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Rove's Risky Embrace

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 22, 2006; 12:12 PM

Karl Rove is a master of high-stakes brinksmanship, as he has proven time and time again.

But his latest venture may be his riskiest yet.

Rove is betting that he can reframe the war in Iraq as a battle between courageous Republicans and pusillanimous Democrats.

The stakes: Congress. (And subpoena power.)

Rove believes that this strength vs. weakness rhetorical construct, combined with continued attacks on the media, will be enough to counterbalance whatever negative news about the actual war continues to emerge between now and the mid-term elections.

The actual war remains one in which people die every day, sometimes in the most gruesome ways, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. It's a war that according to the polls the public now thinks was a mistake, feels it was misled into supporting, and would like to see ending on some sort of timetable. It's a war that has raised questions about American devotion to human rights. It's a war we may not be able to win.

But Rove thinks he can win the war over the war.

And although his plan appears highly susceptible to events on the ground in Iraq and/or assertive media coverage, betting against Rove -- thus far, at least -- has been a sucker's move.

The latest evidence of Rove's plan comes in a New York Times story this morning by Jim Rutenberg and Adam Nagourney , in which they write about what's behind the congressional Republicans' vigorous embrace of Bush's war strategy.

"That emerging Republican approach reflects, at least for now, the success of a White House effort to bring a skittish party behind Mr. Bush on the war after months of political ambivalence in some vocal quarters," Rutenberg and Nagourney write.

"[P]eople who attended a series of high-level meetings this month between White House and Congressional officials say President Bush's aides argued that it could be a politically fatal mistake for Republicans to walk away from the war in an election year.

"White House officials including the national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, outlined ways in which Republican lawmakers could speak more forcefully about the war. Participants also included Mr. Bush's top political and communications advisers: his deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove; his political director, Sara Taylor; and the White House counselor, Dan Bartlett. Mr. Rove is newly freed from the threat of indictment in the C.I.A. leak case, and leaders of both parties see his reinvigorated hand in the strategy. . . .

"A senior adviser to Mr. Bush said the White House had concluded that it was better to plunge aggressively into the debate on Iraq than to let Democrats play upon clear, public misgivings about the war. 'This is going to be a big issue in this election,' said the adviser, who was granted anonymity in exchange for agreeing to describe strategic considerations about the war. 'Better to shape and fight it -- as good and strongly as you can -- than to try to run away from it.' "


Well, it's doubtful President Bush changed anyone's mind in Vienna yesterday, but maybe he felt better afterward.

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "With thousands of anti-American protesters crowding Vienna's streets, an irked President Bush snapped yesterday at a suggestion U.S. foreign policy has become a threat to global security.

" 'That's absurd,' Bush barked at an Austrian reporter during a press conference with European Union President and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

" 'We'll defend ourselves, but at the same time, we're actively working with our partners to spread peace and democracy. . . . It's an absurd statement.' "

Here's the transcript of the press conference in Vienna.

James Gerstenzang and Alissa J. Rubin write in the Los Angeles Times: "With surveys showing a growing animosity in Europe toward the United States amid fears that its anti-terrorism policies and the Iraq war are endangering global stability, the president lashed out during a news conference, raising his voice and several times using the word 'absurd' to describe the criticism."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "His remarks on the war were not very different than what he had said before. But the vigor of his defense, coming at a time when he is trying to repair frayed relations with Europeans and has joined them in trying to negotiate a peaceful end to Iran's nuclear program, underscored how fragile those relations remain."

In fact, Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Bush's public-relations problems back home are nothing compared to his unpopularity here in Europe. Ahead of Bush's whirlwind visit to Vienna -- where he is meeting with leaders of the European Union -- and Hungary, recent surveys show disdain for Bush and Americans in general are at all-time highs. A survey released last week by the Pew Research Center found that, with the exception of Great Britain, a majority of Europeans polled have a mostly unfavorable view of the United States.

"Yet it's more than just simple dislike. A Harris Interactive/Financial Times survey released Monday found that 36 percent of Europeans view the United States as the world's greatest threat to 'global stability.' By comparison, 30 percent of those polled named Iran as the biggest threat, while 18 percent named China. . . .

"Why do Americans have such a bad rap in Europe? While a significant percentage of people continue to oppose the war in Iraq, the outrage seems more centered these days on other developments, including incidents of prisoner abuse at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, charges of a civilian massacre in Haditha and the 'renditions' of terror suspects to secret CIA prisons to countries outside the United States.

"There has been particular outrage at the continued operation of Guant?namo Bay -- a topic that was front and center during Bush's summit with EU officials on Wednesday."

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and European Union leaders jointly prodded Iran and North Korea on Wednesday to back off from controversial weapons technology. . . .

"Bush warned Iran to speed up consideration of a package of inducements being offered if the Tehran government suspends uranium enrichment, a key step toward possible development of nuclear weapons. And he demanded that North Korea refrain from test-firing a long-range missile that intelligence agencies say has been placed on a launch pad."

And what exactly did Bush say about human rights issues in his private meetings with EU leaders?

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel said at the press conference: "We got clear, clear signals and a commitment from the American side -- no torture, no extraordinary or extra-territorial positions to deal with the terrorists."

