May 22nd, 2007

McCain’s “Guatemalans” Reference No Accident, Friends: Cue Terry Nelson

by Philip Baruth

You have to love it when Presidential candidates hit their marks, right on schedule.


Back in December, during the so-called “talent primary,” John McCain wowed the Republican field by picking up the services of one Terry Nelson. Nelson, of course, headed up the Republican National Committee unit responsible for racially tinged ads that stopped Harold Ford’s campaign in Tennessee.

It was a two-fer, as talent-primary gets go. It showed analysts that McCain could score the up-and-comers, the rancid cream of the GOP crop.

But beyond that, it was significant that McCain hired Nelson specifically, and did so in the full bloom of controversy over the Ford ads.

Having been racially targeted himself in 2000, and having lost South Carolina as a partial result, McCain wanted to make matters clear: he was willing to pull the trigger himself this time out.

Which brings us to the much-discussed May 16 poll in the Des Moines Register. Clearly Mitt Romney’s early ad buys, in the positive feel-good vein, have had an effect: the poll noted a sizeable surge in Romney’s numbers.

And the two televised GOP debates can’t have hurt Mitt. He’s built for the infomercial — big, brassy voice, chin cut like a slab of marble, tallest guy on the stage in a field of ten — while McCain’s soft voice and hesitant manner get lost in the shuffle.

So what do you do if you’re Johnny Mac, and suddenly you see that the former Governor of Massachusetts is managing to sell voters on the idea that he’s the most conservative in the field?

That’s right: a deceptively casual slam delivered by conference call to right-wing bloggers. A slam that just happens to be racially charged:

“In the case of Governor Romney, you know, maybe I should wait a couple of weeks and see if it changes, because it’s changed in less than a year from his position before. And maybe his solution will be to get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn. I don’t know.”

The “Guatemalans” reference is meant to put voters in mind of allegations that Romney has in the past used a landscaping service partially staffed with undocumented workers.

But as much as anything it’s meant to redirect the wave of xenophobia currently directed at McCain, for his own efforts on immigration reform. By all accounts, McCain has struggled on the stump this time out, taking two hostile questions on immigration for every softball on judges or veterans’ affairs.

johnny mac

In short, McCain has now confirmed what VDB has suspected since December: that he is more than willing to play the race-baiter this time out.

And that will complete McCain’s transformation from one of the most respected members of the Senate to one of the most actively pitied. Because McCain will lose, in spite of the nastiness.

And then he will truly have lost everything, rather than simply a race for the White House.

As Michael Lewis wrote of Bob Dole’s sour 1996 campaign: “He’s going to lose having made all the decisions one must make to win. He’ll lose ugly.”

johnny mac looks like a fool

May 21st, 2007

Diploma Mill Story Just Won’t Go Away; Shake-Up in Rutland Continues

by Philip Baruth

An update on our favorite more or less non-political story so far this year. On April 7th, we brought you the odd little story of the International Graduate Center, an online university “based” in the Virgin Islands, but with its real administrative structure in Vermont.

virgin islands

Rutland, to be specific. The fine points of the reporting are here.

To make a long-story short: IGC had its accreditation yanked personally by the Governor of the Virgin Islands. Why? Because, according to the Governor’s office, it was “an online business that has the earmarks of a diploma mill.”

But the story didn’t end there: it turns out that two Rutland area principals were involved with IGC, one running the shop and another pursuing a Ph.D.

It took about a week after VDB’s initial post for the mainstream outlets to pick up the story: the Herald and WCAX produced several stories, and the Herald especially began to bore into the foundations of the mini-scandal.

The upshot? One of the principals involved, Charles Knisley, has announced his resignation, and an impending move to an elementary school in Saudi Arabia.

That’s right: Saudi Arabia.

The other, Rob Bliss, was greasing for promotion to Assistant Superintendent, but it turns out that in addition to working on a higher degree at a very suspect institution, Bliss has been being reimbursed by the district for his courses there.

Which is, of course, a problem. See the front page of today’s Herald.

Now, in none of the mainstream reporting on this story will you find any mention of VDB, although we first brought the obscure item from the Virgin Islands Daily News to the attention of Vermont readers.

And of course we added reporting of our own. None of the mainstream accounts have yet picked up on one of the niftiest angles: one of the Defense Department’s Teachers of the Year for 2005 has higher degrees exclusively from IGC, and its diploma-mill ancestor, Berne University.

The point is a basic one: no balanced twenty-first century news diet is complete without a selection of political blogs.

If only for roughage.

