Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Donna Brazile - Karl Rove Connection

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It’s not every activist politico who gets to write a post in the Washington Times that begins like this: "As I sat by my window and staring out at the wonderful Washington, D.C., landscape, my office announced a phone call from Air Force One."

Evidently, Donna Brazile was reminding all the little people on Capitol Hill that she had friends in high places. In summer of 2007, Bush senior advisor Karl Rove wasn’t answering any subpoenas from Congress, but he didn’t mind talking to Brazile. From his perch at 20,000 feet, he informed her that this was probably a good time for him to get out of Dodge.

“Mr. Rove’s resignation is not a retirement,” Brazile reassured readers of the right of center newspaper. “It’s just another opportunity for him to create that lasting Republican majority he envisioned years ago and to spend his waking days doing what he so enjoys — beating Democrats in the alleys and gutters. Just ask Sen. Hillary Clinton, Mr. Rove’s target when he called in to speak to Rush Limbaugh. He couldn’t help it. Mr. Rove just had to take one last shot before riding out of town. More to come, Team Clinton.”

Brazile’s breezy account confirms what many have long since suspected. Rove’s claim to be sitting out the 2008 race is hogwash. The mastermind of today’s unraveling U.S. constitution is in no position to kick back, down gin fizzes and watch the country collapse under an Administration he put into office twice. The list of crimes that Bush’s top henchman could potentially be charged with - everything from fraud to war crimes - should be enough to keep him and his fellow Sopranos in hair-trigger mode until the next president gets sworn in. And the notion that he’d leave the choice of commander-in-chief in less capable dirty hands than his own requires more than the willing suspension of disbelief. It requires medication.

That’s why the Rove-Brazile tryst merits further exploration. They first hooked up some time in 2002, according to a New York Times article. The connection might have been a means for Brazile to expand her clientele, but she dismissed that angle in an interview, implying she had bigger fish to fry. It was the Democrats’ lackluster relations with African Americans and poor track record in elections, she said, that led her to start trailblazing new frontiers. To put it in a Brazile nutshell, the Republicans had a better machine.

”The idea is to re-energize the African-American electorate and revive the Democratic Party at the same time,” she told Times reporter Katharine Seelye, ”I want to revitalize the party from the grass roots up. We’re losing voters.”

With that noble cause in mind, she and Rove began to "chirpily exchange e-mail, chat on the phone and write letters, indulging in their shared zeal for the inner workings of politics," Seelye wrote.

Rove said he’d sometimes call Brazile before a press appearance to get feedback on various Bush policy angles he planned to discuss. In exchange, he furnished Brazile’s clients with access to White House social events.

"People think I’m crazy talking to Karl Rove," the strategist confessed to the Washington Post a month after the Times story appeared, "but there’s something about this guy."

Yes, there certainly is something about Karl Rove. In consultation with Vice-President Cheney’s office, it was Rove who outed Valerie Plame’s C.I.A. identity over a flap about uranium in Niger. Three years later, those subpoenas were overflowing his in-box because he’d told Alberto Gonzalez to fire nine U.S. Attorneys who refused to do his bidding. Rove is also under investigation for an entrapment scheme that put Alabama Democratic Governor Don Siegelman in prison for two years.

Those Republicans sure do know how to close the deal in politics. In addition to basking in The Architect’s dapper charm and irresistible company, Brazile opened diplomatic ties across town with archconservative Grover Norquist. Norquist heads one of Jack Abramoff’s favorite charities, Americans for Tax Reform, and is famous for his remark that he’d like to see federal government crippled to the point where he can take it home and drown it in his bathtub. For a brief window of opportunity, he set aside that morbid fantasy to help one of Brazile’s closest friends, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes, push some legislation to increase revenues in her district.

According to the same Times article, “Mr. Norquist said he and Ms. Brazile, both Washington residents, were devising a plan to urge Congress to allow the city to raise the height limit on buildings as a way to broaden the tax base and improve schools.”

