Notebook

by TNR Staff | January 15, 2001

SCARLET LETTER: John Ashcroft's two-page letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, apparently unreported by any major news outlet, rang with a sense of urgency. "This year," he wrote, "several disquieting events have raised serious questions about the integrity of the elections." The electoral irregularities were striking enough, he argued, to merit investigation by the Justice Department. "I would appreciate your immediate attention to this problem, using the resources of your Department, to ensure the integrity of [the] election process," he pleaded. "Since the American people rely on the election process to express their collective judgment about the nation's future direction, the prospect that the people's voice maybe muffled or distorted... is gravely troubling." He ended the letter with an urgent appeal: "Again, I would appreciate hearing from you immediately, as the nation's chief law enforcement official, about what actions the Justice Department will undertake ... to ensure the integrity ofthe nation's elections." As it happens, the letter referred not to Florida 2000 but to Missouri 1996, when allegations arose concerning the illegal registration of immigrants who were not yet American citizens. But, given Ashcroft's panicky call for a Justice Department investigation of such a minor incident, we can't wait to hear how, as attorney general, he intends to respond to the far more serious electoral allegations in Florida. We hope the Senate can't either.

MORE PRIVATE-SECTOR JOBS CREATED!: These last few months. Bill Clinton has been going through legacies as is if they were Kleenex. Environmental protector? Let's declare a few more national monuments. Racial pioneer? How about appointing the first African American judge to the Fourth Circuit? Middle East savior? Why not charm Yasir Arafat into embracing a peace deal? But he's also been working on a more secure legacy: champion of Washington sleaze. In December, Clinton ensconced fundraising pal Terry McAuliffe—king of soft money and inventor of the White House sleep-over—as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Then, adding insult to injury, last Saturday Clinton announced he was revoking his 1993 executive order requiring senior government officials to wait five years before they lobby former colleagues. "It had more to do with image than with ethics," one presidential adviser told The Washington Post. Of course, Clinton made good use of that "image" eight years ago, congratulating himself for halting the flight "from public service to private enrichment" and "stop[ping] the revolving door" of Washington influence-peddling. But, now that hordes of Clinton cronies face imminent unemployment, "private enrichment" doesn't sound so bad. The ban was "unnecessarily punitive," explained Roy Neel, a former Clinton deputy chief of staff who left the White House after a year to become president of the United States Telephone Association. Or, as White House counsel Beth Nolan put it, "The president believes that the executive order has served its purpose." Clearly.

FUZZY MATH COMES TO WASHINGTON: When the Clinton administration increased its ten-year surplus projection by some $800 billion last week, the incoming Bushies were predictably gleeful. And why not? With their giant tax cut going nowhere, the news about the surplus couldn't have come at a better time. "The latest set of estimates reinforces how much room there is in the federal budget to cut taxes while securing other priorities," crowed Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer to The New York Times. "We can pay down the debt and cut taxes." But wait a minute. Haven't the Bushies spent the past few weeks claiming that their tax cut is needed specifically because the country is headed for a recession? But the surplus projection has been increased precisely because the government isn't predicting a recession; it's projecting about 3 percent GDP growth next year and beyond. According to the Bushies' tangled logic, either we can afford a tax cut we won't much need (if you believe the surplus figures), or we need a tax cut that we really can't afford (if you believe we're headed into a recession). We're eager to hear their choice.

UNFUZZY MATH DOESN'T: Of course, a lot of economists don't think we need a tax cut even if we are heading into a recession. But you'd think that at least the economists working for Bush would be on board. You'd be wrong. Last week. The Washington Post reported that Stanford economist and Bush adviser John Taylor wrote last summer in The Journal of Economic Perspectives, "If the countercyclical goals of fiscal and monetary policy are the same, then why not simply let monetary policy do the job?" He continued, "It is also likely that the use of discretionary fiscal policy could make the Fed's job more difficult." In other words, a president facing a recession should eschew a big tax cut and let the Fed revive the economy (which it started to do with its interest-rate cut this week). When he wrote this, poor Taylor had no way of knowing that the Bushies would subsequently latch on to a slowdown to peddle their tax cut as economic stimulus, a role for which it was explicitly not designed. But now that Taylor, once considered a shoo-in to head Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, has been caught admitting the obvious, he may have to remain in academia. Unless, of course. Bush wants to drop the recession argument for his tax cut and start pushing its affordability in light of all those coming surpluses...

W.'S HIDDEN QUALIFICATION: "Local ranch owner George W. Bush elected as nation's 43rd president—The McGregorMirror, December 21

CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED, DUBYA: "Jamaicans are not afraid to [hit] the child if he be rude or out of order.... A child has got to know his place, when to play and when to work."—Colin Powell's cousin Muriel Maggie, on Powell's rigorous upbringing, The Washington Times, December 28

DEPARTMENT OF POTS AND KETTLES: "The cardinal thing you remember him for was what a selfish politician he was from the Democratic Party's point of view. He lost it all except for himself."—Ralph Nader, describing President Clinton, The New York Times, December 27

WAS ED MEESE UNAVAILABLE?: Last week, the Utah attorney general's office began searching for the state's first-ever "porn czar," the lucky lawyer entrusted to comb through a daily stream of adult videos and dirty magazines. The job, officially titled "obscenity and pornography complaints ombudsman," pays about $80,000 per year and entails developing a statewide "moral nuisance" law and helping offended residents drive sexually explicit businesses out of town (pitchfork not included). Surprisingly, as of press time, only 14 lawyers had bothered to apply. But then it may be that former Salt Lake County Attorney Doug Short has scared off other applicants with his sterling qualifications. Making his case to The Salt Lake Tribune, the perhaps overeager Short claimed, "I've got a lot of experience in the nuts and bolts of the job."

This article originally ran in the January 15, 2001, issue of the magazine.

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