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Tilting at Windmills

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September 16, 2008

EVEN RICHARD COHEN HAS HAD ENOUGH.... The Washington Post's Richard Cohen has been one of John McCain's most enthusiastic cheerleaders. At times, it's been downright embarrassing.

In June, Cohen argued that McCain may be a flip-flopper, but we shouldn't question him because he's also a former prisoner of war. In April, Cohen described McCain as an "honorable man who has fudged and ducked and swallowed the truth on occasion," which Cohen described as "understandable." (He didn't say why McCain's mendacity is "understandable," but simply granted absolution.) In July, Cohen said McCain is the superior presidential candidate because he knows McCain better than Obama.

But as of this morning, Cohen's done. Finished. Fed up. Disgusted. Cohen was in the tank for McCain -- we know this because Cohen admits in his column that he was "in the tank for McCain" -- but the scales have been lifted from his eyes.

[T]he John McCain of old is unrecognizable. He has become the sort of politician he once despised. [...]

His opportunistic and irresponsible choice of Sarah Palin as his political heir -- the person in whose hands he would leave the country -- is a form of personal treason, a betrayal of all he once stood for. Palin, no matter what her other attributes, is shockingly unprepared to become president. McCain knows that. He means to win, which is all right; he means to win at all costs, which is not. [...]

...McCain lied about his lying and maybe thinks that if he wins the election, he can -- as he did in South Carolina -- renounce who he was and what he did and resume his old persona. It won't work. Karl Marx got one thing right -- what he said about history repeating itself. Once is tragedy, a second time is farce. John McCain is both.


"The 'Enough' Club," made up of high-profile media observers who loved McCain but have become despondent with his transition into a Republican hack, keeps getting bigger. I have to admit, though, that I didn't expect Richard Cohen to sign up for membership. He adored McCain a little too much. Not anymore.

At a certain point, columns like these are bound to help shape a new conventional wisdom, right?

Steve Benen 8:29 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (42)

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Well, it's nice to see that even Richard Cohen can no longer deny that McCain has betrayed whatever principles he may have once held.

He still looks like a deranged beaver, though.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 16, 2008 at 8:33 AM | PERMALINK

If McCain wins, the make-up sex is going to be disgusting to watch.

Posted by: jimbo on September 16, 2008 at 8:37 AM | PERMALINK

At a certain point, columns like these are bound to help shape a new conventional wisdom, right?

The intellects on the right are abdicating McCain. For anybody putting country first, Caribou Brownie is a frightening proposal...

But I saw a poll yesterday that shows more Americans relate better to Palin than any other candidate. We are now officially in a twilight zone. McCain and the media have unleashed their own Bride of Frankenstein. And Americans can't take their eyes off of her. She is all eye candy of course. But they like what they see. And they see only with their eyes...

Quite frankly, I do not see how the Republic can survive a Palin presidency. Apparently, many of our republican brothers are feeling the same sense of urgency.

Posted by: koreyel on September 16, 2008 at 8:40 AM | PERMALINK

Yup, columns like these will create a new CW. But republicans are doing their damndest to immunise a substantial part of the electorate from the media.

You know the drill - saying the media are biased, are angry, are desperate, are in love with Obama.

And if they succeed, anti-conservative CWs won't achieve diddly squat.

I wish Obama would hire Bob Somerby as his media adviser. No one knows his way around this kind of stuff better than him. Yeah, he writes like a madman. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

Posted by: chas on September 16, 2008 at 8:41 AM | PERMALINK

At a certain point, columns like these are bound to help shape a new conventional wisdom, right?

You'll change the government, probably change the value of pi, before you change The Narrative.

On the tombstone of the Republic will be the epitaph 'Killed By A Story Arc'.

