running tragic folly of the Department of Homeland Security, Washington's response to the last great national disaster. Bush initially opposed the idea for the wrong reason—in order to protect bureaucratic fiefdoms like the FBI—then changed his mind so he could exploit it for the wrong purpose: pounding Democrats in the 2002 midterm elections.

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Cynicism is its own reward. Bush's support for the Department of Homeland Security enabled Republicans to win back the Senate in 2002. If Bush can't find a way out of his Katrina tailspin, the performance of DHS and its FEMA stepchild could cost Republicans the House in 2006.

Ironically, Bush made homeland security a campaign issue in 2002 by turning Democrats against their own bill because he insisted on civil service reforms to make it easier for the agency to fire incompetent workers. Bush forgot to mention his plan to hire incompetent bosses.

Brown & Root: At first glance, Michael Brown would seem to be an even more preventable disaster than the breaching of the New Orleans levees. But protecting the nation from the next Michael Brown is not as easy as it looks. In fact, America has been wrestling with this conundrum since its inception.

The nub of the problem is this: In a democracy, a responsive government must do what the public and their leaders want, not just what the government wants. The last two centuries have been one long experiment in what mix of permanent civil servants and temporary political appointees can best achieve that ideal.

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In recent years, as the Post recounted earlier this week, that experimentation has centered on reforming job protections for civil servants—rules that themselves are century-old reforms to protect the government from political hacks. During the homeland security debate, Mickey Kaus recommended a plan devised by Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters to let federal managers fire up to—but no more than—half their workers. Peters thought his 50-50 plan would cap the damage that could be done by incompetent civil servants and incompetent political appointees alike.

Yet as the current bureaucratic crisis shows, the battle between hacks and bureaucrats is not a fair fight. Brown is painful proof that a powerful, incompetent hack can do far more damage than some lowly career bumbler.

For that same reason, finding competent hacks is critical to any president's success. Michael Brown isn't just an incompetent, inexperienced boob. He's an incompetent, inexperienced boob who doesn't even know the president well enough to get him on the phone before a crisis happens.

If the Post thinks civil service reform is an endless struggle, Hack Reform is tougher still. The world is full of qualified civil servants, but a good hack is hard to find.

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In normal times, the Has-Been might recommend a bipartisan National Commission on Hack Reform, armed with subpoena power and chaired by prominent retreads from Republican and Democratic administrations. The current bureaucratic crisis, however, demands that America cut the red tape and adopt an immediate, three-part Hack Reform plan:

1. Cut the number of political appointees in half. One way to solve the shortage of good hacks is to reduce demand. Today, the federal workforce includes about 3,000 political appointees. Cutting that number in half would save nearly $2 billion over 10 years—not including the potential budget windfall from halving the pool of senior officials who can leave through the revolving door to become lobbyists. More important, it reduces the risk of future Michael Browns by 50 percent. We might still end up with Joe Allbaugh, but we'll keep out Allbaugh's college roommate.

I championed this theory in the Clinton administration, as the chief advocate behind his campaign proposal to cut the White House staff by 25 percent. Some of my colleagues never forgave me for that idea, which they viewed as a 33 percent increase in their workload. I still think they were wrong. We had enough trouble finding good people to fill the slots we had, and all it takes is one incompetent White House staffer to jeopardize the presidency and the Republic.

2. Rate every federally appointed position based on the nation's ability to survive the hack who might end up in it. Much as we might like every political appointee to be competent, we shouldn't delude ourselves: Some presidents will insist on finding a place for bozos in their administration.

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Instead of ignoring that sad political reality, we should fortify ourselves to withstand it. My Hack Survival System would rate every federal position according to the amount of damage a political appointee can do in it. At the same time, the White House personnel office would assign each job-seeker a risk rating based on their incompetence and inexperience.

