It's Party Time

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, January 31, 2005; 12:57 PM

Riding high on the successful elections in Iraq, President Bush and his aides now turn their focus homeward, as they look to Wednesday night's State of the Union address as a cardinal moment in their mission to remake the federal government in the Republican image and dismember the Democratic Party's voting base.

Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security is a key battleground, and White House aides spent the weekend trying to unite his fractious congressional allies behind the White House's upcoming blitz.

But the war will be fought on many other fronts as well, including the area of health care, where a stealth campaign is already well underway to turn another collective effort into an individual responsibility.

In Wednesday's State of the Union address, judging from the latest batch of news analyses, Bush will crystallize his strategy of superpowering the Republican Party by undercutting the Democratic Party's pillars. And in his rhetoric, he is likely to try equate himself with Democratic icons of the past, while attempting to overlook 80 years of recent history by recasting the Republican Party as the party of civil rights.

First, Iraq

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "For the Bush administration, Iraq's election surpassed expectations -- and offered a rare moment of relief after two years marked by intense debates at home, a bitter international divide, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, billions in mounting costs and far more bloodshed than ever anticipated.

"Speaking from the White House four hours after the polls closed, Bush interpreted the election as validation of his broader foreign policy agenda -- the spread of liberty throughout the Islamic world -- outlined 10 days earlier in his second inaugural address."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Even on the heels of Mr. Bush's re-election, the past month has been tense and politically risky for the president. On Sunday, the broad strategy of spreading freedom in the world that he described in his Inaugural Address faced its first test since that speech. But Mr. Bush has acknowledged that a successful election is just the first step.

"With televised images showing jubilant Iraqis, filling out ballots and participating in the first truly free election in more than 50 years, Mr. Bush and his aides were clearly concerned that the imagery would add to the pressures at home to set a clear timetable for withdrawing the 150,000 American forces now based there. So even while hailing the accomplishment, they spent much of the day tamping down expectations, issuing reminders that the American-led effort to remake Iraq was still at a precarious stage."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Even the most virulent W-bashers have to concede President Bush was entitled to some serious gloating yesterday.

"Indeed, it seemed to require every sliver of Bush's reserve to keep from smirking like a Cheshire cat during his four-minute address to the nation."

Here is the text of Bush's statement.

The Big Theme: 'Reform of Fundamental Systems'

But now, attention turns to the State of the Union address. And Ken Herman of the Austin-American Statesman, who Bush referred to as his "home boy" at last week's press conference, shows how he can squeeze his homies for inside information in an article tracking the genesis of the big speech.

"It starts as broad concepts, in this case repeated ad infinitum on the campaign trail, and is tweaked, molded and Sharpied into oratory that carries as majestic a name as any pronouncement this side of a papal enuncio. . . .

" 'In this case, because the State of the Union so closely follows the inauguration, the White House looked at them as almost a pair,' said Bush adviser Karen Hughes. 'The inaugural speech laid out the seeds of extending freedom around the globe and expanding it at home and the State of the Union will fill in more of the legislative details.' . . .

" 'The State of the Union can tend to be a laundry list,' she said.

"Bush, Hughes said, does not like laundry lists. So the goal is to find a hook to turn the legislative laundry list into thematic oratory. A theme this year will be 'reform of fundamental systems,' she said."

Read: Eroding the Democratic Base

Thomas B. Edsall and John F. Harris wrote in the Sunday Washington Post: "When President Bush stands before Congress on Wednesday night to deliver his State of the Union address, it is a safe bet that he will not announce that one of his goals is the long-term enfeeblement of the Democratic Party.

"But a recurring theme of many items on Bush's second-term domestic agenda is that if enacted, they would weaken political and financial pillars that have propped up Democrats for years, political strategists from both parties say."

Allow me to summarize a few key points from the story:

• Capping civil damages hurts trial lawyers, a key donor group for Democrats.

• Remaking Social Security robs Democrats of their signature program and creates millions of investors rooting for a pro-business agenda.

• Gutting current civil service protections hurts the public employee unions, also key Democratic donors.

Write Edsall and Harris: "What is notable about the Bush White House, some analysts believe, is the extent to which its agenda is crafted with an eye toward the long-term partisan implications."