But Abramowitz writes: "U.S. officials said later that Bush only restated long-standing U.S. positions."

A Glimmer of Oversight

Judging from past experience, you probably shouldn't expect much, but Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter yesterday scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on President Bush's use of signing statements to claim the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office.

"Specter said he is asking the Bush administration to send an official from the Justice Department to testify before the committee about the president's legal contentions, as well as several constitutional law scholars. It was not yet clear who from the administration would come, he said.

" 'I think that the president is trying to expand his executive authority at the expense of Congress's constitutional prerogatives, and it's very problemsome,' Specter said in a phone interview. 'I want to get into the details with the administration on what they think their legal authority is.' "

Andy Sullivan writes for Reuters: " 'Our legislation doesn't amount to anything if the president can say, "My constitutional authority supersedes the statute." And I think we've got to lay down the gauntlet and challenge him on it,' Specter said in a telephone interview. . . .

"A White House official said signing statements help the public understand how a given law will be enforced and can provide guidance to courts as they interpret it.

" 'They are used appropriately and the content is consistent with that of past presidents,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said."

Blocked on Immigration

Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "The unorthodox plan by House Republicans for a series of hearings on immigration policy represents an aggressive effort by hard-line critics of illegal immigration to reassert control over the emotional debate -- and wrest it from President Bush -- as this year's elections approach.

"In proposing hearings around the country in July and August, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has made plain that he and other Republicans are willing to scuttle Bush's top domestic priority rather than give ground on Senate legislation -- backed by the president -- that would provide a path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants.

"The hearings will hand a giant megaphone to vocal conservatives, who White House officials had hoped would be overshadowed by the president's more moderate tone on how to rewrite immigration laws. And that is a major setback for Bush and GOP strategists who worry that rhetoric lambasting the citizenship provision will alienate the nation's growing number of Latino voters.

"Also, the House decision to conduct the public hearings seems to all but ensure another high-profile policy flameout for a president who, after winning reelection in 2004, promised to spend his political capital on bold initiatives."

Battle of the Bulge

Sunday on CNN , White House press secretary Tony Snow suggested that Americans would have wanted to abandon World War II if they'd been polled in December 1944.

Said Snow: "The president understands people's impatience -- not impatience but how a war can wear on a nation. He understands that. If somebody had taken a poll in the Battle of the Bulge, I dare say people would have said, wow, my goodness, what are we doing here?"

Liberal bloggers responded with immediate outrage at a statement they called wrong and defamatory.

Yesterday, Josh Marshall came up with a new piece of evidence -- this chart -- which shows "no downtick in public support for the war around the time of the Battle of the Bulge. Approval for President Roosevelt's conduct of the war continued at around 70% where it had been for years. The number of people who said they had a clear idea of what the war was about was at about the same level and appears to have been rising . . . .

"[T]he basic picture is clear: the American people then, as they will now, will stick through a lot of adversity if they think the war they're fighting matters and that their president knows what he's doing.

"Then they did. Now they don't."

Thorns and Roses

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune about a photo op during which Bush and Austrian President Heinz Fischer were flanked by statuesque Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "This is called thorns between two roses," Bush said.

Early to Bed

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Early to bed, early to rise. That's a typical day at the White House, says Laura Bush.

" 'We get up about 5:30 a.m. The president gets up and goes in and gets the coffee and brings it back to me in bed. Very nice of him,' she said Wednesday, answering a question during a round-table with foreign exchange students. . . .

"Unless one or both Bushes are traveling, they usually are back upstairs in the White House residence quarters by 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. for dinner, and are often joined by their 24-year-old twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna.

" 'One of them was just living with us, but she just has moved out,' said Laura Bush, who usually is tightlipped about their daughters' doings. She was talking about Barbara, who is said to have recently left Washington for New York City.

" 'The other one lives in an apartment and is teaching school, she's a third-grade schoolteacher,' the first lady said, speaking of Jenna, who teaches in Washington."

Here's the transcript of the event. Said the president, at the outset: "I'm going to give a statement, then answer a couple of questions. Then we'll get the press out of here and have a dialogue."

Lively Online

I had a lively Live Online discussion yesterday. Read the transcript if you missed it.

Political Cartoon Humor

Tom Toles on the Bush bounce; Toles on Cheney's last throes; Mike Luckovich on Bush and the press; Tony Auth on the president and movies; Doug Marlette on Bush's firsts and lasts.

Political Cartoons: The Next Wave

Via Romenesko : Nick Madigan writes in the Baltimore Sun that Kevin Kallaugher, the former editorial cartoonist for The Sun, "has put together a digitally animated cartoon of Bush, a talking, grimacing, snickering caricature that could be a precursor to a whole set of similar digital images. . . .

"On a video screen at the Walters Art Museum, President Bush, standing at a lectern adorned with the presidential seal, mutters that he is ready to meet 'them pesky media types, the members of the real estate.'

"An aide, offscreen, corrects him. The press, he says, is known as the 'fourth estate.'

" 'Oh, right,' Bush responds out of the side of his mouth. 'I'm ready for them, too.' "

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