President Who?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 4, 2008; 12:12 PM

The Republican National Convention's brief and grudging acknowledgment of George Bush's presidency on Tuesday was, it turns out, generous compared to what was to follow.

Last night, he was roundly ignored. It was like he never existed.

It was almost surreal. Consider, for instance, how Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin lashed out so passionately against "the Washington herd" -- as if it wasn't her own party's leader who's been the chief cowboy these past eight years.

Or consider former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's plea: "We need change all right: change from a liberal Washington to a conservative Washington," he said. "We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington: Throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain and Sarah Palin."

Here's Democratic strategist Paul Begala on CNN last night: "It seems to me the purpose of this convention tonight is to help us all forget that for eight years George W. Bush has been running the White House; for six of the last eight years, the Republicans have run the House of Representatives; for five of the last eight years, they have run the Senate; and for all of the last eight years, they've run the Supreme Court. They've got seven of the nine justices were appointed by Republicans. So I think this is a terrific attempt...to try to shift away from the Republican record and try to sort of pretend they're an alien force that somehow is going to come into Washington and change things."

It's not just that Bush is so unpopular that no one wants to be seen with him. It's that any reminder of Bush's presidency undermines the narrative of change that John McCain's campaign is so desperate to communicate.

Perhaps the candidate himself, in his speech tonight, will delineate exactly how his first term would be substantially different from Bush's last two. But on the biggest issues -- Iraq, the economy and health care, among others -- his views appear to be nearly identical to the incumbent's.

And despite the very different -- and compelling -- biographies of the two people leading the ticket, there are growing signs that it is former Bush aides, many of them trained by Karl Rove, who are running the show. Palin's smashing and cutting speech last night, for instance, was written not by Palin herself, but by former Bush speechwriter Matthew Scully. And the little-known and politically inchoate Alaska governor is now having her image -- and positions -- defined by a legion of former Bush White House staffers.

The Elephant Not in the Room

Elisabeth Bumiller and Michael Cooper write in the New York Times: "Ms. Palin's speech was the big draw of a convention night notable for not a single mention from the stage of the unpopular president, George W. Bush, who addressed the delegates Tuesday via satellite from the White House after the hurricane forced him to cancel his appearance." (Actually, Romney mentioned Bush once, citing him for having "labeled the terror-sponsor states exactly what they are: the axis of evil.")

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The difficulty for the Republican ticket in talking about change and reform and acting like insurgents is that they have been running Washington -- the White House and Congress -- for most of the last eight years."

The Guardian editorial board writes: "Aren't American voters being led too quickly past something on which they should also concentrate and reflect? . . .

"The Republicans may treat Mr Bush as the living dead. Yet what he stands for still animates the party. His trademark social conservatism is theirs too. There have been endless denunciations of abortion this week, but on the first night there was not a word spoken about climate change. The leitmotif of the convention so far has been glorification of the US military, yet the war in Iraq and its conduct have gone wholly unchallenged. Many Republicans are exhausted, yet the truth is they would do it all again. Mr Bush may be an embarrassment to his party now, but too many Republicans, not least Mrs Palin, still remain absolutely in thrall to his views."

Parting Gift?

There is one thing Bush could do for McCain -- and that's catch Osama bin Laden. Seven years after Bush famously called for bin Laden's capture, " dead or alive," the terrorist leader is not only still free, but according to the White House's own intelligence report, he and his al-Qaeda organization have benefited greatly from Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

Nabbing bin Laden just in time for McCain's convention speech would have been particularly sweet.

Well guess what? Sara A. Carter writes in the Washington Times: "U.S. ground forces crossed the border from Afghanistan and attacked suspected al Qaeda targets in Pakistan on Wednesday as part of an aggressive new strategy to kill or capture Osama bin Laden before President Bush leaves office, U.S. officials said. . . .

"'I know the hunt is on; they're pulling out all the stops,' said a Defense Department official with knowledge of the situation who asked not to be named. 'They are leaving no stone unturned. They want to find bin Laden before the president leaves office and ensure that al Qaeda will not attack the U.S. during the upcoming elections.' . . .

"A U.S. counterterrorism official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that 'finding bin Laden has always been a priority' and that targeting al Qaeda bases is based on actionable intelligence. However, he added that the November elections in the U.S. have renewed a sense of urgency to capture the terrorist leader. 'Any period of transition, like the upcoming election, can be seen as a potential vulnerability,' he said."

