Bush Roadshow May Be Losing Its Magic

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; 11:52 AM

President Bush's traveling Social Security roadshow passed through Tucson and Denver yesterday, and the lead stories in the local morning papers were more about the razzledazzle and less about the message that Bush is trying to get across.

Here's the top of C.J. Karamargin's lead story, stripped over the top of the Arizona Daily Star: "The White House called it a conversation with President Bush about Social Security.

"It was more like a well-scripted pep rally."

Here's C.T. Revere's lead in the Tucson Citizen: "President Bush held court inside the Tucson Convention Center yesterday, comfortably chatting up his plan to partially privatize Social Security with hand-picked panelists whose experiences helped to drive his message home."

Similarly, on the front page of the Denver Post, Susan Greene leads her story: "Bush's 'conversation' with Americans played out more like a pep rally to sell his plan for young workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private stocks and bonds."

Ever since his State of the Union address, Bush has been riding Air Force One to and fro, holding campaign-style "conversations" on Social Security during which he typically says nothing new and provides no details of his proposal.

Up until now, not just local reporters but even the national ones as well have typically bent over backward to treat what Bush says at these events like news.

But today's stories capture not so much what Bush says but what is most remarkable about these events: the stagecraft that goes into them and the exclusion of the general public in favor of screened supporters.

It's Not Just Bush; It's Cheney, Too

Vice President Cheney hosted his first "town hall" meeting on Social Security yesterday.

Here's the headline over Stephanie Tavares's story in the Bakersfield Californian: "Cheney makes pitch to fans; Hand-picked Republicans lob softball questions on Social Security at Cal State."

The View From Tucson

Here's more from the Karamargin story out of Tucson: "A relaxed, confident president took to the stage of the Tucson Convention Center Monday morning, as part of his national campaign to convince Americans of the need to overhaul the national retirement system.

"He didn't have to work very hard. At the TCC, Bush was among friends.

"Polls might show that most Americans are skeptical of the president's idea for allowing younger workers to invest a portion of their Social Security payroll taxes in private investment accounts. At the TCC he found only support.

"The audience of about 1,500 mostly invited guests greeted Bush like a hero, and the panel of six that joined him on stage left little doubt that they shared his views."

Here's the transcript from the event in Tucson. Bush also met briefly with seniors at a recreation center.

Meanwhile, in the Tucson Audience

Judy Keen in USA Today finds that Bush's lack of specificity is leaving folks in the audience confused.

"President Bush has been talking about Social Security for weeks, but even some of his supporters have misconceptions and qualms about his plan to overhaul the retirement system.

"Interviews with people who came to hear him at the convention center here Monday revealed confusion about eligibility for the personal investment accounts that are the centerpiece of his plan. There were questions about how investments would be managed and doubts that they would pay off."

For instance: "Bill Hughes, 47, who works for a defense contractor, said he thought workers who chose to invest in private accounts would be guaranteed a certain rate of return. They wouldn't."

Not Asked, Not Answered

Every paper should do this when Bush visits.

The Tucson Citizen asked members of the general public what they would ask Bush about Social Security if they had the chance -- which of course they didn't. Some examples:

• "When will you unveil specifics of your plan -- and what are they?" -- Michael F. Hannley, 54, president and chief executive of Bank of Tucson

• "If you want to solve the Social Security problem, why don't you just insist that Congress put back all the millions and millions and millions of dollars they've robbed from Social Security over the years for their porkbarrel projects?" -- Opha Probasco, 85, Tucsonan since 1925

• "Are you willing to take privatization, or personal accounts, off the table?" -- David Martinez III, 19, University of Arizona student

• "Since Social Security is a Democrat/Socialist Ponzi scheme, rather than 'reform' it, why don't you simply junk it and instead allow all of us a tax deduction/credit for every penny we save, with no tax on the interest or capital gain?" -- Ed Kahn, semiretired lawyer

The View From Denver

Here's the Greene story in the Denver Post I mentioned above: "Bush's 'conversation' with Americans played out more like a pep rally to sell his plan for young workers to divert some of their payroll taxes into private stocks and bonds.

" 'Now's the time to confront the problem,' Bush said in a carefully staged event at Wings Over the Rockies, a museum at Denver's Lowry redevelopment."

"The new master-planned community is ground zero for the demographic the White House is appealing to -- 30-something workers who fear the federal retirement system will collapse before they're eligible to collect money they've poured into Social Security."

Greene talked to some members of the Denver audience. "Though most in Monday's crowd of about 1,000 were Republican activists and ardent Bush supporters, not everybody agreed on his ideas to retool Social Security."

For instance, she writes, "home inspector Bob Seeberger bristled at what he said was the overly staged format of Bush's appearance.

" 'This isn't a conversation. It's a show,' he said. 'I want details, not so many lights and cameras.' "

Here's the transcript from Denver.

