Trouble Outside the Bubble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, March 10, 2005; 12:21 PM

President Bush takes his Social Security show on the road again today and if past is prologue he will be surrounded by supporters, showered with praise and cheered like a winner.

But outside the bubble, there are more signs of trouble.

Consider, for instance, who won't be there when he speaks in Montgomery, Ala., this afternoon: Six of the seven Republicans in the state's congressional delegation.

Consider that the Republican who heads the Government Accountability Office yesterday scolded Bush for going on tour pushing for private accounts, which he said would only make things worse in the short run.

And consider the increasing focus on what appears to be a bad generational split for the president: Senior citizens are so attached to Social Security that they oppose change on principle; Young people are so uninterested in Social Security that they don't really care one way or the other.

Today's Show

Bush holds events in Louisville, Ky., and then Montgomery, Ala., this afternoon

Sean Reilly writes in the Mobile Register: "When President Bush came to Birmingham four years ago to campaign for U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions and talk up a popular conservation program, almost every Republican then in Alabama's nine-member congressional delegation made time to show up.

"When Bush swings through Montgomery today to discuss his controversial plan to revamp Social Security, only one, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Anniston, has confirmed plans to attend.

"Representatives for most of the other six Republicans in the delegation cited a crush of business during an exceptionally busy week in Washington. But Carl Grafton, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery, where Bush will speak, said lawmakers also have no reason to cozy up to the president on a potentially toxic issue such as Social Security reform."

Jannell McGrew writes in the Montgomery Advertiser: "There's a format to how the commander-in-chief will take on his 'Conversation on Strengthening Social Security' today.

" 'He will listen to the stories they will have to tell, answer any questions they may have, and continue the dialogue of Social Security reform,' said White House spokesman Taylor Gross in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

"But all that will be done in a very specific way."

The Comptroller Speaks

Glen Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "Social Security 'does not face an immediate crisis,' the head of the Government Accountability Office said Wednesday, but it does face a long-term financing problem 'and it would be prudent to address it sooner rather than later.' "

"David M. Walker, who heads the nonpartisan Office of Comptroller General, also criticized President Bush for undertaking an aggressive two-month tour to try to sell his plan for allowing younger workers to divert a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts. Walker suggested that Bush and members of Congress focus on improving financing for the program, which would not be significantly affected by establishment of personal accounts."

Generational Issues

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that even when Bush was ostensibly talking about energy policy -- like he was yesterday -- he took some time to stress that seniors have nothing to fear from his Social Security plan.

"Suddenly, wherever he goes, whatever he talks about, the president keeps circling back to that same point. As he struggles to find traction for his plan to revamp Social Security, Bush finds himself trying simply to neutralize the opposition of seniors who would not even be affected by his proposal. He came back to the subject four times in one forum last Friday, and when he returns to the road today for a two-day, four-state swing to pitch his plan, his first priority will be to calm the nerves of the retired and near-retired.

"The constant repetition stems from what Republican strategists consider a critical vulnerability in their drive to reinvent Social Security: Older Americans remain deeply skeptical of Bush's plan, and historically they not only dominate political debate concerning the nation's retirement program but also play an outsized role in congressional elections because of their reliably high turnout."

Robin Toner writes in the New York Times that "several top Republican strategists have been warning lawmakers that they must confront and defuse the anxiety among retirees. . . .

"Democrats and some independent analysts say that the Bush strategy may be based on fundamental miscalculations: assuming that older Americans will act largely on the basis of their self-interest, and underestimating their support for the program itself."

Simon Kennedy and Kevin Carmichael write for Bloomberg about the other side of the coin: Bush's frenetic attempts to get the young behind him.

"Bush cited the 'young' no fewer than 10 times in a speech at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. 'Younger workers ought to be allowed to take some of their own money and set it aside in a personal savings account that you call your own,' the president said."

But Kennedy and Carmichael say Bush is running up the age-old obstacle when dealing with the young: Apathy.

A Lighter Look

Andrew Ward writes in the Financial Times that when Bush rolls into Montgomery, he'll be competing for attention with the city's annual rodeo championship

"About 40,000 people are expected to attend the rodeo over the next three days, compared with the few hundred who will attend Mr Bush's town hall-style meeting in a university gymnasium."

And Ward talks to some locals. "Lashawn Winston, a 31 year-old petrol station cashier, believes the whole debate is irrelevant. She is one of many Americans -- 59 per cent, according to a Time/CNN poll in 2002 -- who believe the apocalypse described in the Book of Revelation will eventually come true. 'I'm not worried [about Social Security],' she says. 'Because by the time it becomes a problem we'll be on the other side.'"

