By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 4, 2007; 1:32 PM
President Bush's Iraq strategy may be coming straight from Vice President Cheney, but his political attacks on Democrats who dare to demand a pullout are pure Karl Rove.
When the president is on the defensive, Rove's signature move is to disdain the quaint constraints of reality and attack the critics where they are strongest -- ideally, by tarring them with Bush's own weakness.
The ultimate example, of course, came during the 2004 campaign when Rove was marketing a man who had ducked service in Vietnam against a war hero. Somehow, Rove managed to make John Kerry look like the guy with the problem.
Rove's approach was very much on display yesterday at Bush's Rose Garden news conference.
The president's current weakness is profound. His war in Iraq appears to be a colossal failure, and as a result the public has turned against him and wants the troops home and safe.
But to hear Bush talk, it's the Democrats who are the party of failure. It's the Democrats who are defying the will of the people. And in the latest, truly dazzling talking point unveiled by the president yesterday, it's the Democrats who would keep the troops in harm's way.
What Rove can still count on, in spite of everything, is that the president's assertions make it into the headlines no matter how dubious they may be -- and that all too many reporters prefer uncritical transcription to the kind of tough but fair analysis that would be required to put what the president says in context.
"The bottom line is this," Bush said. "Congress's failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines. And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war earlier than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people."
There's so much to unpack just in that one paragraph alone. For one, strictly speaking it's not Congress that would be failing to fund the troops, it would be Bush's veto. Bush of course has promised to veto the bill precisely because it requires him to withdraw troops sooner than he wants, not later. And the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of such a withdrawal.
Consider also Bush's repeated assertion that the Democratic legislation substitutes "the judgment of politicians in Washington for the judgment of our commanders on the ground." It wasn't long ago that Bush replaced the commanders who wouldn't fall in line behind his plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq -- a desperate, last-ditch plan that, by most indications, does not seem to be working.
On CNN with Suzanne Malveaux yesterday afternoon, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino boiled the White House spin down to its essence: "[I]t's President Bush who is standing firm with the troops, with the Iraqis and with the troops' families. And that's a much better place to be than where the Democrats are," she said. "I think it's the Democrats who have thumbed their noses at the troops."The Coverage
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Bush's strategists see the fight over war-spending legislation as an opportunity "to demonstrate strength and turn the tables on a Democratic Congress that may be overreaching.
"But as he answered questions yesterday before heading off for an Easter break, Bush was confronted with another narrative, this one about friends and voters losing faith in his leadership. . . .
"Bush presented himself as an unwavering leader trying to avoid the 'cauldron of chaos' he believes Iraq would become if Democrats succeed in forcing him to withdraw U.S. troops. He sees the broader threat that others overlook and will do what needs to be done to defend against it, the president said, even though he knows his path is tormenting the country. . . .
"As Democrats see it, Bush is having a hard time adjusting to life in a two-party government. His vow to veto any spending bill with timetables for a withdrawal, they maintain, betrays a unilateral approach to governing. 'He is president of the United States, not king of the United States,' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters in his home state. 'He has another branch of government, a legislative branch of government, he has to deal with.'"
And Baker notes: "With Congress already out of town for spring vacation, the president's news conference was an attempt to have the last word in Washington before flying to California and then to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., for a long weekend. He ridiculed lawmakers for leaving without finishing their war-spending legislation, but he opted not to use his power to call them back or to give up his own break."
Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "The political brinkmanship over Iraq war spending intensified Tuesday, as President Bush said Congressional Democrats had 'undercut the troops' by passing legislation that ties continued war financing to mandated timelines for the withdrawal of American combat units. . . .
"White House officials and Republican allies in Congress say they believe that the Democrats will lose the public if they overplay their position and are perceived to be putting troops at risk, while Democrats say election results that put them in power, and polls since, indicate that the public wants to pull out of Iraq and expects them to force a withdrawal."
Here's precisely the kind of lead Rove was hoping for:
Mark Silva and Jill Zuckman write in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush warned Tuesday that some American soldiers might have to stay longer in Iraq if Congress does not quickly deliver a war spending bill that he can sign, and he lashed out at Democratic leaders as 'irresponsible' and accused them of making the war 'a political dance.'
