NEWS | OPINIONS | SPORTS | ARTS & LIVING | Discussions | Photos & Video | City Guide | CLASSIFIEDS | JOBS | CARS | REAL ESTATE
Reality's Revenge

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 2, 2006; 12:54 PM

The White House's unmistakable delight at its ability to fixate the media on a John Kerry blooper serves as a potent reminder of how much happier Bush and his aides are engaging in rhetorical games than dealing with reality.

But the upcoming election is turning out to be about reality -- and about the reality in Iraq, in particular.

The Kerry Kerfuffle

Kerry, of course, apologized yesterday for a joke he made on Monday that he intended to be at the president's expense -- but which came out in a way that struck some as impugning the intelligence of U.S. troops.

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The White House and Republican allies orchestrated a cascade of denunciations throughout the day to keep the once and possibly future presidential candidate on the defensive and force other Democrats to distance themselves. . . .

"Republican strategists appeared almost gleeful over the contretemps because it revived a favorite target at a time they need to motivate core supporters to vote in Tuesday's midterm elections. GOP officials have tried to make the elections not a referendum on President Bush but a choice between two parties with competing visions over taxes, terrorism and Iraq, but they have struggled to find a symbol for Democrats. Kerry's comments have allowed Republicans to make him again the face of his party and cast 2006 as a rerun of Bush vs. Kerry. . . .

"Bush for the second day took aim at his old foe as well. 'It didn't sound like a joke to me,' he said in an interview with news services . In a separate interview with radio host Rush Limbaugh , Bush said, 'Anybody who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words, and our troops deserve the full support of people in government.'

"Cheney also jumped into the fray, his office so eager that in a rare move it sent out advance excerpts from a speech given later in the day. 'Senator Kerry said he was just making a joke and he botched it up,' Cheney said. 'I guess we didn't get the nuance. Actually, he was for the joke before he was against it.'"

Kate Zernike writes in the New York Times: "The White House, which had been struggling for ways to make President Bush less of a liability in the election, seized on Mr. Kerry's comments, with the president, vice president and spokesmen blanketing radio and television to blast him for impugning the troops. . . .

"'It's the skill of the flak machine to make him the target of ridicule when on everything else he's been doing, he has been really tough, he's been really clear, he's been really on,' said one of Mr. Kerry's advisers. 'You can imagine how frustrating this thing is to all of us. And him in particular.'"

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "It is a case study in modern politics or lunacy -- perhaps both -- that two sentences uttered by a Massachusetts senator not up for re-election would come to dominate the political airwaves less than a week before what is shaping up as a historic national election. . . .

"Experts described a perfect political storm in which the GOP's desperation to tarnish their opponents, the Democrats' defensiveness over being branded as soft on defense and the media's fixation with conflict all collided within days of a close, fiercely fought election. . . .

"The news media kept the conflict alive as the war of words dominated the day's political coverage. White House press secretary Tony Snow fielded 31 questions on the matter at his daily news conference. . . .

"'The media is easily duped,' said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, who credited -- or perhaps blamed -- Republicans for being 'very good at translating misstatements into news.'"

Here's Christopher Hitchens talking to Paula Zahn on CNN last night: "I don't remember anything being as shamelessly distorted as Kerry's hapless attempt to tell a feeble joke about Bush's I.Q. But it seems to be quite Nixonian what the White House and the Republican Party's been doing. It's self-evident that Kerry wouldn't have tried to equate stupidity with military service, and it's an attempt to change the subject in the crummiest way. . . .

"It's almost degrading to have to discuss it, but since we are doing so, I think that's what ought to be said. It's an attempt -- it looks like it's talking about Iraq when it's not."

Maybe Not Such a Great Move After All?

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "The risks for President Bush are greater than they are for Senator Kerry, who may have suffered the deep embarrassment of falling into a familiar self-made trap. But he leads nothing inside his party, sets no strategy and the Democrats can easily disown him -- as several candidates have done by canceling events with him this week.

"President Bush, on the other hand, enjoys no such luxuries. In fact, the concerted attack on Kerry -- complete with White House and Republican National Committee press releases -- threatens to undermine a central premise of the party's strategy. For months on the campaign trail, GOP candidates have insisted the election isn't a referendum on Bush or national politics; it's a choice between two local contenders. The president may have diverted attention back onto Democrats, but he also turned the focus back on himself and the war."

Wolffe and Bailey also write that "it's easy to see why President Bush is vastly happier campaigning like it's still 2004. His rhetoric on the campaign trail reflects those relatively comfortable days much more than the somber statements he has recently issued from the White House.

"Just last week, at his press conference in the East Room, the president told how the violence in Iraq started with a sophisticated insurgency, fueled in part by al-Qaeda. But more recently the killing turned into 'sectarian reprisals' and what he called 'the cycle of violence.'