Tiffany Ray writes in the Montgomery Advertiser about the puzzlement concerning what Bush plans to do at the Embassy Suites hotel, where the staff is apparently preparing for the president to drop in before his talk at the Auburn University gym.

"While the Bush administration declined to explain how it might use Embassy Suites, Bush has been known to check into hotels before a speech and request the use of a treadmill, among other things.

"On three separate occasions while visiting South Bend, Ind., the most recent being Friday, Bush checked into a Marriott Hotel, requesting a treadmill and homemade salsa from the hotel manager's wife, according to reports in the South Bend Tribune newspaper."

We should find out everything by tomorrow -- the Advertiser's office is right next door to the hotel.

Live Online

As usual, we had a good discussion yesterday in my Live Online. Among other things, we talked about how hard it is to get answers from the White House, about whether red-state papers cover the White House differently than blue-state papers, and the Bush bubble.

Add-On Watch

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for "One of the Bushies' greatest talents is to appear resolute throughout, while preparing to compromise all along. . . .

"Social Security is another exercise in resolute compromise. Last week the president said he supported personal accounts as an 'add-on' to Social Security, using Democratic language for accounts that would not be funded by diverting payroll taxes. White House aides said the term wasn't meant to signal any shift in policy, just as they did when Treasury Secretary John Snow suggested the administration might consider such accounts. That may be true, but the comments still test the water of what's acceptable inside Washington and signal a readiness to negotiate without conceding an inch of policy. By their own admission, White House officials say nothing has been ruled out -- except for a rise in taxes. And even that was compromised when the president raised the possibility of lifting the cap on payroll taxes."

But Susan Page and Andrea Stone write in USA Today: "The top White House economic adviser rejected as 'absolutely a non-starter' bipartisan proposals that the administration put aside its drive to create individual investment accounts in Social Security and focus first on extending the system's solvency.

"Allan Hubbard, in an interview Wednesday with USA TODAY, also dismissed a Democratic proposal that investment accounts be created to supplement Social Security, not as part of the system.

" 'President Bush's No. 1 goal is passing legislation that permanently solves the solvency problem, and "add-on" accounts do not deal with the solvency problem,' Hubbard said in his first on-the-record interview since he became head of the National Economic Council in January."

Hubbard's proper use of the add-on phrasing would seem to belie Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum's theory that Bush's use of the term last week was setting the stage for a co-opting of the terminology. But his theory is intriguing nonetheless.

Drum wrote: "Democrats have spent a fair amount of rhetorical capital saying nice things about 'add-on accounts,' and the White House figures they can take advantage of that by pretending that that's exactly what their plan is. This is probably pretty effective with ordinary audiences who are unaware of the nuances of the Social Security debate."

Ford Watch

Susan Page profiles six key players in the Social Security battle for USA Today. Among them, Stanford professor John Cogan, who "has President Bush's ear," and Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), "an ambitious young congressman [who] might break with fellow Democrats."

Harold Ford -- doesn't that name sound familiar? Ah, yes. I noted in yesterday's column that the White House was, somewhat amazingly, giving his office tickets to hand out for Bush's Friday appearance in Memphis. Lately, that's been a purely Republican prerogative.

Ford's press secretary, Zac Wright, this morning told me that the office had indeed gotten tickets from the White House and had given them away on a first-come, first-served basis to people who called in for them. How many? About 50.

Bush and the World Court

The first shoe dropped quietly, but when word burbled out, it struck may observers as shockingly at odds with Bush's hostility to international institutions and his energetic support of the death penalty.

Charles Lane reported in Tuesday's Washington Post: "The Bush administration has announced that it will attempt to defuse a long-simmering international dispute over the death penalty by instructing Texas state courts to give 51 Mexicans facing the death penalty new hearings on their claims that they were denied meetings with diplomats from their nation, in violation of international law.

"In a Feb. 28 brief filed with the Supreme Court, the administration said the United States would bow to a 2004 ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, also known as the World Court, which found that Texas officials violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations by not providing the Mexicans with consular access. That treaty, ratified by the United States in 1969, provides that 'consular officers shall have the right to visit a national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention, to converse and correspond with him and to arrange for his legal representation.'

As David Savage wrote in the Los Angeles Times yesterday: "To their surprise, defense lawyers and international law experts found themselves cheering a move by Bush. The president has been a critic of international courts and a strong supporter of the death penalty.