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on September 16, 2008 at 8:41 AM | PERMALINK

Cohen's come to Jesus moment here actually bears out a lot of what I said in a blog I posted over at TPM a couple of days ago. With your indulgence:

"Stepping back from my periodic hysteria over how the campaign's going, it's looking more and more to me like Obama is playing it like a master. Now, I know a lot of us are bemoaning that Obama hasn't been hitting McCain harder with negative ads. But look at it this way: last week the Obama campaign signalled to the 527s that they are welcome to open fire. Up until this point, thanks to Obama telling them to step off back in June, the liberal 527s have been quiet. This has had two effects: 1) because there hasn't been any activity from the liberal 527s, the conservative 527s have remained relatively quiet. 2) because the conservative 527s have remained relatively quiet, it has fallen on John McCain to sling the shit himself. Essentially, what this means is that McCain has been burning through his media budget destroying his own biggest positives - his alleged integrity and honor - with sleazy, dishonest attack ads. He's not put any time into defining what a president John McCain thinks is important, what he would actually do as president, etc etc. And it's too late for him to do it now - that ship sailed for good during the Republican convention, which was dedicated to more of the same. At the same time, McCain's transparent dishonesty is starting to turn his "base" - the media - against him. He's no longer the "straight talker" open to talking to the media - that got cut off a month ago, right about when he really started to wallow in the shit.

So here we are, 6 or 7 weeks out from the election, and it's too late for McCain to pivot back to the themes of "honor and integrity", because his base no longer has his back. He's stuck with having to play the game the way he's been playing it for the past several months. Except now, he'll be throwing his shit against the veritable shit tsunami that's about to crash all over him from the liberal 527s. It's not going to be pretty. But I fully expect to see it, because the lib 527s have been sitting on the sidelines and keeping their powder dry for the past 3 months, and during that time, McCain has been creating numerous points of attack. Last week was Obama's Mr. Burns moment, when he turned to the liberal 527s and said, "Smithers, release the hounds." And now, the ripping of flesh is about to commence.

I don't expect for the Obama campaign itself to run ads that are bitingly negative. Then again, they won't have to. The 527s will take care of that. Obama has managed to remain above the sleaze thus far; he's just stood back and watched as McCain shit down his own leg. Has it cost him a few points in the polls? Yes, but that's reversible with the 527s doing the pushback. By the time election day rolls around, we'll have two candidates who have been smeared, but only one of them who has shit all over his own hands, while the other one will be the only one of the two who has offered up any idea to voters about what he will actually do if elected.

Next week will tell all. Already we've seen a couple of hard-hitting 527 ads surface - one from Planned Parenthood and one from a wildlife group on aerial hunting of wolves. I expect that these are just the tip of a very large iceberg."

I must say though, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine McCain would be able to alienate even Richard Cohen.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 16, 2008 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

And what took Richard so long to come to this conclusion? He still defends his earlier defense of McCain. Perhaps Richard anticipates that McCain cannot survive and wants to hop on Obama's bandwagon.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline on September 16, 2008 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

It used to be that every so often McCain would in fact go off-message and tell the truth, panicking his campaign staff. That did have it's charm, but now it's looking increasingly disingenuous when he tries it now.

Since the convention, it's Sarah Palin and the hard-right that are running his campaign. She is never off-message, and she has no problem with lying to America every day, at every campaign event, old lies or new, whatever she needs to lie about is just fine with her.

They scared away scrutiny for a week or two with shrill accusations of sexism, but that's rapidly ceasing to be effective.

Posted by: Max Power on September 16, 2008 at 8:53 AM | PERMALINK

Yep, Palin boldly stated in her convention speech that she was not going to Washington to seek the approval of the media pundits. Well, she can now proudly state that she has won! The Warrior Queen of Wasilla, the slayer of meritocracy.

Posted by: lou on September 16, 2008 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

It isn't just Cohen. Take a look at Brook's column this morning. In a word, he rejects the argument that Palin is qualified to be a Vice President. It seems that the economy has sobered up silly season. I would put Brooks in the Enough Club membership as well. The article will resonate with what a lot of Republicans are privately thinking. I gotta admit, his column took guts to write. I think the conventional wisdom has already changed, and public opinion will eventually catch up. Expect much more POW from McCain in the near future. In the meantime, Phil Graham must become the poster child for the train wreck on Wall Street.

Posted by: Scott F. on September 16, 2008 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

What good is now? How many Republicans in rural America are going to once again vote against their economic interests, all in the name of Sarah Palin ?

