What Trumps What in the White House?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 24, 2005; 2:51 PM

President Bush's hasty embrace of federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case -- followed by yesterday's partial retreat -- has some folks trying to ascertain the relative importance to the White House of such factors as the "culture of life," state's rights, activist judges, the gun culture, global catastrophes and brute political calculation.

Here's how one reader put it in my Live Online discussion yesterday: "Now we learn that the Republicans have a trumping order of issues. The sanctity of marriage trumps the rights of gays and state's rights, but the 'culture of life' trumps the sanctity of marriage and state's rights. . . .

"Could you or some reporter you know please ask for a flow chart or block diagram for us to follow?"

No such luck. But here are some data points.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Does the 'culture of life' extend to the victims of gun violence?

"That's the question critics are asking after President Bush's contrasting responses to the two events dominating national attention this week.

"Although Bush made a special trip back to Washington from vacation to sign legislation offering a new federal right of appeal to Terri Schiavo's parents, the president and his aides have said almost nothing about the mass shooting in Red Lake, Minn. -- the deadliest outbreak of school violence since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo. . . .

"Bush's responses to the Schiavo case and the school shootings track with the preferences of two of his core constituencies.

"Conservative Christians pressed Bush to intervene for Schiavo, while the National Rifle Assn. and other gun-owner groups generally look to minimize the relevance of political responses to mass shootings."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The legal struggle over the fate of Terri Schiavo is exposing what some see as a credibility gap for the Bush administration, Republicans in Congress and social conservatives who want to rid the federal judiciary of so-called activist judges and even strip them of authority.

"In the Schiavo case, President Bush and congressional Republicans exhorted the judiciary to intervene, having passed extraordinary legislation over the weekend giving her case a day in federal court. The maneuver expanded rather than contracted federal power, and appeared to encourage the sort of activism that they had long condemned."

Also consider the much-remarked-upon contrast between the alacrity with which Bush responded to the Schiavo case -- rousting himself from his ranch, and then from his slumber -- and his slow response to the tsunami disaster.

And then there's Bush's death-penalty record in Texas, which suggests that he might not have "erred on the side of life" when it came to approving a record number of executions.

Watching the Polls?

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush suggested Wednesday that he and Congress could do no more in the Terri Schiavo case but he hoped federal courts would decide to prolong the Florida woman's life. The White House said it had run out of legal options. . . .

"Bush, speaking during a joint appearance at Baylor University here with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, said he and GOP leaders did their best to help Schiavo's parents prolong her life.

" 'And we felt like the actions taken with Congress was the best course of action,' Bush said. 'This is an extraordinary and sad case, and I believe that in a case such as this, the legislative branch, the executive branch ought to err on the side of life, which we have. And now we'll watch the courts make its decisions. But we looked at all options from the executive branch perspective.' "

Here's the transcript.

Bill Plante reports on the CBS Evening News that Bush's restrained comments yesterday were "a far cry from him rushing back to sign the bill that Congress passed."

And Plante apparently has a hunch why.

"Certainly, what drove the Congress and the president was at least in part compassion for this terrible situation.

"Now that said, we know that the White House keeps a very close eye on public opinion, and we have to assume that they're reading the same polls that we are, that shows that the public just doesn't want them involved. . . .

"Our poll shows that across the board, people don't think the federal government should have been involved here . . . even a majority of evangelical Christians."

That new CBS Poll finds: "Americans have strong feelings about the Terri Schiavo case, and a majority says the feeding tube should not now be re-inserted. This view is shared by Americans of all political persuasions. Most think the feeding tube should have been removed, and most also do not think the U.S. Supreme Court should hear the case.

Approval Ratings Down Sharply

The CBS poll also shows a sharp decline in Bush's job approval rating, down six points in a month to 43 percent, with his disapproval rating up four points to 48.

Similarly, a Newsweek poll last week showed Bush's approval rating down five points to 45 percent, with his disapproval rating up six points to 48 percent.

Yes, you read that correctly. That's two polls now showing that more people disapprove of the president than approve. The last time that happened, in both those polls, was in October.

Now mind you, there are other recent polls that show no such thing, as the invaluable pollingreport.com shows.

So what's unclear is whether CBS and Newsweek are outliers -- or bellwethers.

Valerie Plame Watch

Typically, the press establishment salivates over the potential indictment of a White House aide.

But by threatening to jail reporters who don't reveal their confidential sources, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has motivated 36 news organizations, including The Washington Post and major broadcast and cable television news networks, to argue publicly that there is "ample evidence . . . to doubt that a crime has been committed" in the Valerie Plame case.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "A federal court should first determine whether a crime has been committed in the disclosure of an undercover CIA operative's name before prosecutors are allowed to continue seeking testimony from journalists about their confidential sources, the nation's largest news organizations and journalism groups asserted in a court filing yesterday."

