A Losing Fight?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; 10:52 AM

After the November election, President Bush and his aides didn't stop running, they just shifted from one campaign to another. Having won a second term, they set off to remake Social Security.

But so far, at least, they're not winning this one.

And -- as often happens in a listing campaign -- it's not just the message, but the tactics that are coming under closer scrutiny. One issue is this: It was one thing to campaign for re-election according to the Rovian playbook -- expanding the base, brooking no dissent, appearing only before supportive crowds. But it may be another thing to govern that way.

Social Security Private Accounts: On Life Support

It would be exaggerating to say that the mainstream media today are declaring Bush's Social Security ambitions dead. But they're certainly seeing a lot of problems.

Mike Allen and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "The Senate's top Republican said yesterday that President Bush's bid to restructure Social Security may have to wait until next year and might not involve the individual accounts the White House has been pushing hard.

"The comments of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), made as GOP lawmakers returned from a week of trying to sell the plan to voters, underscored the challenge facing the White House, especially in light of unbroken Democratic opposition."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's drive to overhaul Social Security is in trouble, and while it is far too soon to declare it doomed, it faces obstacles on all sides. . . .

"White House officials said Tuesday that the president's goal of getting legislation enacted this year was still achievable. But on Capitol Hill, Republican leaders, while maintaining their support for Mr. Bush's approach, appeared intent on dampening expectations of quick action and easing the anxiety within their ranks. . . .

"Noting that it had been only a month since the State of the Union speech, Nicolle Devenish, the White House communications director, said: 'If you look at what the president has been able to do in terms of elevating the issue, explaining a program riddled with terms like "bend points" that are hard for busy families to wrap their brains around, the intensity with which we have engaged in the public campaign and the legislative process, we feel good about where we are. But we recognize there is much more to be done.' "

(What are these "bend points" Devenish is talking about? Well, they are indeed a complicated aspect of the highly progressive Social Security benefits calculation. But since Bush hasn't said one word about how he'd like to adjust benefits, "bend points" have hardly been an issue in the debate.)

Jill Zuckman and William Neikirk write in the Chicago Tribune: "Returning from a weeklong discussion with voters apprehensive about President Bush's Social Security plans, Republicans on Capitol Hill appeared deeply uncertain Tuesday on how to move forward, and even Bush's staunchest supporters said any action is a long way off."

Janet Hook and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "Some Republicans say they never expected the complex issue to move quickly through Congress. But some senior strategists have contended that Bush has only a small window of opportunity to get his initiative in motion."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun that some Republicans are asking "about whether Bush has a 'Plan B' for achieving his top domestic priority this year."

The End to Rove's Streak?

Brendan Murray writes in Bloomberg News: "As President George W. Bush crisscrosses the U.S. promoting his plan to set up private Social Security accounts, a familiar face from past campaigns is usually close by: political strategist Karl Rove. . . .

"The Social Security fight has all the trappings of a Rove campaign: the targeting of key constituencies; the marshalling of the Republican Party apparatus; the enlistment of allies among Democrats; and the encouragement of well-heeled outside supporters, often to mount attacks on the opposition."

Another trapping: The one-sided nature of the alleged debate.

" 'It seems to be about selling rather than listening,' says Paul O'Neill, Bush's first Treasury secretary."

Murray writes: "Defeat might dash the hopes of Republicans and Rove -- the man credited with turning Texas from a Democrat-controlled state to a Republican one -- for long-term political dominance."

Bubble Watch

Bush is headed for Westfield, N.J., and South Bend, Ind., on Friday, for two more of his joke-filled, talk-show style "conversations" on Social Security. (Then next week, it's off to Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana.)

In what is the new standard operating procedure for this White House, indications are that his fellow panelists will be carefully picked and prepped to agree with him, and that the audience will be screened of dissenters, packed with supporters.

Julia M. Scott writes in the Newark Star-Ledger that the distribution of tickets by the White House has come under attack from a Westfield city councilman.

"The lone Democrat on the town's nine-member council objected to a town hall-style meeting being run like a campaign visit, with supporters packing the crowd.

" 'If the event is being billed as a town hall meeting for the purpose of eliciting views on one of his policy initiatives, there would be an expectation that people having differing views may be in attendance,' Councilman Lawrence Goldman said."

President of All the People?

Over on NiemanWatchdog.org, the other Web site I work for, an authority on the presidency today writes that Bush may actually be inventing a new political practice for a sitting president, by only speaking before screened audiences.

Jeffrey K. Tulis, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Rhetorical Presidency," writes that George Washington "was intent on establishing the precedent that the president was chosen to represent the whole country, not just his partisan supporters."

Presidents traditionally didn't stump for policy, either. And, Tulis writes, "when Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson began the modern practice of appealing over the heads of Congress to the people at large on speaking tours -- which they did to politically diverse audiences -- they both felt compelled to defend and justify their departure from previous practice."

