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Nobody's Buying

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 5, 2006; 1:00 PM

President Bush this afternoon speaks out in favor of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage.

But nobody's buying it.

Not the Senate, where there's not even a remote chance that the amendment will muster the required two-thirds majority this week.

Not the critics, who see Bush's posturing on the issue as nothing more than a bald-faced sop to his increasingly restive social-conservative base -- and a desperate attempt to change the subject from the grimmer, more important issues that are appropriately disquieting the public.

And not even that social-conservative base, whose members doubt the intensity of Bush's commitment to the issue. The president has actively ignored this issue until this week, most notably by refusing to twist arms on the Hill. According to an old Bush friend quoted in Newsweek today, the issue is not one that Bush cares about -- except for its political significance. And two of his most loyal top advisers -- Vice President Cheney and First Lady Laura Bush -- have publicly distanced themselves from using the issue as a political wedge.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Saturday urged Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, saying in his weekly radio address that marriage 'cannot be cut off from its cultural, religious and natural roots.' . . .

"Mr. Bush's radio address was the beginning of what White House aides had said would be a major push to support the marriage amendment, which the Senate is to begin debating in the next couple of days. The effort comes after weeks of increasingly vocal complaints from cultural conservatives that Mr. Bush and Congressional Republicans abandoned their issues after relying on them to win in the 2004 elections."

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "The revival of the issue marks the most visible contours of the electoral strategy being crafted by Karl Rove, the president's chief political strategist who has been charged with focusing on the mid-term elections. In an effort to rally disaffected Republican conservatives -- whose support for Mr Bush has slipped from 91 per cent to 68 per cent -- he is turning again to the divisive issues of gay marriage and judicial nominations."

Reluctant Warrior

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Bush, whose opposition to marriage between gay partners helped power him to reelection in 2004, has remained largely silent on the issue since, much to the consternation of conservatives who complain he has not exerted leadership. Now, with midterm elections approaching, he is returning to a topic that galvanizes an important part of the Republican base. . . .

"Bush has given the appearance of a reluctant supporter of banning same-sex marriage. In an interview with The Washington Post in January 2005, he said he did not plan to lobby senators for the amendment because it did not have much chance of passing, infuriating conservative supporters. Even this week, he has sent mixed signals. The White House told activists that Monday's speech would be in the Rose Garden, but after criticism that he was using such a symbolic site, the White House moved it to an office building next door."

Here's the transcript of Bush's 2005 interview with Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher.

"The Post: Do you plan to expend any political capital to aggressively lobby senators for a gay marriage amendment?

"THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think that the situation in the last session -- well, first of all, I do believe it's necessary; many in the Senate didn't, because they believe DOMA [the Defense of Marriage Act] will -- is in place, but -- they know DOMA is in place, and they're waiting to see whether or not DOMA will withstand a constitutional challenge.

"The Post: Do you plan on trying to -- using the White House, using the bully pulpit, and trying to --

"THE PRESIDENT: The point is, is that senators have made it clear that so long as DOMA is deemed constitutional, nothing will happen. I'd take their admonition seriously.

"The Post: But until that changes, you want it?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, until that changes, nothing will happen in the Senate. Do you see what I'm saying?

"The Post: Right.

"THE PRESIDENT: The logic."

So much for the logic, apparently.

Doesn't Register

Debra Rosenberg writes in Newsweek: "Though Bush himself has publicly embraced the amendment, he never seemed to care enough to press the matter. One of his old friends told Newsweek that same-sex marriage barely registers on the president's moral radar. 'I think it was purely political. I don't think he gives a [expletive] about it. He never talks about this stuff,' said the friend, who requested anonymity to discuss his private conversations with Bush. White House aides, who also declined to be identified, insist that the president does care about banning gay marriage. They say Monday's events with amendment supporters -- Bush will also meet privately with a small group -- have been in the works 'for weeks' and aren't just a sop to conservatives."

Dissent in High Places

Here's my August 25, 2004, column, Cheney Breaks With the Boss , in which I ran excerpts from the vice president's comments at a town meeting in Iowa, where a questioner asked: "I need to know what do you think about homosexual marriages."

Cheney's surprising response: "Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with. . . .

"With respect to the question of relationships, my general view is that freedom means freedom for everyone. People ought to be able to free -- ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to. . . .

"I made clear four years ago when I ran and this question came up in the debate I had with Joe Lieberman that my view was that that's appropriately a matter for the states to decide, that that's how it ought to best be handled."

And here the first lady, just last month, on Fox News :

Q "[W]hat do you think of the constitutional amendment and the idea of using it as a campaign tool?

"MRS. BUSH: Well, I don't think it should be used as a campaign tool, obviously. But I do think it's something that people in the United States want to debate. And it requires a lot of sensitivity to talk about the issue -- a lot of sensitivity."

The Malcontents

Maura Reynolds and Janet Hook write in the Los Angeles Times: "The campaign against gay marriage is scheduled to get the full White House treatment on Monday -- words from President Bush in front of assembled VIPs and a bank of television cameras.