Brazile served as Holmes’ chief of staff and press secretary during the nineties. In that same action-packed year, her old boss teamed up with other D.C. officials to schedule an unauthorized, nonbinding earlybird presidential primary for 2004. DNC chair Terry McAuliffe sent sent out calls to the candidates to boycott the affair, but Howard Dean didn’t heed the directive. The former Vermont governor swept into D.C. and gobbled up almost as many endorsements as another candidate, Rev. Al Sharpton. Who needed those arcane DNC rules, anyway?

The Brazile Factor

At the time of these contentious political developments, Brazile chaired the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, a program set up after the Florida recount debacle in 2000. During that earlier episode, she’d experienced firsthand Karl Rove’s unscrupulous knack for snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Now she was tasked with brainstorming new strategies to prevent any future gaming of the electoral system.

In 2004, Dean ended his presidential bid after the Wisconsin primary and Kerry lost the general election. This time, Rove generated thousands of extra Bush votes in key Ohio precincts where only a few hundred Republicans lived. Not surprisingly, Brazile remained unimpressed with her party. That winter, she submitted an essay for the left-leaning website, which was running a series called “Why Americans Hate Democrats – A Dialog”.

Hard as it must have been to top that inspirational title, the political strategist managed with her piece “Tapping the Obama Factor”. The Chicago politician had just been elevated to the U.S. Senate, but instead of offering an introduction to him, she mostly dwelled on her own life story - rising up from poverty in Louisiana, listening to her grandmother read scripture, etc. etc. Eventually, the essay worked its way back to the stated topic.

"This is a new moment to identify and recruit better messengers," she wrote. "Perhaps it’s time to tap into the ‘Obama’ factor: Scour statehouses for young, energetic, inspiring, and emerging leaders with the ability to connect the head and heart. Too many of the old Democratic guard have stayed in Washington, D.C., too long to fully recognize how most Americans live their lives."

It was a novel way to spin the Illinois election. Obama did score a landslide victory that year, but it had little to do with his age, energy level or the obsolete nature of the Democratic Party establishment. His campaign manager David Axelrod ran the classic Rovian smear campaign, first accusing Obama’s top primary contender of sexual impropriety. After disgracing Blair Hull out of contention, Axelrod used the same device against the G.O.P. primary winner, Jack Ryan.

Of course, this is where things get interesting. House Speaker Dennis Hastert decided he must stick his oar into the battle, calling on Ryan to end his senate bid. The candidate dutifully bowed out, and in his stead, the Illinois Republican Party fielded an unknown, African American bible-thumper from Maryland named Alan Keyes. Clearly, the G.O.P. wanted Obama to win that election. No other explanation can account for the party sacrificing a senate seat to a (supposedly) liberal Democrat who’d (supposedly) spoken out against the Iraq War in 2002.

A Hollywood script writer couldn’t have come up with this storyline. Within a year of arriving in Washington, Brazile’s rising star – the product of a globe-trotting Kansas woman and a philandering tribal leader in Kenya - had launched his presidential exploratory committee. The Internet fundraising team of Howard Dean signed on for the ride. So, too, did some of Wall Street’s biggest investment banks, corporate law firms, and energy giants. By the end of 2007, Obama would post a record-breaking haul of $100 million in campaign contributions. And all while he was still "introducing himself", as Brazile and other analysts put it, to the American public.

Who exactly brought the banks and oil companies to the table still remains to be ferreted out, but it wasn’t Dean or Brazile, or even the man who placed Obama on the speaker’s list at the 2004 Democratic Convention, John Kerry. It’s more likely that Karl Rove huddled with top Bush fundraisers to set that gravy train in motion. Among the candidate’s money bundlers were George Kaiser and Robert Cavnar, both oil industry executives. Other Bush campaign pioneers joined the bandwagon soon afterward.

Now Brazile was impressed. Judging from another My Day installment penned in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, she sounded like a woman who had been born again:

“While my family was hurting, when they were on the edge feeling left to fend for themselves, the last thing I wanted to do was whine. I got into the groove quickly and contacted Ken Melhman, Chairman of the Republican National Committee and an old friend, Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff for the White House.”

Then she started tossing out the cupcakes: “President Bush, who promised to rebuild the Gulf coast in a speech at Jackson Square, invited some African American leaders over to the White House on December 7th to discuss a broad range of issues…To my great surprise, the meeting with President Bush was cordial and candid. The President listened intently and reassured us that his Administration would not drop the ball.”

