The Ostrich Approach

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 25, 2005; 2:15 PM

Confronted by serious political opposition at many turns, President Bush has come up with an across-the-board public response: Don't acknowledge any of it.

Briefly addressing Monday's bipartisan compromise in the Senate, Bush yesterday hailed the part of the agreement that granted him votes on three of his stalled judicial nominees -- and simply ignored the part that keeps four others in limbo.

Even as the Republican-controlled House was voting to defy his veto threat and expand federal research on stem cells, Bush yesterday held a photo-op with babies and toddlers born of leftover embryos -- and refused to address how unpopular his views are even within some in his own party.

And as polls show that his Social Security proposals are bombing with the public, Bush insisted again yesterday that politicians who don't join him in talking about Social Security are the ones who will be punished by the voters.

Can the strategy of denial work? Perhaps. Bush has done well in the past by defining his own reality and setting his own agenda, rather than letting others do so.

Or, as he put it in a revealing ad-lib yesterday while talking about Social Security: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."

The Embryo Imbroglio

Mike Allen and Ceci Connolly write in The Washington Post: "Defying President Bush's threat to impose his first veto, a broad swath of House Republicans voted with an overwhelming number of Democrats yesterday to repeal his restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and plunge the government deeper into the controversial science that supporters say could lead to cures for debilitating diseases."

The bill "would make federal money available for research on embryonic stem cells extracted from frozen embryos donated by couples who no longer need them for fertility treatments. It would lift a restriction imposed by Bush nearly four years ago that limits federally funded research to fewer than two dozen embryonic stem cell colonies, or lines."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The vote, 238 to 194 with 50 Republicans in favor, fell far short of the two-thirds majority required to overturn a presidential veto, setting up a possible showdown between Congress and Mr. Bush, who has never exercised his veto power. An identical bill has broad bipartisan support in the Senate; moments after the House vote, the Senate sponsors wrote to the Republican leader, Bill Frist, urging him to put it on the agenda."

Meanwhile, Bush was holding a carefully staged event in the East Room with families of children born of embryos left over from other families' fertility treatments, kissing babies right and left.

As a result, guess what imagery dominated the front pages this morning of such papers as The Washington Post and the New York Times , among many others?

Here's the text of Bush's speech. "The children here today remind us that there is no such thing as a spare embryo. Every embryo is unique and genetically complete, like every other human being. And each of us started out our life this way. These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts. And I commend each of the families here today for accepting the gift of these children and offering them the gift of your love."

Bush took note of the House bill, but only to repeat his position: "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

Just how many excess frozen embryos are there out there? At last count, as Rick Weiss reported in The Washington Post two years ago: 400,000.

What Compromise?

The agreement hammered out by 14 senators on Monday grants Bush floor votes on three of his seven stalled judicial nominees -- while allowing Democrats to keep blocking two. The fate of the final two is unclear.

The agreement also calls for Bush to engage in "true consultation and cooperation" with both parties before naming future court nominees, including to the Supreme Court.

Here's what Bush had to say on the issue yesterday, during a visit to Rochester: "We got a lot to do in Washington, D.C. One of the big issues, of course, is Social Security -- although yesterday there was some progress made. I'm pleased that the Senate is moving forward on my judicial nominees who were previously being blocked. These nominees have been waiting years for an up or down vote on the Senate floor, and now they'll get one. It's about time we're making some progress."

Later, Bush met with nominee Priscilla Owen in the Oval Office. Here's the transcript . Again, he didn't say a word about those who apparently will not get a vote.

Press Secretary Scott McClellan was equally unforthcoming, though at greater length, in yesterday's gaggle :

"Q Does he consider this to be a victory, since his standard was all his judicial nominees deserve an up or down --

"MR. McCLELLAN: He considers it to be real progress, and I think any way you look at it, it is. As I said, these were nominees that have been blocked for years and now they're going to receive an up or down vote.

"Q [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist said it was bad news and good news.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's a sign of real progress."

McClellan also said the administration would consult with the Senate over nominations just like as it always had.

Robin Toner and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush has always taken an expansive view of presidential powers and prerogatives, and throughout the battle over his judicial nominees he has insisted that all of them receive an up-or-down vote. In some ways, the White House reacted to the compromise by hailing the one element that met Mr. Bush's demands - the commitment to give three nominees a vote - while ignoring or playing down those at odds with his position.

"White House officials said they got no advance notice of the deal's terms. They said they viewed the agreement as progress because it ensured that some nominees who had been blocked would now get a vote and be confirmed.

"But the intensely negative reaction from some of Mr. Bush's allies among Christian advocacy groups and other conservative organizations suggested that the administration was not entirely pleased with the outcome, both because it did not assure a vote for all nominees and because it did not end the possibility that Democrats could filibuster a Supreme Court nomination."

A New Political Era?

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A new center of political power rose up in Washington this week, and it could challenge the White House and leaders of Congress for control of the national agenda.