Some jobs, like FEMA director or secretary of homeland security, are so important they cannot withstand anything greater than a Category 1 hack. Other less critical agencies, like the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science, deserve good people but could probably survive even a Category 5 hack. These ratings will help prevent political hangers-on from getting in over their heads.

3.Designate one backwater agency as the official dumping ground for hacks. Until we have a president who will get rid of useless federal positions, let's at least use them to house hacks who might do real harm somewhere else. If we don't provide presidents a safe place to dump loyal, mediocre people, dumping will still go on—in the dark of night, at agencies where hacks could do real danger.

Years ago, a campaign colleague told me that if we won, he didn't want a White House job. "I just want a nice, easy sinecure somewhere I don't have to work very hard—maybe in the Department of Transportation," he said. This particular fellow would have been totally harmless in that job but instead ended up in more prominent posts where his screw-ups did some damage.

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These Hack Reforms won't be easy, but we shouldn't despair. Before James Lee Witt came along, you could never have dreamed that one day the Post would find a "brain drain" at FEMA. After Michael Brown, draining the hacks ought to be a no-brainer. ... 10:59 P.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005

We Have a Loser: Earlier this week, neo-con Bill Kristol told the Washington Post that almost every Republican he had spoken to was disappointed in Bush's performance. By evoking broad disdain for the administration's response from Republicans and Democrats alike, Bush has finally kept his promise to be a uniter, not a divider.

Usually, the blame game is a loser for both parties. However, when Republicans and Democrats can make common cause against a common enemy, like the federal government or hapless FEMA Director Michael Brown, there is more than enough blame game to go around.

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Among the many illusions that washed away over the past week is one that was particularly precious to Bush: the long-lost and perhaps now never-to-be-seen-again political philosophy of compassionate conservatism.

For close political observers, this is hardly news. As a movement, compassionate conservatism always seemed like a leap of faith by an awfully small group of true believers, such as Bush's longtime speechwriter Michael Gerson and his first choice to head the faith-based initiative, Prof. John DiIulio.

DiIulio quit in late 2002, telling Esquire that the Bush White House cared only about politics, not policy. "There is a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded non-partisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism," he said. Gerson still believes, but now he's stuck working on domestic policy for a White House that tries not to have one.

As an agenda, compassionate conservatism died by Bush's own hand in May 2001, when the president called for a new war on poverty the same week he threatened the Senate he would veto anything less than his full tax cut. If LBJ's war on poverty came to an unsatisfactory, Vietnam-like conclusion, Bush's war on poverty was a Bay of Pigs fiasco: Poverty won, the battle was lost before most knew it had started, and many Republicans swore to themselves they'd never get involved in an endeavor like that again.

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No Child Left Behind – the aspect of compassionate conservatism about which Bush seemed to care most sincerely – has run smack into the same force that has bedeviled him on Katrina: his administration's own bureaucratic incompetence. The rest of Bush's innovative (if woefully underfunded) campaign agenda had all the hallmarks of a governor and gave way to a Republican Congress that quickly ditched compassionate conservatism in favor of what Jacob Weisberg calls interest-group conservatism. Moral leadership that was supposed to come from Gerson and DiIulio came instead from the likes of Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, who didn't even feel compassion for clients paying them millions of dollars.

Brain-Dead Politics: Still, the Bush White House defiantly kept compassionate conservatism on life support, even though its best days were behind it. Bush's can't-do list grew longer—no faith-based bill; no welfare reform bill; no tax cuts for charity—but the speeches kept coming.

Why keep the faith? Because for Bush and his political team, compassionate conservatism was never primarily about a policy agenda. First and foremost, it was a political project. Just as Peggy Noonan had coined "a kinder, gentler nation" to inoculate Bush's father against the dark side of Reaganism, Karl Rove and company used Gerson's doctrine of compassionate conservatism to imply that George W. Bush wouldn't be another Gingrich Republican.

