Time for Full Throttle

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 13, 2005; 12:57 PM

Having failed to win the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's endorsement of John Bolton as United Nations ambassador, the vaunted White House political machine now opens its throttle even wider.

Every possibly wayward Senate Republican is now likely to face the same sort of intense pressure from the White House that those on the foreign relations committee were getting.

Administration officials, who at least succeeded in getting the nomination to a floor vote, say they are confident they will prevail in the GOP-controlled Senate -- and might even pick up some Democratic votes.

But it's also possible that the White House political machine is in danger of burning out. Because it's not just about Bolton. There are other challenges ahead as well, including Social Security, the battle over judicial nominations, the highway bill and CAFTA.

Ronald Brownstein writes in a Los Angeles Times news analysis: "All the polarizing political dynamics of George W. Bush's presidency condensed into a single illuminating episode Thursday, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance the nomination of John R. Bolton. . . .

"The vote demonstrated again Bush's willingness to live on the political edge -- to accept achingly narrow margins in Congress and at the ballot box to pursue ambitious changes that sharply divide the country. . . .

"This approach has allowed Bush to move more of his agenda into law than appeared possible for a president twice elected with narrow majorities in the electoral college. But it has also bitterly divided the country over his presidency, and so alienated congressional Democrats that Bush often needs virtually lock-step Republican support to pass his priorities.

"The next few weeks will severely test Bush's ability to maintain that partisan unity, as Congress approaches explosive battles over ending filibusters of judicial nominees and restructuring Social Security -- as well as the Senate floor vote on Bolton."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Bolton's inability to win unconditional approval amounted to a rebuke of the White House, which has put tremendous pressure on Republican lawmakers to support Bolton. Several GOP lawmakers on the committee expressed deep misgivings, though they said they would vote for him, while the committee chairman, Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), gave only lukewarm support during a 42-minute speech rebutting Democratic attacks."

Bill Plante reports for CBS News: "This was a bit of an embarrassment for the Whites House and a bit of a failure -- a rare failure -- for the White House political operation."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg describes in the New York Times just how intense that White House political operation was.

"President Bush called the dissenting Republican, Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio, on Wednesday, the day before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Mr. Voinovich serves, was to take up the nomination, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said.

"Karl Rove, the president's powerful political adviser, and Andrew H. Card Jr., the chief of staff, also called to chat with Mr. Voinovich in recent weeks, Mr. McClellan said.

"And Mr. Voinovich, who has steadfastly refused to answer questions about any discussions with the White House, is hardly the only Republican who is feeling the squeeze these days."

The GOP Split on Social Security

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post about how Republicans are split between those who back the White House's move to cut Social Security benefits and those who believe "that large private investment accounts and trillions of dollars in government borrowing could ensure Social Security's long-term solvency with no benefit cuts whatsoever. . . .

"White House aides have been trying to put the public dispute to rest for months, if not years. But their failure to do so has left the GOP looking divided, next to united Democrats, who say they will not negotiate until Bush puts aside his call for private accounts financed through Social Security taxes."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "Most Americans don't trust President Bush's motives when it comes to overhauling Social Security, a recent Harris Interactive poll shows.

"In fact, only 36% of all adults say Mr. Bush's comments on saving and strengthening Social Security are his real motives for changing the program, while 49% believe his real agenda is to dismantle it."

What About Social Security and the Disabled?

Dear President Bush: Are Social Security disability benefits on the table, or off?

Because judging from recent White House pronouncements, the answer is off and on and off and on.

Disabled workers and their dependents account for 17 percent of total Social Security benefits paid each year. They're a particularly vulnerable bunch. And precisely because Social Security disability insures people whose careers are cut short, private accounts are not going to be a factor for them one way or the other.

So would their benefits be reduced as part of a White House backed plan? Who knows?

Here's Bush at a Social Security event in Florida on Feb. 4: "[T]here is a Social Security benefit as a part of -- there is a disability benefit as a part of Social Security. It won't change. We're talking about the retirement aspect of Social Security."

Here's Vice President Cheney in Georgia on May 2: "[W]e have not at this stage addressed the disability issues. That is, we haven't proposed any change in the disability programs at this point. It may well be that it needs to be addressed or looked at, and that's entirely possible. But what we're proposing so far doesn't relate to, or address those issues at all."

Here's Allan Hubbard , chairman of the White House's National Economic Council, in an Associated Press story on Wednesday: "The president is committed to making sure the disabled are taken care of just as they've been promised they'd be taken care of."

And here's White House spokesman Trent Duffy quoted in an Associated Press story filed late last night:

"Any plan that maintains current disability benefits will need to address the transition to retirement, and those details will be worked out through the legislative process."

The AP's David Espo translated: "Future Social Security retirement benefits for disabled workers is a matter for negotiations with Congress as it drafts solvency legislation, the Bush administration said Thursday, declining to say whether they should be raised, lowered or left unchanged."