"With Congress in its spring recess, the president slammed the Democrats on a war funding bill that he pledges to veto because it includes timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. It was the latest salvo in an escalating battle as both sides gird for a standoff that could echo the 1995 shutdown of the federal government."
By contrast, Fred Kaplan writes in his Slate opinion column that Bush "made statements of extraordinary cynicism even by his considerable standards."
Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column about the atmosphere yesterday: "When President Bush gets a question he doesn't like, he often cocks his head to one side, juts his chin out and says 'Hmmm' with an air of thoughtful consideration. And as news conferences go, yesterday's event in the Rose Garden was a real hmmmdinger. Over the course of 40 minutes and more than a dozen questions, reporters elicited three 'hmmms' from Bush -- not to mention several 'uhs' and a displeased 'yeah' or two....
"Bush's perplexity may have resulted from the questioners' failure to cooperate with his chosen theme: scolding Democrats for the 'political theater' -- as Bush and Vice President Cheney have put it in recent days -- of attempting to end the war in Iraq. . . .
"At first, Bush's only uncertainty was how to describe his opponents. He referred to the 'Democrat leaders' and the 'Democrat leadership' before correcting himself to say 'Democratic leadership.'
"But reporters' questions further snarled the Bush syntax. NBC's David Gregory got him to say 'My concern, David, is several,' CBS's Bill Plante got him to mention 'suiciders,' while Bloomberg News's Ed Chen elicited the phrase 'air traffickers' in lieu of airline passengers."Fact Check Watch
Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "To President Bush, they are 'pork-barrel projects completely unrelated to the war,' items in the House and Senate war-spending bills such as peanut storage facilities and aid to spinach farmers that insult the seriousness of the conflict and exist only to buy votes.
"But such spending has been part of Iraq funding bills since the war began, sometimes inserted by the president himself, sometimes added by lawmakers with bipartisan aplomb."
William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The president and most Republicans say the Democrats' stance undermines the troops and micro-manages a mission that's better left to the military, although Bush himself manages key elements of the war strategy, such as how many more troops to send to Iraq this year."
USA Today reports: "On Tuesday, President Bush said troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would suffer if Congress doesn't pass an emergency spending bill soon. However, previous bills were passed later in the year than the current one, and military and budget experts say the situation is not so dire. For example: . . .
"What Bush said: 'The Army will be forced to consider cutting back on equipment, equipment repair, and quality-of-life initiatives for our Guard and Reserve forces . . . . to support the troops on the front lines.'
"What others say: The Government Accountability Office reported in January that many of the Guard's equipment and supply problems were caused by the Pentagon's failure to plan well. Army delays, the report said, hurt the Guard's ability to buy equipment and supply local units."
Bush yesterday responded to a reporter's question about the Iraqi failure to meet benchmarks by ticking off several ways in which he said the Iraqis have stepped up. But Leon Panetta writes in a New York Times op-ed that there's been little progress towards important milestones. For instance:
"The Iraqis promised to achieve, by the end of 2006 or early 2007, the approval of a provincial election law (so far, no progress); approval of a law to regulate the oil industry and share revenues (while the Council of Ministers has approved a draft, it has yet to be approved by the Parliament); approval of the de-Baathification law to reintegrate officials of the former regime and Arab nationalists into public life (no progress); and approval of a law to rein in sectarian militias (no progress).
"By March, the government promised to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments (no progress)."
Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek that "some of Bush's warnings suggest that the president is holding the Democrats to a different standard than he held his own party when it ruled Capitol Hill -- and building a political case against Congress' course that doesn't quite add up.
"Bush began by complaining that it had been '57 days since I requested that Congress pass emergency funds for our troops.' He said that if Congress doesn't give him a bill he can sign by mid-April, the Army will be 'forced to consider cutting back on equipment, equipment repair and quality-of-life initiatives for our Guard and Reserve forces,' as well as training, so that money can go to 'troops on the front lines.' And if he doesn't get a bill by mid-May, Bush said, 'the problems grow even more acute'-forecasting delays in funding repair depots, training active-duty forces needed overseas, and in forming new brigades.
"Yet previous Republican-controlled Congresses have left for spring recess without passing the sort of supplemental bill Bush was talking about. In 2006, the GOP Congress didn't approve the supplemental until the middle of June."