" 'This is an amazing concession,' said Mike Charlton, a defense lawyer for several Texas inmates."

Well, that was bound not to last. And yesterday, the other shoe dropped.

As Charles Lane reports in today's Post: "The Bush administration has decided to pull out of an international agreement that opponents of the death penalty have used to fight the sentences of foreigners on death row in the United States, officials said yesterday.

"In a two-paragraph letter dated March 7, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice informed U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan that the United States 'hereby withdraws' from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The United States proposed the protocol in 1963 and ratified it -- along with the rest of the Vienna Convention -- in 1969."

Can you just do that -- hereby withdraw? There are legal questions aplenty, says my brother, a law professor and blogger.

Bush on Energy

Justin Blum and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration and Senate Republicans intensified their push yesterday to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a measure that has for years been thwarted by fierce opposition."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush tried on Wednesday to reinvigorate his administration's energy strategy, promising to overcome the obstacles Democrats and environmental groups have mounted to drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge and saying it was time to start building more nuclear power plants."

Sanger notes: "The driving force behind a national energy policy in the White House has been Vice President Dick Cheney, who headed the panel that initially set the administration's course -- and became the first source of arguments about the secrecy of the Bush White House. There is still some mystery about industry's role in developing the proposals Mr. Cheney's group endorsed. But there has been little mystery about the direction the administration wants to head."

Here is the transcript from Columbus.

Begging to Differ

Lots of ink spilled today challenging the concept that Bush is responsible for a democratic revolution in the Mideast.

Daniel Williams writes in The Washington Post: "Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit on Wednesday offered a point-by-point rebuttal of President Bush's argument that the Middle East is opening to an era of democracy stimulated by the U.S. invasion of Iraq."

Jefferson Morley writes on "The groundswell of commentary praising Bush for democratic developments in the Middle East has generated its own countercurrent of commentary in England and France that argues the American president is not the only one who deserves credit."

Where's the Beef?

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Escalating a rare conflict in U.S.-Japanese relations, President Bush pressed Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi yesterday to lift the Japanese ban on U.S. beef imports, but Koizumi gave no assurances when they could restart, U.S. and Japanese officials said."

Keiichi Yamamura writes for Bloomberg: "Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda told a regular news conference in Tokyo today that he will discuss the matter with other government officials.

"Bush conveyed the request to Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in a 15-minute telephone conversion that took place last night, Tokyo time. Koizumi told Bush it's hard to tell when Japan will lift the ban."

Dark Clouds for Bush

It's the first legislative defeat of Bush's second term. Shankar Vedantam writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's bid to rewrite federal air pollution laws ground to a halt in Congress yesterday when Republicans were unable to overcome objections in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that the bill would weaken the central pillars of the nation's environmental protection framework."

Bush v. the Press, Continued

Journalism professor and blogger Jay Rosen has another post this morning on the White House and the press corps in which he concludes: "I think they should start discussing trial separation."

Rosen extensively quotes Dan Weintraub, the political columnist and blogger for the Sacramento Bee: "I think the alternative would be an aggressive, curious and analytical press corps, based anywhere (including cyberspace), fact-checking the snot out of the White House and writing critically about the president's statements, proposals and actions, and those of his administration, in both daily coverage and investigative reporting."

Rosen writes that Weintraub favors an "outside approach," where "you're still trying to find out what's going on with the Bush Administration; you stay with the story. But you have abandoned hope of getting much the inside way. You interview 'around' the White House, which means investing primarily in other sources who we know will have parts of the puzzle."

The result, Weintraub says, would be Scott McClellan and aides "begging reporters back in to converse with them so that their side of the story could be told more fully."

Pool Follies

Christopher Cooper exposes the not-so-sordid and really-not-so-interesting underbelly of White House pool reports in the Wall Street Journal.

"The White House pool report, written by rotating members of the small pool designated to watch the president at close quarters, is designed to be shared with the hundreds of reporters covering the president who, because of space considerations and time restraints, can't gather the information firsthand. Taking note of minute details, the lively and often irreverent reports go far beyond a standard newspaper account. They are, in essence, reporter notes.

"Once duplicated on a White House copier and distributed by hand, the dispatches are now e-mailed by White House staff to about a thousand reporters and government officials. The sheer number of recipients and the electronic distribution practically assures that these once closely guarded documents end up online."

And sometimes they are mocked! By bloggers!

© 2005