June 19th, 2006

Political BBQ: Early Returns Brisk

by Philip Baruth

An update on the status of the Hamburger Summit: so far VDB has heard from a very healthy crowd of what might be called first-responders. Green Mountain Daily is also hearing good things.

The idea, again, is to create one big happy scrum by the lake, around a brazier of smoking meat.

mmm, meatAll political dialects will be spoken, it should go without saying. Contrary to some reports, this is bigger than bloggers and blog readers alone — we’d love to have anyone with even a passing interest in the races and issues of the day grab a bun and get happy.

Let’s say you’re backing Tom Delay for President in ‘08, and you believe that Vermont should be turned into a sort of leafy penal camp for those who violate the decency ban on prime-time programming. But only after its landscape and raw materials have been logged, strip-mined, and developed into submission.

Well, come on down! We can’t guarantee that you won’t leave a fresh new convert to the Center-Left, but we can assure you that the picnic will represent a very Big Tent.

In the spirit of Napolean Dynamite, that is to say, VDB offers you its protection. Because macaroni salad is for everyone.

[Hat tip to Neil Jensen of What’s the Point? for the classic BBQ icon above.]

June 19th, 2006

Monday Must-Read: Notes from the Green Zone

by Philip Baruth

Only the Washington Post can bring you a story like this, built from leaked documents between high-level officials in the Administration. At issue is a cable — marked “sensitive” — sent from the American Embassy in Baghdad to the Secretary of State in D.C.

rummyAnd although Tony Snow will eventually insist that it was prepared by an intern with no real authority, the document is signed by the US Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

If you read no other piece of news today, go here and read the actual PDF of the cable.

In general, the document describes a deeply threatening environment, an embassy riven by sectarian tensions. And this sense of threat comes only partly from the insurgency: as potent is the pressure coming from Shiite militias and religious vigilantes.

But the must-read paragraph is buried on page 3 of the PDF, in a sub-section marked “Security Forces Mistrusted.”

It runs as follows:

“In April, employees began reporting a change in demeanor of guards at the green zone checkpoints. They seemed to be more militia-like, in some cases seemingly taunting. One employee asked us to explore getting her press credentials because guards had held her embassy badge up and proclaimed loudly to nearby passers-by ‘Embassy’ as she entered. Such information is a death sentence if overheard by the wrong people.”

Read that first line again. This behavior and change in demeanor is taking place at green zone checkpoints.

It’s against the murky backdrop of leaked information like this that a guy like Jack Murtha shines so bright. Here he is on coming down hard on Karl Rove for politicizing the war while sitting in an air-conditioned office on his fat civilian behind.

Whoever posted the clip has titled it “Murtha vs. Rove: Airconditioned Fat Ass Cut and Run.”

To which VDB says, word up.

June 17th, 2006

Again, Vermont Leads the Nation

by Philip Baruth

You’ll remember that the last time Survey USA put out their state-by-state polling numbers, Vermont was only the second-most anti-Bush state in the Union.

Rhode Island edged us out, by a point or two. And VDB was hurt, angry, humiliated.

tiny bushWell, the new numbers are out, and all we have to say is this: in your complacent lower-East-Coast faces, Rhode Island and Massachusetts!

Percentage currently disapproving of The Decider:

Rhode Island — 71%
Massachusetts — 73%

And the Vermont number is — wait for it — all but a full three-quarters of the pie: 74%

Have a nice weekend. Eat well. Rest easy in the knowledge that no where else in these United States is George Bush less likely to buy a third home — when he eventually flees the White House — than here in the Green Mountains.

June 16th, 2006

Presumed Incontinent: An All-New Brian Dubie Thriller!

by Philip Baruth

Part One:
The Presumed Incontinence of Brian Dubie

Don’t think VDB doesn’t know what you’re thinking, because we do: Sure, comedy is one thing, but jokes about a sitting Lieutenant Governor soiling his flightsuit are another thing altogether.