Funny how such innocuous fluff takes on a new and sinister meaning when read in hindsight. Yet even from the perspective of a contemporary audience, those claims were a stetch. For people living in New Orleans, the Katrina ball had already been dropped. When the levees broke, Sec. of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was attending a conference on bird flu, the President relaxing on his Crawford ranch. Back in Brazile’s home state, over a thousand people drowned during three days of waiting for rescuers to reach their homes. Several million homeless residents survived, homeless, only to a second disaster called FEMA.

But Brazile didn’t let facts on the ground spoil her picnic. Continuing her upbeat dispatch, “Since then, I have met once more with President Bush and other leaders who are committed to working together to restore the lives and the communities devastated by these two hurricanes…I can tell from the meetings that the rebuilding of Louisiana remains high on his list of priorities.”

Preparing for Battle

One can only speculate on Brazile’s motives in streaming out that hallucination. As she would mention in the Washington Times article two years later, her “old friend” Rove had hit the ground running with the start of the 2008 election cycle, appearing on talk shows to bash frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Behind the scenes, G.O.P. rank and file activists were organizing crossover voting drives to knock Clinton out of the race before November. In the red states, they could easily outnumber Democrats at the caucuses, enriching Obama’s delegate count and allowing him to boast later “I’ve won more states.”

To recruit additional foot troops for this effort, New Hampshire G.O.P. leader Stephen DaMaura started the Facebook website “Stop Hillary Clinton (One Million Strong AGAINST Hillary).”

On the Democratic side, it became Brazile’s job to smooth over Obama’s path to the nomination. That required manipulating the primary calendar. Picking up on the diversity argument of Eleanor Holmes and the D.C. coalition, she pressed for an earlybird South Carolina primary and a Nevada caucus to augment the Iowa and New Hampshire dates.

While the advantages of South Carolina were obvious, by necessity the second contest required a less obvious, more covert action plan to avoid any accusations of stacking the deck. Although the Clinton camp didn’t realize it at the time, a caucus in Nevada (like a caucus anywhere) would naturally benefit Obama, since her base of blue-collar, older and non-English-speaking supporters would not be driving across town to attend some meeting run by disorganized volunteers. On the other hand, motivated Republicans could be counted on to show up, especially if the G.O.P. candidates could be persuaded not to campaign in the state. (They didn’t.)

Nevertheless, the reason for adding more earlybird contests in the first place centered on ethic diversity, so selling the DNC (and the public) on Nevada required some tweaking of those caucus parameters. That’s why arrangements were made to allow the state’s casino workforce of some 60,000 predominantly Latino workers to attend specially set up caucus sites just for them.

But wouldn’t this huge Hispanic voting block put Clinton over the top in Nevada? Not necessarily. It turns out that the union representing casino employees, S.E.I.U., would be backing Obama, just as they had supported Dean in his presidential bid. So those voters could now be added to the Obama column.

Thus, with caucuses scheduled in Iowa and Nevada, a primary in South Carolina with its near majority African American demographic, and the New Hampshire Republican brass on the job in that state, the chance of Clinton heading into Super Tuesday at cruising altitude had spectacularly diminished.

“Including two more states will not only be good for our country, it will be good for our party and good for our nominee," Brazile told the Los Angeles Times in August 2006.

Sounding an early portent of doom, the South Carolina delegate on the rules committee said in the same article, “If you campaign in a state that is outside the rules, then you’re not entitled to delegates from that state."

A year later, that scenario unfolded like a bad dream for the DNC. Over the objections of Florida’s state Democratic Party, a Republican-controlled legislature moved its primary to January 29, 2008, one week before the official February 5th cusp adopted by both the Republican National Committee and the DNC.

On August 25, 2007. the DNC rules and bylaws committee met to adjudicate this unspeakable crime. State party chair Karen Thurman testified at the meeting, walking the committee through the chronology of her long and fruitless battle to overturn the date switch. The Republicans had attached it as a rider to another bill, one authorizing the replacement of electronic paperless voting equipment with more traditional optical scanners. Unable to defeat the rider on a partyline vote, the Democrats begrudgingly approved the larger measure.

