We live in an age of political combat (and we're not complaining -- it keeps us in business), but there's something remarkably tentative about the political world these days.
We have a field of Democrats who can't quite bring themselves to truly attack the frontrunners (at least not on national television). The Republicans candidates are stopping just (and we mean just) short of criticizing President Bush. Congressional Iraq policy is paralyzed pending a September report (and testimony on Sept. 11?) that will surprise precisely no one (least of all senators Carl Levin and John Warner).
One leading Republican can't even decide when and how to get into a wide-open race for the presidency (though he may have to tell us where he's getting his money, if a new lawsuit succeeds). One leading Democrat won't even admit to liking an Internet sensation that (literally) sings his praises (OK, it's weird for the kids, we get it). As Labor Day approaches, even the primary schedule remains in limbo (thanks, Michigan, for keeping us on our toes).
August was supposed to be the month that crystallized Democratic opposition to the Iraq war, in time for a fall bipartisan push by Congress. Yet nowhere is the political tentativeness more on display than on the war -- with members of Congress sharing impressions that something is working. "Staking out positions that could complicate efforts to achieve party unity in September, a few Democratic lawmakers have returned expressing support for a continued troop presence," writes Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post.
The broad argument Democrats are making: The security situation is improving, but it's too late for the Iraqi government to take advantage of it. "The Democrats' reframing of the war debate helps them avoid criticism for naysaying U.S. military achievements while still advocating a speedy pullout from what they say is a civil war the Iraqi government cannot quell," writes the Washington Times' S.A. Miller.
Two leading senators -- Levin, D-Mich., and Warner, R-Va., are out with a new report with nuggets that play off of that (rather muddy) message. "The 'surge' is having 'measurable results' " that should make compromises possible, they write, per ABC's Z. Byron Wolf. But they're calling for new Iraqi leadership because "we are not optimistic about the prospects for those compromises." Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is going the furthest, in calling for a new prime minister if Nouri al-Maliki can't force quick compromises.
Cue the Republican talking point: Democrats want to pull out of Iraq when they acknowledge that we've finally got the right strategy. This has the makings of a national-security trap (not that Democrats have ever walked into one before). And there were mixed (if not contradictory) messages everywhere when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. John McCain took their turns yesterday before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Kansas City.
Clinton, D-N.Y., facing a crowd that's to her right on the war, said elements of the new military strategy are "working" (what will Sen. Barack Obama say about that?) but added that it's unlikely to make a difference. "I know we may disagree about whether there is or isn't a military solution to this war," Clinton said, further defining her evolving position on Iraq, per The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny.
McCain, R-Ariz., may be struggling in the polls and in the fundraising game, but he found a crowd yesterday that's foursquare behind him -- and showed again that his campaign is one that's anchored on positions. "As long as there is a prospect for not losing this war," he said, "then we must not choose to lose it."
And the questions about the Maliki government extend far beyond the Democrats in Congress. "Senior U.S. military commanders in Iraq are increasingly divided over whether Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his weak coalition are capable of making the necessary compromises that might help end the fighting in the country," write Vochi J. Dreazen and Greg Jaffe of The Wall Street Journal.
Obama, D-Ill., and former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., appear before the VFW gathering today. (President Bush speaks tomorrow.) Just in time for his VFW speech, Obama today picks up the endorsement of Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., the only Iraq War veteran in the House. Murphy was an Army captain who received a Bronze Star for his service in Iraq, and he won his seat last year in the Democratic takeover of Congress.
Don't invite "Obama Girl" to come along. A clever lead from the AP's Nedra Pickler: "Obama girl has upset Obama's girls." "Sasha asked Mommy about it," Obama told Pickler in an interview. "She said, 'Daddy already has a wife' or something like that. . . . I guess it's too much to ask, but you do wish people would think about what impact their actions have on kids and families."
And Obama isn't letting himself be portrayed as inexperienced. Here's an interesting argument: "I've been in public office longer than Hillary Clinton has," Obama said yesterday, per the AP's Ron Fournier, counting his seven years in the state Senate and not counting Clinton's three decades in public life with her husband. "I've been in public office longer than John Edwards has." Does that mean you're not the outsider candidate, senator?
Thompson's refusal to make his candidacy formal is drawing him renewed scrutiny, including a new lawsuit filed by a liberal activist accusing him of violating campaign-finance laws. He's kept his campaign in the "testing-the-waters" phase, though critics say he "has long since surpassed that designation and that he, for all intents and purposes, is a candidate for president," ABC's Jake Tapper reports. "In June Thompson signed a long-term lease on a Nashville location for his national campaign headquarters. He's been to Iowa and New Hampshire, and headlined GOP dinners," Tapper writes. "Moreover, when Thompson filed his disclosure form with the IRS, he revealed that $72,000 of the $3.4 million raised is to be used for the general election."
The complaint was filed by Lane Hudson, the same ex-Democratic staffer who posted the Mark Foley e-mails. The Thompson camp says the senator-turned-actor is following the law, and he has 15 days to respond formally. "By then, though, he may already be a candidate," writes The Washington Post's Michael Shear.