Is this a political blog, or a Rob Schneider flick? Where’s the dignity?

Dignity, schmignity.

meat, politicsWhat other image can come close to describing Dubie’s reaction to Thursday’s news that Anthony Pollina would hang on to his slightly threadbare hat this time around, as opposed to tossing it yet again into the statewide ring?

Pollina has been the skeleton key to Dubie’s success almost from the get-go, and without Pollina, Dubie is — a guy without a key.

Why? Because in the same way that the Dunne/Tracy primary offers a double dream for Democrats, it’s a double nightmare for Dubie, a lose-lose scenario of the first order.

And nobody knows it like Dubie.

If he runs against Dunne, Dubie faces a hungry campaigner capable of uniting the center-left coalition, a guy who brought in John Edwards for a high-profile conference on poverty, yet who also speaks fluent entrepreneur-ese.

If he runs against Tracy, Dubie faces a very likeable veteran with the ability to make Burlington the beating heart of a whirl-wind statewide campaign.

Dubie, or not Dubie — that is the root-level question, and after Thursday the answer looks distinctly like the latter.

Part Two:
In Which VDB Rethinks Anthony Pollina

As you know, we ran a rumor a week or so back, about Pollina condo shopping on the Burlington Waterfront. But that was only the half of it: the other half involved a potential run for State Senate, perhaps — in the most fantastic scenario — from Chittenden County.

And after Thursday’s announcement, we’ve been inundated with email throwing out various rationales for Pollina’s sudden pull-back: Pollina is making nice with Democrats prior to a party-switch; Pollina is plotting an even greater assault on the Democratic majority, and is merely marshalling his forces; the Progressives are looking to build grass-roots force before returning to high-profile statewide races; etc., and so on.

Back and forth, and round and round.

But as far as we’re concerned, the why is all but irrelevant.

In the end, only Pollina and his people know why he left the race open to the Democratic nominee. What matters is that he did so.

Presumably, Pollina’s future plans include politics. Presumably, whatever race he next runs will depend on Democratic votes. And as far as VDB is concerned, Pollina now deserves a fresh look from all Vermont Democrats.

As does David Zuckerman, who also drew back ultimately from a run that would have handed Bernie’s seat to Dennis Hastert.

As any regular reader knows, we had some fun spotlighting the strategic value of Zuckerman’s exploratory phase — but what matters, finally, is that David didn’t pull the trigger.

As we put it then, “Hard to fault a man for playing his chosen game skillfully, and with his cards close to the chest. Zuckerman has done a great deal to ensure that Vermont continues to challenge the deeply corrupt and wrong-headed legislation seeping from the nation’s capital. And that’s a good day’s work, for any of us. Well done, David.”

We know, we know: some hard-core Democrats will argue ad infinitum that Pollina and Zuckerman pulled back out of sheer calculated self-interest, or Progressive party interests, rather than in the interests of advancing the agenda of a united Center-Left coalition.

But again, motivation is finally irrelevant. Let’s face it: all successful politicians have vote-tabulating machines for hearts, and they consult their own hearts — and only their own hearts — when all is said and done.

The point is that Progressives have shown restraint this cycle. They’ve offered Democrats a clear field in what is unquestionably a desperate political year.

If Democrats can’t take and hold the field in the end, then it seems to VDB that well-known Progressives have not one but two compelling reasons to run next time out.

And we openly promise, as of today, to listen long and hard to those arguments when and if they’re made. We encourage other Democrats to do the same.

Make no mistake: the last three things VDB will do before drawing breath for the very last time — at age 95 or 96 — will be to cough once, twice, and then curse Ralph Nader.

Grudges are a terrible burden to carry.

But Anthony Pollina has given us an opportunity this year to shed a grudge, at least one, and for that we thank him.