Cheney in Bakersfield

In the Tavares piece in the Bakersfield Californian that I mentioned above, she notes the friendly tenor of the questions fielded by Cheney and his co-host, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). One for instance, "openly ridiculed opponents to the president's proposals.

" 'How do you deal with people too dumb to know that if you don't have any changes that it will affect the younger generation,' an unidentified man asked Cheney."

Tavares reported: "While the majority of the audience was made up of staunch Republicans who acquired tickets through local service clubs and party organizations, it appeared that those who asked questions had been chosen ahead of time. Only a few people raised their hands throughout the session.

"At least two of the people chosen to ask questions hold offices in Republican Party organizations in Kern County.

"Protesters outside the event questioned whether or not it should be called a 'town hall meeting' if the majority of local citizens are not allowed to attend."

Two hecklers also got in and interrupted Cheney before being roundly booed and removed from the building.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post that the event was a bit of a turnaround for Cheney's co-host: "Thomas, who two months ago said that because of Democratic resistance Bush's proposal was a 'dead horse' and would only be a starting point for Congress, said Monday he wants 'to not only take a look at Social Security, but frankly the whole question of aging' and its effect on the government."

Here's the transcript from Bakersfield.

After the Bakersfield event, Cheney flew south to a meeting with reporters and editors at the Orange County Register.

Dena Bunis writes in the Register that Cheney spoke for 50 minutes. "We're not here to play small ball," he said.

Dealing With Loss

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate: "George W. Bush's plan to remake the Social Security system is kaput. This is not a value judgment. It's a statement of political fact. . . .

"This means that Bush is about to suffer -- and is actually in the midst of suffering -- his first major political defeat."

So, Weisberg wonders, how will he handle it?

"The first question to ask is whether Bush can face up to defeat. Not whether he can acknowledge defeat publicly: Few presidents are capable of graciously admitting their screw-ups, and this one is more reluctant to do so than most. The issue is whether Bush can acknowledge to himself that's he's belly-flopped on Social Security. If he can't, the endgame is likely to be fairly ugly for the GOP. . . .

"But Bush is a canny politician, who does not make a habit of riding his principles into the grave. He admits no mistakes but tends to discreetly adjust course."

So the biggest danger to Bush may be if his bubble prevents him from realizing that he's lost and taking appropriate action.

Weisberg writes: "Meeting only with handpicked audiences in rehearsed 'town hall' meetings, Bush not only encounters little substantive challenge to his views but also avoids getting any realistic sense of how little traction his plan has gotten. In this way, the propaganda president risks becoming the real victim of his administration's own fake news."

What's in a Name?

Robin Toner writes in the New York Times: "What's in a name? Would a personal account by any other name smell as sweet?

"Apparently not, according to strategists in the two political parties.

"In the Social Security debate, one of the most ferocious struggles is over language, whether President Bush is proposing to create 'personal' or 'private' accounts in the program, whether he is really proposing the 'privatization' of Social Security."

Ownership Society Explored

Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "In President Bush's vision of an 'ownership society,' people would have more choices and assume more risk in nearly every part of their lives. The result, in theory: They would save more, own more and rely less on the government -- even if they're elderly, low-income or both. . . .

"In practice, skeptics say, Bush's version of an 'ownership society' would mean 'you're on your own' -- unless you are well-heeled, well-informed and already an owner."

In a companion piece, Lawrence writes: "Most Americans feel comfortable managing their own money but would prefer to let the government or their employer handle pensions and health insurance decisions, a new USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll shows. The results suggest mixed prospects for President Bush's goal of an 'ownership society.' "

Here are those poll results.

Today's Calendar

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that Sen. John McCain, who joined Bush in Tucson, will also be at Bush's side today in Albuquerque, for another Social Security event.

"By Tuesday afternoon, Bush was to be back at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, with meetings scheduled there for Wednesday with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. He was to remain in Texas for an Easter break until March 28."

Schiavo Watch

While in Tucson, Bush spoke briefly about his dramatic decision to fly back from Texas to sign a bill making Terri Schiavo's fate a federal case. "Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together last night to give Terri Schiavo's parents another opportunity to save their daughter's life. (Applause.) This is a complex case with serious issues, but in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is wise to always err on the side of life. (Applause.) I appreciate the work of the Senate and the House to get that bill for me to sign last night at about 1:08 a.m. -- or this morning, at about 1:08 a.m."

Cheney touched on it during his meeting at the Orange County Register: " 'She has become an important symbol,' he said. 'This is an area of considerable debate in this country, the whole notion of the culture of life, what kind of regard we should have for human life and how should we regulate activities that touch on that. . . . This affects everything from the abortion issue to cloning to questions of what happens at the end of life.'

"Asked why federal courts could be expected to offer a 'wiser' decision than the Florida jurists, Cheney said: 'I suppose because they haven't ruled yet.' "

That sounds like an oddly sarcastic response, but maybe I'm missing something.