As a short-term political project, it worked famously. Bush's 2000 convention speech was a triumph. During that campaign, Bush gave the appearance of softening conservatism's hard edges by criticizing House Republicans for trying to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit. Never mind that at the same time, he was making any compassion agenda impossible by giving trillions to those who didn't need it.

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As a governing philosophy, however, it was a disaster—too much faith, not enough works. Bill Clinton had it pegged back in 1999, when he said:

This compassionate conservatism has a great ring to it, you know. It sounds sooo good. And near as I can tell, here's what it means: It means, "I like you. I do. And I would like to be for the patients' bill of rights, and I'd like to be for closing the gun show loophole, and I'd like not to squander the surplus and, you know, save Social Security and Medicare for the next generation. I'd like to raise the minimum wage. I'd like to do these things. But I just can't. And I feel terrible about it."

We're too close to the Katrina disaster to understand its lasting impact on the American psyche. America's initial response to Sept. 11 held out hope of more unity and less division, but soon, politics as usual returned with a vengeance. The undelivered promise of a kinder, gentler conservatism has endured almost 20 years despite a mountain of meaner, harsher evidence to the contrary. Moreover, despite high hopes that a stronger role for government will be back by popular demand, Democrats still have to earn that support with a compelling vision of what government can and cannot do and how America can do better.

Nonetheless, I remember how much the first President Bush suffered from the 1992 riots in South Central LA, as it dawned on people that his administration had no answers to the nation's festering problems. For a man whose vision was "a kinder, gentler nation," all the moral high ground was suddenly underwater.

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With so much to grieve about these days, no one will mourn the passing of another hollow slogan. We can only hope that Republicans jockeying for their party's nomination next time around will take the demise of compassionate conservatism to heart and see it as a failure not just of competence, but of ideology. ... 10:31 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2005

Not So Fast: Just because he's now the nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court doesn't mean John Roberts gets to see Slate readers' off-the-wall questions before his hearing next week. In fact, Roberts' new role as head administrator begs more unexpected questions, such as, "Do you have plans to redecorate the place?" and "Will you be wearing Justice Rehnquist's robe from Gilbert & Sullivan's Iolanthe, or Patty's from Charles Schultz's You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown?"

The Has-Been is still reeling from revelations about Roberts' youth in this fascinating psychological profile from Sunday's Washington Post. The article recounts one especially telling episode. Young Roberts was considering a graduate degree in history, his favorite subject, when Jack Roberts, his strong-willed father, reportedly told him, "Real men study law."

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Isn't that one of the unlikeliest four-word sentences in the English language? Check for yourself: A Google search turns up more than 3 million results for the phrase "real men"; but in the entire searchable history of humankind, Jack Roberts is the only person ever to utter the phrase, "Real men study law."

According to the Post, Jack Roberts was a lifelong Republican; a company man in an industry under court order to hire more women and minorities; and assistant manager at a plant that faced a class-action suit for making women take pregnancy tests then forcing them to take unpaid leave. What possible depths of paternal desperation could have driven Roberts to be the first steel executive in a thousand generations to make such a strange and historically important pronouncement?

To be sure, the '70s were a tough time for parents. All in the Family was the No. 1 show on television, and fathers everywhere thought America was turning into a nation of long-haired ne'er-do-wells like Meathead.

Perhaps Jack Roberts was so sick of hearing his son carry on in French that he put his foot down to keep him from squandering the rest of his life in grad school studying Roman history in the original Latin. Perhaps the father had seen the 1973 film The Paper Chase and thought that in such a tumultuous decade, law school was the one place his son could find a sensible career woman like Lindsay Wagner.

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Or perhaps when Jack said, "Real men study law," he was just repeating a joke he'd heard at the country club, and John tragically took his father's words at face value.

I Want To Be a Real Boy: Of course, it's also possible that the story is apocryphal, or worse, may have happened with the roles reversed. One can imagine the future Supreme Court justice trying to wheedle another three years in Cambridge out of his fed-up father by telling him that Harvard Law was teeming with real men.