Hirsh concludes that "a quick reality check suggests that his Rose Garden offensive was all about politics, not policy. His administration knows it badly needs a victory in the arena of public opinion, which continues to tilt in support of early withdrawal. Perhaps that's one reason that Bush tried to make the case -- in what was no doubt his biggest stretch -- that the Democratic plan calling for a withdrawal date by 2008 'will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines.' That's a particularly difficult case to make--since the same day, the newspapers carried stories about how the surge was shrinking the amount of time troops had at home between tours of duty. And his own plan calls for an open-ended commitment -- not exactly a hurry-home strategy. Despite Bush's attack on the Democrats Tuesday, 'the administration . . . has lost control of the [Iraq] narrative,' says [Andrew Krepinevich, a leading military strategist in Washington]. Bush, with just 20 months left to serve, is trying mightily to get the country once again to listen to his side of the story.
The US News Political Bulletin reports that "White House strategists are increasingly resigned to a long, miserable spring because of bad news on so many fronts. . . . Bush is clearly aware of his PR problems. That's one reason he lashed out so strongly against anti-war Democrats in his Rose Garden statement this morning. He's attempting to regain the offensive on Iraq in domestic political terms."The U.S. Attorneys
Bush yesterday only briefly addressed the controversy over the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys, once again responding minimally and legalistically rather than with a full-throated defense of his administration's conduct.
"There had been no credible evidence of any wrongdoing," Bush said. "And that's what the American people have got to understand. We had a right to remove them; we did remove them. And there will be more hearings to determine what I've just said, no credible evidence of wrongdoing."
The last time Bush addressed the issue, you may recall, his response was: "There's no indication whatsoever, after reviews by the White House staff, that anybody did anything improper."
Meanwhile, however, congressional and journalistic investigations continue apace.The Rove Factor
Amy Goldstein and Dan Eggen wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "About one-third of the nearly four dozen U.S. attorney's jobs that have changed hands since President Bush began his second term have been filled by the White House and the Justice Department with trusted administration insiders. . . .
"The pattern from Bush's second term suggests that the dismissals were half of a two-pronged approach: While getting rid of prosecutors who did not adhere closely to administration priorities, such as rigorous pursuit of immigration violations and GOP allegations of voter fraud, White House and Justice officials have seeded federal prosecutors' offices with people on whom they can depend to carry out the administration's agenda."
Margaret Talev and Greg Gordon write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Allegations that politics improperly influenced the Bush administration's decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys last year are providing the new Democratic majority in Congress with a long-sought opening to investigate the maneuverings of White House political strategist Karl Rove."
Here's Newsweek's Jonathan Alter talking to MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on Friday: "Clearly, what Rove was trying to do is in jurisdiction by jurisdiction, protect Republicans, go after Democrats, and essentially turn our criminal justice system into what they have in a banana republic. . . .
"So you're going to see a lot more testimony in the weeks to come. And I think Rove, over the course of this year, is going to be in deep doo-doo on a variety of issues. We don't know which one will do him in, but I wouldn't be surprised if he's not working in the White House by the end of the year."
The New York Times editorial board writes: "Turn over a scandal in Washington these days and the chances are you'll find Karl Rove. His tracks are everywhere. . . .
"The investigation of the firings of the United States attorneys seems to be closing in on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who should have been fired weeks ago. But Congress should bring equal scrutiny to the more powerful Mr. Rove. If it does, especially by forcing him to testify in public, it will find that he has been at the vortex of many of the biggest issues they are now investigating."Rove Aide Watch
John D. McKinnon blogs for the Wall Street Journal about the departure of some key Rove aides.
Meanwhile, Rep. Henry Waxman has invited former Rove aide Susan Ralston to appear before his House oversight committee on Thursday to answer questions about convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's access to the White House. Waxman also plans to ask Ralston about White House employees' use of outside e-mail accounts provided by the Republican National Committee.Monica Goodling Watch
Richard A. Serrano writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A key Justice Department official who helped orchestrate the ouster of eight U.S. attorneys last year has again rebuffed requests to talk to congressional investigators about her role in the dismissals, with her lawyer saying Tuesday that she would not even agree to an informal interview with Capitol Hill Democrats.
"Monica M. Goodling, who is on leave from her job as special counsel to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, rejected the House Judiciary Committee's request that she appear before panel investigators for a closed-door session about her involvement in the decisions to remove the federal prosecutors."
