Peter Freyne is on vacation this week, so let's take an irreverent look at politics outside the Green Mountain State.
No issue in the country dominates the political landscape like the war in Iraq, and last week policy makers in Washington were stunned by a new revelation: the war's cost.
To be sure, the most important price the nation pays in the ongoing conflict is the human cost. As of this writing, 3385 U.S. troops have made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq, and more than 27,000 Americans have returned home injured.
But the Congressional Budget Office released an estimate on October 24 detailing the war's escalating tab, and the number is jaw-dropping. Over the next decade, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are expected to cost a total of $2.4 trillion. That's "trillion," with a "t," roughly equivalent to an $8000 bill for every man, woman and child in the United States. For Iraq alone - a conflict that has been nothing short of a disaster - the price tag is $1.9 trillion.
The CBO estimate includes an oft-overlooked detail: interest on the national debt. From the outset, the Bush administration has been "charging" these wars on the national credit card, and future generations will be asked to foot the bill. It's a phenomenon without precedent in American history - the United States has never financed a war with borrowed money. But that's exactly what's happening now.
Like most of the pre-war expectations presented by the White House, this is a case of the reality versus the rhetoric. In 2003, Bush administration officials told lawmakers that the war in Iraq would likely cost $50 billion. Testifying before Congress the same year, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz delivered a line for which he is now infamous: "We're dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon."
Now, with a $2.4 trillion figure on the table, those claims look about as reliable as intelligence reports on Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.
It's worth noting that the White House disputed the CBO estimate upon its release. One Bush aide said Congress was trying to "artificially inflate war-funding levels." Asked how much the administration thinks the war is actually costing, the White House budget office refused to say.
Congressional Republicans have also been quiet on the issue. When the House Budget Committee held a hearing to discuss the $2.4 trillion price tag, 15 of the 16 GOP lawmakers on the committee didn't show up.
Getting Warmer - Iraq may be the political crisis of the day, but most observers agree that global warming is the most serious long-term threat facing humanity. Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified on the impact of climate change on public health before a Senate panel last week. But the White House edited her testimony before it was delivered. References to potential health risks were removed - one CDC official said Gerberding's original draft "was eviscerated" - and details were deleted concerning how many people might be adversely affected by increased warming.
Reporters asked White House Press Secretary Dana Perino to explain why Gerberding was muzzled. "We have experts and scientists across this administration that can take a look at that testimony and say, 'This is an error,' or, 'This doesn't make sense,'" Perino said. "And so the decision was made on behalf of CDC to focus that testimony on public-health benefits."
That's not a typo; the White House press secretary said officials wanted the CDC director to testify on why global warming is good for people. Apparently, Americans are meant to consider the positive aspects of a global environmental crisis.
Regrettably, Perino was a little vague about what the "public-health benefits" of global warming might be, leaving many to wonder what she could have been referring to. Fewer cases of hypothermia? No more frostbite? A steep decline in the number of snowball-fight-related injuries?
Pressed by reporters to explain, the press secretary said, "Look, this is an issue where I'm sure lots of people would love to ridicule me when I say this, but it is true that many people die from cold-related deaths every winter."
In other words, when faced with a choice between melting the polar ice caps and home-heating aid for low-income families, the White House seems to believe the prior is the way to go. As for Perino, it's probably safe to assume the president's spokesperson has taken herself out of contention for next year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Family Values - Weird White House science may be the only explanation for the appointment of Dr. Susan Orr - a staunch opponent of birth control - to head the federal government's family planning office.
Running the federal family planning programs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is not exactly a high-profile position. But the agency oversees the department's massive reproductive-health program, including HHS' Office of Population Affairs, which funds birth control, pregnancy tests, counseling and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. As Slate's Amanda Schaffer explains, the head of this office has "extensive power to shape the kinds of information disseminated to millions of women," and has the authority to "develop new guidelines for clinics, set priorities, and determine how scarce dollars get spent."
That's precisely why Orr, formerly a professor at TV preacher Pat Robertson's college in Virginia, is an inexplicable choice. In a previous job, she urged health insurance plans for federal employees to stop covering birth control, because, as she put it, "Fertility is not a disease." Even more striking, Orr published an article in 2000 referring to contraceptives as being part of a "culture of death."
Several Democratic members of Congress have suggested that Orr may not be the ideal candidate for an office that oversees the government's family planning programs. Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who chairs the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued a statement that read, "I'm no longer surprised by this kind of decision - ideology firmly holds the reins over reproductive health in this White House. But this lack of commitment to comprehensive reproductive health, combined with cramped budgets, is an insult and a disservice to the millions of low-income people who rely on Title X for family planning and preventive health services."
