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Republicans Want Answers, Too

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 15, 2005; 2:47 PM

President Bush doesn't much like answering tough questions.

Faced with a profound souring of public opinion, Bush has held only one full-scale press conference since June. His press secretary won't give straight answers to even the simplest questions anymore. And Bush's aides continue to keep skeptics out of the Oval Office and away from his public events.

The president has refused to answer any questions about the recent indictment of a top White House aide. And most recently, his response to questions about his administration's misleading statements before the war with Iraq has been as unenlightening as it has been vitriolic.

Only Congress can legally demand answers from the President -- but with both Houses controlled by docile Republicans, that hasn't been a problem.

Until now.

Signs are that members of Bush's own party, at least in the Senate, are increasingly sick of the mushroom treatment -- particularly when it comes to the future of American involvement in Iraq.

What's the Strategy?

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "In a sign of increasing unease among Congressional Republicans over the war in Iraq, the Senate is to consider on Tuesday a Republican proposal that calls for Iraqi forces to take the lead next year in securing the nation and for the Bush administration to lay out its strategy for ending the war. . . .

"The proposal on the Iraq war, from Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, and Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, would require the administration to provide extensive new quarterly reports to Congress on subjects like progress in bringing in other countries to help stabilize Iraq. The other appeals related to Iraq are nonbinding and express the position of the Senate.

"The plan stops short of a competing Democratic proposal that moves toward establishing dates for a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq. But it is built upon the Democratic approach and makes it clear that senators of both parties are increasingly eager for Iraqis to take control of their country in coming months and open the door to removing American troops."

Chipping Away at Presidential Power

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "A bipartisan group of senators reached a compromise yesterday that would dramatically alter U.S. policy for treating captured terrorist suspects by granting them a final recourse to the federal courts but stripping them of some key legal rights."

That measure would likely be linked with the effort by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ban torture and abuse of terrorism suspects being held in U.S. facilities, Weisman writes.

"Such broad legislation would be Congress's first attempt to assert some control over the detention of suspected terrorists, which the Bush administration has closely guarded as its sole prerogative. . . .

"As the president's approval ratings decline to record lows, Congress has become more assertive in areas of policy it used to steer clear of."

Divisions All Over

Zachary Coile writes in the San Francisco Chronicle that "less than a year into the president's second term, major divisions are appearing in the party that controls power in Washington.

"After failing to move the president's top priority, Social Security reform, and rebuffing his White House counsel for a Supreme Court seat, the GOP-controlled Congress is engaged in an intraparty feud over how deeply to cut federal spending, whether to drill for oil in an Alaskan wildlife refuge and how to pay for extending almost $70 billion in tax cuts."

Poll Watch

It's not a coincidence that all of this is happening as Bush's public approval goes south.

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Americans' views of President Bush and his trustworthiness have hit new lows, a downturn that could make it more difficult for him to push his legislative agenda and to boost Republican candidates in next year's congressional elections. . . .

"Bush's job-approval rating sank to a record 37%, down from a previous low of 39% a month ago. The poll finds growing criticism of the president, unease about the nation's direction and opposition to the war in Iraq."

Here are the complete poll results .

Asked how they feel about Bush personally, 27 percent of those polled said they like him a lot; 21 percent say the like him a little; 17 percent said they dislike him a little; 33 percent said they dislike him a lot. A sizeable chunk of the 33 percent who dislike him a lot -- a total of 6 percent of all those polled -- went so far as to say they actually hate him.

CNN reports: "In the poll, 56 percent of registered voters said they would be likely to vote against a local candidate supported by Bush, while 34 percent said the opposite.

"Only 9 percent said their first choice in next year's elections would be a Republican who supports Bush on almost every major issue."

Which reminds me of an item I didn't have room for yesterday. Deborah Howlett and Joe Donahue wrote in the Newark Star-Ledger on Sunday: "Doug Forrester, in his first postelection interview, laid the blame for his loss in the governor's race last week directly at the feet of President Bush. He said the public's growing disaffection with Bush, especially after Hurricane Katrina, made it impossible for his campaign to overcome the built-in advantage Democrats have in a blue state like New Jersey."

Bennett Roth writes in the Houston Chronicle that the Gallup Poll "found that for the first time, more than half of the public thinks Bush is not honest and trustworthy -- 52 percent to 46 percent. . . .

"Experts say that regaining the public trust will require more than tougher rhetoric. They say Bush must show more progress on Iraq as well as receive some breaks on weather-related issues, including a moderate winter that would keep home fuel costs in check. . . .

"Pollster John Zogby said that experiences of previous presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, show that once the public has lost faith in its leaders, it is difficult for them to regain such trust.

" 'It's kind of like virginity,' said Zogby. 'It is hard to get back.' "

Fighting Back

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday: "It has been a long-standing tradition in America that politics stop at the water's edge - an adage that means domestic political fights are set aside to present a unified front while a president is traveling abroad.

