By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 27, 2006; 12:27 PM
For all the talk of a Republican congressional rebellion, President Bush hasn't yet lost a significant legislative battle on Capitol Hill.
This week may change all that.
Bush sees a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws as a top priority for his second term and he is pushing hard for an approach that includes both stepped-up border security and a guest-worker program. The goal is to cut down on illegal immigration while satisfying business interests -- and doing so in a way that can plausibly be described as compassionate.
But it's not looking good on the Hill.
Glenn Thrush and Peter Clark write in Newsday that Bush's effort, "which comes to a head this week in the Senate, has splintered the Republican ranks, pitting pro-business moderates and the White House against hard-liners eager to tap voter anger on the issue.
"It's also energized the Democrats' inner-city base and soured Hispanics to the GOP, spawning massive pro-immigrant protests on the streets of Los Angeles, Phoenix and Milwaukee."
Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush is facing another test of his remaining powers as president.
"On Thursday, he called for calm in a White House meeting with groups pressing for changes in American immigration laws.
" 'I urge members of Congress and I urge people who like to comment on this issue to make sure the rhetoric is in accord with our traditions,' the president said.
"He added, in a warning to members of Congress, that 'the debate must be done in a way that doesn't pit one group of people against another.' . . .
"Philosophically, the president, whose own sensibility on the issue was shaped by his experience as governor of Texas, says he is committed to a program that meets the needs of business. . . .
"But politically, Mr. Bush must satisfy his most conservative supporters."
Bush spoke about immigration this morning at a naturalization ceremony in Washington. Suzanne Gamboa writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Monday that overhauling the nation's immigration laws 'is not going to be easy' and warned critics against stoking anti-immigrant feelings by calling them a threat to the nation's identity or a burden to the economy."
And while Bush worries about his right flank, there's a groundswell building to his left.
As Nina Bernstein writes in the New York Times: "Rallies in support of immigrants around the country have attracted crowds that have astonished even their organizers. More than a half-million demonstrators marched in Los Angeles on Saturday, as many as 300,000 in Chicago on March 10, and -- in between -- tens of thousands in Denver, Phoenix, Milwaukee and elsewhere. . . .
"The demonstrations embody a surging constituency demanding that illegal immigrants be given a path to citizenship rather than be punished with prison terms. It is being pressed as never before by immigrants who were long thought too fearful of deportation to risk so public a display."The Role of the Press Corps
As the White House revs up its campaign to blame the media for the increasingly negative impression the American public has of the war in Iraq, media critic Howard Kurtz raises questions, both in his Washington Post column and his CNN talk show , about the newly combative White House press corps.
"In increasingly aggressive questions to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, in a growing focus on the death toll in Iraq, in downbeat assessments on the invasion's third anniversary, many journalists now reflect the view that the war has gone horribly wrong," Kurtz writes.
"Consider the questions asked at Bush's news conference last week.
"ABC's Jessica Yellin: 'Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to keep Iraqis from killing one another?'
"CNN's Kathleen Koch: 'Do you believe [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld should resign?'
"USA Today's David Jackson: 'Are you concerned that the Iraq experience is going to embolden authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and make it tougher to get democracy there?'
"Bob Deans of Cox News: "Is there a point at which having the American forces in Iraq becomes more a part of the problem than a part of the solution?"
"The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei: Polls show 'a growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?'
"Hearst columnist Helen Thomas: 'Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true.' "
On CNN, Kurtz asked former White House correspondent Frank Sesno: "Frank Sesno, you heard those questions. To people sitting at home, what is the cumulative effect of hearing reporters ask those questions?
"FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Probably for the people sitting at home the cumulative effect, Howie, is that there they go again: the journalists doing what they do best, pounding away, badgering the witness, sounding overly negative. To those in the -- in the press room, however, it's their job. And it is also an expression of the frustration of reporters who try to cover the White House to get, frankly, a straight answer."
Kurtz seems to be concerned that people will think the media is being too partisan, or is piling on, and that there could be a backlash. But the media should never shy away from the questions of the day for any reason.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking the president tough questions -- unless of course the primary goal is maintaining appearances, rather than trying to report the news.
Presidential press conferences may have turned into spectator sports for media critics -- amateur and professional alike -- but they are not a game. Particularly now, trying to get the president to answer important questions is deadly serious business. And anyone suggesting that reporters should back off because it looks unseemly is missing the point entirely.
Indeed, White House reporters should get even tougher. They should follow up on their own questions and each others'. And they should not hesitate to demand -- on behalf of the American public -- straight answers rather than the same old timeworn talking points that the public has already dismissed as unresponsive, irrelevant and unconvincing.
Kurtz's question was not so well-received by two of his other guests: Richard Wolffe of Newsweek and Pamela Hess of UPI.
"KURTZ: Richard Wolffe, you heard those questions. Were you at the briefing? It sounded like the reporters were somewhere between skeptical and hostile towards the war effort.