"Such a carefully staged production aims to confer the grandeur of the office on the push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. But even before administration officials announced the event, some invitees denounced it as a sham.

" 'I'm going to go and hear what he says, but we already know it is a ruse,' said Joe Glover, president of the Family Policy Network, which opposes gay marriage. 'We're not buying it. We're going to go and watch the dog-and-pony show, [but] it's too little, too late.' "

Charlotte Raab of AFP also quotes Glover: "He hasn't twisted any arms, he hasn't made any deals, he hasn't been pushing senators to support defining marriage as between a man and a woman. . . . And he thinks that he can hold one speech . . . the day before the vote, which is a clear expression of weakness, and appease conservatives as if he's done something significant."

About Those Nonexistent Calls

So is this just lip service, or has Bush put any actual effort into getting the amendment passed? That came up at Friday's press briefing , but spokesman Tony Snow typically brushed the questions off with a laugh and a shrug.

"Q Is he making calls to senators?

"MR. SNOW: Senators aren't in town -- do you know how hard it is to find a senator this week? (Laughter.) I'm serious. Do you have any clue? . .

"Q So is that a 'no' about phone calls?

"MR. SNOW: I honestly don't know if he's making phone calls on this."

An anonymous White House official told Newsweek that Bush has in fact not made calls on the amendment -- because "nobody has asked us."

Not a Top Concern

Joseph Carroll writes for the Gallup News Service: "Americans continue to say that the war in Iraq should be the top priority for the president and Congress, according to a recent Gallup Panel poll. After Iraq, the public feels that the government should focus on fuel and oil prices, immigration policy, the general state of the economy, and healthcare issues."

Gay marriage didn't make the list at all.

Dueling Narratives on the Iran Reversal

So what are we to make of Bush's startling turnaround on direct talks with Iran last week? Depends who you read, and who you trust.

U.S. News reports: "Senior White House officials want it known that it was President Bush -- not foreign leaders, as has been rumored -- who came up with the idea of giving Iran one final 'test' before pressing for sanctions in the United Nations Security Council. 'This is actually something that the president conceived of and talked a lot about over a number of weeks,' a senior Bush adviser says."

Jim Hoagland writes in his Washington Post op-ed column: "President Bush handed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and German Chancellor Angela Merkel a significant foreign policy victory and put new distance between himself and Vice President Cheney with last week's decision to dangle the carrot of U.S. participation in talks with Iran. But it is a victory of process rather than of substance and could still come undone. . . .

"The true immediate significance of Rice's dramatic announcement was that it shows Bush is now fighting to save his battered presidency by allowing change in a White House where Cheney's influence has been paramount."

Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler writes that "the administration's about-face, as recounted by U.S. officials, shows the dominant influence of Rice on the policymaking process."

Rice's conclusion that the international effort to derail Iran's programs was falling apart "spurred a secret discussion among Rice, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley: Should the United States finally agree to join the Europeans at the negotiations with Iran?

"Though Bush administration officials had publicly always dismissed that possibility, officials at the highest levels -- including Cheney, frequently but inaccurately portrayed as an adamant foe of joining the talks -- realized that soon the administration would be forced to grapple with the question, five U.S. officials said in interviews last week."

Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times that "the story of how a president who rarely changes his mind did so in this case -- after refusing similar proposals on Iran four years ago -- illustrates the changed dynamic between the State Department and the White House in Mr. Bush's second term. . . .

"It is unclear how much dissent, if any, surrounded the decision, which appears to have been driven largely by the president, Ms. Rice and Mr. Hadley, with other senior national security officials playing a more remote role. Both White House and State Department officials say Vice President Dick Cheney, long an opponent of proposals to engage Iran, agreed to this experiment. But it is unclear whether he is an enthusiast, or simply expects Iran to reject suspending enrichment -- clearing the way to sanctions that could test the Iranian government's ability to survive."

No matter how you slice it, it's clear that people close to Bush are suddenly being unusually chatty.

The liberal Web site Buzzflash does a close reading of the Cooper/Sanger piece and makes some interesting points about its unhealthy lack of skepticism.

"[T]he very context of this article as conveying a credible scenario should be called into question because it relies on White House sources who wish to remain anonymous, according to the New York Times, for no credible reason, since they obviously are telling flattering details about Bush being 'in charge' with the full permission of the White House propaganda apparatus."

Among the more stinging critiques, Buzzflash points out that the Times apparently buys into "the bizarre Bush penchant for running foreign policy based on body language."

For the record, I'm a big fan of close readings of White House stories, from whatever perspective. If you see others out there please let me know.

Bubble Watch

Peter Baker writes in a front-page Washington Post story on Saturday: "A White House long accused of squelching internal dissent and ignoring outside viewpoints has been reaching out in its moment of weakness to prominent figures who have disagreed with the president. Bush just hired a Treasury secretary who opposed his policy on global warming and a press secretary who dismissed his domestic agenda as timid and listless.