May 18th, 2007

Bill Lofy Pens Anti-O’Reilly Op-Ed, Receives “Factor” Invitation Hours Later; Unable to Clean Hands after Repeated Washings

by Philip Baruth

By now you’ve heard about the Fox News ambush of Representative Bill Lippert, but in case you missed it, here’s the white-knuckle version:

bill, cryingBill O’Reilly, in his continuing bid to paint Vermont as a “secular progressive” lab experiment run amok, sent a crew to the State House to mug Lippert, whom they accused of being soft on sexual predators.

Peter Freyne has film here, and it’s nothing you want to watch before you eat a plate of falafel, believe VDB.

The latest wrinkle in the story involves Bill Lofy, a one-time staffer for Paul Wellstone who moved to Jericho about a year and a half ago. Lofy is now a communications consultant for the House and Senate leadership in Montpelier.

Lofy didn’t think much of O’Reilly’s tirade, and he drafted a long, passionate op-ed that ran in the Rutland Herald.

And about six hours later — baddabing, baddaboom — Lofy has unwanted mail:

From: “Watters, Jesse”
Date: Thu, 17 May 2007 11:46:02 -0500
To: bill
Conversation: o’reilly factor request
Subject: o’reilly factor request


Mr. O’Reilly would like to invite you on the show tonight to discuss your op-ed. We’re taping at 5:30pm. If you’re available, please call or email me and we can work out the details.

Jesse Watters
The O’Reilly Factor
Fox News

bill lofyImagine the scene over at the No-Spin Zone: O’Reilly’s producer spots the Wellstone connection, the connection to the current Vermont House and Senate Leadership, and a single drop of saliva rolls from his unkempt upper lip down the length of one long tartar-brown canine tooth.

But Lofy, not born yesterday — and perhaps having seen Attorney General Bill Sorrell get tossed like a runner at Pamplona last January on O’Reilly — declined.

“I’ll let the op-ed speak for itself,” he told Watters. And speak for itself it does.


May 17th, 2007

Good Brain Food on Instant Run-off Voting

by Philip Baruth

Instant Run-off Voting did surprisingly well at the State House this session: a bill meandered out of the Senate that would put IRV in place for the 2008 House race.

Not too shabby.

This thanks, in no small part, to the indefatigable David Zuckerman, who pulled us aside a few weeks back to whisper, “My fingerprints aren’t on the bill,” then add with a smile, “but my fingerprints are all over it.”

In short, those who thought that the issue would never see the light of day, or that Zuckerman was fatigable, were incorrect on both counts.

Of course, Uncle Jim thinks IRV is constitutionally questionable. As spokesman Jason Gibbs framed it, “He really does not like it. He believes fundamentally in one person, one vote.”

We know: the Governor’s logic here is backasswards. “One person, one vote” is a principle in law designed to ensure and maximize the power of the voter, every voter.

What Douglas has in mind is minimizing same.

In that sense, his standard defense against IRV is almost deliberately misleading. Not unlike Bush’s novel argument that attaching timelines to war funding will delay the troops’ return to their families stateside. Deliberately misleading, and increasingly irritating.

Which makes it a decent bet that IRV will be brought on-line statewide only after Douglas is taken off-line statewide.

tonyIn the meanwhile, Tony Gierzynski has folded his ground-breaking IRV exit polling — conducted during Burlington’s last mayoral race — into a readable, thoughtful on-line article for Campaigns & Elections.

The special on-line edition can be found here.

Gierzynski has his reservations; he’s a political scientist, after all. But on balance, he finds that the system worked well in Burlington, with one troublesome exception: Republican voters generally view IRV with a stubborn and enduring mistrust.

Tell us about it.

May 17th, 2007

Vermont Guardian Pulls Down the Shutters; Assorted Green Mountain Evil-Doers Breath Unexpected Sigh of Relief

by Philip Baruth

First Air America. Then progressive talk-radio producer Gorty Baldwin. And now this: after a trial run in web-only format, the Vermont Guardian is closing down operations altogether.

the guardian logo

A black-op being run out of the NSA, to thin out the best of Vermont’s political discourse? VDB weeps; you decide.

Actually, in this case, Publisher Shay Totten is moving on to greener pastures. Substantially greener: he’ll be the new editorial director at Chelsea Green Publishing.

You know, the folks who published Crashing The Gates, a book that got more than a wee bit of press couple of years back.

Which is all well and good for Chelsea Green and Shay. But the hole in coverage of the Vermont political scene will be substantial, and will not be addressed any time soon.

Shay has been relentless in his pursuit of stories within, without and just on the cusp of mainstream news. As a result, over the last few years the Guardian has become the place to watch exciting, occasionally explosive stories break into the light.