"WOLFFE: Well, for starts, it's the three-year anniversary of the war. So it was inevitable that the questions about Iraq were going to dominate. But they're also reflecting public opinion.
"At 29 percent approval on the war, the president has lost about a quarter of his own base. So it's not like reporters have cooked this up. There are deep concerns in the country about the direction of the war. Opinion has turned against the war and the question of whether it was worth it. And reporters reflect what their audiences are interested in. . . .
"It's the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, of the invasion in Iraq. As I said, were people obsessed about it? Sure. Is it the biggest thing in American life right now? Yes. It's costing a huge amount in blood and treasure."
"HESS: Just to ask a question implies negativity, because it is questioning of authority. So people will automatically see all of those questions as negative, even though they're not. They're just questions asking for information. Are you willing to sacrifice lives to stop a civil war? Answer the question.
"KURTZ: Right, but there is a cumulative effect that comes. . . .
"KURTZ: . . . across the screen when there are so many in succession."
By contrast, National Journal media critic William Powers writes: "President Bush is in a terrible mess right now. Iraq is a thousand times more significant than Clinton's worst scandal. Yet the pitch of the Washington war coverage doesn't approach that of the Clinton impeachment. The press corps seems weary and beaten down. Somehow, even when this president is riding low with the public, he still has a way of making the journalists who cover him seem small and powerless -- as if they fear that the mandate he claimed after the 2004 election is still firmly in place.
"It isn't, and this week it became clear that if the journalists don't realize this, nonjournalists do. News outlets reported that in Bush's travels around the country, he has been encountering more hardball questions from ordinary citizens. In a headline, USA Today called these meetings 'feisty forums.'
"The day before his White House news conference, Bush spoke to one such group in Cleveland, and a number of war zingers reportedly came his way. At the news conference -- where only Helen Thomas seemed to be in an Alpha mood -- one reporter told Bush how unhappy those feisty Clevelanders seemed about the war, as if this gave his question heft. And it did."Impeachment Watch
There it was, right on the front page of The Washington Post on Saturday -- Michael Powell writing from Holyoke, Mass: "To drive through the mill towns and curling country roads here is to journey into New England's impeachment belt. Three of this state's 10 House members have called for the investigation and possible impeachment of President Bush.
"Thirty miles north, residents in four Vermont villages voted earlier this month at annual town meetings to buy more rock salt, approve school budgets, and impeach the president for lying about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and for sanctioning torture. . . .
"It would be a considerable overstatement to say the fledgling impeachment movement threatens to topple a presidency -- there are just 33 House co-sponsors of a motion by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to investigate and perhaps impeach Bush, and a large majority of elected Democrats think it is a bad idea. But talk bubbles up in many corners of the nation, and on the Internet, where several Web sites have led the charge, giving liberals an outlet for anger that has been years in the making."
For those of you who haven't been paying attention, Powell explains: "The argument for an impeachment inquiry -- which draws support from prominent constitutional scholars such as Harvard's Laurence H. Tribe and former Reagan deputy attorney general Bruce Fein -- centers on Bush's conduct before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
"It is argued that Bush and his officials conspired to manufacture evidence of weapons of mass destruction to persuade Congress to approve the invasion."
Furthermore: "Critics point to Bush's approval of harsh interrogations of prisoners captured Iraq and Afghanistan, tactics that human rights groups such as Amnesty International say amount to torture. Bush also authorized warrantless electronic surveillance of telephone calls and e-mails, subjecting possibly thousands of Americans each year to eavesdropping since 2001."
Impeachpac.org is keeping tabs on the local impeachment resolutions.More About That Alleged Conspiracy
Some of the elements of this particular memo have been reported before, but Don Van Natta Jr. has many more details in today's New York Times, and yet more evidence that in spite of his public statements, Bush was committed to war long before the attack was launched.
"During a private two-hour meeting in the Oval Office on Jan. 31, 2003, [Bush] made clear to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he was determined to invade Iraq without [a second United Nations] resolution, or even if international arms inspectors failed to find unconventional weapons, said a confidential memo about the meeting written by Mr. Blair's top foreign policy adviser and reviewed by The New York Times. . . .
"The memo indicates the two leaders envisioned a quick victory and a transition to a new Iraqi government that would be complicated, but manageable. Mr. Bush predicted that it was 'unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups.' Mr. Blair agreed with that assessment.
"The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein.
"Those proposals were first reported last month in the British press , but the memo does not make clear whether they reflected Mr. Bush's extemporaneous suggestions, or were elements of the government's plan. . . .
"The January 2003 memo is the latest in a series of secret memos produced by top aides to Mr. Blair that summarize private discussions between the president and the prime minister. Another group of British memos, including the so-called Downing Street memo written in July 2002, showed that some senior British officials had been concerned that the United States was determined to invade Iraq, and that the 'intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy' by the Bush administration to fit its desire to go to war."Signing Statement (Non) Watch
Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "When President Bush signed the reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act this month, he included an addendum saying that he did not feel obliged to obey requirements that he inform Congress about how the FBI was using the act's expanded police powers. . . .