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "In a letter to Goodling yesterday, Reps. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the House committee's chairman, and Linda T. Sanchez (D-Calif.) wrote that 'several of the asserted grounds for refusing to testify do not satisfy the well-established' legal reasons for doing so and that submitting to an interview 'could obviate the need to subpoena' her."
David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "In another letter on Tuesday, two Democratic senators, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, asked Mr. Gonzales how the Justice Department would respond to issues stemming from Ms. Goodling's refusal to testify."
T.R. Goldman and Emma Schwartz profile Goodling for Legal Times: "As White House liaison, Goodling was part of a small cadre of senior Justice officials responsible for vetting U.S. Attorneys, a position that became far more significant after the 2006 reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, which gave Justice authority to install interim U.S. Attorneys without congressional approval."
Goodling's "tenure at Justice, which began in 2002 in its press operations under then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, tracked what some have seen as a growing politicization of the department, from the purge of career attorneys in the Civil Rights Division to the appointment of young party loyalists, often with little or no prosecutorial experience, to Justice's top levels."Gonzales Watch
Benjamin Wittes writes in the New Republic: "Alberto Gonzales is toast. He apparently doesn't realize this. President Bush doesn't either. But Gonzales' tenure as attorney general--or, at least, as an effective attorney general--is already over. Every day he fails to resign he disserves Bush, the Justice Department, and the public at large. Every day Bush lets loyalty to his old friend prevent him from demanding Gonzales's resignation, he mires himself deeper in an altogether unnecessary scandal."
Blogger Josh Marshall writes: "For some, it is a matter of outrage that President Bush has renewed his support for Alberto Gonzales even after new evidence has emerged that the Attorney General has repeatedly lied about the US Attorney Purge. Myself, I see it more as a matter of confirmation and almost a welcome one in that it confirms the nature of the debate we're having.
"This isn't a case where Alberto Gonzales has fallen short of the president's standards or bungled some process. This is the standard. The Attorney General has done and is doing precisely what is expected of him."Matthew Dowd Speaks
Jim Rutenberg wrote in Sunday's New York Times about the remarkable about-face by Matthew Dowd, a longtime Bush acolyte who in 2004 was the president's chief campaign strategist.
"Looking back, Mr. Dowd now says his faith in Mr. Bush was misplaced.
"In a wide-ranging interview here, Mr. Dowd called for a withdrawal from Iraq and expressed his disappointment in Mr. Bush's leadership.
"He criticized the president as failing to call the nation to a shared sense of sacrifice at a time of war, failing to reach across the political divide to build consensus and ignoring the will of the people on Iraq. He said he believed the president had not moved aggressively enough to hold anyone accountable for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and that Mr. Bush still approached governing with a 'my way or the highway' mentality reinforced by a shrinking circle of trusted aides.
"'I really like him, which is probably why I'm so disappointed in things,' he said. He added, 'I think he's become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in.'"
Bush shrugged off Dowd's comments yesterday, telling reporters: "I understand that this is an emotional issue for Matthew, as it is a lot of other people in our country. Matthew's case, as I understand it, is obviously intensified because his son is deployable. In other words, he's got a son in the U.S. Armed Forces, and I can understand Matthew's concerns."
The New York Times editorial board responds: "President Bush and his advisers have made a lot of ridiculous charges about critics of the war in Iraq: they're unpatriotic, they want the terrorists to win, they don't support the troops, to cite just a few. But none of these seem quite as absurd as President Bush's latest suggestion, that critics of the war whose children are at risk are too 'emotional' to see things clearly. . . .
"Mr. Bush's comments about Mr. Dowd are a reflection of the otherworldliness that permeates his public appearances these days. Mr. Bush seems increasingly isolated, clinging to a fantasy version of Iraq that is more and more disconnected from reality. He gives a frightening impression that he has never heard any voice from any quarter that gave him pause, much less led him to rethink a position."Vic Gold Writes
Michael Abramowitz wrote in Sunday's Washington Post about veteran journalist and GOP campaign operative Vic Gold's new book: "Under Bush and Cheney, he argues, the GOP has moved away from principles of small government, prudent foreign policy and leaving people alone to live their private lives -- all views Gold associates with his hero, Goldwater. 'Invasion of the Party Snatchers' makes plain Gold's contempt for the direction of his party and the guidance of its leaders.