"A newly assertive bipartisan coalition of independent-minded lawmakers first showed itself Monday night in the Senate fight over federal judges, then again in the House of Representatives' approval Tuesday of a bill that would allow federal financing for new lines of embryonic stem-cell research.

"If it persists, this new political center could force President Bush to negotiate with Congress to a degree he rarely has done. Even if this centrist coalition doesn't endure, its successes this week suggest that the post-Sept. 11, 2001, deference of the Republican-ruled Congress to President Bush no longer is automatic."

Jim Drinkard and Kathy Kiely write in USA Today: "A deal that averted a showdown over President Bush's federal judge nominees also could set the stage for compromise on other tough issues -- if it doesn't fall apart first. . . .

"Bush counselor Dan Bartlett noted that polls show Americans are unhappy with Washington's policy gridlock. 'This hopefully will allow other issues to receive the attention of Congress,' he said, including energy, Social Security and the budget. 'Maybe the bipartisanship .... can carry over.' "

The Supreme Option

But by most accounts, this new center of political power could fall apart real soon.

Ronald Brownstein and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times: "The fate of Monday's agreement defusing the Capitol Hill confrontation over judicial nominations may now rest as much in the hands of President Bush as in those of the senators who crafted it. . . .

"[T]he agreement could prove short-lived if future judicial appointments provoke partisan conflicts similar to those that erupted over the current nominees."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "With the Senate filibuster dispute behind it, the White House is bracing for a high-stakes battle to fill a seat on the Supreme Court that many expect to come open next month and that could help shape the remainder of President Bush's second term. . . .

"Advisers said neither the deal brokered by Senate centrists nor Democratic opposition would change the president's calculus in picking the next justice. 'He's not going to shy away,' said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no vacancy has been announced. 'The Democrats can throw high and tight fastballs if they want, but it's not going to work.' "

Social Security Watch

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post from Bush's visit to upstate New York: "Working to generate momentum for a plan that appears stuck behind a wall of Democratic opposition and GOP skepticism, Bush warned lawmakers that increasing numbers of Americans are getting the idea that the nation's retirement system is on an unsustainable fiscal course and said politicians must step up to solve the problem."

Here's the transcript of the event. "I think the people who take the risk are those who won't come to the table to discuss the issue in a way that will help solve the problem," he said.

Noting the Protests

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "Gone are the days when a president could travel to a community to make a pitch for a favorite program and bask in mostly favorable local media coverage.

"Armed with a variety of publicity techniques honed in recent election campaigns, opponents are vying effectively with the president for local media attention before, during and after presidential visits.

"And they are doing that at nearly every stop on President Bush's Social Security tour, which began in February and landed Tuesday in this suburb near Rochester in western New York."

About That Local Coverage

But the local coverage is not exactly critical.

Here's the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle 's special coverage, and its front page image .

Lara Becker Liu writes from inside the auditorium: "All awaited the arrival of President Bush as eagerly as they might a movie star.

"'Ohmigod, ohmigod, I can't breathe,' said press volunteer Kellie Crowley, 18, fanning herself with her credentials. She and her friend, Hollie McDonald -- both sophomores at SUNY Brockport, both members of the Brockport College Republicans -- readied their cameras, hoping for a glimpse. . . .

"Bush may have been speaking to a sympathetic crowd, but his witty banter only further endeared him to them. No one heckled him. . . .

"[H]e also scored points in explaining his Social Security plan. The audience response at times resembled that of a church congregation. Shouts of 'That's right!' rang out when Bush described a crippled Social Security system that, if left alone, would be reduced to a 'group of filing cabinets with a bunch of IOUs in it.' "

Matthew Daneman writes: "President Bush's town hall meeting in Greece was the local news story of the day. And some national media reporters accompanied the president, as they do to most public events.

"But the nightly network newscasts were dominated by stem cells, filibusters and Iraq. No Rochester. No Greece.

"'In some sense, there was no news made here today,' said David Primo, assistant professor of political science at the University of Rochester."

The paper also reported : "Shortly after President Bush finished his talk about Social Security, he took the time to meet with the families of two area servicemen killed in Iraq."

The obligatory protest story, by Patrick Flanigan and Jeffrey Blackwell , noted: "Sister Grace Miller, director of the House of Mercy homeless shelter, and Harry Murray, a Nazareth College professor, lay down in the road at the entrance to the high school and were taken away by police."

It also quoted a protester named Jim Thompson, who "worried that the protest's message would get lost in the glow of the visit.

"'Bush seems to have a hypnotic allure,' he said."

Advance Team Watch

The White House advance team has done a bang-up job stocking the stage with human props for Bush's "conversations" on Social Security.

But there were a few hiccups yesterday.

Consider Debbie Brown, who the White House informed the press corps "believes Social Security reform should take place as soon as possible, and that we should not leave a broken system to be fixed by future generations."