"Bush signed the bill with fanfare at a White House ceremony March 9, calling it 'a piece of legislation that's vital to win the war on terror and to protect the American people.' But after the reporters and guests had left, the White House quietly issued a 'signing statement,' an official document in which a president lays out his interpretation of a new law.
"In the statement, Bush said that he did not consider himself bound to tell Congress how the Patriot Act powers were being used and that, despite the law's requirements, he could withhold the information if he decided that disclosure would 'impair foreign relations, national security, the deliberative process of the executive, or the performance of the executive's constitutional duties.'"
In an also unnoticed-at-the-time statement on March 15, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) wrote: "The President's signing statement poses two profound threats to our constitutional system of checks and balances. First, his unorthodox but repeatedly invoked unitary executive theory is really a unilateral executive theory. This President appears to believe that he can pick and choose which laws to obey and need never submit to congressional oversight. . . .
"Second, this President appears to hold a strange and novel view of the appropriate role of the President in the legislative process. . . .
"These signing statements are a clever device if Congress will let him get away with them. As he did with the torture legislation, the President can publicly take credit for signing popular legislation while in fact fighting it all the way and refusing to commit to abide by it. At the same time, he can sidestep a veto override."Cheney as Rock Star, Part One
The Smoking Gun Web site electrified the blogosphere on Thursday with a copy of Vice President Cheney's " downtime requirements " when staying at a hotel. Among them: four cans of Diet Caffeine Sprite, and all TVs tuned to Fox News.
And no pressure, but "If the Hotel would like to put a gift in the Suite please let the Advance Office know ASAP."Cheney as Rock Star, Part Two
Barbara Liston writes for Reuters from Florida, where "Cheney on Friday rejected charges by Democrats that the Bush administration was mishandling Iraq and said: 'If they are competent to fight this war, then I ought to be singing on American Idol.' "Barbara Bush's Tax Dodge?
Jennifer Radcliffe writes in the Houston Chronicle: "As Barbara Bush spent two hours championing her son's software company at a Houston middle school Thursday morning, a watchdog group questioned whether the former first lady should be allowed to channel a donation to Neil Bush's Ignite Learning company through Houston's Hurricane Katrina relief fund.
" 'It's strange that the former first lady would want to do this. If her son's having a rough time of it, couldn't she write him a check?' said Daniel Borochoff, founder of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Chicago-based charity watchdog group. 'Maybe she isn't aware that people could frown upon this.'
"Some critics said donations to a tax-deductible charitable fund shouldn't benefit the Bush family. Others questioned whether the Houston Independent School District violated district policy by allowing the company to host a promotional event on campus."Delegator-in-Chief
Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News about our first MBA president: " 'The problem with the CEO style of management,' says a Republican who advises the White House, 'is there has to be delegation, and it's easy to let it slip too far.' Critics say the small group of senior aides who've been given lots of authority may be trying to do too much. These officials -- [Chief of Staff Andy] Card, counselor Dan Bartlett, Deputy Chief of Staff and political strategist Karl Rove, Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin -- 'are also President Bush's personal assistants and spend a great deal of time tending to him . . . so the management is weak,' says the adviser. [Rutgers political scientist Ross] Baker says these aides seem to be 'mind guards' for the president, rather than policymakers, administrators, or thinkers.
"And aside from his inner circle, Bush is said to be distant from the rest of his staff, jeopardizing morale. Just as important, many members of Congress complain that they don't get their phone calls returned or their ideas considered in the West Wing."
Kim Clark writes in a companion piece that "some business leaders worry that Bush may not be applying some of B-school's most important lessons and may be suffering instead from all-too-typical M.B.A. flaws, such as overconfidence."Apocalypse Watch
Sabrina Eaton writes for Newhouse News Service: "Bush seemed flummoxed by the question Jan Roller asked after the president's speech last Monday in Cleveland, where he was defending his handling of the Iraq war.
"Citing the newly released book 'American Theocracy' by former Nixon administration official Kevin Phillips, Roller asked whether Bush agrees with 'prophetic Christians' who view the Iraq war and the rise of terrorism as 'signs of the apocalypse,' the end-of-the-world cataclysm described in the Bible's Book of Revelation.
" 'I haven't really thought of it that way,' Bush told her after a long pause, adding that he hadn't previously heard the theory. 'I guess I'm more of a practical fellow.' . . .
"Bush critics, including Phillips, contend the president feigned confusion. Had the president embraced the controversial views of his religious backers, the critics say, he would have alienated moderates."First Lady Watch
Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush has said he is listening to advice about his staff from a lot of people, and one of them is evidently his wife.
"In an interview with Larry King broadcast on CNN on Friday night, Laura Bush said that she advised her husband regularly on personnel, and she suggested that she had weighed in on the continuing calls from Republicans for new blood in the West Wing."
Today, Bumiller writes that the first lady may be leading by example, as "a close look at the first lady's office also shows that she has replaced her entire high command after five years in charge of the East Wing."