Co-opting Democratic Iconography

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that the White House is "trying to link Bush's agenda with Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Bill Clinton.

"In each case, to put it mildly, the connection is a stretch. In fact, in each instance, the Bush team is citing the Democrats to sell policies that reverse the strategies those presidents pursued. It's as if General Motors were using a testimonial from Ralph Nader to sell an updated Corvair."

For instance: "Bush's backers believe he's acting in Roosevelt's flexible spirit to update the social safety net for a new century. But in the changes he's pursuing, Bush comes closer to reversing Roosevelt than emulating him."

Daniel Gross asks in Slate: "Why are today's Republicans so hellbent on changing Social Security?"

Answer: "[I]t's a chance to knock down Franklin Roosevelt, finally."

Recasting the GOP as the Party of Civil Rights

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times about how President Bush and his top aides these days are frequently "citing the Republican Party's often-forgotten 19th century antislavery roots -- a strategy that GOP leaders believe will help them make inroads among black voters in the 21st century.

"And if it reminds voters that the Democrats once embraced slavery, that's not such a bad byproduct, strategists say."

But here's the problem: "Historians note that the GOP's heritage is more complex than all the references to Lincoln imply."

For instance, Wallsten notes, "the Democrats gained a virtual lock on the black vote in the mid-1960s, as President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed several civil rights bills through Congress while the GOP pursued a 'Southern strategy' aimed at courting white voters."

Girding for the Social Security Battle

Congressional Republicans held their annual retreat in the Allegheny Mountains this weekend, and Social Security was topic A.

Richard Wolffe, Tamara Lipper and Holly Bailey wrote in Newsweek yesterday of "the extraordinary sight of congressional Republicans sniping at the re-elected president for allowing the Social Security debate to drift out of his control. To Bush's Democratic critics, the disarray underscores how little political capital the president really has as he starts his second term. But to his supporters, the extensive consultation is merely an indication he's making good on his pledge to play well with others."

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "As Mr Bush prepares to set out a controversial legislative agenda in the State of the Union address on Wednesday night, the difference between the 'timeframe' of Mr Bush and of those hoping for a longer tenure on Capitol Hill is at the heart of the coming confrontation between the White House and Congress."

But Mike Allen writes in today's Washington Post: "Congressional Republicans, after three months of internal debate, this weekend launched a months-long campaign to try to convince constituents that rewriting the Social Security law would be cheaper and less risky than leaving it alone, as the White House opened a campaign to pressure several Senate Democrats to support the changes. . . .

"White House and congressional Republicans tried to reassure critics by refining the substance and packaging of the ideas. Karl Rove, the White House senior adviser, told the group that Bush's proposal for the accounts, which would allow younger workers to put some of their payroll taxes into stocks and bonds, would be conservatively structured to give people only a few choices, similar to a federal plan to which many lawmakers belong.

"Bush, who rarely mentions his daughters in public, referred to the twins during a passionate, closed-door question period Friday in which he contended that today's workers will be disappointed when they retire if nothing is done."

Allen describes the GOP's "104-page playbook titled 'Saving Social Security,' a deliberate echo of the language President Bill Clinton used to argue that the retirement system's trust fund should be built up in anticipation of the baby boomers' retirement. . . .

"The blueprint urges lawmakers to promote the 'personalization' of Social Security, suggesting ownership and control, rather than 'privatization,' which 'connotes the total corporate takeover of Social Security.' "

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times that party leaders and White House officials also "discussed a new rhetorical twist . . . redirecting public attention on 2008 as an imminent danger point for the Social Security trust fund because baby boomers will begin retiring, people present said." This in spite of the fact that, as Kirkpatrick writes, "Even the most dire analyses say the fund will remain solvent for a decade or longer after that."

Jackie Calmes writes intriguingly in the Wall Street Journal that Republicans are finding this lesson in Bill and Hillary Clinton's bid to enact universal health care: "The Democrats' mistake wasn't tackling a tough issue but instead failing to produce even a modest measure after they and their president had promised action."

The Stealth Health Issue

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Emboldened by their success at the polls, the Bush administration and Republican leaders in Congress believe they have a new opportunity to move the nation away from the system of employer-provided health insurance that has covered most working Americans for the last half-century.