So Tulis lists some questions he thinks the press should be asking about Bush's new practice and how it fits with the traditions of the American presidency.

Bush has thus far not been asked in public about the screened audiences. And the closest I've seen to a White House justification for the new practice was this nonresponsive answer from Press Secretary Scott McClellan, in the Feb. 16 gaggle:

"Q If the goal is to convince people who have doubts about the problem of Social Security, why do, it seems like we go to these rallies where people mostly seem to agree with the President. Why not -- is there some question as to whether the President's base of support is doubting the plan? Or at what point will you --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree with your characterization. One, the President is reaching out to all Americans. This is an issue that affects all Americans. So he's reaching out to all Americans in that regard."

The History of the Bubble

Bush's bubble first emerged as a serious news story during the campaign -- in particular when he seemed unprepared for his first debate. It reemerged after the election, as Bush opted against new blood for his second term and instead gave increased power to loyalty-tested aides. And now, the protective bubble appears to have become standard practice wherever he goes -- even when he's abroad. Bush's aides cancelled a town-hall meeting in Germany after German officials reportedly wouldn't screen the questions.

Here's a quick trip down memory lane via some old White House Briefing columns:

October 4, 2004. I noted that Bush's first debate with John Kerry was the first time in a long time that Bush found himself in public with someone who disagreed with him. Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post that "the public has generally not seen the president's more petulant side, in part because he is rarely challenged in a public venue." Syndicated columnist Richard Reeves wrote: "[H]e is the boy in the bubble. And the bubble moves with him around the country as his staff and the Secret Service protect him from any unpleasant words or people."

October 8, 2004. Mike Allen wrote in The Washington Post: "Although all presidents are kept somewhat removed from reality because of security concerns and their staffs' impulse for burnishing their image, Bush's campaign has taken unprecedented steps to shield him from dissenters and even from curious, undecided voters."

Oct. 28, 2004. I wrote that Bush was reaching out to Democratic voters -- but wasn't letting them get anywhere near him. Dan Eggen wrote in The Washington Post: "As Bush has traveled the United States during this political campaign, the Secret Service and local police have often handled public protest by quickly arresting or removing demonstrators, free-speech advocates say. In addition, access to Bush's events has been unusually tightly controlled and people who do not support Bush's reelection have been removed. . . . Tickets to Bush events, distributed by the Republican Party, go only to those who volunteer or donate to the party or, in some cases, sign an endorsement of the GOP ticket and provide names and addresses. Party workers police the crowds for signs of Kerry supporters, who are frequently evicted."

Nov. 16, 2004. New blood? No way. I wrote that instead, Bush's top advisers were tightening their grip on power by removing outliers and installing loyalty-tested aides from the first term into all the key positions for the second.

Feb. 4. I wrote that Bush was barnstorming through five states to try to drum up support for remaking Social Security, but instead of fleshing things out and confronting his critics, was surrounding himself with hand-picked flatterers and adoring crowds.

Feb. 8. I asked: Should Tax Dollars Fund Bush's Bubble?

Feb. 18. I wrote that only about half the expected crowd showed up at Bush's Feb. 16 Social Security event in New Hampshire event, leaving a lot of empty chairs that were eventually removed. But reader Tinka Pritchett, a Democrat, asked for a ticket and wasn't given one.

Not Just for Social Security

The new practice isn't just for Social Security, either. Today, for instance, Bush is holding a "conversation on job training" at Anne Arundel Community College.

Adrian Brune wrote in yesterday's Annapolis Capital that tickets were distributed by the state Republican headquarters in Annapolis.

"Mr. Bush will appear before an audience of about 600-700 people using what a White House spokesman called a 'conversation' format, addressing the audience for a few minutes, then talking with about five to seven pre-selected students about their community college experiences. The White House declined to identify the students, and college officials said they haven't been told who has been chosen. . . .

"A spokesman for the state GOP this morning said all of the tickets available for the public were taken by 8:30 a.m. today."

Today's Calendar

In addition to the job training event in the morning, Bush has two sports-themed events in the afternoon.

First, he participates in the Congressional Gold Medal ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson, on Capitol Hill.

Then he hosts the Boston Red Sox at the White House.

Tony Massarotti writes in the Boston Herald: "As surely as a baseball team takes a champagne shower after winning the World Series, so too does it earn that most prestigious of all perks: an invitation to the White House.

"Today, roughly four months after winning their first World Series title since Woodrow Wilson ran the country, the renegade 2004 Red Sox will visit the nation's capital. Johnny Damon, Kevin Millar and Curt Schilling will be among those to shake hands with President Bush, a reality that prompted Sox outfielder Trot Nixon to place the Secret Service on alert.

" 'Kevin could be in trouble,' Nixon said of the anticipated meeting between Bush and, in particular, Millar. 'He could get shot.' "

Revolt Against the SAOs?

A victory yesterday for reporters objecting to "senior administration officials" holding mass briefings on background.

