Tuesday, August 01, 2006

PSF: As Bombs Fly

[Created July 20, 2006]

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

It is difficult to write about politics when bombs are killing innocent men, women, and children in Israel and Lebanon. As of this moment, 25 killed in Israel and 240 killed in Lebanon. The tragic escalation in the Mid-East has caught Americans with families in Lebanon and Israel in the cross-fire of the ageless crisis that too many in that region think is "solved" by more violence.

Blessed are the peacemakers, the Holy Bible tells us, but where are the peacemakers? President Bush and his administration appear paralyzed. Bogged down by a war of its own war in Iraq -- a war that has isolated the United States in world opinion -- the president has precious few options. An estimated 25,000 Americans are caught in Lebanon, yet the U.S. government demonstrates Katrina-like hesitancy in evacuating our citizens from this troubled region. If the French and Italians can, as they did, remove their citizens to Cyprus, why the delay in the Bush administration from doing the obvious? Seven days into the war, the U.S. has finally chartered ships to rescue some Americans, but it's surprising how slow the response has been. And, incredibly, the Bush administration initially wanted to charge Americans for rescuing them, an idiotic idea that bespeaks Katrina-like insensitivity. What's going on here?

As a long-time supporter of Israel, I am not so quick as others to condemn Israel's right to defend itself -- and that includes targeting Hezbollah who has launched attacks against innocent Israelis. But Israel's response to attack Beirut, a city of many Christians as well as Muslims, needs more explanation to me. Target Hezbollah headquarters, absolutely, and certainly target missile sites in southern Lebanon, but why attack the civilian infrastructure of the "Paris of the Mid-East" when everyone knows that the Lebanese government has no control over Hezbollah.

The TV pictures out of Beirut and Haifa remind us that nothing is pretty about a war gone wild. Despite the cowboy talk of Bush at the G-8 summit (a reminder to always check those microphones), America continues to lose credibility to be an effective leader in this region. And the failure to protect our own citizens quicker than anyone else is an embarrassment.

Despite the death of the innocent in Israel and Lebanon as bombs continue to fly, politics at home goes on. It's been more than six weeks since my last PSF, so indulge me if I hip-hop around. And please be sure to read the last paragraph about an upcoming "talk-cast" on a key Pennsylvania race.


Bush Down but Not Out:

After creeping back up into the 40's in popularity, the latest polls have President Bush falling back down into the upper 30 percent range in job approval. The FOX/Opinion Dynamics Poll had Bush at 40 percent approval in mid-June, but that sank to 36 percent in mid-July. It almost doesn't matter. The president doesn't care about his own poll numbers, purportedly, so the only question is whether his low public approval affects Republican chances of retaining control of the U.S. Congress in the General Election just 16 weeks from now.

The generic polls continue to show that the public rates Congress even worse than Bush. In the FOX/Opinion Dynamics poll, only 25 percent approve of the GOP-led Congress. In the so-called generic poll, the public prefers a Democratic Congress to a Republican one by some 8 to 11 points, depending on the poll. But these polls are generally useless because what really counts is how congressional district voters regard their incumbent Republican and whether a Democratic challenger has the resources to win. As discussed below, PA is key battleground for control of Congress.

Stalemate in Iraq:

By all accounts, it's the stalemate in Iraq that hurts President Bush and his party the most, although high gasoline prices and a static (some say, falling) standard of living for middle class families is taking its toll, too.

The current death-count of Americans in Iraq is 2,554 (as of yesterday) and nearly 19,000 other Americans have suffered injuries in the war. While young Americans are killed almost every day, that number pales besides the number of Iraqi citizens who continue to die through suicide terrorists.

In PA, the war is very unpopular and those who defend it risk voter backlash. Some 62 percent disapprove of Bush's conduct of the war (mid-June Quinnipiac Poll), and 57 percent now say it was wrong to go to war in Iraq in the first place. Those who voted for the war like U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum either have to justify it and the on-going deaths, or argue as U.S. Rep. John Murtha does that it's time for a new strategy. The Karl Rove attack line about "cut and run" is so absurd that it's hard to see anyone with half a brain accepting it. Even former Marine Murtha, who advocates a timed withdrawal to the "perimeter" of Iraq, has never said the U.S. should "cut and run!"