"In its place, they want to erect a system in which workers -- instead of looking to employers for health insurance -- would take personal responsibility for protecting themselves and their families: They would buy high-deductible 'catastrophic' insurance policies to cover major medical needs, then pay routine costs with money set aside in tax-sheltered health savings accounts. . . .

"Indeed, Bush's health insurance agenda is far more developed than his Social Security plans and is advancing at a rapid clip through a combination of actions by government, insurers, employers and individuals. . . .

"Critics say the Republican approach is really an attempt to shift the risks, massive costs and knotty problems of healthcare from employers to individuals. And they say the GOP is moving forward with far less public attention or debate than have surrounded Bush's plans to overhaul Social Security."

DNI Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Six weeks after President Bush signed the intelligence bill calling for a new director of national intelligence, the White House is still looking for what the president told reporters last week is 'the right person to handle this very sensitive position.'

"Although names of several possible candidates have surfaced, officials say they do not believe the White House is close to making an appointment. Within the intelligence community and on Capitol Hill, officials say they believe the delay stems at least partly from continuing uncertainty over what real power and authority the new director will have. . . .

"Some clarifying recommendations may come from Bush's own intelligence study panel, called the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction. Established almost a year ago and co-chaired by U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Laurence H. Silberman and former senator Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), the panel is scheduled to report by March 31."

And Pincus writes that Silberman is even a possible candidate for the NID job. Silberman! That could make for some interesting Senate hearings.

Here's some biographical information on the man who has inspired many fighting words from Democrats, including now-Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid, who last year called Silberman "one of the most partisan people in all America."

As Michelle Goldberg wrote in Salon last year, Silberman "has been near the febrile center of the largest political scandals of the past two decades, from the rumored 'October surprise' of 1980 and the Iran-contra trials to the character assassination of Anita Hill and the impeachment of President Clinton. Whenever right-wing conspiracies swing into action, Silberman is there."

Chertoff Watch

Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia write in The Washington Post: "On Nov. 28, 2001, then-Assistant Attorney General Michael Chertoff took a seat before a Senate committee and offered reassurance on two fronts: The Justice Department was unrelenting in pursuit of terrorists. And none of its tactics had trampled the Constitution or federal law.

"Every detainee has been charged, Chertoff told the senators. Every detainee has a lawyer. No one is held incommunicado."

But apparently this wasn't true.

"The Justice Department ordered the detention of more than 700 Arab and South Asian men for immigration violations, holding them without charges or access to lawyers for an average of three months. Many remained in prison much longer, according to a 2003 report by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine."

So Bush's nominee to run the Department of Homeland Security lied to the Senate?

Well, here's how Powell and Garcia phrase it: "[C]ritics contend that he was not candid with the senators, and was perhaps misleading about the nature of the tactics he pursued."

Meanwhile, David Johnston, Neil A. Lewis and Douglas Jehl write in the New York Times: "Michael Chertoff, who has been picked by President Bush to be the homeland security secretary, advised the Central Intelligence Agency on the legality of coercive interrogation methods on terror suspects under the federal anti-torture statute, current and former administration officials said this week.

"Depending on the circumstances, he told the intelligence agency, some coercive methods could be legal, but he advised against others, the officials said."

So Chertoff apparently was okay with waterboarding in certain circumstances, but drew the line somewhere short of death threats against family members, the report points out.

Also at issue is what role Chertoff had in a still-classified second memo from Jay S. Bybee, then the head of the legal counsel's office, who in his first memo advocated the now-repudiated position that torture should be defined narrowly.

The Times's sources say Chertoff was consulted on that second memo; the White House denies it.

Sharansky Watch

The press just can't get enough of Bush's favorite author.

Megan Goldin writes in Reuters: "It's been a long and lonely road for former Soviet dissident Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky who has for years been ridiculed for his political theories of spreading democracy across the globe to obtain world peace.

"But the former Soviet 'refusenik', who is now a cabinet minister in the Israeli government, no longer walks alone. His companion in his campaign to democratise the world is no less than U.S. President George W. Bush. . . .

Sharansky told Reuters about his visit with Bush in the Oval Office.