And, of course, along with the online version of the Guardian goes the weekly, column-length version of this site that we launched with such starry-eyed innocence back in 2006.

Great fun while it lasted. And wonderful to work with the talented team over there, from the advertising salespeople to the folk who worked the Brattleboro connection.

Godspeed, one and all.

May 16th, 2007

VDB Delivers on Wolfowitz, Poses Key Rhetorical Question: Who’s Your Daddy?

by Philip Baruth

Nine days ago, we brought you the news that Kevin Kellems, Paul Wolfowitz’s key deputy, had been given the bum’s rush at the World Bank. (Which sounds fun but isn’t, really.)

wolfowitz, storm-tossed

At that time, we noted that Kellem’s departure was just rapid enough to prevent the elegant door of the World Bank from hitting him in his pin-striped ass.

And then we added a stand-alone clause: “Which gives Wolfowitz himself something like 9 days beyond today, maximum. VDB will keep you posted, so that you can fine-tune celebrations and the like.”

Nine days from May 7th would be today, of course. Which brings us to the breaking news: Wolfie’s on the street by lights-out this evening.

Nearly super-human precision? Pshaw. It’s all in a day’s work here at VDB.

Apparently the deal falling quickly into place involves Wolfowitz’s ouster in exchange for some vague language indicating that the Bank’s ethics committee might have been clearer in its instructions, originally.

And of course, the Europeans are holding out for a clause under which Wolfowitz submits to a “hair curse,” ensuring that his comb-over will come undone in the slightest breeze, and with eerie regularity.

The White House is holding out, against all odds, for a less stinging option: the “hair reprimand.”

We’ll update you as details warrant.

May 16th, 2007

Wolfowitz: Bush-League to the Bitter End

by Philip Baruth

Rapid uglification on the Wolfowitz front.

Despite having been busted by the World Bank’s 7-member Executive Committee, Wolfowitz remains determined to brazen out charges of rule-breaking, favoritism, and obstruction of the Bank’s investigation of same.


And the White House is arguing, creatively enough, that Wolfowitz “deserved credit for participating in the board’s investigation.”

That’s right: the man should retain his job, not because he didn’t commit the offense being investigated, but because he “participated” in the investigation itself.

Try that next time you get brought up on DWI charges, and they find an eightball in your hubcap.

The Board’s response? Stepped-up leaking of damning information. The Guardian got the feed, and it’s about as juicy as it gets:

“At the end of the conversation Mr Wolfowitz became increasingly agitated and said that he was ‘tired of people attacking him’ and ‘you should get your friends to stop it’. Mr Wolfowitz said, ‘If they fuck me or Shaha, I have enough on them to fuck them too,’ naming several senior bank staff he felt were vulnerable.”

Indeed. And it goes without saying that no one wearing a $35,000 pair of penny loafers particularly wants Paul Wolfowitz fucking them.

But apparently the Board was willing to take the risk. Of course, with an action meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. this afternoon, that could change at any moment. Thus far the Board has seemed to lean toward a “no confidence vote,” with the intention of so weakening Wolfowitz’s credibility that he would be forced to resign.

Which, frankly, makes Sprite come out of VDB’s nose.

The idea that Wolfowitz — or any die-hard Bush type — would quit a high-paying, high-powered gig because of a lack of credibility in the world community is dangerously silly.

Here is the statement Wolfowitz already has drafted and sitting in a desk drawer, in the event of a no-confidence vote, give or take a word:

“Today, a divided Board issued a truly disappointing ruling, disappointing because it marked a step away from its core mission and into the seamy world of partisan politics. The narrow majority, operating on instructions from governments who have smarted under the Bank’s new anti-corruption guidelines, indicated a lack of confidence in my leadership. And I am sorry they have done so. But rest assured, this vote changes none of the fundamentals: I continue to enjoy the President’s confidence, and finally that means far more to me than the words of an unelected, unaccountable elite group of bankers. As crucially, I remain confident in my own ability to do my job in a manner that will secure goodwill going forward.”

In short, the Board must vote to fire Wolfowitz, and they will do so. Because anything less will leave the guy haunting the marble halls of the Bank, blind with rage.

In short: it’s fuck or get fucked at the World Bank. And if you have any problems with that language, we suggest you take it up with Bank President, Paul Dundes Wolfowitz.

VDB hasn’t had this much fun since the Senate discussed soft drinks and pubic hair — and the alleged intersection therewith — during the Anita Hill hearings.