I think Obama needs the guys from The Daily Show to create his ads. They do the best job exposing the lies and linking McCain/Palin to Bush.

Posted by: coral on September 16, 2008 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

To me, what was most comforting about Cohen's recent effort was his contention that the voters really aren't stupid, although they may give every visible sign of stupidity, and Republicans may continue to rely confidently upon it.

Here's hoping you're right, Richard. There has been suggestion that polls are oversampling Republicans as well, and I hope that, too, is correct. Because what I see, with some rare exceptions, is Obama and McCain still running neck-and-neck in the polls. You may dispute the value of polls, but a lot of people make their decision based on poll indicators. Also, close is good enough for the Republicans, as you well know. A little jiggerypokery here, a little phone-jamming there, et voila! Another improbable Republican victory which all indicators said couldn't happen - get over it, kiddies, tiome to make up, for the good of the country.

You don't need to be an economist to see the country is circling the bowl, and the situation has edged to the right of grim. Republicans did this, with very little assistance from Democrats and with the stupid cunning typical of their tribe. Nobody will punish the rich who got beyond fat on war profiteeering and looting the treasury. I really think this is your last chance, America. If you blow this one, you're going to shake the Next Time bag, and nothing is going to come out but a sprinkle of dust.

And yes, Jenn, you're right - Cohen does look like a deranged beaver. Bear in mind, too, the header photo is supposed to make the writer look his or her best; you can only imagine what Cohen looks like on a bad day.

Posted by: Mark on September 16, 2008 at 8:57 AM | PERMALINK

Let me just point out that a lot of these guys have fallen off the tire swing within a few weeks of McCain deciding to no longer talk to the press. I think we fool ourselves if we believe they've suddenly discovered principles matter.

Posted by: Jake on September 16, 2008 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

While I agree that some of the more egregious shills for McCain (other than the paid ones like Fox) have been taken aback, and won't be in his corner so much going forward, I'd argue that a far more significant shift is coming from the Wall Street meltdown. This huge story puts the economy front and center, and blows away trivia like the lipstick imbroglio or kindergarten sex-ed smears.

Every day that the focus is on the economy and bread-and-butter issues is a good day for Obama and a bad day for McCain. Leaving aside McCain's connection to the Bush-tarbaby, neither he nor Palin can talk about this stuff with any credibility, and substantively, their policies are disasters.

I'm feeling better about Obama's prospects than I have since the convention.

As usual, it'll take a while for this stuff to show up in the poll numbers. If I'm right we should be seeing a pretty different electoral picture by this time next week, though.

Posted by: jimBOB on September 16, 2008 at 9:05 AM | PERMALINK

I think we fool ourselves if we believe they've suddenly discovered principles matter.
- jake

Bingo! By next week they will find some reason to applaud his straight talk, perhaps about how bad the economy is or the war or the climare. It won't matter to them that he still offers no solutions.

Posted by: Danp on September 16, 2008 at 9:09 AM | PERMALINK

"At a certain point, columns like these are bound to help shape a new conventional wisdom, right?"
Many former McCain fans may be professing disdain and horror at his current dishonesty. Will it become part of a more entrenched narrative? Not likely. It's not as if these disaffected journalists are going to repeatedly express their disgust. They'll make it know they've got off the bus and move on. What's in it for them to pile on continuously? The electorate is a hidebound lot and won't internalize the criticism unless it's repeated again and again. Is there a steady enough stream of writers out there to have these confessionals constitute a daily reminder to the public McCain is an inveterate liar? No, for some are local columnists read but by a few people in a small distribution area. You'll not see Blitzer, Matthews, Hume or the networks nightly newscasts get on a sustained rant about this. McCain and Palin are free to lie right up to election day mostly unpenalized for their tactics.

Posted by: steve duncan on September 16, 2008 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

Wishful thinking...

At this point, most people have made up their minds over who they are going to vote for. As one of your posts yesterday noted... many people, once confronted with new information that refutes what they once believed, will cling to their original belief even more strongly. No amount of backpedaling by the press is going to change their mind at this point.

I still think Obama can squeak by, but I don't think this will be a landslide.