"I told him: 'You are the real dissident. Politicians look at polls -- what is popular, what is not popular. A dissident believes in an idea and goes ahead with it . . . even when there are so many people who disagree,' " Sharansky said.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about the "circular pattern of admiration" between Bush and Sharansky.

Supreme Court Watch

Charles Hurt writes in the Washington Times: "Supporters of President Bush's judicial nominees have hired the same media firm used by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for their efforts to defend the next nominee for any upcoming Supreme Court vacancy."

CIA Out to Get Bush?

Mark Hosenball writes in Newsweek: "Administration politicos cite a series of developments during last year's campaign as evidence that CIA careerists were out to get President Bush. . . .

"Presidential advisers and supporters of the new CIA director say the circumstantial evidence demonstrates pre-election CIA hostility to Bush policies and justifies new director Porter Goss's purge of the agency's top echelon."

Bush's Intellectual Life

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb tried to steer his 23-minute interview with Bush on Thursday away from the pedestrian, and toward the intellectual underpinnings of Bush's policies. (Here's the video; it was shown Sunday night.)

Lamb was particularly interested in what Bush has been reading lately -- in addition to Sharansky, of course.

Said Bush: "[H]istory really matters for the President. And so I read a lot of history books. I'm reading the Washington book by Ellis right now. I read the Hamilton book by [Chernow], which I thought was a fascinating book. I can't remember all the books I read, but I do read a lot of books. And from that, I'm able to gain a better appreciation of where we're going. . . .

"LAMB: How much reading do you do a day, and what time of day do you read?

"THE PRESIDENT: I read, oh, gosh, I'd say, 10, maybe, different memoranda prepared by staff.

"LAMB: What about books?

"THE PRESIDENT: I'm reading, I think on a good night, maybe 20 to 30 pages. I'm exercising quite hard these days, and I get up very early. And so the book has become somewhat of a sedative. I mean, maybe there are some other old guys like me who get into bed, open the book, 20 pages later you're out cold. But I read a lot on the weekends. I'm traveling -- when I travel a lot I get a chance to read. I'm downing quite a few books.

"By the way, in this job, there are some simple pleasures in life that really help you cope. One is Barney the dog, and the other is books. I mean, books are a great escape. Books are a way to get your mind on something else.

"LAMB: You told a group here in the White House, I think in May of 2004, that every day you read Oswald Chambers. You say, 'I read him every morning. He helps me understand how far I am on my walk.'

"THE PRESIDENT: That was last year I read Oswald. I read him every other year. . . . This year I'm reading -- last year I read Oswald Chambers every day, and this year I'm reading the Bible every day."

Bush Gets a Laugh

Also from the interview:

"LAMB: The longer you're in this White House, with all those that have gone before you, do you see ghosts of past Presidents?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, I quit drinking in '86. (Laughter.)"

About That Inaugural Speech

Bush's interpretation of his enigmatic inaugural speech also continued. He told Lamb:

"It's a speech that says freedom is universal and powerful and necessary, if we want our children to live in peace, and it also recognizes that we can't do this alone; we've got to work with others; that not everybody is going to look like America, and shouldn't; that this is the work of generations, and that in order for us to lead the world and call others to make the world more free, we, ourselves, have to be as free as we can be at home. . . .

"I think you can be an idealist and a realist at the same time. And we have a war to fight and win. It's a very different kind of war. It's a different kind of confrontation that President Reagan would be confronted with. And in that war, we have to work with all kinds of countries. So that's the realistic part of my job, how do we work with a country that may not honor women's rights like they should.

"On the other hand, as a result of engaging that war, it does give me a chance to speak candidly with leaders just like Ronald Reagan did, in terms of, as I said in my speech -- you free people -- you'll have a partner to walk with, and remind them that we're very serious about this. Now I'm mindful that societies don't change on a dime. And there's resistance, obviously -- if you're in power, you're not going to be interested in giving up power. And people are able to say, well, -- all the Americans want everybody to look like America. There's a lot of hurdles that have to be crossed. . . .

"But the American President can help by fashioning policy that constantly speaks to the reformers and those who want to be free, and constantly reminding leaders about the importance of the relationship. And the President said -- President Reagan there said, if you expect to have good relations. Well, that's exactly what my inaugural speech said."

All cleared up?

© 2005