Either way, we should not underestimate the impact this father-son moment might have on Roberts' tenure. Dahlia Lithwick wonders why Roberts seems to hate the courts so much. Could it be that so far the law hasn't lived up to the father's promise? Does Roberts really believe in judicial restraint, or is he just afraid of what might happen to stare decisis if he unleashed the judicial he-man within?

Dr. Has-Been's expert opinion: John Roberts may be from the Midwest, but that's no guarantee his background is normal.

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My father, who went to law school at Stanford with Rehnquist and O'Connor, could never have said, "Real men study law," without bursting into laughter. So, instead, my mother warned me, "Law school will mess up your mind." True enough. But that's the kind of sacrifice real men must be willing to make if they want to become chief justice of the Supreme Court by 50. ... 11:54 P.M. (link)

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Sunday, Sept. 4, 2005

You Go to War with the FEMA You Have, Not the FEMA You Might Wish to Have: At last, a tiny bit of good news.If only the feds could get the power back on so people could appreciate it....

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Witt and Wisdom: Bush may be pleased with "Brownie,"  but Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco knows the right man to call when disaster strikes. On Saturday, she hired James Lee Witt to help her state turn things around. Imagine what Witt could do if he still had FEMA behind him. ... 9:32 A.M.

Friday, Sept. 2, 2005

The one that got away
Click on image to expand.
The one that got away

Witt's End: It will take awhile to sort out the nature vs. neglect debate in New Orleans. Bush is taking a great deal of heat for ranching while Katrina flooded, and for the federal government's sluggish response to a crisis of epic proportions. Bush defenders say you can't blame a Category 5 hurricane on him. One of Bush's European critics suggested that even hurricanes could be the President's fault.

During his last great national disaster, on 9/11, the Bush White House was quick to point out that the Director of Central Intelligence was a Clinton holdover, George Tenet. This disaster, it's worth remembering the Clinton man Bush should have kept: longtime FEMA Director James Lee Witt.

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What must make this irony especially painful for Bush is that he knew how good Witt was. In fact, Bush knew it coming and going. When he was helping run his father's 1992 re-election campaign, he saw the miserable federal response from FEMA when it was still a dumping ground for political hacks. As a governor, Bush was so impressed by the agency's renaissance under Witt that he singled him out for praise in his first presidential debate with Al Gore:

You know, as governor, one of the things you have to deal with is catastrophe. I can remember the fires that swept Parker County, Texas. I remember the floods that swept our state. I remember going down to Del Rio, Texas. I have to pay the administration a compliment. James Lee Witt of FEMA has done a really good job of working with governors during times of crisis.

That debate moment is remembered more for Al Gore's faulty claim moments later that he, too, had visited those fires in Texas with Witt. Gore had been to disasters with Witt, but not that one, and the Bush campaign spun the exchange to persuade the press that Gore was somehow a serial exaggerator. To compound the irony, FEMA was actually a poster child of Gore's reinventing government crusade – so that a compliment Bush was indirectly paying the Vice President ended up helping seal Gore's demise.

Got Aid?: Such was George W. Bush's luck in those days. According to the transcript, Bush went on to say, "The only thing I knew was to got aid as quickly as possible with state and federal help, and to put my arms around the man and his family and cry with them."

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Clinton, too, had learned the importance of disasters, coming and going. He blamed his 1980 defeat on Jimmy Carter's botched handling of a crisis that dumped boatloads of Cuban refugees on Arkansas. In 1992, he watched another President fumble a series of crises, from Hurricane Andrew to the riots in South Central Los Angeles.

During the L.A. riots, I spent three days holed up in a hotel trying to boil a dozen advisers' input into a Clinton speech on race, looting, and presidential neglect. The view from my hotel room: the French Quarter in New Orleans. Clinton began the speech by saying, "They wrote me something to say here, but I threw it away" – then proceeded to give a typically brilliant sermon on race in America.