June 16th, 2006

The Fellowship of the Scream

by Philip Baruth

Had a long talk a couple of days ago with a guy named Gregg, a committed VDB-reader who once spent endless Wednesday nights licking envelopes for Howard Dean, back in the heady days before the Iowa primary, back before the Scream.

bbq iconNot only did Gregg volunteer himself, he dragged his wife and his kid down to lick envelopes. And when the Scream went down, it break every heart in the family, individually and without exception.

It’s a conversation I’ve had before, many times, with others who followed Dean loyally from the pre-Scream days — through the actual Scream itself — to the post-Scream days, those sunless, wintry days before Dean rose again from the ashes.

They were all raised up by the campaign, and then burned by it, a lot or a little, down deep.

I was depressed as hell myself when it happened. I didn’t work for the campaign, but I’d been writing about it, and turning on friends around the country to this ex-governor from Vermont who just might go all the way.

In any event, here is the last of those Dean pieces, for old time’s sake, in case you missed it.

* *

Announcer: Having finally managed to broker a deal to put Eye on the Sky broadcaster Steve Maleski on the Dean 2004 Democratic ticket, Philip Baruth was as disappointed as anyone to see the Dean bubble burst. In this morning’s commentary, Philip is sent in to pick up the pieces.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #126: Alas, Poor Howard, I Knew Him Well

Every form of tragedy has its caretaker. When a thoroughbred suddenly goes down at the Kentucky Derby, there’s a track vet who gets the call, a man who understands both sympathy and reality.

And when it’s a presidential candidate who goes down inches from the finish line, I’m your man. It’s an odd specialty, and I’m not sure how I got into it. But I got Dukakis on his feet again, and I was the one who eventually found Al Gore curled up in a little ball at a Red Roof Inn outside Phoenix.

So when the call came through from the Dean camp, I wasn’t surprised. Howard fell a long, long way, further than most of us will travel in our entire lifetimes. And gravity is non-negotiable: when you fall that far, you break.

A staffer met me at the door of the darkened Dean 2004 headquarters. Not Joe Trippi, not any of the players who once ran this place like a presidential theme park. One low-level Deaniac is all that’s left. His t-shirt says, The Doctor Is In.

“Where is he,” I ask.

“He’s in the prep room,” he whispers, and I can tell the situation has him nearly freaked. “He’s just sitting in there, listening to his music.”

I nod and start to move down the dim corridor. Every campaign has its official tune, and every candidate has a song that’s private, that tells him or her the moment is now. [Music starts underneath this line] As I reach the prep room, I hear it, the theme song from the film Eight Mile.

You better lose yourself in the music,
the moment, you want it,
you better never let it go, go.
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow,
‘cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime.

[Volume fades during this line] In the film, the song wins Eminem the battle of the rappers, and Dean’s campaign started playing it as a joke, but during the long months criss-crossing Iowa, it came to speak to Dean.

He listened to it before every debate, every news conference.

He’s sitting there in the gloom now, in one of his bad suits, chair pulled up right in front of the speakers, letting the music punish him.

I go and turn down the volume. And then I come back to his chair and I lean down to his ear. What I say can’t be about him; he can’t go there yet. So I talk about another Vermont boy who had his moment, and then saw it slip away.

“Remember Jim Jeffords, Howard? He left the Republican Party, threw control of the US Senate to the Democrats. And in year or so, the Republicans took back the Senate anyway, and Jeffords was suddenly just a guy in the minority with a bunch of arrows in his back. But that didn’t mean he didn’t do something fine and brave and true in his moment, because he did, Howard. And that can never be taken away.”

That’s all I say, for now.

I turn up the stereo again [music starts a very slow rise again], and then head into the little kitchenette to make the first of a thousand pots of coffee.

I learned during the Al Gore rehabilitation that it’s a long, maybe endless road. They watch the memories of themselves losing it over and over again, these fallen candidates, like the CNN film clip from hell.

But there’s tricks you learn, and one of those tricks is to let the candidate himself, at the very least, control the soundtrack. [Lyrics again take over]

You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
‘cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime

[Fade] You can do anything you set your mind to, man.

