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Time for a Debate

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 23, 2006; 1:09 PM

Is President Bush genuinely willing to confront his critics?

Talking about the war in Iraq last week in a brief interview with ABC's Martha Raddatz, Bush said something quite remarkable:

"There are some in Washington that say 'pull out now.' I look forward to debating those voices."

So how about it?

Bush has been getting a lot of positive press over the last several weeks for taking questions from unscreened audiences. And while that's certainly a change from past practice -- in which nonsupporters were frequently not even allowed in the same room with him -- it's a far cry from actually engaging in a dialogue with those who disagree with him on important issues.

The new White House communications strategy is ostensibly to get the president out in public more often, speaking to the press and the public, serving as his own best advocate.

But if yesterday's appearance before the National Restaurant Association in Chicago was any indication -- and it was -- then the plan is not so much for Bush to publicly mix it up with critics as to have him continue repeating his tired old talking points so often that people, hopefully, start to believe them.

Even if, statistically speaking, two out of three people in the room yesterday thought Bush was doing a lousy job as president, the White House can count on the fact that the vast majority of people who get to the microphones at these events are going to be respectful, if not downright obsequious.

Here's the transcript of yesterday's event. Bush devoted 43 minutes to a question-and-answer session, but on account of his extremely long, rambling responses, there were only 10 questions in all. (No follow-ups, naturally.)

Bush chose to ignore the woman who yelled out "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" Instead, his questioners launched into their softballs with such phrases as "First of all, I want to say you're doing a fine job," and "Let me first say, it's an honor to hear you speak. And I'm a proud supporter."

Then there was the guy in the chef's hat who got up and said: "[O]n behalf of all the cooks and chefs in our country, I have to say you're running it the way a chef would run the country, and we're proud of you."

Sure, Bush has gotten the what-for a few times lately. Most memorably, at an event last month in Charlotte , a soft-spoken, 61-year-old real estate broker named Harry Taylor got up and told Bush that "in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by my leadership in Washington."

But Bush doesn't engage those few critical voices, he just drowns them in those talking points.

So here's my suggestion: It's time for Bush to invite dissenters not just into the room, but onto the stage with him.

How about welcoming Rep. John Murtha to the White House for a public conversation about the war? Or Sen. Russell Feingold, for a discussion of Article II? What about calling a town meeting on global warming and sharing the stage with Al Gore? Or asking Lou Dobbs up to talk immigration?

Or is Bush afraid it wouldn't go so well?

The idea of a president actually facing his critics head on sounds utterly alien today, but as I wrote in my February 8, 2005 column -- after Bush himself compared his Social Security blitz to President Clinton's -- when Clinton held his "discussions" on Social Security, he intentionally brought opponents along with him, spoke before a mixed crowd, and let himself get grilled.

Here , for instance, is the transcript of an April 7, 1998 appearance by Clinton in Kansas City. He invited Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), among others, to join him.

And while the audience was laboriously prescreened, that was so that it would not be one-sided. Members were selected by a market research company to reflect the demographic and economic characteristics of the region.

Craig Crawford wrote last month for Congressional Quarterly that Bush's "recent performances in town hall meetings with average Americans show all the signs of a tired show: formulaic scripts, weak jokes and a waning audience."

Indeed, Bush's meandering, familiar responses to most questions are so unrevelatory, and add so little to the public discourse, that it's hard to see how they're doing the White House any good.

Debate, Part II

To the extent that the Bush White House addresses its critics directly at all, it is generally either by oversimplifying their positions or creating straw-man arguments. There is no attempt at a genuine, point-by-point refutation.

Case in point, the White House communications office this morning is calling attention to a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Peter Wehner , the Karl Rove deputy who runs the White House's "Office of Strategery."

"Deputy Assistant To The President Peter Wehner Refutes Iraq War Critics," says the White House's "Morning Update" e-mail.

But rather than, say, actually refute the critics, Wehner rehashes tired old arguments, as if no new evidence had ever come to light.

Wehner writes of the critics: "Like swallows to Capistrano, they keep returning to the same allegations--the president misled the country in order to justify the Iraq war; his administration pressured intelligence agencies to bias their judgments; Saddam Hussein turned out to be no threat since he didn't possess weapons of mass destruction; and helping democracy take root in the Middle East was a postwar rationalization. The problem with these charges is that they are false and can be shown to be so--and yet people continue to believe, and spread, them. Let me examine each in turn."

To refute the argument that Bush misled Americans to convince them to go to war, for instance, Wehner cites the White House-appointed Silberman-Robb commission's conclusion that some intelligence was overhyped. But he neglects to mention that the commission was not allowed to examine how Bush used or misused that information.

Nor does Wehner address such recent articles as this Murray Waas piece from the National Journal in March: "Two highly classified intelligence reports delivered directly to President Bush before the Iraq war cast doubt on key public assertions made by the president, Vice President Cheney, and other administration officials as justifications for invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein, according to records and knowledgeable sources."