McCain himself seemed to blame Bush for not having captured bin Laden in an ABC News interview yesterday. Democratic nominee Barack Obama said in his convention speech last week: "You know, John McCain likes to say that he'll follow bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but he won't even follow him to the cave where he lives." McCain responded yesterday: "[Former President] Clinton had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. President Bush had opportunities to get Osama bin Laden. I know how to do it, and I'll do it."

Pir Zubair Shah, Eric Schmitt and Jane Perlez write in the New York Times: "Until now, allied forces in Afghanistan have occasionally carried out airstrikes and artillery attacks in the border region of Pakistan against militants hiding there, and American forces in 'hot pursuit' of militants have had some latitude to chase them across the border.

"But the commando raid by the American forces signaled what top American officials said could be the opening salvo in a much broader campaign by Special Operations forces against the Taliban and Al Qaeda inside Pakistan, a secret plan that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has been advocating for months within President Bush's war council. . . .

"There were conflicting reports about civilian casualties in the operation. American officials said one child had been killed in the strike; a Pakistani military spokesman said the American troops had opened fire on villagers, killing seven people. . . .

"One American official said that at least one child had been killed, and that several women who died in the attack were helping the Qaeda fighters. . . .

"A senior Pakistani official called the commando raid a 'cowboy action' and said it had failed to capture or kill any senior Qaeda or Taliban leaders.

"'If they had gotten anyone big, they would be bragging about it,' he said."

Afghanistan Watch

Fisnik Abrashi writes for the Associated Press: "President Hamid Karzai has spoken to President Bush about a recent raid in which Afghan officials accused American forces of killing up to 90 civilians, his office said.

"U.S. officials contend at least 30 militants, including a Taliban commander, and no more than seven civilians were killed in the raid in the Shindand district of Herat province.

"But Afghan officials, backed by the United Nations mission, insist that over 90 civilians died, including dozens of children.

"'President Bush expressed his sorrow and sympathy because of the Shindand incident and shared his sympathy for the people of Afghanistan,' a statement from Karzai's office said late Wednesday."

Bush's Hidey Hole

Bush made one last quick public appearance yesterday before heading off to Camp David for a four-day weekend.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Bush arrived in Baton Rouge on Wednesday for his first personal look at the damage wrought by Hurricane Gustav, which leveled trees and knocked out power through much of the state but did not take the human or political toll exacted by Katrina. . . .

"Bush praised the well-organized evacuation of New Orleans and other major cities in the days before the hurricane. And he took credit for his administration's efforts to work closely with local governments, and a friendly Republican governor, in coping with the storm.

"'Phase One of the response to Gustav went very well,' Bush said after meeting with Gov. Bobby Jindal and other local and federal officials at the state's emergency operations center. 'A lot of it had to do with the people in this room. We're much better coordinated this time than we were with Katrina.'

"The visit, which lasted about two hours from landing to takeoff, was low-key by presidential standards, mirroring a Monday visit to Texas to see relief workers and volunteers. Bush did not meet with evacuees or other victims on either trip."

Mary Foster and Melinda Deslatte write for the Associated Press: "The administration's swift reaction was a significant change from its response three years ago to Katrina, a far more devastating storm. Roughly 1,600 people were killed, and the White House was harshly criticized for stepping in too late.

"To residents who lived through Katrina, that failure was still fresh.

"'What do I care if Bush is visiting? I'm still trying to get my house back together from Katrina,' housekeeper Flora Raymond said. 'This time things went better, but we still need help from the last time.'"

Cheney Watch

Steven Lee Myers and Alan Cowell write in the New York Times, from Georgia: "One day after the United States proposed $1 billion in humanitarian and economic assistance to help rebuild Georgia after its war with Russia, Vice President Dick Cheney flew here to reaffirm Washington's support for this country's eventual NATO membership and to issue a powerful condemnation of Moscow.

"Standing alongside President Mikheil Saakashvili at a joint news conference, Mr. Cheney declared: 'After your nation won its freedom in the Rose Revolution, America came to the aid of this courageous young democracy. We are doing so again, as you work to overcome an invasion of your sovereign territory, and an illegitimate, unilateral attempt to change your country's borders by force that has been universally condemned by the free world.' . . .

"'Georgia will be in our alliance. NATO is a defensive alliance. It is a threat to no one.'

"His words of support for Mr. Saakashvili placed him on a direct collision course with Russia's leaders who have labeled the Georgian president a 'political corpse' and who have made clear that they see Georgia's membership of NATO as intolerable."