"How much such moves reflect a genuine opening up for an insular White House remains uncertain. Symbolically, at least, the White House is eager to rebut the longstanding public impression of a president in a bunker listening only to like-minded advisers. Substantively, Bush has hardly signaled a major course change in the direction of his presidency, and skeptics recall past instances when nonconformists within the administration were shut out.

"Yet some Washington veterans detect signs of a tentative new willingness by the administration to heed the advice of others rather than sticking stubbornly to its position."

Admittedly, that Bush lets dissenters into the same room with him on occasion these days is news -- compared to his past practices. That he lets them speak is news -- for the same reason.

But there are further steps required before anyone declares this a bubble rupture.

Does Bush actually listen to these dissenters? Does he actually engage in a dialogue with those who disagree with him on important issues, or just respond with those familiar, often unresponsive talking points? (See my May 23 column, Time for a Debate .)

Some liberal bloggers were unimpressed by Baker's argument or evidence.

Steve Benen writes: "Henry Paulson for Treasury isn't exactly a persuasive example -- Paulson disagrees with Bush on environmental issues, but has been nominated for a post that has nothing to do with the environment, and agrees with every economic decision the White House has made since 2001. Press Secretary Tony Snow took a few mild shots at the White House as a conservative commentator, but that was just empty rhetoric. Besides, reaching out to Fox News for your press secretary is hardly a sign of a deteriorating bubble.

"Let's be clear: genuine tolerance for dissent includes sincere consideration of ideas that conflict with pre-conceived notions. What evidence is there that Bush has matured in this capacity? None."

They Still Love Him in Utah

New York Times reporter Timothy Egan travels to Utah to find some Bush supporters.

"This core group is a highly concentrated version of the Bush base, one that appears to be motivated more by general principles and a comfort level with the president than by specific issues or political trends. They tend to be impressed by Mr. Bush's faith and convinced that he understands their lives and values."

Scooter Libby Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "A federal district judge dealt a severe setback on Friday to I. Lewis Libby Jr., denying him a trove of documents that his lawyers had said were crucial to his defense against charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. . . .

"In effect, the decision blocked the defense team's bid to expand the trial into a wider forum about the reasons for going to war in Iraq and what Mr. Libby has portrayed as the Bush administration's legitimate efforts to respond to critics of the war on the merits."

Here's the text of the ruling, from Talking Points Memo.

Rove Watch

Mark Silva writes: "Karl Rove is slowly but surely shedding the low profile that he has assumed since a federal probe identified him as one of the Bush administration officials who served as sources for reporters who wrote about a CIA official's identity."

For instance: "The Rove-warrior was in high gear Friday night in one of Florida's Democratic strongholds, Broward County, where he told a crowd of Republicans that Democratic Sen. John Kerry's formula for finishing the fight in Iraq amounts to nothing more than 'cut and run.'

"Rove delivered a 'resounding defense' of the decision to invade Iraq, according to the St. Petersburg Times ."

I wrote in my May 18 column : "White House political guru Karl Rove's chirpy optimism is meeting with more than a little skepticism these days.

But undeterred, Rove has now sent out his deputy, Peter Wehner , to spread the message on The Washington Post's op-ed page.

Wehner writes: "We hear a great deal about the problems we face. We hear hardly anything about the encouraging developments. Off-key as it may sound in the current environment, a strong case can be made that in a number of areas there are positive trends and considerable progress."

For instance, there's national security: "Perhaps no nation has ever been as dominant as the United States is today -- and we are using our military power to promote great purposes."

And social conditions: "Between 1960 and the mid-'90s virtually every social indicator got worse -- and in many cases staggeringly worse. Then things began to turn around, almost as if a cultural virus created its own antibodies."

Remind me. Who was president in the mid-'90s again?

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Bye Bye Bumiller

Bidding farewell to the White House beat after almost five years, New York Times reporter Elisabeth Bumiller on Sunday offered up a collection of anecdotes in an attempt to clear up what she considers the most important "misperception" about the beat: that it's an awful job.

Her piece offers no great insight into the president ("like just about everyone, he can be short-tempered, impatient and brusque"). And, much like the man she's so dutifully covered, Bumiller declined to engage her critics.

Bumiller, for instance, doesn't address the widespread concern that an overly credulous press corps has been complicit in its own emasculation at the hands of a White House that sees no obligation to explain itself to anyone. Her "White House Letters" in particular have often been cited as examples of fluffy appeasement.

She does write that to "report effectively on one of the most secretive White Houses ever" she "worked the phones in concentric circles inward, from members of Congress who were mad at the president, to put-upon State Department officials, to those ubiquitous 'Republicans close to the White House.'"

But as she herself notes: "Not incidentally, the anonymous Republicans were often White House-sanctioned leakers -- lobbyists, former party officials -- who would pass on information West Wing officials wanted out. . . . White House officials then said they had no idea where these terrible leaks were coming from."

Quite the legacy.

Feeling Counted Out?

A possibly telling comment from Bush's photo op with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Friday: "About halfway through the season a lot of people were counting the Steelers out. They said you didn't have a chance. I kind of know the feeling. "

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