[This piece aired previously on Vermont Public Radio.]

June 14th, 2006

Grassroots Politics: The Naked Truth

by Philip Baruth

What’s the difference between a political blogger and a journalist? When you’re a blogger, people send you pictures of themselves buck-naked, riding their bikes.

Michael Nedell — Burlington novelist and political provocateur — coordinates Burlington’s participation in World Naked Bike Ride, a yearly event designed to raise awareness of oil dependence and a rampant car culture.

This morning, Michael reported in from the field:

naked folk, biking

I like your site. I might be able to keep track of what is going on around here now too.

Naked Bike Ride — it’s a world-wide event. They had over 700 bikers in London this year. It is clothing optional, but we encourage everyone to ride naked. This is the second year Burlington has participated in the ride. We had 18-24 people last year, and 40-50 this year. I was the main organizer both years, so there was no official count. I tend to be a whirlwind while it is all going on . . .

Lots of butt in mostly all of our shots . . . hard to ride and take photos at the same time!

Take care Phil!


naked folk, still biking

While VDB doesn’t generally advocate public nudity, we admire the dedication here, the courage, the grit, the intensity. Maybe a man can’t truly call himself a political junkie until he’s ridden the cobblestones of Church Street aboard an uncompromising, brutally chap-inducing ten-speed seat.

In fact, maybe a man can’t truly call himself a man until he’s let it all hang out for his beliefs.

Maybe. VDB doesn’t know for sure. And will never find out, not in a million years.

June 14th, 2006

Spreading the Gitmo Meme

by Philip Baruth

I have a new crackpot theory about Guantanamo Bay.

I used to believe that Guantanamo — with its torture and force-feeding chairs and waterboarding and pliant psychologists and force-fed gay porn — was a secret government operation that had been accidentally brought to the attention of the world.

bush, in denialI used to believe that Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld were livid that their extra-legal bolt-hole had been exposed to minimal public scrutiny. I used to believe that they were frantic about the disclosure of their bizarre and whimsically cruel tactics.

But I have a new theory: that the point of Gitmo is to have its twisted existence broadcast, on a daily basis, to every corner of the globe. That Gitmo is a concept the Administration wants beamed to every television and radio, as many times as possible.

If the Red Cross hadn’t stumbled across the systematic abuses of law and international treaty at Gitmo, the Administration would have had to find some other means of getting the good word out.

The Bush people, I’m convinced, see Gitmo — like the death penalty — as a twisted form of deterrence.

Forget that it lowers our standing in the world by a measurable amount each passing month. Forget that it conflicts with every principle this country has claimed, from its inception, to honor.

Forget that the European Parliament is coming perilously close to a vote denouncing us as international pariahs. The recent suicides there — following an even larger number of suicide attempts — have refocused the world on pressing the issue as never before. But forget that.

This administration, down deep, doesn’t mind that Guantanamo is so horrific — such a lawless pit — that a large portion of the occupants would kill themselves if they were allowed.

That, in fact, is the point.

It’s the message dictators have used to stabilize their rule in countries the world over, in every age: I have a place you don’t want to go, I have the power to put you in that place, and once there, you will never leave that place.

So, as for the negative press produced by multiple suicides amid mass hunger strikes, bring it on.

gitmo suicides

Late Update, 12:02 pm:

Press reports now indicate that Rumsfeld has banished reporters from Gitmo as of today. Does this demolish the crackpot theory outlined above? Just the reverse: banishing reporters from the camp is, in fact, the only thing that could have made the multiple suicides story any bigger.

Think about it, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

June 13th, 2006

Rove Skates Like Michelle Kwan

by Philip Baruth

The hopes and dreams of an entire Democratic generation, dashed in a single moment. rove as slug

Looks like Fitzmas won’t be coming this year, or any year, for that matter. From the Times:

“WASHINGTON, June 13 — The prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case on Monday advised Karl Rove, the senior White House adviser, that he would not be charged with any wrongdoing, effectively ending the nearly three-year criminal investigation that had at times focused intensely on Mr. Rove.”