Anyone who has watched the re-broadcast of those DNC proceedings on CSPAN can’t help but be dumbfounded by the discussion that followed Thurman’s presentation. A slam-dunk case for a rule waiver turned into a shameless bout of piling on, as committee member Brazile and several others accused the state party of not trying hard enough to change the date. (One also noticed from the broadcast the unusually high number of African Americans on the 30-member committee, as opposed to near zero representation for other minorities.)

When asked by Brazile why she hadn’t made any plans to hold a caucus in place of the primary, Thurman balked. The logistics and $8 million price tag, she said, were beyond comprehension, given that Florida boasts 4 million eligible Democrats.

"I understand how states crave to be first,” Brazile blustered in a Washington Post interview the next day, as if none of what Thurman told her had registered. “I understand that they’re envious of the role that Iowa and New Hampshire have traditionally played, The truth is, we had a process . . . We’re going to back these rules."

Later, the head of the DNC Voting Rights Institute published an op-ed in the same newspaper, this time under the combative heading, “Why We Stood Up to Florida”. With the cockiness that was fast becoming her trademark, Brazile griped, “It was hardly an extraordinary act, although you wouldn’t know it from the furious reaction that ensued in some quarters…Why the uproar? It’s simple: state envy.”

She went on to list all the economic benefits coveted by states vying to hold early primaries, again diverting from the core issue of Republican meddling in Democratic affairs. Inexplicably, the press coverage of the showdown also overlooked the G.O.P.’s role in moving up the primary date.

The same week the rules committee stripped Florida of all its convention delegates, Michigan’s state legislature voted to move up its primary to January 15th. Both states could have easily been pegged as Clinton strongholds, making their exclusion from the election cycle suspect. Michigan is an industrial blue-collar enclave with few of the upper-middle-class voters and college students that represent Obama’s base. Florida’s Hispanic population is huge, and combined with an abundant supply of New York retirees, would likely also resist the Obama "surge".

Moreover, using Republican crossover voting to shave points off Clinton’s victories posed problems in both states. In Michigan, native son Mitt Romney had a significant campaign apparatus in place, while Rudi Giuliani was expecting to draw his line in the sand in Florida. Where these battleground territories were in play, neither gentleman would appreciate Rove siphoning away their voters. Better just to invalidate the primaries on the Democratic side. That way, Clinton’s delegate lead could be held in check on Super Tuesday.

"Seeds of Doubt"

With the votes of the country’s fourth and eighth largest states thus consigned to the junk heap, Brazile turned to other pursuits. Hired as a paid election analyst for CNN, she carried on a double life - one as an official DNC spokesperson, the other as a partisan campaigner for Barack Obama. In February, when best-guess estimates gave Clinton the support of two-thirds of the superdelegates, she declared, "If 795 of my colleagues decide this election, I will quit the Democratic Party."

If party leaders were as worried about negative fallout and damage control then as they claimed to be a month later, they might have reeled in their contract employee at this point for a heart-to-heart chat. That didn’t happen. Brazile just reloaded her pistol and repeated her empty threat to all who would listen. On another occasion, she accused former President Bill Clinton of being a racist. It was inexcusable, she said, that during a speech Clinton referred to Obama as a "kid" and suggested his presidential bid amounted to little more than a "fairy tale".

"And I will tell you," Brazile bristled with emotion, "as an African American I find his words and his tone to be very depressing."

To be sure, Clinton said Obama’s evolving position on the Iraq War was a fairy tale, not his candidacy. As for alluding to his youth, Brazile and other cheerleaders for the Illinois senator had been doing it themselves for the past four years. It was a classic example of the Mark Twain quip that a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth has put its shoes on. Only CNN’s presence in the equation gave the adage literal meaning. Surely, the DNC would intervene now that Brazile had insulted a former Democratic president on national television. But nothing.

Notwithstanding the character smears and 24/7 swiftboating by the American media, Sen. Clinton persevered, scoring big wins in the Texas, Rhode Island and Ohio on March 4th. On March 5th, she was accused of engaging in a “negative” campaign designed to "destroy" her adversary.