Gasoline Politics:

At what point will the American people hold the president and incumbent members of Congress (of both parties) responsible for the failure to make the United States energy independent? With gas prices once again hitting $3.00 a gallon in parts of the country and some predicting $3.50 and $4.00 a gallon gas within the year, one would expect voter backlash at some point. Ironically, some incumbents think voters have become so inured to the up-and-down prices that they (incumbents) are immunized from being held responsible for high energy costs.

I don't know. I can imagine some political challengers running TV ads with gas prices when the incumbent took office, contrast it with today's prices, and ask simply: "What did Congressman XXXX do to stop this?" The truth is that the White House and Congress have done very little, as I articulated in an earlier PSF, to deal with the immediate problem, although some think their long-range energy strategy is better.

To some extent, incumbents can deflect criticism by blaming everyone from the Arabs to the Israelis, from terrorists to environmentalist, from big oil to OPEC. But, in my view, the question remains. Whatever the cause of the run-up of prices, why have Bush and Congress been so slow to react?

Finally, many of my cynical political friends think that in October, Bush and/or the oil companies will "do something" to lower gas prices to $2.50 a gallon to protect GOP incumbents. We shall see.


Is Santorum Bouncing Back?

Still behind his Democratic challenger Bob Casey by double-digit numbers, U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum is doing everything he can to bounce back. After a royal screw-up over the residency issue [see my last PSF], Santorum thinks he has hit upon a winning issue: immigration. At first glance, it seems an unlikely issue in PA where the only international border is a narrow strip of water in Lake Erie with Canada. No one has ever spotted boatloads of Canadians landing illegally in PA.

But, on reflection, Santorum's first TV ad, running on broadcast TV in Pittsburgh and cable in other parts of the state, is another well-crafted production of media guru John Brabender, Santorum's media-meister since 1990. With images of the Statue of Liberty, Rick reminds voters of his Italian ancestors and blue collar roots before attacking illegal immigrants for not "playing by the rules" and clearly opposing "amnesty." The ad is really a two-fer for Santorum: first, he has picked an issue, perhaps one of the few, where his views are in sync with most Pennsylvanians -- and, second, he demonstrates his independence from the very unpopular George W. Bush.

For months I have been one of the few political analysts in PA who think Santorum can win reelection. I still think he can, but it will require sharp strategy from Rick and a few screw-ups by Bob over the next three months.

Ironically, Casey -- who berates Santorum for his 98 percent support record for Bush -- lines up with the president in backing a qualified amnesty for long-term illegals who earn it. Santorum never quite addresses what we should do with the 10 to 12 million illegals in the country -- round 'em up and ship 'em back? -- but he says his hard-line, no-amnesty position has struck a chord.

In contrast, Casey's first TV ads do not hit on any hot button issues. One ad called "Turned Around" features Casey talking about how the priorities in Washington are out-of-whack with tax cuts for millionaires and American jobs shipped overseas. In his second ad, "Stands Up," Casey outlines his economic plan. Both are good visually -- lots of pictures of the very tall Casey in jeans palling round with workers, seniors, and kids -- but the ads don't have the edginess of the Santorum ad, probably because Casey himself is a much softer, quieter presence on the screen than Santorum.

Nobody expects these generally positive ads to be on the screen much longer. Santorum is expected to attack Casey on his attendance record in Harrisburg, and Casey will no doubt respond in kind. Both accuse each other of lying about their records, and the nastiness of this race is likely to get more intense as we close in on Labor Day.

Special Interests Enter the Fray:

Both Santorum and Casey are likely to have lots of help from special interest groups, spending millions of dollars to promote their favorite candidate and trash the opponent. So far, Santorum has been the primary beneficiary of this, but nobody believes the Dems will be too far behind.

Americans for Job Security -- the 527-group financed primarily by the insurance industry out of Washington -- is running its fifth "independent" ad to help Santorum and to hurt Casey. AJS, which Casey derides as a "sleazy" out-of-state special interest group, has spent $2 million in TV ads. The first ad tried to convince voters that Santorum, who strongly supported Bush's social security reforms that included privatization for younger workers, would not cut social security benefits for those 55 and over. This latest ad attacks Casey for hurting small businesses, arguably because Casey favors repealing the tax cuts for multi-millionaires.

The 60 Plus Association -- a pro-Republican seniors group financed primarily by the pharmaceutical industry -- is running a cable ad featuring their spokesman Pat Boone. Santorum appears in this ad, but does not speak. Boone sings Rick's praises for protecting the social security benefits of senior citizens.