C’est la vie, c’est la guerre.

June 13th, 2006

Whistle-Stop Fever 2006: Peter Welch’s Highball Run

by Philip Baruth

Prologue: The Whistle-Stop Curse

“But that train keeps a movin’, and that’s what tortures me.”
— Johnny Cash, “Folsom Prison Blues”

Trains have a time-honored and deeply ambivalent place in American politics.

Harry Truman promised to “Give ‘em hell” from the platform of a train, and an instant legend was born.

On the other hand, Hunter Thompson was so maddened by the “insane, rat-bastard tedium” of Ed Muskie’s “Sunshine Special” during the 1972 primaries that he passed his credentials to a gin-crazed ex-con who terrorized the club car and then tried to fondle a gaggle of young college volunteers, all decked out in mini-skirts and white straw “Trust Muskie” hats. Panic ensued.

bbq/mmmYou see VDB’s point.

Political trains travel always on the razor’s edge of publicity, and finally fall one of only two ways: the Express to Victory, or the Train in Vain.

Trains are massive, rolling political symbols, and in case you forget that, they come to a crossroads every fifteen minutes and remind you with an ear-splitting whistle.

Clinton’s use of the train during the 1996 Democratic convention was the form at its modern apex. Clinton’s handlers knew that reporters would be desperate for stories on the convention floor — and they also knew that no stories would be available, given the pre-packaged nature of the gathering. Which would drive reporters to sniff out negative stories to fill the void.

So Harold Ickes put Clinton on a gleaming silver, 4,000-horsepower, hi-tech, double-decker marvel that meandered to Chicago over the course of nearly a week, and Clinton’s larger whistle stops were beamed directly to the convention.

For a campaign simply trying to run out the clock on the hapless Dole operation, it was a master-stroke: the top story of the convention involved the means Clinton used to get there (though Dick Morris’s “shrimping” fetish would eventually run a close second).

In Show Time, Roger Simon’s brilliantly funny memoir of the ’96 campaign, Simon notes that Ickes and Mike McCurry left the sound system on long after each whistle stop was finished for the night.

Why? Because they knew their candidate couldn’t resist returning to the microphone as the evening deepened and the train rolled along, couldn’t resist greeting small knots of people gathered along the tracks, in order to squeeze one more vote out of the day.

More than anything, Clinton apparently just called out random compliments into the dusk: “Nice bikes!” to some boys popping wheelies near the tracks, and “I like your doggie!” to an elderly woman walking a retriever.

The train provided the perfect technology for a restless candidate driven to meet and charm every last American.

But not every campaign masters the art. In fact, precisely half don’t, and their trains are remembered forever after as — well, wicked bad trains.

So when word leaked that the Welch campaign was officially kicking off with a one-day whistle-stop tour of the state, VDB held its breath. The Welch campaign has had an excellent run thus far, and packing the entire operation and a handful of serious VIPs onto a train to Rutland seemed a lot like letting your brand-new stack of chips ride on the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo.

But of course, if you don’t bet, you can’t win.

And with 70% of Americans telling pollsters that the country is headed down the wrong track, who could resist the distant whistle of the Big Symbol?

The Kick-Off: Sharp Cheese, Big Firefighters, and a Barn Unexpectedly Burned

We got there early but the crowd was already thick.

The rain — which had been falling for three straight weeks — held off, which looked good, but still the sky was overcast, which looked iffy, with the occasional rain cloud threatening off to the south. The crowd was good-sized, somewhere between 100 and 200, and the food was plentiful.

Still, while there were excellent chocolate glazed donuts, there was no coffee anywhere in sight, and we still couldn’t shake the acid-stomach feeling that everything was balancing on a knife’s edge.