Just when you thought you figured out the calendar mess, here comes Michigan. The Legislature could vote as soon as tomorrow to move Michigan's primary date to Jan.15 or even earlier, The Boston Globe's Brian Mooney reports. "The Michigan move would further accelerate sweeping changes in the election calendar that could lead to the selection of the major-party nominees earlier than ever before," Mooney writes. New Hampshire could move to Jan. 8, and Iowans would have to decide one and for all whether having caucuses in 2007 is the terrible idea they all know it is.
Also in the news:
The "transformation" of former governor Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., has begun, Politico's Jonathan Martin reports. "He faces having to turn his wise-cracking image on its head and start trying to turn attack dog," Martin writes. "In media appearances and on the stump, the normally sunny Huckabee is using barbed language to portray [Mitt] Romney as a politically expedient and wealthy spendthrift who can't relate to the day-to-day problems of average Americans."
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., swooped into Newark yesterday to declare that the slayings of three young men occurred because Newark is a "sanctuary city" for undocumented immigrants. "I encourage the family of the victims to pursue a lawsuit against the city," Tancredo said. Imagine if a Democrat had suggested a lawsuit as a remedy?
Romney, R-Mass., is also mentioning Newark (and San Francisco and -- most significantly -- New York City, where a certain former mayor is running for president) in a new radio ad where he talks tough on immigration. "Sanctuary cities become magnets that encourage illegal immigration and undermine secure borders," a voice-over says.
Obama is calling for an easing of travel restrictions to Cuba. He's endorsing " 'unrestricted rights' for Cuban Americans to visit and send money to family in Cuba, just days before his first pilgrimage to Little Havana as a presidential candidate," The Miami Herald's Beth Reinhard writes.
Documents related to the warrantless surveillance program are under Vice President Dick Cheney's control -- anyone want to guess whether Congress ever sees them? Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., "said yesterday that he will pursue contempt proceedings against administration officials if the documents are not produced."
The Bush administration is escalating its clash with Congress over children's healthcare. (Quite the battle to choose -- wonder why Karl Rove was ready to call it quits?) The administration "has announced new policies that will make it harder for states to insure all but the lowest-income children," writes Christopher Lee of The Washington Post. "New administrative hurdles . . . are aimed at preventing parents with private insurance for their children from availing of the government-subsidized State Children's Health Insurance Program. But Democrats and children's advocates said that the announcement will jeopardize coverage for children whose parents work at jobs that do not provide employer-paid insurance."
How's this for imagery that cuts both ways? Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will come before Congress to discuss the troop "surge" on the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, The Hill's Klaus Marre reports. According to the White House, "the fact that the pair likely will appear before Congress on Sept. 11 has nothing to do with the anniversary of the attack, but was rather dictated by Congress's tight schedule."
Freshman Democrats -- the Republicans' top House targets next year -- are having an easy time raising cash, USA Today's Richard Wolf reports. "The most vulnerable House Democrats -- freshmen who won in districts that went for President Bush in 2004 -- raised an average of $600,000 in the first six months of this year," Wolf writes. "That's nearly double what Republican freshmen raised."
Flying is frustrating these days -- just ask Rep. Robert Filner, D-Calif. Filner, the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, "has been charged with assault and battery after an altercation with an airline employee over his baggage Sunday evening at Dulles Airport," ABC's Dean Norland reports. According to the official complaint, Filner "allegedly attempted to enter an area authorized for airline employees only, pushed aside the employee's outstretched arm and refused to leave the area when asked by an airline employee." That kind of behavior only works on the House floor.
Former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is casting himself as "Mr. Fix-It" in a new Reason Foundation magazine piece, per the New York Post's Carl Campanile. "No matter where I go, Americans are asking, 'What's wrong with Washington?'" Giuliani wrote. Campanile writes, "Thee criticism is a not-so-veiled indictment of the Republican administration of President Bush, as well as the Democratic-led Congress, and shows Giuliani trying to portray himself as a reform-minded outsider who can get results."
In the wake of a New York Times report finding that Giuliani spent only 29 hours at Ground Zero in the three months beginning Sept. 17, 2001, Salon.com's Alex Koppelman advances the story by finding out where Hizzoner was really spending his time. "By our count, Giuliani spent about 58 hours at Yankees games or flying to them in the 40 days between Sept. 25 and Nov. 4, roughly twice as long as he spent at ground zero in the 60 days between Sept. 17 and Dec. 16," Koppelman writes. "By his own standard, Giuliani was one of the Yankees more than he was one of the rescue workers." Well, he did pick up some World Series rings. . . .
"Nobody's going to elect me president of the United States." -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg, I-N.Y., offering another reason that he's not going to run (but still enjoying the attention).
"The 'none of the above' is Mike Huckabee." -- Huckabee, pressing his advantage in New Hampshire with a unique interpretation of the polls.