The Three (Not So) Amigos

At most diplomatic summits, the bonhomie and joint announcements typically mask the simmering resentments. But yesterday, not so much.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "By inviting Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin to meet him here, and later to join him for lunch and a ties-off tour of his nearby ranch, Bush tried to put the rifts of his first term behind him just as he had done during his recent trip to Europe. But the one-day summit did nothing to resolve the underlying issues that have stirred resentment to both the north and the south.

" 'Look, we've got differences,' Bush said at a news conference with Fox and Martin after their main talks at Baylor University. 'I don't know if you'd categorize them as differences that would then prevent us from finding common ground. I don't view it that way. I understand why people disagree with certain decisions I have made, but that doesn't prevent us from cooperating.'

"The other two leaders echoed the sentiments and largely focused on areas of agreement rather than conflict. But each also made sure to raise nettlesome points with Bush, both in public and in private, with Fox lobbying for the liberalization of U.S. immigration rules and Martin pushing for trade relief for Canadian beef and softwood lumber. . . .

"Bush offered nothing new to his guests on those fronts."

Peter Wallsten and Chris Kraul write in the Los Angeles Times: "Playing host to the leaders of Canada and Mexico at his ranch Wednesday, President Bush took pains to accentuate the positive, talking up a new agreement among the three nations to improve coordination on security and economic matters.

"But even Bush, a self-proclaimed optimist, could not avoid the nagging tensions that continue to hamper the relations between the U.S. and its neighbors -- tensions that loomed over the meeting. . . .

"White House officials had hoped to keep the day's focus on what they called a historic accomplishment: the creation of the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America. But officials revealed little about the agreement."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle about something that might indeed turn into big news: "President Bush suggested that the key to greater prosperity for all is to persuade South American countries to enter a trade agreement with North America. . . .

"In order to remain competitive and secure, Bush said, free trade must eventually encompass the entire hemisphere, fostering democracy, transparency and the rule of law."

Here's the transcript of the joint press conference in Waco. And here's a fact sheet on the new initiative.

Immigration Watch

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "President Bush promised the leaders of Mexico and Canada at a meeting on Wednesday that he would continue pressing for changes in United States immigration policy. But he also sought to lower expectations that a guest-worker program would gain momentum on Capitol Hill, where it has faced resistance for years. . . .

"Republicans are divided over immigration, with some conservatives seeking stricter border controls and moderates supporting the administration's call to give some illegal immigrants amnesty if they have been in the country at least three years. Many of the immigrants who would qualify are Mexican, and the proposal has long been sought by Mr. Fox."

G. Robert Hillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "In an interview before Wednesday's summit, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove said administration officials have been working behind the scenes to find common elements among the various legislative proposals that can be 'bundled together' into a compromise package.

"Unlike Social Security, he said, immigration is 'an issue that's bubbled through Congress and about which people have prepared bills and made proposals over the years.'

" 'We're going to press hard for it,' he said."

James G. Lakely writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush yesterday said he opposes a civilian project to monitor illegal aliens crossing the border, characterizing them as 'vigilantes.' "

No Southfork

Alan Freeman writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "This may be Texas and President George W. Bush may like to walk with a bit of a regional swagger but his new house is no Southfork, the over-the-top pile of the Ewings on TV's Dallas. Instead, it is a low-slung building with a large wraparound porch that appears to fit effortlessly into the landscape."

Freeman describes how reporters tried to ask the leaders some questions during their shirtsleeved photo op: "Then came the question, shouted by a Canadian journalist to Mr. Martin, wondering how the Bush ranch was different from the Martin spread in Quebec's Eastern Townships and whether he planned to invite his NAFTA friends for a visit.

" 'There's no snow, no snow,' was Mr. Martin's response, adding that he would invite both Mr. Bush and Mr. Fox to his farm.

"Later, Mr. Martin seemed less certain about the invitation, telling a news conference that it was all premature and asserting that it was the reporter who had actually done the inviting in the first place."

Social Security Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The two independent trustees overseeing Social Security and Medicare broke with the Bush administration's trustees yesterday, saying Medicare's financial problems far exceed Social Security's and are in urgent need of attention.

"Republican Thomas R. Saving and Democrat John L. Palmer said Social Security's condition has changed little since they joined the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees in 2000. But in the trustees' report released yesterday, they wrote that Medicare's prospects have 'deteriorated dramatically' with rising medical costs and the addition in 2003 of a prescription drug benefit. . . .