The Lantern Project -- an anti-Santorum group funded primarily by labor unions -- has hosted a website called "Santorum Exposed" but has not yet run TV ads against the incumbent or for the challenger.

With the Santorum-Casey race being ballyhooed as the Number #1 Senate race in America, only the naive think that special interest groups will stay out of the race. So far, the Republicans have a huge edge in supporting their candidate, but I suspect that those liberal 527s are just holding back until the fall. We shall see.

Has Swann Found His Groove?

Make no mistake. Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann is trying harder these days. He is criss-crossing the state, criticizing Gov. Ed Rendell at almost every juncture, and making himself available to the media almost as frequently as Rendell (who rarely turns down an interview request). Swann still has genuine star quality. At last week's American Legion state convention in Pittsburgh, both Rendell and Swann received polite applause from the audience. But Swann is the only candidate subjected to autograph-seekers.

Still, the guv has been on a bit of a roll -- signing into laws cutting property taxes for seniors, expanding the PACENet drug program, and raising the state's minimum wage. And the floods that hit PA, especially the northeast, gave Rendell a chance to demonstrate strong leadership.
With polls showing Rendell with a double-digit lead, some have said the campaign is over. I don't believe it. But given the overwhelming resources the incumbent has in this race, the clock is running on Swann's effort to find his groove in the political arena.

Swann's Altercation with Cops Resurfaces:

More than a year ago, PoliticsPA posted an old newspaper clip on its website. The provocative headline: "Lynn Swann, 3 Kin Charged with Assaulting Officers." The Associated Press story dated back to the early morning hours of February 1, 1974, when Lynn Swann, two brothers, and a cousin were stopped by San Francisco police. The story reported that the Swanns were released from jail after posting bond for assaulting police during a traffic stop. The young men had been out celebrating Lynn's selection in the first round of the National Football League by none other than the Pittsburgh Steelers!

Brian Swann, Lynn's older brother, was ticketed by two cops for running a red-light, and having a "mutilated" driver's license. Apparently, words between the white cops and the black males ensued, and some kind of physical altercation occurred. Ultimately, the Swanns were charged with assaulting police officers, but a jury found them not guilty of the charge. At that point, the Swanns sued San Francisco and the two police officers, Dennis McClellan and Walter Cullop, for their injuries. The city and the officers countersued for their own injuries. In the end, San Francisco had to pay $40,515 each to Lynn and Brian Swann and their cousin, Michael Henderson. The city had to pay $40,530 to Calvin Swann. At the same time, Brian Swann and Henderson were ordered to pay $10,000 to Officer McClellan and $3,298 to the City of San Francisco. Lynn and Calvin Swann were ordered to pay $5,000 to Officer Cullop and $672.39 to San Francisco. Case closed.

All this might have been forgotten had not a young actor named Mark Rosenkranz (his credits include "Bikini Planet" and "Ice Scream") not published a book entitled "White Male Privilege." Rosenkranz interviewed Brian Swann, who revealed more details about the incident, and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Angela Couloumbis brought the whole story to public light on June 18.

I have read the relevant chapter of Rosenkranz's book, and Brian's comments are elucidating. Apparently, the police were on the alert for black males who had murdered a dozen white people between 1972 and 1974, the so-called Zebra murders. When the Swanns were pulled over for running the light, a ticket was issued for a torn license. That prompted the men to get out of the car to question that ticket. One of the officers ordered them back into the car, but, according to Brian, as they turned to get into the car, one of the officers "had his Billy club out and ran after my cousin to hit him as he got into the car."

"My brother Lynn, who has quick reflexes, turned around, saw this happening, and snatched the Billy club straight out of his hand without any pressure, and he had thrown it down the street. The police officer went beserk at that point trying to get his gun out. [The Swanns] constrained him by just holding him, his arms pinned to his sides, talking to him the whole time asking him to calm down. He never said a word; he just began to struggle."

When the other officer saw the black males holding his comrade, he called for police back-up. Ultimately, other officers arrived, and, according to Brian, "The resolution was that they began to beat us in the street with clubs, they kicked me in the side of the face as they handcuffed me from the back, and they just pulverized us in the street." The Swanns were arrested, spent a night in jail that Rosenkranz said involved events so graphic and offensive that he wouldn't repeat them.