Clinton knew that in times of crisis, he didn't need a speechwriter – he needed James Lee Witt. As governor, Clinton had put Witt in charge of reinventing Arkansas's emergency management system. When he became President, Clinton not only brought Witt with him, but elevated FEMA to Cabinet level.

Before Witt came along, FEMA was a lackluster agency under abysmal political management. As Donald Kettl of Brookings has written, the old FEMA was a laughing stock: "Every hurricane, earthquake, tornado and flood, the joke went, brought two disasters: one when the event occurred, and the second when FEMA arrived."

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People in Washington assumed that since Witt came from Arkansas, and they'd never heard of him, he must be another hack. But in disaster after disaster, he turned the agency's reputation completely around. Before Rudy Giuliani, there was James Lee Witt.

Clinton kept Witt busy: In eight years, he declared a record 348 disasters. As they proved in Oklahoma City and countless other occasions, Clinton and Witt understood that if there's ever a time people need a federal government and a President, it's in times of disaster.

Hack Attack: In 2001, despite his praise for Witt, Bush returned to the old FEMA model. He turned the agency over to Joe Allbaugh, his campaign manager. Allbaugh left in 2003 for a more lucrative disaster gig, as a lobbyist for reconstruction contracts in Iraq.

Now FEMA is a tiny subsidiary of the mammoth Department of Homeland Security. It's too soon to tell whether DHS will become a dumping ground for hacks. But considering how Bush turned it into a phony partisan issue in the 2002 campaign, DHS deserves honorary status as a hack department. Let's hope it learns not to act like one. ... 3:11 P.M. (link)

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We Polked You in '44, and We Shall Pierce You in '52: One of the more unfortunate verbs in the English language—to bork—now has company. Today's Washington Postjoins other news organizations in popularizing a verb that will strike equal fear in conservatives and linguists alike: "John Roberts, though, may be well on his way to being 'soutered.' " It's a double whammy for William Safire.

The White House prefers its nominees soothing, not soutered. Last month, a White House spokesman reassured the Post that Roberts "continues to have breakfast with his children and wife. … They have dinner together as a family. And he reads to [his children] before they go to sleep." The White House owes Post editors a thank you for clarifying that Roberts reads to his children, not to his wife. The article didn't say what he reads them—let's hope it's not Prep.

But wait: A cafeteria worker at the federal courthouse where Roberts works told the Post that he always orders a bagel and cream cheese or an omelet. That sounds suspiciously like breakfast!

… And We'll Roberts You in '05: After the debacle of its first ad, which accused Roberts of excusing violence at abortion clinics, NARAL launched a second ad this past week. The new ad displays warm and fuzzy photos with the numbing message, "Roberts's legal record raises questions on whether he accepts the right to privacy." Take that, focus groups: "John Roberts—Question Raiser."

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To be sure, NARAL is in a no-win position. They're right about Roberts's record, even if the Washington CW prefers to view those questions as the strategic beauty of the Roberts nomination. But unless you're a media consultant or fund-raiser working on commission, there's no point in running ads that won't move either public or elite opinion. Ads backfire if, like NARAL's first effort, they go too far. But boring ads send elites the wrong signal as well: They're code for "we're shooting blanks."

The Has-Been knows the ad voters want to hear: "John Roberts says he eats breakfast with his family. That's because he's afraid taxpayers will find out the real story: His breakfast is subsidized by your taxes, and he doesn't eat it at home—he eats it at work, in a federal job he'll have for life, even if he never leaves the cafeteria. John Roberts. He won't tell us the truth about where he stands. He won't even tell us the truth about where he eats."

None Dare Call It Treason: Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that Roberts "once wrote an entire White House memorandum in French." Isn't that precisely the kind of behavior Republicans just fought the entire 2004 election to prevent? If Roberts were running for president, he'd be out of the race by now.