Don't Bother the President

It's an image that isn't easy to forget: As official Washington bugged out Wednesday in the face of a possible terrorist attack, President Bush was on a bike ride and wasn't told a thing. See yesterday's column for background.

John Roberts reports on the CBS Evening News: "The fact no one informed him that the first lady had been whisked to a bunker, the vice president moved and the government's emergency plan launched, would seem extraordinary.

"The White House insists the president didn't need to know."

Roberts then shows a clip of his own question to press secretary Scott McClellan yesterday:

Roberts: "The fact that the President wasn't in danger is one aspect of this. But he's also the Commander-in-Chief. There was a military operation underway. Other people were in contact with the White House. Shouldn't the Commander-in-Chief have been notified of what was going on?"

McClellan: "John, the protocols that we put in place after September 11th were being followed. They did not require presidential authority for this situation."

Roberts also shows footage of Mike Woods, Bush's biking buddy, who upon his return to the White House yesterday is clearly surprised to hear from a reporter that there was a fuss while they were away.

It was an extraordinarily contentious press briefing yesterday, worth a read if you have the time.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The White House on Thursday defended the decision to not interrupt President Bush during a bike ride to inform him of a suspected threat that led to the evacuation of thousands -- including his wife -- from government buildings. . . .

"White House press secretary Scott McClellan said a review was under way on how the situation was handled, but he said Bush was not upset that he was not filled in. . . .

"But Leon Panetta, a chief of staff to former President Clinton, said there is no reason to leave a president out of the loop, no matter how short-lived a situation is.

" 'I don't think there is a legitimate excuse for not telling the president of the United States about that kind of potential emergency,' he said. 'It was serious that it happened and it could have been even more serious. . . . That is something that just simply cannot happen again.'"

Stewart M. Powell writes for the Hearst News Service: "The White House launched an investigation Thursday into the 47-minute delay in notifying President Bush about the intrusion of a single-engine aircraft into restricted airspace over the nation's capital that provoked emergency evacuations."

McClellan used the word "protocols" 34 times in about 25 minutes, insisting that they had been followed -- though he wouldn't say what they are.

"Q Scott, may I just maybe take a slight step back? Aside from the particulars of what happened yesterday and when, maybe the larger issue has to do with whether this President is sufficiently at the levers of power on his job during the day or night. When we think of the event at the ASNE meeting, when the President said he didn't know about the issue of possibly requiring passports of all Americans who are returning from Canada or Mexico until he read it in the papers -- and I think that's the larger question we're all trying to get at.

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I disagree and I think that's unfounded. Absolutely the President is. I disagree with your characterization completely, and I think the American people reject that, as well. And the President was informed immediately upon the conclusion of the bike ride, as well, about what had occurred. But by that point, it was well in hand. . . .

"Q Might there be something wrong with protocols that render the President unnecessary when the alarm is going off at his house?

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's not at all what occurred, Ken. And I would disagree strongly with the way you characterize it for the reasons I started earlier, and that I talked about. This was a situation where the President was in an off-site location. He was not in danger, a situation where protocols have been put in place to address the situation. The protocols were followed. . . ."

Skip Day?

Anne Schroeder writes in the Washington Post Names & Faces column: "News that President Bush was out biking Wednesday during the red alert left Washington residents wondering: Can I skip out of work on a weekday afternoon to ride my bike? And if I do, might I see the president tooling around on a trail somewhere, an army of Secret Service agents frantically trying to protect him from traffic?

"Turns out the Secret Service had it relatively easy Wednesday: Bush bikes in a private section of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Reserve in Maryland normally open to researchers and closed to the public, a reserve source tells The Post's Hanna Rosin.

"While we're on the topic of Bush's leisure time, anyone intent on criticizing the president for taking an hour and a half out of his day to mountain-bike should take the following as proof that he is indeed a busy man: In a photo taken just after the ride, Bush is holding what appears to be a copy of 'I Am Charlotte Simmons,' the Tom Wolfe novel about debauchery on a college campus. In early February, Bush told reporters he was reading that same book -- which, if he is almost done, averages to about seven pages a day."

Here's the Associated Press photo . Here's the book's back cover .

And for the record, Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times actually wrote on Feb. 7 that Bush had already finished the book: "The president, a fan of Mr. Wolfe, has not only read the book but also is enthusiastically recommending it to friends."

Lighten Up?

Al Kamen , writes in his Washington Post column that critics of Bush's R&R should "lighten up."

And, he writes: "Bush is known to strap on his iPod while riding. Most likely he had it on and was listening to country music, but the critics cannot know that he wasn't listening, say, to an audio book by Princeton's Bernard Lewis , the definitive scholar on all things Arabic and Ottoman. Bush might have been listening to Lewis's classic 'The Arabs in History.' Or perhaps Lewis's 'What Went Wrong -- The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East.'"