Knocking a club out of the hands of a police officer, as Lynn Swann did, and then constraining the officer, as his brothers did, are not exactly the actions calculated to win respect from law enforcement. But if the Swanns truly believed they were acting in self-defense, then it is all quite understandable. And don't forget a jury ultimately acquitted them of criminal wrong-doing.

After the Inquirer ran its story, the Swann campaign sent a message to their supporters. "Lynn was involved to the extent that he pulled police officers off his brother, and during the altercation, Lynn was subjected to physical brutality at the hands of the officers," the statement read.

Perhaps to offset the police brutality claim, Swann's statement goes out of its way to praise police, in general. "Lynn believes that police officers deserve a special and exalted place in our society. He believes that the particular individuals in question do not represent the overwhelming majority of law enforcement." I tried to reach the now retired police officers for their side of the story. One never returned the call, and the other hung up on me.

No surprise, the Rendell campaign has had absolutely no comment on this matter.

The Return of Tom Ridge:

Former Gov. Tom Ridge, the nation's first Director and Secretary of Homeland Security, was back in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago to help dedicate the expanded office of RAND Corporation's eastern HQ in Pittsburgh. I have known (and liked) Ridge since I first met him back during my Capitol Hill days in the 1980s when he was a freshman congressman from Erie. So I enjoyed the chance to sit down with him for a lengthy interview.

First, Ridge is out of elective politics, stating flatly he has no intention to run for president or any other elective office. The former guv says he's "8 for 8" in winning elections and that's a good record to retire on. He's started a company called Ridge Global in Washington and joined the boards of several companies, some of which are doing business with the Department he once headed. I asked Ridge about potential conflict of interests. The New York Times' Eric Lipton and American Prospect's Sarah Posner have written comprehensive pieces, documenting that two-thirds of Ridge's top executives at DHS have passed through the same revolving door. Ridge denies he has done anything illegal or unethical and insists that he will never be a "lobbyist."

And he says his former colleagues are playing by the rules. "Those who get contracts with Homeland Security, the government, go through very, very rigid bidding procedures. It's not as if somebody comes out, sets themselves down in an office, and says I can guarantee that contract. It's just not the way it works, nor should it work that way."

I asked the Pennsylvanian how tough it was to be the butt of national jokes about duct tape and color coded security levels. Ridge laughs it off, saying, "I think humor is a very effective way of communicating difficult, sometimes difficult emotional, messages." He's right about that.

One intriguing question I asked appeared to be a new one for him, "Had you stayed on, how would Katrina been treated differently?" Ridge laughed and paused, "My, my, my -- you ask." "It's a good question," I interjected. "It's a very good question," he responded.

Choosing his words carefully, Ridge clearly believes that his successor, Michael Chertoff, and FEMA Director Michael Brown didn't quite follow the game plan that Ridge's folks put in place. "There were some procedures that we used and some organizations that we designed when I was secretary that, for whatever reason, this team chose either not to use or used after rather than before [the hurricane struck]." Ridge refused to get specific, not wanting to second-guess Chertoff, by adding, "We built a national response plan that they employed after the levees broke. We might have under the circumstances with a Cat 4 or 5 heading towards New Orleans fifteen feet below sea level might have chosen to begin preparation before it hit landfall."

If you want to watch some of my interview with Ridge, log onto www.kdka.com and use the search button to find video of Ridge.

Pennsylvania Key to Democratic Takeover:

If Democrats are to take over the U.S. House of Representatives, it will begin here in PA. Of the 19 congressional seats in this majority Democratic state (by party registration), 12 seats are held by Republicans, thanks to artful gerrymandering by a Republican governor (Ridge) and a Republican controlled legislature in 2001-02. Of those 12 GOP incumbents, five are on various hit or watch lists: U.S. Reps. Jim Gerlach, challenged by Democrat Lois Murphy; Rep. Curt Weldon, challenged by Joe Sestak; Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, challenged by Patrick Murphy; Rep. Don Sherwood, challenged by Chris Carney; and Rep. Melissa Hart, challenged by Jason Altmire. If all five incumbents were defeated, highly unlikely, the House would surely be turning Democratic.

Three of these five battlegrounds are in suburban Philadelphia, fertile ground for Dems in recent years. One of the seats is in a strong Republican area in the northeast and central part of the state, and the fifth contest is in western PA north and west of Pittsburgh. That western race, between Hart and Altmire, may be the toughest for the Dems because Hart is so well-known and Altmire isn't. But if Hart goes down, it will be a clear sign of a Democratic tsunami criss-crossing the state and perhaps the country.