The mood was undeniably up-beat: nothing like hanging around on a train platform to make people feel crazy and footloose. Burly guys wearing orange “Firefighters for Welch” t-shirts and big smiles. Television cameras, print guys, activists, volunteers, parents with kids who maybe just ambled over to see a train roll out. Pat Leahy, Madeleine Kunin, Peter Clavelle, Phil Hoff, John Tracy, all in the mix, slapping shoulders.

Even the ever-elusive Adam Quinn, there one minute, gone the next, like the Shadow.

So by the time the speeches started — all delivered Truman-style from the rear platform of the train car — we were optimistic. It looked like the Welch “Back on Track” Express would avoid the curse of Sam Yorty and Ed Muskie and all the others who ultimately found the whistle-stop format impossible to master.

And then Mary Kehoe, Welch’s step-daughter, stepped up to the microphone and began to introduce Pat Leahy — and nothing happened. No amplification, at least.

People in the audience shouted advice, but nothing helped. The mike was dead.

But Mary isn’t the offspring of a political family for nothing. She batted the useless mike aside and bent to her task, introducing Welch as a man not only of the Legislature, but of the kitchen, a man who knows how to stuff a chicken and “where to find Uncle Ben’s Long Grain Wild Rice in the grocery store.”

It was a nice glimpse into Welch’s domestic side. Mary toughed it out, that is, but the hassle with the mike had thrown her good speech slightly off track, and her voice was finally a bit too quiet to fully compensate.

cheney's got a gunThen Pat Leahy stepped to the microphone, and he too ignored it and spoke directly to the crowd. Leahy has been the tireless cage fighter of the Democratic Party these last 5 years, battling on long after Democrats had been routed most everywhere else. Again and again and again, Leahy has championed the ideals closest to the Party’s heart. Against the worst the GOP has to offer: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove.

In fact, the second post VDB ever ran was called “The Shadow Administration,” and it argued that Leahy, and Jim Jeffords, and Howard Dean — and the Vermont Supreme Court — have between them come to represent an anti-Bush, shadow administration, while Vermont itself has become the winter quarters for core American values stemming from the Bill of Rights.

Leahy, in other words, needed no microphone.

He called the current administration and the Congress “a culture of contempt,” and Martha Rainville a “rubber stamp for the GOP.” Leahy came through loud and clear, which everyone gathered there would have predicted.

But then something unpredictable happened: Leahy introduced Peter Welch, and Welch thanked Leahy, and the other VIPs, and the firefighters, and the staff — and then he reared back on his heels and delivered the best, the most powerful, the most eloquent speech delivered by anyone in this cycle thus far, bar none.

It went well beyond Leahy’s speech, hard-hitting as it was, to denounce the current administration and to declare that there were two options: to hide our heads under the covers while Washington dismantles America, or to fight.

“I choose to fight!” Welch shouted, and his voice carried real authority. He summed up the Bush Administration’s approach in five words: “You are on your own.” If you want healthcare, Welch called out, you are on your own. Clean air, you are on your own. It became a call and response, with Welch continuing the litany of ways in which Americans have been failed by conservatives in Congress, and the crowd calling back, “You are on your own.”

We’ve seen Welch speak several times before, and we saw him deliver an excellent speech at the Barack Obama event at UVM earlier this year. But this speech broke new ground.

This was a fiery speech, liberally peppered with the word “fight,” what they used to call a barn-burner in the old days.

Maybe it’s because Welch has been watching old Bernie Sanders video; maybe it’s because the Republicans in Congress represent some of the fattest targets in modern memory.

Whatever the reason, it was the speech of the campaign.

And at the height of it, when the crowd was up on its toes, Welch shifted gears in the way that the best speakers do, downshifting for emphasis, promising to protect “the last, the least, and the lost among us.” The crowd began to chant: “Back on track, back on track!”

And then — in the small clean pause after the chanting stopped and Welch had said his goodbyes — the train whistle called.

It was the sort of moment spin-doctors labor over for weeks, but in this case, it just happened. And it reminded you why politicians for more than a century have sought to harness the train to the campaign.