"But despite that tradition, Bush used his last stop on American soil to give a slashing campaign-style speech and get in a parting shot. Democrats have stepped up their criticism that the White House manipulated intelligence in the lead-up to war and misled Americans about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein."

Here's the text of the speech, delivered at an Air Force base in Alaska, and which aside from a few notable exceptions was an almost word-for-word repeat of the speech he gave last Friday.

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times about one new section: "He recited old quotes from three senior Senate Democrats -- John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Carl Levin of Michigan and Harry Reid of Nevada -- without identifying any of them by name in his remarks. All three backed the war in 2001 and 2002 but have recently led the criticism that the White House misled the public when it tied Iraq to Al Qaeda and said that Saddam Hussein's regime had pursued nuclear weapons."

That replaced the portion in Friday's speech in which, as Wallsten notes, he had "singled out his 2004 reelection challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), for shifting his stance on the war. Kerry responded Monday with a fiery speech on the Senate floor, suggesting the president has failed to grasp that the chorus of criticism over his Iraq policy does not consist of Democrats alone.

" 'Does the president think that the many generals, former top administration officials and senators from his own party who have joined over two-thirds of the country in questioning the president's handling of the war in Iraq are all unpatriotic too?' Kerry asked. 'The president does not have a monopoly on patriotism, and this is not a country where only those who agree with him support the troops and care about defending our country.' "

Setting the Record Straight?

The White House also released another of its relatively rare Setting the Record Straight memos, this one in response to Senator Carl Levin's suggestion yesterday morning on CNN that Bush "tried to connect Saddam Hussein with the attackers on us, on 9/11, so often, so frequently and so successfully, even though it was wrong, that the American people overwhelmingly thought, because of the President's misstatements that as a matter of fact, Saddam Hussein had participated in the attack on us on 9/11. That was a deception. That was clearly misinformation. It had a huge effect on the American people."

But the White House memo doesn't actually dispute Levin's assertion -- it simply responds with old quotes from Levin and other Democrats. All those prove is that many Democrats were indeed mouthing many of Bush's talking points in the run up to war. It doesn't prove that what Levin was saying yesterday is untrue.

Richard W. Stevenson and Douglas Jehl write in the New York Times: "With Mr. Bush politically weakened, the Democrats emboldened and public support for the war ebbing, the White House is building two main lines of defense. It is asserting that many Democrats saw the same threat from Iraq as the administration did. And it is pointing to two government studies that it says found no evidence that prewar intelligence, while admittedly flawed, had been twisted by political pressure.

"The first is giving the White House some political protection, though not enough to deter Democratic attacks. The second addresses only part of the issue, because neither study directly addressed the broader question: whether the administration presented that intelligence to Congress, the nation and the world in a way that overstated what the intelligence said about the threat posed by Mr. Hussein's weapons programs and any links to terrorism."

Stevenson and Jehl conclude that "what Mr. Bush left unaddressed was the question of how his administration used that intelligence, which was full of caveats, subtleties and contradiction, to make the case for war."

The Powerline Perspective

Some conservative bloggers think Bush is doing exactly the right thing.

John Hinderaker writes in the Powerline blog: "Bush needs to keep giving this kind of speech every couple of days for the foreseeable future. There is a limit to the MSM's ability to censor his message by not reporting his speeches, as they have so often done throughout his Presidency. Sooner or later, if he keeps pounding away, the message will get through. And it is a powerful message indeed."

Hinderaker's fellow Powerline blogger Paul Mirengoff , incidentally, writes that my column yesterday was "deeply misleading."

Mirengoff, for instance, writes: "If the overwhelming intelligence consensus was that Saddam had WMD, then Bush did not mislead the American people in making that claim. On this crucial point, Froomkin shows himself to be more partisan and less honest than Milbank and Pincus ."

But it was not the existence of Iraqi WMD in general that the public is feeling so misled about. Their existence had, indeed, been suspected for a long time -- during which there was no serious talk of invasion.

More likely, it was the threat that Saddam might provide al Qaeda or other terrorist groups with nuclear weapons in particular -- hyped by the Bush administration despite the lack of reliable specific intelligence -- that launched the public stampede toward war.

Cheney Meets Chalabi

Charles Aldinger writes for Reuters that Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, "once embraced and then shunned by the Bush administration," held a private meeting at the White House with Cheney yesterday. "Cheney's office would not provide details."

9/11 Commission Redux

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The members of the Sept. 11 commission charged Monday that the Bush administration had made 'insufficient progress' in trying to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons. They called on President Bush to make the issue 'his top national security priority and ride herd on the bureaucracy to maintain a sense of urgency.' "

White House Attacks Ginsburg

It can be hard to tell these days if what you read in ABC News's The Note is true or a failed attempt at parody. But let's assume that the quote they published yesterday from Steve Schmidt is accurate. In that case, here's what Schmidt, who is a vice presidential spokesman and is also running the "murder boards" for Supreme Court nominees Samuel Alito had to say yesterday:

"Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had served as general counsel of the ACLU and had advocated liberal political positions including the ideas that the age of consent should be 12, there was a right to prostitution and polygamy in the Constitution and Mother's Day should be abolished."