May 15th, 2007

Something Shumlin This Way Comes: A Vermont Daily Briefing Character Study

by Philip Baruth

I’ve been both a novelist and a political junkie for as long as I can remember. At least as early as 1976, at age 14, I was doing both simultaneously: writing a staggeringly bad book of fiction, and placing last-minute get-out-the-vote calls during the presidential campaign that put Jimmy Carter in the White House.

shumlin takes the oath

Now, at age 45, that schizoid rhythm marks the official structure of my life. By day, I write, read and teach novels; at night, I live-blog debates and primaries, and read online newspapers into the small hours.

But of course the two worlds cannot remain distinct. Far from it.

As the years have accumulated, my fiction has been markedly colored by politics. And because of my day job as a fiction writer, I have evolved into a very particular kind of political junkie.

I like complex political characters, in short.

Take George W. Bush. Long story short, I don’t like him.

But part of the reason I don’t like him — the deepest reason of all maybe — is that he is badly drawn, as a human figure. The man is as nearly two-dimensional as it is possible for a living person to be.

Of course, lacking a third dimension helped immensely post-9/11: it made Bush seem a character straight from the pages of DC comics, a superhero, a graphic creation defined at its most basic level by flatness.

(At the risk of stating the obvious, Bush could never cut it in the Marvel universe, where heroes brood and wrestle inner demons.)

Once Iraq exploded, though, Americans became nostalgic for depth.

But even then Bush’s two-dimensionality came in surprisingly handy. When out of his depth at press conferences, Bush could always do the rhetorical equivalent of turning sideways — repeat five or six untethered phrases until reporters quit in disgust — allowing him to all but disappear.

Bill, UnleashedYou want a complex character? Bill Clinton was a complex character.

What Clinton and Dick Morris would eventually label “triangulation” was first and foremost a strategic imprint of Clinton’s own psyche: here was a kid who had lost three fathers by the time he reached the age of 35, and for whom elections and polls would always supply an obsessive need for approval.

Again and again, this need for approval led Clinton to shuffle as close to the Republican Party as he could get without being physically repelled.

Clinton explained with great patience that he was merely shop-lifting as many GOP issues as he could fit into his pockets, as a way of winning re-election, which would give Democrats their first two-term President in decades. And these moves eventually secured Clinton approval from 60% of the American people, just enough to see him through the trials of impeachment.

But it was more than strategy.

The truth is that Clinton couldn’t abide the thought of the remaining 40%, the followers of Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, the millions who despised their President.

And so he was constantly using one excuse after another — re-election, the budget standoffs, reaching across the aisle — to give Republicans what they wanted, without quite losing his loyal Democratic base.

Hence Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Hence Mend It Don’t End It, Clinton’s patchwork on affirmative action. Predicting Clinton was a fool’s game. And policy-wise, it was maddening.

But it was fun to play, even so. Which brings us to our own complex political character: Peter Shumlin.

Shumlin began this legislative session with a move so bold it scrambled every political calculation instantaneously: he placed meaningful legislation on global warming at the top of his Senate to-do list.

Suddenly, everyone — Transportation, Natural Resources, Economic Development, Gaye Symington, Jim Douglas, everyone — was forced to regroup.

And almost immediately thereafter, Shumlin staged a press conference with the Governor during which he agreed with Douglas that the property tax conundrum could not be solved by raising new revenue. It was a spending problem, first and foremost.

In other words, only days into the session, Shumlin had placed everyone in the State House in a very tight box, made up of walls sacred to the Left and to the Right. And most of the work attempted or accomplished this session occurred within the tight confines of that strategic box.

No one was more inconvenienced by Shumlin’s pincer tactic than Shumlin, of course.

The friction between global responsibility and local frugality was inevitable, and that heat occasionally forced Shumlin into damage-control.

After arguing that the tax burden on Vermonters was already punishingly heavy, for instance, Shumlin was forced retroactively to argue that he’d never meant to say he couldn’t raise “small taxes to take care of pressing problems for Vermont.”

Still, on balance, Shumlin’s moves were bold enough, popular enough, and unpredictable enough to play havoc with the Governor’s center of gravity.

And partially as a result, Douglas looked as unsteady this year as he has since coming into office.

Then came impeachment.

It began directly enough. In no uncertain terms, during a long interview in his office at the Statehouse, Shumlin told me that he supported impeachment, supported it eagerly: “I think it would be a great thing for Vermonters to move forward on the impeachment process.”

Without rehearsing the minor variations of the rhetorical dance that followed, it’s fair to say that Shumlin then reversed positions twice, vehemently in each case, finally coming 360 degrees back to the position he quitted for no apparent reason when it became clear that an impeachment resolution could originate in the Senate as well as the House.

Predicting Shumlin, then, was a fool’s game.