Posted by: chrisbo on September 16, 2008 at 9:13 AM | PERMALINK

It is obvious that it was painful for David Brooks to write his column because it took him until half way through to get to the point. At least he has finally seen the light and tentatively tip-toed into the club, even if he has not yet requested full membership privileges. His application is worth reading though.

Posted by: withay on September 16, 2008 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

The question is whether 50 days is enough time to get messages like Cohen's out and sway voters.

McCain knew there would be a bounce from his choice of Palin. He's betting her reputation (and the deterioration of his) won't catch up to the voters by Election Day. Up to now Obama's strategy seems to be give them enough rope to hang themselves. Obama needs to crank it up several more notches.

What's interesting is that McCain has boxed himself in. He can't go back without looking like a fool. One by one his media supporters are abandoning his campaign. He's losing his echo chamber. At some point the attrition reaches critical mass and the polls swing the other way.

McCain will probably keep swinging at Obama (remember he has Eskew now) and he will attribute the bad press to the old GOP canard of biased media. It's frustrating that the "serial exaggerator" charge seemed to stick to Gore much more than "liar" is sticking to McCain.

The thought occurred to me this morning now that arrogant Southerners have taken over handling McCain he seems much more a tool of the old Southern Exceptionalism. You know, the attitude that says, "We have a different way of doing things, we have our own standards of right and wrong and we don't need no damn arrogant Ivy Leaguer (or worse) telling us what we can and cannot say." If Eskew says go ahead and lie, it's for the good of the party, then by golly McCain has decided he will do it.

This Exceptionalist attitude goes hand in hand with the reflexive defensiveness of the religious right -- "We don't need liberal, east coast Christians telling us what we can and cannot [teach in our schools] [offer in our libraries] etc." Deny history, deny laws, deny truth, deny facts, deny reality -- that's the faith-based world for you.

Virginia will be a good test of how quickly these old attitudes are eroding away.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on September 16, 2008 at 9:19 AM | PERMALINK

JimBOB said

"I'm feeling better about Obama's prospects than I have since the convention.

As usual, it'll take a while for this stuff to show up in the poll numbers. If I'm right we should be seeing a pretty different electoral picture by this time next week, though."

I agree 100%. The polls are a lagging indicator, and I have been feeling more upbeat about Obama's chances since middle of last week. Palin is still a force, but her negatives are going up and I think will continue to go up except with Christian Conservative (who are a lost cause anyway). The Economy is the end of silly season. Obama must (i) place the blame square on the Bush Administration and John McCain (by way of Phil Graham), (ii) explain why the Wall Street meltdown matters to the middle class, (iii) and call for a tightening of oversight over financial markets. Not an easy task, but he's more up to it than McCain.

What did Bill Clinton say about being on the right side of history? Why was Bill so confident of Obama's victory? Seemed like odd puffery at the time? The Bill Dog knows politics like noone else.

Things are looking up, at least for Obama's election. The rest, scares the shit out of me.

Posted by: Scott F. on September 16, 2008 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

The point I made at #3 and echoed by others is also echoed by Mark Kleiman:


Money quote:

The Palin nomination is a good litmus test to separate the grown-ups within the Republican Party and the conservative movement from the overgrown adolescents. David Brooks has chosen his side, and makes the Oakeshottian case against choosing our governors on the basis of authenticity rather than prudence.

But Mark K. doesn't go far enough. Palin is the ultimate litmus test for all Americans. Especially the famous. Anybody who doesn't stand up now and use their social prestige to rally the future to Barack has failed America...

Posted by: koreyel on September 16, 2008 at 9:20 AM | PERMALINK

I think that McCain, sensing a downturn for his campaign, will come back to the greatest of all time Republican talking points: Obama is a tax and spend liberal. Nothing resonates with voters more than the idea of some liberal taxing their hard work to pay for some entitlement program. This is the bread and butter for the GOP, and when all else fails, stick with the tried and true. We have already seen this articulated in the grossly false ad claiming Obama will raise taxes on the middle class, when in reality he'll give a tax break to 95% of the American public.