The Carpetbagger blog is outraged: "First, the attacks are not only offensive, they're false. The right has been using these myths as talking points, but they've been debunked over and over again. As a result, what we have here is a White House official telling a major national news outlet blatant and obvious falsehoods about a sitting high court justice.

"Second, I've seen the White House launch a broadside or two against the federal judiciary, and on more than one occasion, the Supreme Court as an institution. But I can't recall any White House ever attacking an individual justice like this."

Ruth Marcus has an op-ed in today's Washington Post all about "The Ginsburg Fallacy."

McClellan Watch

Mark Hand writes in PR Week that "Washington oddsmakers are now keeping a close eye on McClellan. . . .

"A White House correspondent, who asked not to be identified, predicts McClellan, who replaced Ari Fleischer as press secretary in summer 2003, will soon be leaving his post. 'I'm expecting very big changes,' the correspondent says."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board writes: "To avoid having to account for his administration's misleading statements before the war with Iraq, President Bush has tried denial, saying he did not skew the intelligence. He's tried to share the blame, claiming that Congress had the same intelligence he had, as well as President Bill Clinton. He's tried to pass the buck and blame the C.I.A. Lately, he's gone on the attack, accusing Democrats in Congress of aiding the terrorists.

"Yesterday in Alaska, Mr. Bush trotted out the same tedious deflection on Iraq that he usually attempts when his back is against the wall: he claims that questioning his actions three years ago is a betrayal of the troops in battle today.

"It all amounts to one energetic effort at avoidance. But like the W.M.D. reports that started the whole thing, the only problem is that none of it has been true."

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post op-ed column: "By linking the war on terrorism to a partisan war against Democrats, Bush undercut his capacity to lead the nation in this fight. And by resorting to partisan attacks again last week, Bush only reminded us of the shameful circumstances in which the whole thing started."

James Fallows blogs for Huffingtonpost.com: "It would be nice if, even once, the Bush administration addressed the strongest version of the case against its Iraq-and-terrorism policy, rather than relying on bromides ('fight them there, so we don't have to fight them here') and knocking down straw men ('some say Iraqis don't deserve freedom . . . ').

"It probably won't happen.

"On available evidence, the President himself has not grasped the essential criticism of moving against Iraq when he did: that a war in Iraq undercut the broader and longer term war against Islamic terrorism. Not in one speech, not in one interview or off-hand remark, not in one insider account of White House deliberation has there been the slightest indication that President Bush recognizes this concept sufficiently to offer a rebuttal to it."

The Yellowcake Story

Peter Grier , in the Christian Science Monitor, exhaustively examines the genesis of the famous 16 words in Bush's 2003 State of the Union speech, and concludes: "If US intelligence agencies had spent more time studying the evidence in their possession, the president might never had said those words. Scooter Libby probably would be in his White House office today."

Plame Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald is seeking a protective court order that would bar Libby and his legal team from publicly disclosing 'all materials produced by the government.'

"Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, went to court yesterday to fight the proposal."

Asia Trip

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush embarked on a week-long trip to Asia on Monday aimed at reasserting the U.S. role in a region where China has moved to expand its influence lately while the Bush administration was focused on the Middle East. . . .

"Stung by news reports focusing on the setbacks of the Latin America trip, White House officials tried to lower expectations this time.

" 'I don't think there are going to be any headline breakthroughs,' national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters on Air Force One. 'This is not a trip where the president has to come with a deliverable initiative.' The main goal, he said in a separate briefing last week, is 'to show the U.S. commitment to Asia as an area of our interest' and 'to indicate clearly that the president knows the United States has an important role to play in both the economic and security challenges in Asia and that he wants to play that role.' "

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Even inside the White House, some wonder whether the president, under renewed pressure to explain Iraq, will stay on message. As one of his aides noted recently, 'he doesn't even like to say the word 'globalization,' and rarely discusses its complex trade-offs."

New Yorker Humor

John Kenney claims to have uncovered some new notes to Bush from a slightly more bitter Harriet Miers.

"Hi! Just a quick note to say that you looked heavyish last time I saw you, which, come to think of it, was this morning, in the Oval Office, when you accepted my withdrawal (which you had secretly demanded) and ruined my life and dreams and spirit. I hope we can stay friends. And, again, I am sorry for vomiting on your desk. Best to your wife (Laurel??)."

Political Cartoon Humor

Washington Post political cartoonist Tom Toles on Bush: "I didn't mislead. You misfollowed."

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