As for the $1 billion aid proposal, "[e]xcluding Iraq, the infusion would make Georgia one of the largest recipients of American foreign aid after Israel and Egypt."

It would also amount to $217 per person for each of Georgia's 4.6 million citizens.

Cheney's trip, while conveniently keeping him very far away from the convention, nevertheless could be a double-edged sword for the McCain campaign. Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times that one of Palin's many challenges is that "she must convince the country she is prepared to be vice president at a time when the definition of that job has been elevated to the status of governing partner -- something voters might have been reminded of Wednesday by images of Vice President Dick Cheney embarking on a mission to war-torn Georgia."

Accountability Watch

Matthew Jaffe reports for ABC News: "Looking to the future but with one eye on the past," Democratic vice presidential nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday "promised that an Obama-Biden government would go through Bush administration data with 'a fine-toothed comb' and pursue criminal charges if necessary."

Here's the full exchange, from Biden's appearance at a town-hall meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida:

Q: "I'd like to know if you guys are going to pursue the violations that have been made against our Constitution by the present administration -- (cheers, applause) -- and restore the Constitution to its rightful place in our society?"

Biden: "Yes. (Applause.) Now, look, here's the deal. My colleagues can tell you, particularly Henry Waxman, one of the things that happens is -- you know, there's a phrase in the law, those of you who are lawyers. Sometimes you're estopped from being able to present something, meaning your failing to have acted in the past precludes you having the right to act in the future. We will not be estopped from pursuing any criminal offense that's occurred. Now, here's what's happening: Patrick Leahy in the Judiciary Committee and Henry Waxman from California, in his oversight committee, as well as John Conyers in his Judiciary Committee, what they're doing is they're doing the right thing. They're not making false accusations about anything. They're not making unfounded accusations. They're collecting data. They are subpoenaing records. They're building the file, and they're going through it and will go through it with a fine-toothed comb. If there has been a basis upon which you could pursue someone for a criminal violation, they will be pursued -- not out of vengeance, not out of retribution; out of the need to preserve the notion that no one -- no one -- no attorney general, no president, no one is above the law. (Applause.) It sounds trite."

Bush Legacy Watch

Robert O'Harrow Jr. writes in The Washington Post: "An ambitious Bush administration program to use new technology to stop radioactive materials from being smuggled into the country has fallen far short of its aims and will likely be sharply curtailed, according to an audit report obtained by The Washington Post. . . .

"The report is the latest blow to one of the Bush administration's most prominent homeland security initiatives. In announcing the $1.2 billion program two years ago, Department of Homeland Security officials said the costly monitors were vital to national security, would dramatically improve the detection of nuclear materials and reduce false alarms experienced by current equipment.

"The program has been delayed repeatedly after investigators turned up evidence that the detection office provided misleading cost estimates and inflated detection capabilities in a cost-benefit report to Congress in 2006."

Dollar Watch

Hey, here's a suggestion on how McCain could differentiate himself from Bush, from the Wall Street Journal editorial board: "When John McCain speaks to the Republican convention tonight, one of his priorities will be explaining his economic plans to a restive American middle class. He'll help his campaign, and the country, if his program includes separating himself from the Bush Administration's malign neglect of the dollar.

"In debates over the Bush economic record, the dollar's decline and its companion rise in prices are the great missing links. Democrats don't mention it because they'd rather indict the Bush tax cuts as a way to justify a huge new tax increase. Wall Street and big business don't talk about it because they've been complicit in urging devaluation. And the media mostly ignore it because so few of them even think about monetary policy. The mystery is why more Republicans don't regret it because the political consequences have cost them dearly."

Briefing Room Watch

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "In what could be interpreted as a sign that life is slowing down at the White House--although White House officials do not put it this way--Press Secretary Dana Perino said today she would 'collapse the gaggle and the briefing.'

"To translate, that means that the informal, not-for-cameras, morning briefing known as the 'gaggle' is being abandoned, and the midday, on-camera briefing is being moved up an hour or so to late morning.

"To an outsider, it may all seem like no more than a housekeeping detail.

"It is that, but the reality is that as the days of the Bush White House dwindle, fewer reporters have been showing up for either event. Perhaps one-third of the 49 seats in the White House press briefing room are occupied, and the briefings are growing shorter."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "You know, I don't want to say the Republicans are trying to distance themselves from President Bush," but did "you notice when Bush was speaking by satellite, they kept trying to change the channel?"

Cartoon Watch

Mike Thompson on Bush's warm reception, Joel Pett on the Bush legacy, and Mike Lane on the end of Bush's ride.

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