"'For all the Rove-built facade of his being a 'strong' chief executive, George W. Bush has been, by comparison to even hapless Jimmy Carter, the weakest, most out of touch president in modern times,' Gold writes. 'Think Dan Quayle in cowboy boots.'
"Gold is even more withering in his observations of Cheney. 'A vice president in control is bad enough. Worse yet is a vice president out of control.'
"For Gold, Cheney brings to mind the adage of Swiss writer Madame de Stael, who wrote, 'Men do not change, they unmask themselves.' Cheney has a deep streak of paranoia and megalomania, Gold suggests -- but he says he did not see it at first.
"'He was hiding who he really was,' Gold says. 'He was waiting for an opportunity.'"Patrick Fitzgerald Watch
The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes: "For a prosecutor who claims to be a truth-seeker, Patrick Fitzgerald sure can be secretive. Even now that the Scooter Libby trial is over and his 'leak' investigation is all but closed, the unaccountable special counsel wants to keep his arguments for creating a Constitutional showdown over reporters and their sources under lock and key. . . .
"Mr. Fitzgerald tries to hide behind rule 6(e) of grand jury secrecy. He claims the integrity of grand juries will be compromised by the release. But much of the material was already disclosed during the Libby trial, if not leaked earlier. And the far larger risk to grand jury integrity would be if Mr. Fitzgerald misled the courts about what he knew and when he knew it in order to coerce the two reporters to testify."
The ultimate irony here would be if the Wall Street Journal gets its way. The 6(e)-protected grand jury material Fitzgerald refuses to release would almost certainly reflect badly on the very people the Journal's editorial board has been defending all along.
Fitzgerald is sitting on lots and lots of secret grand jury information that administration critics would love to have. Just one example: The transcripts showing how it apparently took Karl Rove five visits to the grand jury to tell the truth about his involvement in the leaking of Valerie Plame's identity.House of Straw?
Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column: "The Bush administration's House of Straw seems to be blowing apart, buffeted by alternating gusts of scandal and incompetence.
"The tornado of disastrous headlines -- a Pentagon that can't take proper care of its wounded, a Justice Department that can't be trusted to follow the law or tell the truth to Congress, a top White House aide who lied to a grand jury-- has been so overpowering that the day-to-day outrages of life in the Bush administration tend get overlooked.
"So it's worth pausing to pay attention to some recent events that similarly underscore the failings of this administration and illuminate one of their root causes: a contemptuous attitude toward government itself."Rove Gets Pelted
Martin Weil and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "Heckling protesters briefly delayed the car carrying top White House aide Karl Rove last night as he left the American University campus, where he had just given a speech. No arrests or injuries were reported after Rove's invitation-only talk.
"About 20 students lay in front of the car as it prepared to leave, a witness said. . . .
"Kim Bruce, a spokeswoman for the Secret Service, said that after Rove spoke, 'several individuals who had gathered outside the speech area threw unknown objects at the vehicle.' . . .
"Josh Goodman, an AU junior,... said students went to the Ward Circle building where Rove spoke to make a 'citizen's arrest' of the presidential adviser. He said the students claimed they had compiled evidence indicating that Rove had violated what they say is a presidential records act stipulating that all presidential e-mail be recorded on White House servers."
WJLA reports: "Rove went to the campus in Northwest Tuesday to speak to the American University College Republicans."
YouTube has some murky video.Cheney in the Bushes
What was Cheney doing yesterday in the Rose Garden, standing all alone and behind the bushes?
The New York Sun editorial board wants Cheney in the 2008 presidential race.
"Were Mr. Cheney in the race, it's hard to imagine that the president's approval ratings would not be five or 10 points higher. The reason is that the administration would have a defender on the campaign trail as part of the public debate.
"Mr. Cheney has virtues as a candidate in his own right. He has foreign policy experience by virtue of having served as defense secretary, and he has economic policy experience, having served as a leading tax-cutter while a member of the House of Representatives. His wife, Lynne, would be an asset to the ticket in her own right."
Compared to the current field, "Mr. Cheney is so much more experienced and shrewd a figure, one who could help settle some of the arguments about the Bush years in favor of Mr. Bush. A White House aiming to get Mr. Cheney elected could also avoid some of the hazards that befall lame-ducks -- drift, brain drain, irrelevance."