"The three trustees from the Bush Cabinet -- Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Health and Human Services Secretary Michael O. Leavitt and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao -- chose to emphasize Social Security's problems almost exclusively at the report's release."

Glen Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "A new report on the financial health of Social Security changed the numbers only slightly and the terms of the political debate even less so."

Greg Ip and Jackie Calmes write in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration is weighing a change in its proposal for private Social Security accounts that would make them more attractive to workers, though potentially more costly to the government.

"President Bush wants to let workers divert some payroll taxes to personal investment accounts in exchange for accepting lower Social Security benefits at retirement than workers who shun private accounts. The White House has said the formula for calculating benefit reductions would make private accounts a better deal for workers who choose them, as long as the stocks and bonds in the accounts earn at least 3% a year above inflation.

"The White House is reconsidering that formula, say people familiar with its deliberations. A lower number would give an account-holder a bigger benefit, thereby making the option more attractive to workers. National Economic Council director Allan Hubbard said in an interview yesterday that the administration is 'open-minded' about a lower percentage 'offset' than 3%."

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "In an interview at the White House on Wednesday, Allan B. Hubbard, chairman of the president's National Economic Council, insisted that Mr. Bush's plan did not envision any reduction in the Social Security benefits now received by the disabled. The administration has never been so explicit on this point.

"Mr. Hubbard also stressed the favorable view the White House takes of an idea called 'progressive indexation' developed by Robert Pozen, an investment executive who served on Mr. Bush's advisory commission on Social Security in 2001. Mr. Pozen's proposal would give lower-income retirees an advantage in computing benefits over retirees who were better off."

Michael Kranish writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush's postelection declaration that he is willing to consider cutting future Social Security benefits or increase the amount of wages subject to taxation has disenchanted a number of leading conservative activists, who are now pushing him to adopt a plan that would have larger personal accounts and be financed with budget cuts.

"In recent days, conservative authors have published articles and memos with headlines such as 'With all due respect, Mr. President, You're Wrong,' along with protests that the Republican message on Social Security has become 'pay more, work longer, get less.' Bush, they say, has strayed from his campaign message about the importance of personal accounts in overhauling Social Security."

Bubble Watch

Christopher Cooper, writing in the Wall Street Journal, looks at the advance work -- and the goals -- underpinning Bush's Social Security events.

He describes how the Rev. Larry Brandon, an African-American minister, found himself at a pre-event screening session with a White House official. "As a result of the interview, planners decided to place Mr. Brandon on the dais with the president for the event. He responded with effusive praise, telling Mr. Bush, 'I thank God for your approach that you are running towards this Goliath, to slay this Goliath.' "

Cooper writes that while only inviting supporters, the White House is nevertheless reaching out to a range of minority constituencies with these events.

Today's Calendar

Bush is hunkered down in Crawford, with nothing on his public schedule.

But Vice President Cheney is on the road, headed to Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek, Mich., and La Roche College in McCandless, Pa., to pitch Bush's Social Security ideas.

Cheney Watch

Bill Straub writes for Scripps Howard News Service: "Vice President Dick Cheney, who has avoided the spotlight since taking the oath of office for a second term more than two months ago, is once again stepping from the shadows to tout President Bush's Social Security plan and boost White House foreign policy goals. . . .

"Cheney has been keeping a low profile over the past several weeks. But with Bush engaged in a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin, followed by a short vacation at his Texas ranch, it has fallen on Cheney to push the Social Security issue."

Ray Hagar writes in the Reno Gazette-Journal about Cheney's event there Tuesday.

"Cheney spoke for less than an hour before an estimated 300 people at the Neil Road recreation center. He took six questions from the audience before leaving, but none from reporters."

(This item has been corrected: Cheney spoke in Reno on Tuesday, not yesterday, and a question previously quoted here was not actually asked directly of Cheney.)

Trip Watch

The White House announced this morning: "President Bush will travel to Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia, and Georgia from May 6-10 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. . . .

"In Riga, Latvia, President Bush will meet the Presidents of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in addition to a bilateral program. In the Netherlands, the President will hold bilateral meetings and commemorate Victory in Europe Day at the Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial at Margraten near Maastricht. President Bush will then travel to Moscow, Russia to participate in the World War II commemoration ceremony and to meet President Putin. The President will conclude his trip with a visit to Tbilisi, Georgia to underscore his support for democracy, historic reform, and peaceful conflict resolution."

Twins Watch

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "Is presidential daughter Barbara Bush following through on her previously announced intentions to work with HIV-afflicted children overseas? We hear that she held a going-away party in Washington last week to announce her move to Africa, but details were sparse -- and the White House yesterday declined to comment, citing its policy of not discussing the private lives of Barbara or her twin, Jenna."

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