But one interpretive frame works as well or better than any other: all of Shumlin’s moves this session dovetail with a statewide run for Governor, up to and including the final pirouette on impeachment.

shumlin works the crowd

Having double-crossed activists, only to serve then as their imperfect champion, Shumlin came as close to making the issue a wash as he was humanly able.

And not every mainstream Democratic politician has been or will be so lucky.

Still, the back and forth had the potential to make you a bit nauseous — or a bit nauseated, depending on your political persuasions. Watching Shumlin work was like watching Clinton work, which was always like watching an exotic dancer work: there was always something simultaneously artful and accomplished and undeniably seamy about it.

But the last, greatest miracle of Bill Clinton was that just when you had all but given up on him, he would produce something truly fine in the way of public policy, or an appointment to the Court like Ruth Bader Ginsberg, something well worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Shumlin is no different. Here in the last weeks of the session, he constructed one of the most ingenious interlocking strategies in modern legislative history. His last best hope for meaningful global warming legislation — an expansion of Efficiency Vermont to target fuel savings in buildings — Shumlin proposed to fund with a windfall profits tax on Vermont Yankee.

Given that Shumlin has also proposed moving Vermont Yankee nuclear waste to the state’s most populous counties — as a way of fomenting opposition to the plant’s relicensing in 2012 — the windfall profits tax seems like an elegant solution to two intractable problems.

It will expand an energy-efficiency program praised on both sides of the aisle; the newly expanded agency will help Vermonters lower their fuel costs; energy efficiency will significantly reduce Vermont’s carbon signature; and the only people who will pay through the nose are those running an aging nuclear plant that should have been shuttered years ago anyway.

It’s brilliant. Complicated and more than a bit tricky, but brilliant.

And in the final analysis, that’s all I’ve ever asked from any political character.

[This piece appeared first in the Vermont Guardian.]

May 12th, 2007

Punch-Drunk Palooka Drops Guard; Campbell Lands Belated Haymaker

by Philip Baruth

Louis Porter has a legislative wrap-up piece in the Herald today that will snap your head around, if you haven’t already run across it. Parts of the story read like the Sunday Sports section the morning after a bloody middle-weight title match that went the distance.

glovesDavid O’Brien, head of the state’s Department of Public Service, takes it on the chin especially hard. Porter has Senator John Campbell on the record, calling foul in the fight over the energy bill.

You know, the one that looks to fund the expansion of Efficiency Vermont with a windfall profits tax on Vermont Yankee.

Apparently O’Brien feels extremely strongly that VY should be allowed to hang onto their unanticipated revenues, and he’s not afraid to throw an elbow to make his point:

“Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he felt threatened by David O’Brien Wednesday evening when the head of the state’s Department of Public Service was trying to convince the Senate majority leader to vote against the energy bill.

“O’Brien told him a prominent member of the state’s business community and a major force in state politics, whom Campbell declined to name, would be disappointed if Campbell supported the bill.

“Campbell said he found O’Brien’s comments ‘extremely disturbing’ and took them as a ‘direct threat’ to his political future.”

Not good news for the Governor, of course, given that the Administration has already been warned once this session for attempting to bribe lawmakers.

Call it the classic carrot-and-stick approach.

But the most amusing grafs in the piece aren’t Campbell’s accusations, but O’Brien’s thumb-fingered denials. In O’Brien’s hands, the story becomes more or less “he said/and then he said again.”

Writes Porter:

 O'Brien“O’Brien did not dispute that the exchange took place. But he said he never intended Campbell to feel threatened.

“‘I was at a high level of frustration,’ O’Brien said. ‘I did not mean to threaten the senator.’ Part of his job is to ‘be as persuasive as possible’ about legislation the administration supports or opposes, he added.”

Which is to say that O’Brien more or less unwittingly copped a plea. It took one of Douglas’s spokespeople to come out finally and say O’Brien did “nothing inappropriate,” which apparently hadn’t occurred to O’Brien.

Punch-drunk, they call it down at the gym.

May 11th, 2007

US-Style Democracy Achieved in Iraq

by Philip Baruth

Finally, solid results in Iraq. After more than four years of bloody and brutal conflict, we seem to have achieved the like-minded democracy we’ve been seeking all along:

tiny bush“BAGHDAD, May 10 — A majority of members of Iraq’s parliament have signed a draft bill that would require a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Iraq and freeze current troop levels. The development was a sign of a growing division between Iraq’s legislators and prime minister that mirrors the widening gulf between the Bush administration and its critics in Congress.”

One of the slight drawbacks of freedom on the march. It’s untidy, as Donald Rumsfeld would say.

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