But I hope they do try to use that angle. Obama has plenty of ammunition and should be able to turn that argument into cannon fodder.

Simply stated, the republicans have no problem with the middle class footing the tax bill of the nation via payroll taxes, etc., while corporations get billions of dollars in tax breaks to ship jobs overseas, and are at the same time making obscene profits that do not recirculate in our economy. America loses in this deal.

Middle class taxes are being used to pay the INTEREST on our debt to COMMUNIST CHINA which has funded these said billion dollar tax breaks. Oh, guess I should also mention the 10 billion a month we borrow from China and spend in Iraq, lining the pockets of politically connected contractors with no allegiance to country whatsoever. America loses in this deal.

So, the question is, do people want our country to invest in itself, or continue to allow the Communist Chinese and no-bid contractors to get filthy rich, while we pay $4 for a gallon of gas and milk?

Obama, you listening?

Posted by: citizen_pain on September 16, 2008 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

I realize it may be asking too much, but I'd love to see one of these oracles say not that McCain isn't the man he used to be, but that he was never the man he pretended to be.

It's not like there really was a Mighty Wizard of Oz before they pulled the curtain back; there was always just a manipulative little man back there. It just took a while for the "If I Only Had A Brain" crowd to figure it out.

Posted by: gradysu on September 16, 2008 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

Come on folks. This is about winning the Presidency, not the punditocracy.

Wendy in Wallahalla does not care a damn about what Richard Cohen thinks. She does not even know who he is.

Posted by: gregor on September 16, 2008 at 9:23 AM | PERMALINK

It's tough even for the more staid members of our esteemed 4th Estate to stay focused on the story and not their enamored feelings for the person, no matter what political issue they are covering. We are all prey to whim and caprice when we allow ourselves such indulgence - too bad some of our more recent media members haven't realized the myth and misnomer they have been peddling with their skewed feelings for one of our current presidential candidates. It is heartening, though, to see columnists such as Cohen coming around. -Kevo

Posted by: on September 16, 2008 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

On a somewhat related note... James Kunstler is inviting those paying attention to start calling the Republican party what it is.... the party that wrecked America.

Massive deficits, endless wars and incompetent oversight and governance has brought the country to this point. It is time we gave full credit where credit is due.


Posted by: chrisbo on September 16, 2008 at 9:25 AM | PERMALINK

Another limiting factor to journos piling on can be seen in your daily life. Say you observe a serious wreck. Your first instinct may be to either stop and help or get on your cell phone and call 911 (or both). But say by the time you've seen the accident several people have flocked to the scene, helping, with many obviously calling for assistance on their phones. You drive on, secure in the knowledge the matter is being attended to. No need for you to risk becoming part of the problem or having the wreck interfere in your day. Some journalists are driving by the wreck that is McCain/Palin, not feeling the need to get involved. Other people are on the scene, it'll get handled.

Posted by: steve duncan on September 16, 2008 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

There is a very small percentage of undecided voters who could yet be swayed by arguments from these media pundits. And among undecided white voters, race may still be the unspoken deciding factor that polling does not reveal. This could very well be a nail biter to the last hour. Nothing about this campaign will be comforting.

Posted by: lou on September 16, 2008 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

McCain, sensing a downturn for his campaign, will come back to the greatest of all time Republican talking points: Obama is a tax and spend liberal. Nothing resonates with voters more than the idea of some liberal taxing their hard work to pay for some entitlement program.

Harping on taxes is indeed a favorite GOP chestnut, but it generally only works in good economic times. Bush I was all over Clinton with this crap in '92, and lost anyway. And we had it again from Republicans in 2006 when they got their heads handed to them. When a Gooper says "tax and spend," what he really means is "I'm out of ammo."

Posted by: jimBOB on September 16, 2008 at 9:35 AM | PERMALINK

If McCain wins, the make-up sex is going to be disgusting to watch.
Posted by: jimbo on September 16, 2008 at 8:37 AM | PERMALINK

'He adored McCain a little too much.' - Steve

'Nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass.'

Posted by: Michael7843853 on September 16, 2008 at 9:42 AM | PERMALINK

Although most rightwing rethugs will vote for McSame/Queen americans in general are hurting and will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Don't believe the polls because polsters only reach about a third of their calls.