“Despite Obama’s impressive victories in February, Clinton’s comeback is based on sowing political seeds of doubt,” Brazile informed the Associated Press that day, “If these attacks are contrasts based on policy differences, there is no need to stop the race or halt the debate. But, if this is more division, more diversion from the issues and more of the same politics of personal destruction, chairman Dean and other should be on standby."

(ABC’s Jake Tapper went Brazile one better, claiming Clinton was exercising the "Tanya Harding option".)

In response to the call to arms, Dean promptly petitioned Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi to intervene in the protracted race, while Senators Dodd, Richardson and Leahy demanded that Clinton end her candidacy for the good of the party.

Now this sounded familiar. Jack Ryan must have been chuckling to himself from his perch inside a bar, drinking rot-gut whiskey. In Washington, meanwhile, Reid promised that “things will be done” to determine a nominee before the convention. Pelosi told George Stephanopolis on his Sunday talk show that the superdelegates should not overturn “the will of the people”, but denied rumors that she was telling members of Congress that Clinton, if nominated, would be a "drag" on their own campaigns. As the Democratic Party version of the Adams Family was thus occupied in their hand-wringing, chest-beating and sharing of apocalyptic visions, Clinton pressed ahead, picking up 9 out of the final 13 primaries. Three of them she won by more than 30 points.

But no sooner had the daylight begun to shine at the end of the tunnel when another Rove-Brazile shoe dropped. For some reason, her triumph in the popular vote was not matched proportionally by delegates earned, and it had something to do with Obama’s phenomenal gains in the caucus states of Idaho, Nebraska, Kansas, etc. One would not have expected an African American liberal to clobber his opponent by a two-to-one margin as he did in many cases. More importantly, her delegate gains in the primaries involving millions of voters seemed to pale in comparison. This made no sense.

In late May, a disability activist named P. Cronin appeared on scene to sort out the Twilight Zone phenomenon. Cronin, who like most disabled people is not a big fan of caucuses, spent some time in late May analyzing the tallies from the 2008 Democratic contest, comparing the impact of the two different voting methods on the race.

According to Cronin’s study, nearly all of Obama’s 138-delegate lead over Clinton could be traced to 12 red state caucuses. In most of these contests he routinely won by 2-1 margins, even though polls in those states showed the candidates much closer. In Idaho, for instance, with its scant African American population, few colleges and relatively few Starbucks outlets, he captured 15 of the state’s 18 delegates.

Something fishy was going on here. Did Dean’s so-called 50-state strategy include the recruitment of pro-Obama activists to organize on the candidate’s behalf in caucus states? Did the number of DaMaura’s G.O.P. crossover voters wildly exceed expectations? Or was there just downright lying in the computation of the vote tallies?

The case of Washington state underscores the mystery of this Bermuda Triangle for Clinton delegates. On February 9th, Obama earned a whopping 52 of the Washington’s 78 delegates after a 36-point victory in the party-run caucus. Over 240,000 allegedly eligible voters cast ballots in that contest. But a week later, just ahead of a state-run certified primary, the polling data showed that Clinton might actually win the election. On February 19th, after 650,000 ballots were counted Obama eked out a 5-point victory, hardly the 2-1 margin responsible for his 26-delegate net gain in the state. Unfortunately, the primary was non-binding.

Cronin notes in the study that those states that furnished the newcomer’s vast delegate booty contribute a grand total of 69 electoral votes in the general election. Few of these territories have voted Democratic since 1964.

It also appears that the votes of those lucky caucus-goers counted for 5-10 times more than the traditional Democrats who attended primaries. Obama netted more delegates in his Idaho win, for instance, than Clinton in her entire Ohio-Texas-Rhode Island romp on March 4th. The following table illustrates the questionable validity of these dispersements. Notice that the last column shows the delegate gain for the winner:

2008 Democratic Presidential Preference Election © 2008 P. Cronin

Even in the Navada caucus that Clinton won, Obama was awarded more delegates. The New York senator couldn’t seem to win for winning. There, the S.E.I.U. endorsement dissolved into wishful thinking when the casino workers broke for Clinton two to one, giving her a 6-point victory. A few months later, Obama left the state convention with 3 more delegates.