I didn't have the savoir-faire to work in the Reagan White House, but in the Clinton White House, we had enough trouble with lawyers who wrote memos in English. If a member of his staff had written the late Lloyd Cutler, Clinton's White House counsel, an entire memo in French, Cutler would have loyally reported him to the Secret Service.

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I'm sure Roberts has a good explanation for why we shouldn't investigate him for treason. He was probably just too modest to write the whole thing in Latin.

Coming Attractions:Attention, Judge Roberts—to help make your confirmation hearings a little more interesting, Has-Been readers have already submitted more than 100 offbeat questions you won't be expecting. We could share them with you now, but we'd rather unveil them on Tuesday. One hundred questions, at five weeks apiece: With your usual preparation, you'll be ready in 10 years. Have a great weekend! ... 10:38 A.M. (link)

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Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005

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Lead or Lag: To his credit, President Bush is pulling out all the stops to respond to the tragic impact of Hurricane Katrina. Hopefully, Bush will live up to Presidential historian Fred Greenstein's  remarkably Bush-like observation  that "the can-do stuff ... is something he can do," unlike "the other cerebral stuff."

Bush could use the work. After hitting an all-time low in Gallup last week, the president just set a new personal worst in the latest Washington Post–ABC News poll. His ratings of 53 percent disapproval and 41 percent strong disapproval top Clinton's career highs of 51 percent and 37 percent.

More important, Bush set another record this week as the first president to preside over five straight years in which household incomes failed to rise. People working the longest fared the worst: Earnings for full-time workers fell by 2.3 percent for men and 1.0 percent for women.

The poverty rate rose for the fourth consecutive year, after declining every year from 1993 to 2000. The percentage of people without private health insurance also went up for the fourth year in a row.

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In response, the president could have revived his dormant compassionate conservatism agenda or abandoned his four-year-long effort to avoid signing a welfare reform bill. Instead, the Bush administration sent out a Commerce Department economist to declare that the poverty rate is "the last, lonely trailing indicator of the business cycle." Except for household incomes. And full-time earnings. And private health coverage. When it comes to economic progress, the people are always the last to know.

Mendoza Watch: With gas prices soaring, worker earnings dropping, and the president's popularity falling through the floor, we need to develop a more comprehensive index of failure than the Mendoza Line. The Mendoza Line is named for former journeyman shortstop Mario Mendoza, who had a lifetime batting average of .215 and a famed breakout season in which he hit .198.

Mendoza's career is a heartwarming reminder of the days when players could hit poorly even when they weren't recuperating from steroids. In common baseball parlance, a player is below the Mendoza Line if his batting average is under .200 or he signed a long-term contract for only $16.8 million.

The Mendoza Line does an excellent job of isolating the worst hitters. This season, on the 30 major league teams, just one regular player is hitting below .200. Last year, no regulars did.

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But the Mendoza Line comes up short as a perfect index of failure because it doesn't capture the many ways in which a player can cost his team games. As a good-fielding shortstop, Mario Mendoza was sometimes an asset to his team. That's how he managed to stay in the big leagues long enough to set the standard for feeble hitters everywhere.

Now that Bush has crossed the Mendoza Line as one of the most unpopular presidents of all time, he needs new goals to shoot for. The Has-Been suggests that with this week's poverty and income data on top of last month's steady deluge of bad news from abroad, Bush may be the first president to cross a new threshold: the Incaviglia Line.

Readers may come up with better analogies, but H-B named the Incaviglia Line for former Texas Ranger and brief Bush employee Pete Incaviglia, who in 1986 became, by my hasty calculations, the last player to lead the major leagues in both strikeouts and errors in the same season. 

Incaviglia did it in his rookie season, shattering the American League record for strikeouts and leading major-league outfielders in errors even though his manager kept him off the diamond for nearly a third of the team's games, perhaps because he couldn't catch the ball.

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The Incaviglia parallel isn't perfect, either. Like Mendoza, he wasn't the worst player of all time. Like Bush, Incaviglia's partisans could point to a few lonely, lagging indicators, such as his 30 homers that year, a level he would never reach again.