Hart is an interesting candidate. Sharp tongued and witty, she first won elective office in 1990 against an incumbent Democratic state senator on her own with little help from her party. Unmarried, her whole life is politics, and there is hardly a nook or cranny in the 4th District that she has not visited. Hart, an attorney, has always been close to the GOP leadership in the House, former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and current Leader John Boehner, and her partisan credentials are as pure as any GOP member of the House. But back home, she projects an independent image with a special focus on local constituent concerns.

Altmire resigned as a government and community relations executive with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) last year to run for Congress. He spent eight years on Capitol Hill as a legislative assistant to then-U.S. Rep. Pete Peterson, a former POW from Florida who later became the first Ambassador to Vietnam. Altmire's focus has always been health care, where he has a Masters in Health Administration from George Washington University. Married with two young children, Altmire had to spend all his money to defeat a strong challenger in the May Democratic Primary, but thinks that has helped him become better known to Dems.

Both Hart and Altmire are pro-life and pro-gun, but Hart will get the ardent single issue voters in both those camps because of the work she has done to push their agenda. On other issues, there is disagreement. Hart brought Vice President Cheney to the Pittsburgh suburbs last year to help tout the president's social security reform plan, something Altmire attacks every chance he gets. And that's just the start of the list. Altmire says Hart was wrong to vote for the prescription drug bill, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and tax cuts for multi-millionaires.

But can Altmire really beat Hart in a district where Hart has traditionally won by pulling in conservative Democrats? Altmire released a June poll by Anzalone Liszt Research that suggests possibilities, however much a long-shot. First, Hart's vote to reelect number is just 50 percent, not great for an incumbent. In the generic match-up, Hart beats Altmire by 14 points, 53% to 39%, but 84% say they don't know Altmire. When the pollster describes both candidates in their best and worst light (always a subjective exercise), Altmire beats Hart, 52% to 40% with 8% undecided.

Now I take these kinds of candidate benchmark polls with a grain of salt, but the Hart-Altmire race is one of those contests worth watching for Dem trends across the country. The key will be whether the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) pumps resources into this district and how much money Altmire can raise. As of June 30, Altmire had $135,942, far behind Hart's cash on hand of $849,805.


Prayers & Best Wishes for Mayor O'Connor:

Somewhere over at Shadyside Hospital, Pittsburgh's Mayor Bob O'Connor is reading this PSF, if he is true to form. O'Connor has now begun his second week of hospitalization, having been laid up by a rare form of brain cancer. His doctors are optimistic that the 61-year old who has developed a love affair with the city and city residents can beat this damnable thing, and I know every PSF'er (thousands of us) join in wishing Bob a speedy recovery!

Bob's spirit and enthusiasm about Pittsburgh has been infectious, and he is sorely missed out there on the streets. His staff insists that Bob stays on top of everything through cellphones and laptops, but I really hope he's taking a break to heal that boundless body of his. And because he's still stuck in the hospital, I hope he will click on this slide-show of snapshots of the city he loves that a friend forwarded to me. It's Pittsburgh, of course, a city that prays that its mayor will soon be back in his corner office on the Fifth Floor of the City-County Building. Just click on, then scroll down. http://www.pittsburghskyline.com/pittsburgh_pieces_june06.html

Talk Shoe Makes Debut:

If you're like me, you can never get enough political chit-chat. That's where an internet host like Talk Shoe comes in. This Thursday morning, I am engaging in a bit of an experiment at www.talkshoe.com whereby I am going to try to talk politics on the internet with you or anyone else who calls or emails in. You should receive an invitation regarding all this, and our subject du jour is the Santorum-Casey race. The discussion gets recorded, so you can download it at your convenience any time. I admit to being an internet dumbo, so I don't promise how well this will work. But if we can expand Politically Savvy Friends to talk, I'm all for it. Please tune in, but give me a chance to make it work right.

That's it for now. As always, I welcome your views above all others, so drop me an off-the-record comment or two. Hopefully, your summer is going well and you're snagging a few days of R&R in between it all. Politics, of course, never takes a break.

As always,

Jon Delano
Political Analyst
H. John Heinz School of Public Policy & Management
Carnegie Mellon University

[As always, these views are my own and not those of the wonderful organizations with whom I am privileged to be associated].


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