While there’s no evidence implicating Dean in Obama’s caucus routs, the DNC had maintained staff on the ground in all 50 states since 2005, when he first became the chair. In August 2007, a few weeks before his rules and bylaws committee stripped Florida of its delegates, he announced in a press release that his 50-State Strategy project, the Voting Rights Institute and another DNC division known as the National Lawyers Council were collaborating on a nationwide survey of voter databases, registration procedures and other "election mechanics". According to the release, DNC staff would work with local election boards in gathering information in advance of the 2008 presidential election. "Protecting the right of every eligible American to vote is a top priority for our party," Dean and Brazile said in a joint statement. "Every eligible American deserves the confidence that when they go to the polls to cast their ballot they can do so without fear of intimidation or harassment, and that their vote will be counted fairly and accurately."

Throwing Mama Under the Bus

On May 31, 2008, the rules committee reconvened to discuss those "eligible Americans" living in Florida and Michigan. A week before the meeting, the Democratic Party tried to attach an air of legitimacy to the proceedings by having legal counsel weigh in on the dispute. Although by Brazile’s own account, the Supreme Court gives political parties wide latitude for determining how they pick their nominees, the lawyers claimed it would be unlawful to fully honor the certified votes of January 15th and 29th . The committee could do no more than restore half the nearly 350 convention delegates up for grabs.

Always amenable to compromise, the Clinton campaign accepted that limitation but rejected a proposal for Obama to receive some of her Michigan delegates, plus those of all the other candidates in the Michigan primary. After all, the Illinois senator voluntarily withdrew his name from the ballot, then vetoed a re-do primary which Clinton donors raised $10 million to fund. In a sane world, one could argue that he forfeited the state and therefore deserved no delegates.

Former Governor of Michigan Jim Blanchard didn’t present that line of attack, however. The Clinton spokesman stuck to the modest request that the candidate receive delegates in proportion to the votes cast for her. A few minutes later, it was Brazile’s turn to speak, and the CNN analyst first took the opportunity to congratulate herself for displaying restraint in the meeting up until that point. Then she repudiated Blanchard as if he were a child.

"My mama taught me to play by the rules and respect the rules…When you decide to change the rules, especially, in the middle of the game, it’s called cheating."

Dispatching the governor to go stand and in a corner and contemplate the error of his ways, Brazile’s committee allocated the Michigan delegates according to a fruitcake-like recipe involving exit polls, alleged write-in votes for Obama, the palm-reading of a psychic (just kidding) and the actual tally. In the end, Clinton gained a mere 4.5 delegates from the contest.

Any masochist following the 2008 election knew by then that Brazile had disregarded her own mother’s counsel long ago. Neither she nor her co-horts have lost any sleep over the thousands of complaints filed about the conduct of the caucuses, including some 2,000 submitted in Texas alone. Voter intimidation, stacks of fabricated sign-in sheets slipped in with the legitimate records, phony declarations from Republicans about their intention to switch parties, votes delayed until deep into the night, inaccurate tallies called in by phone, and other dirty tricks have yet to warrant even a cursory investigation by those who preach that playing by the rules represents a core value of the Democratic Party.

Even in the aftermath of her power grab, Brazile continues to denigrate those who challenge the authority of the party’s new African American leadership. In a July 22nd post on Daryl Cagle’s website, she groaned, "How many ways do these Hillary delegates, voters and supporters need to hear it before they get it? Sen. Barack Obama is the party’s nominee. He won. He will get to choose his running mate. Obama sets the agenda for the convention, and, while I understand their passion in wanting Hillary to be on the ticket and to have a prominent role at the convention, it’s not her decision… As much as we all would have loved to see a woman in the Oval Office, it wasn’t Hillary’s time. Period."

It’s ironic when you think about it. The DNC’s Voting Rights Institute was created to stop exclusionary practices and increase participation at the polling booth. Now its chairwoman is presiding over one of the most hostile and fraudulent campaigns since those newspaper delivery trucks ran over the boy scouts in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

"Mr. Rove proved you can win elections with rumors, fear, division and manipulation." Brazile wrote back in 2007, after that friendly exchange with Air Force One. "But you can’t win hearts that way."

No, you can’t. But then, this influential political fixer no longer appears to have use for that particular organ. Which may be why she finds men like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist so appealing.

- Rosemary Regello

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