George Will, Meet George Won't: But looking back, it's hard not to marvel at Incaviglia's achievement.The Has-Been does not mean to take anything away from what Bush has donewhiffing at and bobbling a little white ball is nothing compared with whiffing at evil and bobbling a whole country. But in his field, Pete Incaviglia embodied Bush's same impressive ability to fail on offense and defense at the same time.

And like Bush, he probably did it without steroids. In the words of this bookies' blog, "Pete Incaviglia was just fat." ... 6:36 A.M. (link)

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Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005

Sound Off: Once again, George Bush's good pal Rafael Palmeiro has come up with the answer to the president's problems. The same man who was the top TV pitchman for Viagra and the star witness for covering up steroids in baseball has just come out with a new product: earplugs.

If Bush had learned about Raffy's idea for earplugs just one day sooner, the president could have stayed on the ranch, listened to the protesters without hearing a word, and finished the full month of his vacation. Of course, unlike Palmeiro's last two ventures, it's too early to certify this product as "performance-enhancing." ... 3:44 P.M. (link)

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Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005

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Changing Speeds: While most Americans savor their last days of summer, Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats are gearing up to ask John Roberts tough questions about his judicial philosophy at his confirmation hearing next week. "We need to be sure this institution is in the mainstream of American thinking," Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., told David Von Drehle of the Washington Post this weekend. "What we need to do is ask the obvious questions."

Let's hope that as an old country lawyer, Durbin has a few unobvious questions up his sleeve. After reading the transcript of Roberts' 2003 hearings, The Has-Been urges members to leave their fastballs at home and throw changeups and curveballs instead.

The purpose of any good job interview is to find out how a person's mind works under pressure. A good confirmation hearing is no different: The committee owes the country a chance to see John Roberts' mind at work. If he's as good as his profiles, he'll pass with flying colors. If he stumbles, the country will take another look.

But as Roberts demonstrated last time, pressing him to outline his judicial philosophy doesn't feel like pressure at all. The man has been preparing to duck those questions his entire adult life. His first job was to advise Sandra Day O'Connor on how to do the same. After a quarter century of preparation, John Roberts is not suddenly going to take the stand and confess, Perry Mason style, that he's a Scalia conservative, not a Rehnquist clone, or that Roberts is really  Latin for Souter.

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Roberts is famously overprepared. A legal colleague told the Post's Von Drehle that Roberts' secret is "taking the hostile question that you didn't want to answer and transforming it into an affirmative point that advances your client's cause." A former partner told the New York Timesthat Roberts would demand endless revisions to briefs and launch lengthy debates "over the way certain sentences were phrased."

A Lawyer's Lawyer's Time Sheet: According to Von Drehle, Roberts believed in spending five weeks preparing for a 30-minute argument. We may have finally identified the true source of America's soaring legal costs.

At most, senators have had a few weeks to prepare for Roberts. Roberts has spent 25 years preparing for them. So, on all the obvious questions, Roberts has an overwhelming advantage.

But on screwball questions, that advantage disappears. The model for this line of questioning comes from the late Peter Jennings. In a televised debate during the 2004 primaries, Jennings asked John Edwards to "tell us what you know about the practice of Islam." A thousand debate preps and murder boards could never have prepared Edwards for that question. It made for great television because neither the viewers at home nor the press corps had any idea what he would say, or even what he should say.

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Under the circumstances, Edwards handled it well, admitting that "I would never claim to be an expert on Islam." Roberts is famed for both erudition and modesty. Make him choose: Is there any topic on which he would say he'd "never claim to be an expert"?

Call Me Ismael: Asking questions that reveal how a person's mind works is far more revealing than asking a person's views. In a group interview, I once was asked how many levels of allegory I could name in Moby Dick, and why the book was so popular in the Soviet Union. The committee soon saw that my mind didn't work at all. (Update: It still doesn't25 years later, I still can't think of a good answer. One committee member told me I should have said the book justified Soviet whaling policy.)