Because when it works, it’s pure magic. And that kind of magic cannot be bought.

Epilogue: In Which VDB Eats More Donuts

VDB rode to Shelburne, and they served more cheese and strawberries and donuts. And it was a genuine pleasure, to ride the rails even for twenty minutes, rocking along through the South End of Burlington, ten feet from Lake Champlain, “slow-balling” as Johnny Cash used to like to say.

The train was full of friendly, optimistic people. The men operating the train wore glossy black old-school hats, with gold braid and the word “Trainman” lettered across the front. Great stuff.

But nothing could match the high point of Welch’s kickoff speech itself. You had the sense from the speech that nothing is going to stop Peter Welch at this point: not a dead microphone, not Martha Rainville, not a Republican Congress working in concert with a corrupt administration.

You had the sense of momentum, of a campaign that has found its message, its language, its deep purpose.

The sense of a train just now beginning to highball, to use the technical term.

June 10th, 2006

Latest AP/Ipsos Digits: Heads Up, Martha

by Philip Baruth

The latest AP/Ipsos poll (run this past Monday through Wednesday) still shows Democrats with a 20% advantage when voters are asked which party they’d like to see controlling Congress next year.

That’s huge.

Add to this the fact that a full 70% of Americans see the country headed down the wrong track.

Which is all good news. And informative news, when thinking through the Welch/Rainville match-up.

From the beginning the Rainville campaign has seemed to have no clearly articulated policy agenda; their issue statements have been almost entirely reactive in nature, driven by the day’s news or steps taken by the Welch camp.

And no doubt a year or eighteen months ago, that made good sense: they had Martha Rainville, an attractive female General, rumored to be liberal on social issues, a woman linked inextricably in the public mind with the funerals of soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice, a woman originally courted by both major parties.

They had a sure-fire political brand, the kind of brand with a 30-year shelf-life.

At that point, Rainville’s handlers and backers must have worried — above all else — about protecting that brand, keeping it from getting scuffed up. No policy statements, no real hard-core campaigning, certainly no debates or unfriendly venues.

At that point, a day where Martha said nothing and did nothing was supposed to be a good day for Martha.

But this latest poll reinforces what has been palpable for at least a year now: Americans want change, structural change, and change directed specifically at kitchen-table issues and the war in Iraq. They want a Congress with the power to curb an inept and power-hungry administration.

And according to state-by-state polling, only in Rhode Island do people want those things more than in the state of Vermont.

rummyNot a good year to be stuck with a candidate who has identified specifically with very little, a candidate who has thus far managed only to weakly echo others — the Bush administration when called upon to do so (Guard troops to the Southern border), the GOP leadership on fundraising matters, and even Peter Welch himself, when Welch’s positions have proven irresistible with voters (the firing of Donald Rumsfeld).

In our interview with Welch, we asked whether the troops should come home this year. Yes, he said. Should we have permanent bases in Iraq? No, he said. Should Rumsfeld be fired? Tomorrow, was the answer. Rainville has yet to develop a sharp answer to any of these three pressing questions; on each of them, she offers a paragraph or two or three of high-flown straddle.

When Welch was selected by the Democratic leadership to offer an Iraq-themed response to the President’s weekly radio address, Rainville rushed out a pre-buttle, and in it she was forced to play her hole card early: “My opponent and I have vastly different backgrounds. I have 27 years of military experience and have been in the field while he’s been a career politician with no military experience,” ran the first two lines. Again, there was no attempt to debate the policy, no attempt to offer a specific approach.

Wearing the uniform should be enough, Rainville implied.

It isn’t enough, Martha. Not in 2006. Not by a longshot.

Specificity and clarity of purpose are the watchwords this time around. Welch has dignified the debate with both those things, and the numbers continue to suggest that ultimately he’ll be rewarded for doing so.

Which, ironically enough, will be the worst thing for the Rainville brand imaginable.

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