Wehner attacks the argument that the Bush administration pressured intelligence agencies to bias their judgments by citing the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report.

But this is a straw-man argument. Critics aren't so much arguing that intelligence agencies were pressured -- even though the Silberman-Robb commission did note that the agencies were abundantly aware of what their bosses wanted to hear. The argument is more that the intelligence was cherry picked and, when it didn't suit the White House's purposes, was largely ignored.

See, for instance, former CIA official Paul Pillar in Foreign Affairs.

Wehner also argues: "[N]o serious person would justify a war based on information he knows to be false and which would be shown to be false within months after the war concluded."

But the he-couldn't-have-been-that-stupid defense may not carry a lot of weight these days.

Speaking of Wehner

Dan Balz profiled Wehner in The Washington Post in December 2004.

Wehner maintains a famous e-mail list of conservatives, to whom he sends frequent and highly confidential missives.

Some, along the lines of his famously leaked January 2005 e-mail on the then-upcoming campaign to remake Social Security, offer remarkably frank insights into White House thinking.

"I don't need to tell you that this will be one of the most important conservative undertakings of modern times," Wehner wrote at the time. The memo also described big future benefit cuts that would accompany private accounts -- something Bush never talked about publicly.

Some of the e-mails are extensively researched attacks on critics. In a February Washington Post story, for instance, Chris Cillizza and Dan Balz described Wehner's e-mail response to Al Gore's statement that the U.S. had committed "terrible abuses" against Arabs after September 11.

Yesterday, Wehner apparently sent out another one of the latter kind.

On Sunday, Richard A. Viguerie, one of the architects of the conservative movement, published an opinion piece in The Washington Post decrying Bush's betrayal of the conservative base and calling for conservatives to stop giving money to the Republican National Committee.

Viguerie followed up his article with a Live Online discussion , in which he wrote: "It is not entirely true that Bush has betrayed everyone. The 1% of his voter support that came from big business corporate America - he's been truthful to them. They have gotten the legislation, the appointments; I can't think of any issue that they have strongly supported where Bush has opposed them."

A press release from Viguerie describes the reaction from the White House:

"Apparently the White House's response to my article in the May 21 Washington Post is to send out an e-mail from Peter H. Wehner, Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, consisting of six quotes by me criticizing Ronald Reagan during his presidency.

"That's a lot easier than trying to respond to my arguments. That's a lot easier than trying to explain away the many examples I give of how Bush has betrayed the conservative movement. And that is standard operating procedure for this White House: Put the spotlight on the president's critic, rather than respond to the critic's arguments.

"Peter, I plead guilty to your implied criticism of me. I am, indeed, a consistent conservative. I put loyalty to conservative principles above loyalty to the Republican Party or a politician. . . .

"One final word, Peter. I knew Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush is no Ronald Reagan."

Anybody got that Wehner e-mail? Or any Wehner e-mail? Send them my way: froomkin@washingtonpost.com .

Backing Away From Bush

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "It isn't easy leading your party to victory when a lot of people aren't eager to follow. With Mr. Bush's job-approval ratings skidding as low as 30% in national polls, more Republican candidates face risks in associating closely with him. That is forcing the White House and Republican advisers to improvise a strategy for success.

"So far, they are putting Mr. Bush on the road to raise huge amounts of cash -- the $100 million-plus he has raised exceeds the amounts he generated at this point in the past two election cycles -- much of it for state and national committees that can, in turn, contribute to endangered candidates. Republican strategists are also making more use of popular first lady Laura Bush. And they are seeking to boost the president's standing on his most troublesome issues -- notably Iraq, but also immigration and energy -- while highlighting their differences with Democrats and underscoring the importance of local issues."

Jim Rutenberg wrote in the New York Times on Saturday: "At a time when Mr. Bush's approval ratings are at or near record lows and many party members have shown an inclination to distance themselves from him this election year, the Washington political classes are keeping careful score of who stands with him and who does not."

Bush traveled to Virginia Beach on Friday to raise funds for Representative Thelma Drake of Virginia. But she was a no-show.

Rutenberg writes: "Ms. Drake's office said she had no choice but to skip Mr. Bush's visit on her behalf because she had to be on Capitol Hill for an important appropriations vote involving $150 million in military spending for her district, much of it for veterans' health care.

"The appropriations were approved 395 to 0."

Vice President Cheney was in California yesterday on a fundraising trip. Rep. Richard Pombo reportedly was willing to appear alongside Cheney at the cocktail party in his honor. As Lisa Vorderbrueggen reports for the San Jose Mercury News: " 'Lord,' said minister Brant Randal Rognart, 'tonight is all about raising money.' "

Iraq Watch

Peter Baker and Bradley Graham write in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Monday hailed the formation of a new Iraqi government as a 'turning point' that will allow U.S. forces to take an 'increasingly supporting role' against insurgents as Washington and London look for ways to disengage from the war.