If Roberts invokes the Ruth Bader Ginsburg precedent and says, "It would be inappropriate to answer questions on the practice of Islam because they might come before the court" or "One thing that is unfair about whaling is that it is not certain, it is not definite, and there doesn't seem to be a reasonable time limitation," Democrats will know they're getting somewhere.

In fact, even leaking in advance that they plan to ask some off-the-wall questions might do Democrats some good. Then Roberts can spend his Labor Day weekend feeling five weeks behind. ... 10:24 A.M. (link)

P.S. Do you have an offbeat question you'd like John Roberts to answer? Send it to thehasbeen@gmail.com.

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Monday, Aug. 29, 2005

Hitting Bottom: It's official—George Bush has crossed the Mendoza line. On Friday, Gallup announced that the president's approval has reached a new low of 40 percent, while his disapproval has soared to a new high of 56 percent.

Every second-term president has his eye on the history books—and with these numbers, Bush has secured his place in them. Of the 12 presidents who've served since Gallup started polling in the late 1930s, Bush has entered the ranks of the most unpopular. He's now more unpopular than FDR, Ike, JFK, LBJ, Ford, and Clinton ever were, and has matched the highest disapproval rating of his idol, Ronald Reagan.

Bush's disapproval rose five points in August alone. At his current pace of losing favor, he could speed past two more presidents within the next month: Jimmy Carter, who peaked at 59 percent in mid-1979, and George H.W. Bush, who hit 60 percent in the summer of 1992. That would leave the current Bush just two more men to pass on his way to the top spot: Richard Nixon, who reached 66 percent before resigning in 1974, and Harry Truman, who set Gallup's all-time record at 67percent in January 1952.

Can Bush break the record? The experts say it's nearly impossible in a political climate so much more polarized than the one the men he's competing against faced. To increase his disapproval ratings among Republicans, Bush would have to lose a war, explode the national debt, or preside over a period of steep moral decline. Moreover, as his friends have learned, it's a lot harder breaking records when you have to do it without steroids.

Bush v. History: But don't count Bush out—he thrives on being told a goal is beyond his reach. The president is an intense competitor and stacks up well against the historical competition:

  • Reagan was old and amiable; Bush is young, vigorous, and has a smirk in reserve.
  • Both Carter and Bush 41 were one-term, rookie presidents with no clear plan to gain disfavor and who had to rely entirely on external events going south. Bush 43's chances don't depend on luck: He has a proven strategy to fail at home and abroad.
  • Nixon had to achieve his disapproval ratings almost entirely through scandal, with little help from the economy or world events. The Bush White House is much more versatile: They won't let scandal distract them from screwing up foreign and domestic policy. Already, 62 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction—the highest level in a decade—even before the Bush scandals have begun to take a toll.
  • Truman might seem tough to beat, because Bush has no popular generals to fire. But Truman had several historic achievements under his belt that kept his unpopularity down, such as winning World War II and presiding over the postwar boom. Bush's record is free of any such ballast. In a pinch, the Bush camp can also make a good case that polling on Truman was notoriously unreliable, and that Bush deserves a share of the modern-day record if he reaches Nixon's level.

The Worst Is Not, So Long as We Can Say, This Is the Worst: Best of all, Bush has a luxury that unpopular presidents before him did not: time. His father and Jimmy Carter made the mistake of losing favor in their first term, assuring that voters would not give them a second one. Nixon committed high crimes and misdemeanors that helped him win a second term but prevented him from completing it. Truman's numbers didn't tank until his last year in office.

George W. Bush still has 41 months to turn the rest of the country against him. In the past 41 months, he has cut his popularity by 40 points—from 80 percent to 40 percent. At that rate, he's on track to set a record for presidential approval that could never be broken: zero. ... 8:55 A.M.( link)