Yesterday, shortly after 11 a.m., the White House announced: "There will be a Background Briefing via conference call by a Senior Administration Official on the President's Faith Based and Community Initiatives at 2:00 pm EST."

But the White House relented. And the transcript sent out later in the afternoon (but not Web-posted) starts as follows:

"2:36 P.M. EST

"MR. DUFFY: Good afternoon. This is Trent Duffy, from the press office. Thanks for joining us. We have changed the ground rules for this briefing, so that it is an on-the-record briefing.

"With us today, of course, we have Jim Towey, who is the Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, to talk about the news the President made today."

"Jim, please go ahead."

Faith Based Initiatives

Bush spoke yesterday at the annual Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference. Here's the transcript.

Peter Baker and Alan Cooperman write in The Washington Post: "Setting out a second-term blueprint for advancing his faith-based initiative, Bush highlighted legislation, heading to the House floor today, that would allow religious charities to hire and fire based on religious beliefs even while receiving federal funding. If Congress does not follow his lead, Bush warned that he would try to circumvent lawmakers by using executive powers. . . .

"Two weeks ago, a former Bush aide published a rare attack on the White House, complaining that the president's 'promises remain unfulfilled in spirit and in fact' in part because of 'minimal senior White House commitment to the faith-based agenda.'

"Without directly referring to that criticism, Bush assured an audience of community and religious leaders gathered at a Washington hotel yesterday that his dedication to the cause remains undiminished. 'I am here to talk about my continued commitment to faith-based and community groups because I'm firmly committed to making sure every American can realize the promise of our country,' he said."

That rare attack last month came from David Kuo, who was deputy director of that same office for much of Bush's first term, on the Beliefnet Web site.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "In his bluntest remark, the president said religious charities that accepted federal money were not allowed to discriminate against people of other faiths."

Bumiller quotes Bush's comments: "What that means is if you're the Methodist church and you sponsor an alcohol treatment center, they can't say only Methodists, only Methodists who drink too much can come to our program. All drunks are welcome, is what the sign ought to say."

Bumiller notes: "Mr. Bush is a Methodist, and by his account used to drink too much."

And she adds: "His critics have long countered that he is promoting the view of a highly religious White House, breaking down barriers between church and state and using taxpayer money to promote organized religion."

But like many reporters today who quoted Bush's comment about drunks, Bumiller omitted the very last part of his quote, one that is considerably more enigmatic.

"All drunks are welcome, is what the sign ought to say," he said, then added: "Welcome to be saved, so they become sober."

The White House yesterday released an overview of 2004 grants.

The latest detailed list of recipients dates back to 2003, was recently obtained by the Associated Press, and is available here or here.

Cheney Watch

President Cheney? So suggests Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard, calling Cheney "the obvious man for Bush to tap as his successor in 2008."

"In all likelihood, the 2008 election, like last year's contest, will focus on foreign policy. The war on terror, national security, and the struggle for democracy will probably dominate American politics for a decade or more. Bush's legacy, or at least part of it, will be to have returned these issues to a position of paramount concern for future presidents. And who is best qualified to pursue that agenda as knowledgeably and aggressively as Bush? The answer is the person who helped Bush formulate it, namely Cheney."

Bush vs. the Press

Eric Boehlert writes in Salon: "Recent headlines about paid-off pundits, video press releases disguised as news telecasts, and the remarkable press access granted to a right-wing psuedo-journalist working under a phony name, have led some to conclude that the White House is not simply aggressively managing the news, but is out to sabotage the press corps from within, to undermine the integrity and reputation of journalism itself. . . .

"The systematic effort to undercut journalists, to strip them of their traditional influence in national affairs, represents the Bush administration taking steps to 'decertify' the professional press corps by 'trying to unseat the idea that these people, professional journalists assigned to cover politics, have a legitimate role to play in our politics,' according to Jay Rosen, journalism professor at New York University. He views that effort, along with James Guckert's (aka Jeff Gannon's) ascension at White House press briefings, as being closely linked: 'Creating "Jeff Gannon" as a credible White House correspondent and creating radical doubt about the intentions of mainstream journalists (in order to decertify the traditional press) are two parts of the same effort.' "

Here is Rosen's blog post on Gannon and the press corps.

Here is blogger Garrett M. Graff's report on day two of his attempts to crack the White House briefing room.

By annotating Peter Baker's recent observations in The Washington Post on the Russian press corps, blogger billmon suggests things aren't that different over here.

Billmon also finds some irony in the Bush administration creating a "war room" for Social Security, per Mike Allen's story in The Washington Post yesterday. He digs up this quote from a speech by Cheney in 2001: "The days of the so-called war room and the permanent campaign are over. This president and this administration are going to change the tone in the city of Washington."

Froomkin Watch

This column will go dark Thursday and Friday, as I'll be off at a conference called "Whose News? Media, Technology and the Common Good" being held at the home of my other employer, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. You can, of course, follow all the exciting action on the conference's blog.

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