Posted by: oNtHElEFT on September 16, 2008 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK

The negativity on this thread is crazy.

I'd like the revive the lipstick meme. McCain is lipstick on the Republican Party pig. The capital crisis refocuses issues on the failure of the Republican's to govern. Look around, they are already writing op-eds trying to blame the Democratic Congress for the situation.

It absolutely matters that McCain has lost his echo chamber this early in the cycle. They might climb back on, but maybe not. If McCain does not reassert control over the message, he will have peaked too early. Palin is not going to help him in the end. A lot of Republicans are worried right now. The sense the shift before it actually has happened. Some of us felt the same thing at the end of July first of August toward McCain and away from Obama. It isn't a good feeling. Obama's wave is getting ready to crest, and he'll need it to get over the Bradley effect.

Posted by: Scot F. on September 16, 2008 at 10:04 AM | PERMALINK

I just got back from a visit to my doctor, a staunch republican. For fun I wore my Obama/Biden T-shirt, when he came into the examining room he gave me a high-five, and said he was voting Dem this year. Know hope!

Posted by: crimelord on September 16, 2008 at 10:22 AM | PERMALINK

If John Roberts can start out as Chief Justice of the SCOTUS, the by damn, Richard Cohen can just step in as president of the "Enough" Club.

Posted by: Equal Opportunity Cynic on September 16, 2008 at 10:26 AM | PERMALINK

I think that if McCain senses a downturn in his campaign he will reach for what has always been the attack of last resort: race. If the polls start closing in or reverse, I dread what will come next. I wouldn't be surprised if willing hacks like Hannity start playing the Father Coughlin role.

Posted by: Karen on September 16, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

The key phrase here: "is a form of personal treason..."

Treason, traitor. Keep working these words in. He's already suspected of traitorous behavior by his former fellow POWs. For someone so steeped in their deluded notions of heroism, calling him "traitor" is the most damning thing you could say.

Posted by: MissMudd on September 16, 2008 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

Cohen’s biggest problem, as I note:

There was no “truth and honor” in McCain claiming he lied about his stance on the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina.

Schmuck Talk knew the campaign was heading back north and that he needed to change his stance. In other words, he was flip-flopping and spinning at the same time.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on September 16, 2008 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

This is a democracy in its final stage. You tell the people what they want to hear, or lose elections.

Posted by: Luther on September 16, 2008 at 10:59 AM | PERMALINK

It warms my tired heart to see that, of everyone who could have made the connection, it was someone the likes of Richard Cohen who officially applied the term "traitor" to John McCain.

If we can successfully brand the Palin/McCain campaign as "traitorous," then we're going to see something that hasn't happened in a good, long time:the utter demolition of the Republican brand---and the Republican Party as it has now become---on November 4.

Posted by: Steve on September 16, 2008 at 11:22 AM | PERMALINK

Cohen's a prick. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War until he realized the war was going bad. And he didn't even have a political career to worry about like those who voted on the war in Congress did. He used to be a nice, liberal columnist--I don't know what's happened.

Posted by: Lee on September 16, 2008 at 11:26 AM | PERMALINK

I was amazed that the Brooks column manages to not only come down on McCain's choice of Palin, but describes Bush as incompetent, and Rumsfeld as failing due to over-rigid ideology.

I've said before, I think McCain is taking a calculated gamble that he won't lose the press fast enough to matter for the election. But I'm also surprised at how many of the key bobbleheads have turned on him fairly quickly.

Posted by: short fuse on September 16, 2008 at 12:16 PM | PERMALINK

Steve, "The Enough Club" will finally result in a new media narrative on the real McCain when, and only if, Broder falls, too. Richard Cohen notes that he was in the tank for McCain. I submit that Broder IS the tank for McCain. I further submit that Broder will join The Enough Club AFTER he acknowledges that Bush WILL NOT get his popularity bounce AND after he acknowledges that we will not find any ponies in Iraq. I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Analytical Liberal on September 16, 2008 at 1:11 PM | PERMALINK



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