Here's what Brown told Bush yesterday: "Well, I appreciate the opportunity to be here. I was an at-home mom. I was privileged that my husband, who is here today, was willing to let me stay home and raise the kids, work part-time. But when you do that, you don't get to pay into a retirement system anywhere. So I went, got my masters degree. I have a job I'm very happy with now. But I will never be able to build a good retirement in the amount of time I have until I retire. So it's very appealing, the plans that you're talking about, because I'll be quite dependent on Social Security."

Bush replied: "Yes, set aside a little money, watch it grow at a better rate than the current Social Security system."

But Brown is in fact a perfect example of someone who could get hammered if the rules changed the way Bush seems to advocate. Right now, stay-at-home mothers are hugely subsidized by Social Security. Even if they never pay a penny in payroll taxes, they get benefits based on what their husbands earned. By contrast, in the Bush scenario, there would be little or nothing in their private accounts when they retired.

The advance team did better with Brown's 18-year-old son, Jeremy, who dutifully voiced the White House's favorite misconception (see Friday's column .)

"I like the fact that I'll have something to show for it, because people go and pay decades and decades into Social Security and when it comes time for me to retire, if we don't change, I'll have nothing to show for it," the younger Brown said.

But then there was a hiccup with the Weitzel twins.

Bush: "Now, you're contributing in to the -- both of you -- payroll tax, aren't you?

"MS. McKENNA WEITZEL: Yes, we both currently are.

"THE PRESIDENT: Pretty good-size chunk.

"MS. RILEY WEITZEL: No, not really.

"THE PRESIDENT: No, a pretty good-size chunk of your payroll tax.

"MS. RILEY WEITZEL: Oh, of course.

"MS. McKENNA WEITZEL: Yes, yes."

First Lady Watch

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "First lady Laura Bush, reflecting on her five-day tour of the Middle East, said Tuesday that Americans should be prepared for democracy to spread slowly in the region and resist trying to impose U.S. values on other governments.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "She's not the shy librarian that some might think she is. Normally reserved Laura Bush showed a new outspoken side on her trip to the Middle East."

Here's the transcript of her remarks to the press en route back from Egypt.

Jefferson Morley writes in his washingtonpost.com World Opinion Roundup column: "The world says 'Guantanamo,' and the Bush administration replies 'Sesame Street.'

"Laura Bush's photo opportunity Monday with a puppet from the Egyptian version of the children's television program was a snapshot from the island of American innocence in a sea of Muslim hostility."

Pool Wars

Joseph Curl blogs for the Washington Times: "The office of first lady Laura Bush handpicked The Washington Post as the only newspaper to cover her trip to the Middle East. While the White House has a long-established travel-pool rotation system to determine which newspaper travels on Air Force One -- alphabetical, based on reporters that travel -- the FLOTUS office has no such system. . . .

"One New York Times reporter is 'infuriated' over being excluded from what has turned out to be a very newsy trip. . . .

"But this latest development has prompted several reporters to call for a formal rotation system to govern the first lady's trips. And as the New York Times reporter said: 'That's the only way we'll ever get to go.' "

Torture Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that Timothy E. Flanigan's role in setting interrogation and detention policies while he was a White House lawyer will likely be an issue again now that Flanigan has been nominated to take over as second-in-command at the Justice Department.

"Officials have said Flanigan was involved in some of the most controversial decisions to come out of that office after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, including the finding that the Geneva Conventions' protections did not apply to suspected terrorists captured on the battlefield.

"He was also involved in discussions that led to a Justice Department memo, since withdrawn, dramatically narrowing the definition of what constitutes torture, officials have said."


Candy Sagon writes in The Washington Post: "It's been three months since the White House told executive chef Walter Scheib to pack his whisk and go, and still no replacement has been named. So what's taking so long?

"Despite some wishful thinking among Texans that first lady Laura Bush might be ready to name a Dallas chef, that doesn't appear to be the case yet. Mrs. Bush's press secretary, Susan Whitson, says they're still 'in search mode.' "

What got the last guy fired? "Scheib told Nation's Restaurant News in March that he thinks the first lady wants her own person in the kitchen. 'For better or worse, I'll always be identified as Mrs. Clinton's chef,' he said."

Here's some more background on the Texas candidates, from the Austin American-Statesman .

Today's Calendar

President Bush today toured a hydrogen fueling station at a Shell service station on Benning Road, N.E.

From the transcript : "The key is, is that we're now putting things in place today, making investments today, encouraging development of alternative sources of energy today, that will help transform our energy mix for tomorrow so that ten years from now, hopefully, we can look back and say, thankfully, Congress finally acted, and President Bush led, so that we're able to diversify away from oil and gas."

Greg Schneider wrote about the mostly symbolic $2 million pump in The Washington Post last year.

In the afternoon, Bush meets with the President of Indonesia and speaks at an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month event.

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking a looong Memorial Day weekend. No column until Tuesday.

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