"Acknowledging the 'unease' felt by many Americans, Bush said the war in Iraq has proved 'more difficult' than expected and has produced only incremental progress. But he said the first government formed under the new, democratic Iraqi constitution will take on more of the burden."

Will Woodward and Ewen MacAskill write in the Guardian: "George Bush and Tony Blair are to discuss in Washington this week a programme of troop withdrawals from Iraq that will be much faster and more ambitious than originally planned.

"In a phased pullout in which the two countries will act in tandem, Britain is to begin with a handover to Iraqi security forces in Muthanna province in July and the Americans will follow suit in Najaf, the Shia holy city.

"Other withdrawals will quickly follow over the remainder of the year. Officials in both administrations hope that Britain's 8,000 forces in Iraq can be down to 5,000 by the end of the year and that the American forces will be reduced from 133,000 to about 100,000."

Gore Slight

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Is President Bush likely to see Al Gore's documentary about global warming?

" 'Doubt it,' Bush said coolly Monday.

"But Bush should watch it, Gore shot back. In fact, the former Democratic vice president offered to come to the White House any time, any day to show Bush either his documentary or a slide show on global warming that he's shown more than 1,000 times around the world."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Although the president has on occasion struck up a warm relationship with former President Clinton, who denied his father a second term, and whom he succeeded, Bush has had a cool relationship with Gore in the 5 1/2 years since they competed for the presidency."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. In honor of the guy who told Bush that he's running the country the way a chef would, I'll be accepting your suggestions about what you think Bush is cooking up.

Containment Watch

Michael Hirsh writes in Newsweek: "An old word is gaining new currency in Washington: containment. You may be hearing a lot more of it as the Bush administration hunkers down for its final two years. Containment of Iraq's low-level civil war, which shows every sign of persisting for years despite the new government inaugurated this week. Containment of Iran's nuclear power, which may lead to a missile defense system in Europe. Containment of the Islamism revived by Hamas and Hizbullah. . . .

"[F]ew people in the Bush administration will even concede they are thinking in such terms, because the president has not permitted an honest reckoning of the difficulties he faces. . . .

"[T]oday's containment is a furtive policy being developed willy-nilly behind the scenes, as Bush's pragmatic second-term officials seek to clean up the vast Mideast mess left by the ideologues who dominated in the first term."

Scooter Libby Watch

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Two top CIA officials will bolster prosecutors' charge that Vice President Cheney's chief aide lied to them, court papers show."

Olmert's Visit

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert won election on a platform of withdrawing from most of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank. But when he makes his first official visit to the White House today, U.S. officials said the message from President Bush will be: Don't fulfill your campaign promises too quickly."

It turns out that, for instance, "many European officials fear Olmert's plan is an attempt by Israel to set permanent borders without negotiating with the Palestinians -- at a time when the Bush administration is struggling to win European support for unified action to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "Nearly three years ago, President Bush stood shoulder to shoulder with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and declared Middle East peace a 'matter of the highest priority' for his administration.

"Now, on the eve of talks with new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the conflict has slid down the U.S. agenda as Bush confronts low approval ratings, an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and an emerging nuclear challenge from Iran."

The Entourage

Ah, the joys of a presidential visit.

The Australian Associated Press reports: "Air Force One damaged the runway when it landed at Canberra airport in 2003, leaving Australian taxpayers to pick up the bill, a parliamentary hearing has been told."

It turns out the airport isn't prepared to handle particularly heavy airplanes.

And not only does Air Force One weigh a lot, explained the airport's director, but " 'the entourage' also arrived. That involved 32 heavy jet movements, from a Boeing-747 filled with journalists to cargo planes filled with security for the president."

Theft of a Message

Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "In one of those perfect Washington ironies, today was the first meeting of President Bush's newly created Identity Theft Task Force.

"With today's report that a Veterans Administration employee may have just created the mother-of-all-identity-theft opportunities by losing a computer disk with the sensitive personal information of millions of veterans and their spouses, the task force may need to tackle the federal government's problems first."

The task force was created by a May 10 executive order , after a presidential photo op , and it's headed by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Writes James: "At the end of today's task force meeting, the closed meeting was supposed to have been opened to TV cameras so the attorney general's remarks could be carried on live TV. But that plan was scrubbed."

After You, Ollie

Washington Times White House correspondent Joseph Curl, in a pool report yesterday, was struck by the image of a fast-moving Bush repeatedly waiting for a slow-moving House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert during yesterday's trip to Chicago.

On deplaning in Chicago, Curl wrote: "Bush again waited for Hastert, this time at the bottom of the stairs, and the two strode off (or, more accurately, Bush strode, Hastert waddled, and the two, for a moment, looked like Laurel and Hardy)."

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