Joe Conason’s Journal

How to tell which GOP candidates are in trouble? Check out the White House travel bill.

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Endangered politician junket
Here’s how to tell whether the White House thinks a Republican candidate is truly endangered, even without a purloined PowerPoint file from Karl Rove’s briefcase. Just check the tax-financed travel itineraries of Bush Cabinet members.

This administration scorns public financing of candidates and other election reforms, but that doesn’t mean they don’t expect taxpayers to subsidize their political agenda. (Bush himself has done so much fundraising travel that his astonishing cash take of $150 million is more than three times what Bill Clinton raised by the midterm election in his first term.) The Associated Press reports that during the past week or so, Cabinet members have been turning up for “official” duties in certain states and congressional districts.

So Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson flies to Iowa for a couple of public events with Rep. Jim Leach, the sanctimonious Republican incumbent who is facing heavy pressure from Democratic challenger Julie Thomas. Leach doesn’t take PAC money, but he doesn’t mind if tax money pays for Thompson to promote his troubled campaign. Leach is in so much trouble that Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who generally refrains from partisan politics, showed up in Cedar Rapids. Coincidentally, the congressman was present for his speech to a Rotary Club. O’Neill also turned up recently in Missouri, where Jim Talent is in a tight race with Democratic Sen. Jean Carnahan.

The pattern is pretty blatant: Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham visited the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons site in Colorado to heap praise on Sen. Wayne Allard, another Republican in dire electoral condition. Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who chaired the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, has scheduled official events this month in Arkansas, Iowa and New Hampshire, three states where Republican Senate candidates are struggling. His press aide blandly explains that Evans would be making these same trips regardless of political exigencies. Not content just to take our money, the Bush crowd insists on mocking us, too.

Republicans complained bitterly when Clinton appointees exploited the presidency or political travel perks. Two members of Congress even introduced legislation to make sure that administration officials pay the real costs of their partisan junkets. Now they’re very, very quiet.
[2:32 p.m. PDT, Oct. 23, 2002]



Jeb slips the punch
Jeb Bush appears to have escaped with little or no damage from last night’s debate, moderated by Tim Russert. And while Bush’s lead over Bill McBride in the latest poll is scarcely above the margin of error, the Democrat needed a boost from their final confrontation to overtake the incumbent.

The conventional wisdom is that Bush won the debate, although the Orlando Sentinel gave McBride big points for performing so much better than in his previous bout with Bush. Criticism of McBride is based on the disappointment expressed by the Miami Herald’s analyst, who argues that he missed a chance to turn the election. The St. Petersburg Times, one of the best papers in the state, gave an edge to Bush but allowed that McBride held his ground. The Democrat wasn’t prepared to adequately defend his class-size initiative from the charge that it will require increased taxes or cuts in other government programs (a question that could have been anticipated from the relentlessly budget-minded Russert).

I have no doubt that Russert tries to be fair. He is usually very well-prepared and his experience as a debate moderator is formidable. But it is notable that the “Meet the Press” host pressed McBride about a loony remark by a black minister comparing the Bush family with Nazis, yet he let Jeb slide without a sharp, sustained interrogation about ethics. That omission by Russert, more than any McBride flaw, was what allowed Bush to walk away unscratched. Now McBride will have to decide whether to take his generally positive campaign sharply negative in the final two weeks.
[10:38 a.m. PDT, Oct. 23, 2002]

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