Too bad the position does not require a congressional confirmation vote.
For what it's worth, Orr probably won't be much worse than her predecessor, Dr. Eric Keroack, who argued that the very distribution of contraceptives is "demeaning to women." Keroack had a history of saying truly nutty things, such as the belief that condoms "offer virtually no protection" against herpes or HPV.
It's a reminder that for all the high-profile controversial figures the president has picked for key government posts - Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales, Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown - there are many equally scary low-profile ones that you never hear about.
Swallowing the Whopper? - Looking ahead to the next presidential administration, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is a leading Republican contender. But he's developed a nasty habit that may undermine his White House chances: Giuliani has become a serial exaggerator.
Voters will probably recall that Al Gore was called on his hyperbole habit in the 2000 campaign. The media criticism didn't hold up, but that didn't stop news outlets from routinely insisting he was given to exaggerating his accomplishments, such as a claim that he "invented the Internet." Calling the former vice president's credibility into question did not help his campaign. Giuliani looks to be headed down the same road to ruin.
It started in earnest over the summer, when Giuliani said at a press conference that he was at Ground Zero in the wake of the 9/11 attacks "as often, if not more" than the rescue, recovery and cleanup workers who spent a year sifting through human remains and rubble. The New York Times checked Giuliani's 2001 schedule and found that he actually spent about 10 hours a month bringing celebrities and dignitaries to Ground Zero. Contrast that with rescue workers and cleanup crews, who put in about 400 grueling hours at the site.
The former mayor was just getting started. He claims to have been "studying Islamic terrorism for 30 years," which proved to be a wild exaggeration. He purported to have cut taxes 23 times in New York City, including tax cuts that he opposed. Giuliani claimed in a radio commercial that he produced "a multibillion dollar surplus" for New York, without noting that it was an inflated figure - he actually left office with huge budget deficits. He claimed that adoptions went up in New York City under his tenure "65 to 70 percent," but the actual number was 17 percent - and the number of adoptions dropped in each of the last six years Giuliani was in office.
Have these little white lies caught the attention of the mainstream media? Not yet. Washington Post political reporter Lois Romano was recently asked during an online forum, "If Al Gore can be painted as a serial liar and exaggerator by the media for things he didn't actually say, why has Giuliani so far gotten a pass on the lies he's actually spouting publicly?"
Romano responded, "He hasn't been really challenged on every word yet. That will come."
Something to look forward to . . .
Social Insecurity - Social Security reform may not be the sexiest campaign issue, but candidates from both parties are going to be quizzed on it over the next year. After the Bush plan was roundly rejected a couple of years ago, most political observers assumed that presidential hopefuls would go in a very different direction. As it turns out, that assumption was wrong.
First, a quick refresher. Bush went into his second term, in 2005, looking at friendly Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress. With an approval rating of more than 50 percent, he decided to use his "political capital" to kick off a campaign to privatize Social Security.
The more Americans heard about the plan, the more they hated it. After a few months of watching Bush barnstorm the nation in hopes of selling his idea, Americans were less supportive of his handling of Social Security than of his handling of the Iraq war. The president's poll numbers collapsed and never recovered. It was, by some measures, Bush's jump-the-shark moment.
Even the most sycophantic of Republicans realized that Bush's Social Security policy was poison to be avoided at all costs. Given the public's response, a candidate would have to be crazy to embrace a plan the vast majority of Americans hated.
Tell that to the GOP's current crop of presidential aspirants. At the most recent debate, Fox News' Brit Hume asked the candidates how they would address the fiscal challenges facing the Social Security system. One by one, Bush's would-be successors endorsed the same policy that failed miserably in 2005.
Giuliani said, "The first thing we have to do is get a consensus behind private accounts." Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney added, "The president said, 'Let's have private accounts and take that surplus money that's being gathered now in Social Security and put that into private accounts.' That works." Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said it was simply a matter of semantics: "The president had the right idea, but he used the wrong word. When he used the word privatization, it scared the daylights out of a lot of people." Sen. John McCain added, "We need personal savings accounts," in line with those proposed by Bush in 2005.
Voters may not realize it yet, but if a Republican is elected president next year, the country may be headed for the same policy fight in 2009 as we saw in 2005. An elephant may never forget, but these GOP candidates seem to have blocked out the biggest domestic policy debacle of Bush's presidency.
Blogger Steve Benen, based in Vermont, provides commentary and analysis of American politics on http://www.thecarpetbaggerreport.com. Peter Freyne will return next week.
Peter's not on vacation from his blog, "Freyne Land," at http://www.7d.blogs.com/freyneland