Memo Watch

Walter Pincus of The Washington Post writes: "Seven months before the invasion of Iraq, the head of British foreign intelligence reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that President Bush wanted to topple Saddam Hussein by military action and warned that in Washington intelligence was 'being fixed around the policy,' according to notes of a July 23, 2002, meeting with Blair at No. 10 Downing Street."

I'm getting tons of e-mails from people asking me why the mainstream media is giving this story such short shrift. Pincus provides part of the answer:

"Although critics of the Iraq war have accused Bush and his top aides of misusing what has since been shown as limited intelligence in the prewar period, Bush's critics have been unsuccessful in getting an investigation of that matter.

"The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has dropped its previous plan to review how U.S. policymakers used Iraq intelligence, and the president's commission on intelligence did not look into the subject because it was not authorized to do so by its charter, Laurence H. Silberman, the co-chairman, told reporters last month."

And here's a footnote. In the latest Yale Alumni Magazine, Yale President Rick Levin, who was a member of the president's WMD commission -- and a Democratic one at that -- had this to say:

"Some still believe that the administration either, one, exaggerated the evidence they were given; or, two, pressured the intelligence community to produce the answers they wanted. All this misses the point that the intelligence community was absolutely convinced that Saddam Hussein had restarted a nuclear program, had a biological weapons program in place, and had a chemical weapons capacity. . . .

"Given all that, what is left to study about the use of intelligence? The only thing left is: Should the president -- given that information -- have gone to war? Well, that is a political judgment. Our commission would have probably split on that question and it would not have been a very constructive contribution to public dialogue."

Valerie Plame Watch

David Ignatius , writing in his Washington Post opinion column, considers what seems like an increasingly likely scenario: That special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald has given up on filing criminal charges regarding the leak of Valerie Plame's identity, and instead is pursuing perjury charges against a senior administration official he suspects lied to the grand jury.

"Fitzgerald's legal quest makes little sense to me as a leak investigation. The law is fuzzy, the evidence is ambiguous, and the case would be hard to prove. But every good prosecutor hates perjury above all. And on its face, this case raises the possibility that one of the senior administration officials who talked with Cooper or Miller has denied doing so, under oath. Otherwise, Fitzgerald would have been finished months ago."

So Ignatius asks this big question: "Does a reporter's confidentiality agreement extend to protecting a cover-up?"


Peter Baker writes for The Washington Post: "President Bush moved to rescue his floundering trade agreement with Central America yesterday by bringing the region's leaders to the White House and casting the pact as key to his broader stated mission of spreading democracy throughout the world."

Here's the transcript of Bush's remarks; the other six presidents did not speak.

Afghan Watch

The White House announced yesterday that President Bush will host several foreign leaders at the White House this month, including Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The timing for the announcement wasn't great, though.

As Carlotta Gall writes for the New York Times: "Anti-American violence spread to 10 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces and into Pakistan on Thursday as four more protesters died in a third day of demonstrations and clashes with the police."

Mandela Coming

The White House also announced that Bush will welcome former South African President Nelson Mandela to the White House on May 17.

They'll talk about fighting HIV/AIDS in Africa, and efforts to enhance the lives of African children -- and not, I'm betting, about Iraq.

A little over two years ago, as CNN reported at the time, Mandela had harsh words for Bush and his Iraq policies: "What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust," Mandela said.

Today's Calendar

Bush today makes a speech to the National Association of Realtors, and welcomes the 2004 NCAA spring and fall sports champions, before heading out the Camp David for the weekend.

Bush's Privacy

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "Like his predecessors, Bush has carved out private space and time. Names of guests who spent the night at the White House or Camp David last year were released Wednesday, but guests at his Texas ranch are not made public. He often entertains friends at the White House; their names aren't revealed either."

Bush uses the phone -- not e-mail -- to keep in touch with friends.

But "Bush's close friends refuse to talk to reporters without permission from the White House and sometimes from the president himself."

USA Today publishes a list of what we know and what we don't about Bush's private life.

Garden Watch

The White House is evidently having better luck with its gardens this year than I am with mine.

According to an announcement yesterday: "To showcase the exceptional gardens of the White House, four additional garden tour dates have been added."

On Speechwriting

Catherine Donaldson-Evans writes for Foxnews.com: "Speechwriters are to the man in the Oval Office what screenwriters are to characters in a film. They're the ones who write the lines -- in the appropriate voice, of course. After all, it's important to stay true to character or the words just won't sound right."

She interviews former Wall Street Journal editorial writer William McGurn, who replaced Michael Gerson recently as chief speechwriter.

"Thus far, McGurn has penned the Social Security reform pitches President Bush has been giving across the nation, as well as prepared responses to likely questions asked during the recent prime-time press conference about Social Security, Iraq and the War on Terror."

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