Charles Babington and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "Some Democrats quietly grumbled that Bush's dramatic return to Washington was orchestrated in part to curry favor with such conservatives. An unsigned memo circulated among GOP senators calling the Schiavo case 'a great political issue' bolstered that view.

"Rather than incurring the cost of flying back to Washington on Air Force One -- pegged in 1999 at $34,000 an hour -- Bush could have signed the bill in Texas a few hours later without significantly endangering Schiavo's life, critics said. Not only had doctors estimated that she could live for up to two weeks without the feeding tube, but a federal judge was not expected to hear the case until today.

" 'Obviously, Bush could have signed the bill in Texas,' said Dan Bartlett, a senior counselor to Bush. But, he added, despite the estimates of how long Schiavo could live without her feeding tube, 'it would be very hard for anyone to live with themselves' if Schiavo died because of a delay in the signing of the bill into law."

Mary Dalrymple writes for the Associated Press: "The White House said Monday that an extraordinary law allowing a federal court to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case was narrowly tailored and not intended as a precedent for Congress to step into battles over the fate of seriously disabled or terminally ill patients.

"President Bush, who rushed back to the White House from Texas, was awakened to sign the bill shortly after it was approved by the House at 12:42 a.m. Monday and then rushed to him by staff secretary Brett Kavanaugh. Bush stepped outside his bedroom and signed it at 1:11 a.m., standing in the hall of his private residence.

"Senior White House aides had been consulting with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the case for several days, and the Justice Department had provided 'technical support' to congressional lawyers, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said as Bush flew to Tucson, Ariz., for a speech."

Here's the transcript of McClellan's gaggle.

Here's the text of the Schiavo bill.

The Texas Law

Lots of conflicting interpretations today about the 1999 Texas law that Bush critics say shows how hypocritical he is being about the Schiavo case.

Joel Havemann and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "A Texas law signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1999 allowing an end to life-sustaining treatment for certain patients became a point of contention Monday in the Terri Schiavo case, sharpening the focus on the president's eleventh-hour intervention in the question of the woman's fate."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "President Bush, now championing the right of Terri Schiavo's parents to decide whether her feeding tube should be reinserted, signed a Texas law in 1999 giving spouses top priority in making such decisions.

"By siding with Schiavo's parents, who have been in a prolonged battle with her husband about removing the feeding tube that has kept her alive for 15 years, Bush ran counter to the Texas measure. The state law says that in cases in which a patient has not signed a directive about life-prolonging care, the patient's spouse -- unless there is a court-appointed guardian -- makes the call. The patient's parents are third, behind 'reasonably available adult children' and ahead of the 'the patient's nearest living relative.' "

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "The Texas law allows a patient's surrogate, like Ms. Schiavo's husband, the right to make end-of-life decisions. But it ultimately gives hospitals the right to withdraw life support if there is no hope of revival, regardless of family wishes. Under the law, a critically ill 5-month-old was taken off life support and allowed to die last week in Texas, even though his mother objected."

In yesterday's gaggle, McClellan said that critics are making "uninformed accusations" and that the president's positions have been consistent.

Neil Bush Watch

Pam Easton writes for the Associated Press: "The ex-wife of President Bush's brother Neil has settled a slander case accusing her of spreading rumors that Neil Bush fathered a child with his mistress. The terms of the settlement were not immediately disclosed. DNA testing last year showed Neil Bush did not father the boy, then 3."

The New, Relaxed Bush

Jean-Louis Doublet writes for AFP: "US President George W. Bush has brought a newly relaxed and confident style since winning reelection in November, and is holding monthly news conferences after a first term in which they were rare. . . .

"The September 11, 2001 terrorist strikes and the war in Iraq brought out his somber side and gave him renewed purpose and confidence, while his reelection in November has allowed him to relax a little.

"One of the most obvious shifts is his changing relationship with the media: He still bristles when journalists challenge him on certain issues, but he seems no longer to dread press conferences."

Bush's Formative Moment

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Two years after President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq, the decision itself -- more than the war or the insurgency that followed -- remains the defining event of his presidency.

"Bush's skepticism of international alliances and institutions -- now the most striking facet of his foreign policy -- was hardly visible before that decision. . . .

"Moreover, Bush's firmness of resolve -- the unwillingness to yield to critics that some people admire as courage and others deride as stubbornness -- was also less in evidence before the Iraq decision. . . .

"No one can fully explain Bush's change in attitude, just like no one can exactly pinpoint why he felt the need to go to war when he did."

And after the war, Canellos writes: "Bush behaved as if he were adhering to a long-planned strategy, even when the lack of preparedness on the ground indicated otherwise.

"More likely, the pressure to justify his actions led to the creation of the plan, redefining his goal from eliminating weapons of mass destruction to promoting freedom."

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