"But on the campaign trail, there is no room for the insurgents or sectarian death squads. There are only terrorists, and their apparent friends, the Democrats."

Howard Fineman writes for MSNBC: "We know what George W. Bush thinks of Sen. John Kerry: not much. But doesn't the president have anything to say for himself? In fact he does, or should. He and his fellow Republicans have accomplishments to sell, or at least talk about. But they haven't done it effectively, which is one reason why they are likely to get whacked at the polls next week. . . .

"[T]hey have run a national campaign largely in attack mode. You know the litany: The Democrats will raise your taxes. The Democrats will pack the courts with 'activist' judges. A victory for the Democrats is a victory for the terrorists and Osama bin Laden. The Democrats disrespect the traditional family. . . .

"But the strategy of dividing the world into good and evil may now backfire on the president and his party. If you're an unpopular president -- and Bush is one of the most unpopular in the modern era -- you don't want a world divided that way. In that world, you end up on the wrong side of the equation."

The Great Denier

From a New York Times editorial today: "As President Bush throws himself into the final days of a particularly nasty campaign season, he's settled into a familiar pattern of ugly behavior. Since he can't defend the real world created by his policies and his decisions, Mr. Bush is inventing a fantasy world in which to campaign on phony issues against fake enemies.

"In Mr. Bush's world, America is making real progress in Iraq. In the real world, as Michael Gordon reported in yesterday's Times, the index that generals use to track developments shows an inexorable slide toward chaos. In Mr. Bush's world, his administration is marching arm in arm with Iraqi officials committed to democracy and to staving off civil war. In the real world, the prime minister of Iraq orders the removal of American checkpoints in Baghdad and abets the sectarian militias that are slicing and dicing their country.

"In Mr. Bush's world, there are only two kinds of Americans: those who are against terrorism, and those who somehow are all right with it. Some Americans want to win in Iraq and some don't. There are Americans who support the troops and Americans who don't support the troops. And at the root of it all is the hideously damaging fantasy that there is a gulf between Americans who love their country and those who question his leadership. . . .

"When the president of the United States gleefully bathes in the muck to divide Americans into those who love their country and those who don't, it is destructive to the fabric of the nation he is supposed to be leading."

The Issue is Iraq

The final New York Times/CBS News poll before the midterm election is out, and the message is clear.

Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee write in the New York Times: "Americans cited Iraq as the most important issue affecting their vote, and majorities of Republicans and Democrats said they wanted a change in approach. Twenty percent said they thought the United States was winning in Iraq, down from a high this year of 36 percent in January. . . .

"The poll showed that 29 percent of Americans approve of the way President Bush is managing the war, matching the lowest mark of his presidency. Nearly 70 percent said Mr. Bush did not have a plan to end the war, and 80 percent said Mr. Bush's latest effort to rally public support for the conflict amounted to a change in language but not policy. . . .

"Mr. Bush's overall approval rating was 34 percent, unchanged from a poll three weeks ago, an anemic rating that explains why many Democrats are featuring him in their final advertisements, as well as why some Republican incumbents do not want him at their side."

Here are the complete results .

Bush's Wire Service Interview

Bush sat down in the Oval Office with wire-service reporters yesterday. Here are excerpts from Reuters and the Associated Press . It dumbfounds me why none of the participants would release the complete transcript.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Wednesday he wants Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to remain with him until the end of his presidency, extending a job guarantee to two of the most-vilified members of his administration.

"'Both those men are doing fantastic jobs and I strongly support them,' Bush said in an interview with the Associated Press and others. . . .

"Democrats and Republicans alike have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, arguing he has mishandled the war in Iraq where more than 2,800 members of the U.S. military have died since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Cheney has faced sharp criticism for his hardline views. In recent polling, less than 40 percent of respondents had a favorable view of Cheney and about a third had a favorable view of Rumsfeld. . . .

"Bush credited Rumsfeld with overseeing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while overhauling the military. 'I'm pleased with the progress we're making,' the president said. He replied in the affirmative when asked if he wanted Rumsfeld and Cheney to stay with him until the end."

From the AP excerpts: "I asked Vice President Cheney to get on my ticket, to run with me, because I trust his -- I value his judgment and his advice. And he's given me good advice. The good thing about Vice President Cheney's advice is you don't read about it in the newspaper after he gives it. In other words, he's a trusted adviser. He's not out there trying to make his own way. He's an integral part of this team."

Richard Keil writes for Bloomberg: "On Iraq, the president said U.S. military commanders haven't sought more forces for the conflict. 'The troop level they got right now is what they can live with,' he said."

Live with?

As Keil promptly notes: "October has been one of the deadliest months for U.S. forces with the deaths of 99 military personnel in combat, the most since November 2004, according to Department of Defense figures. Another six have died from accidents and other causes. A total of 2,815 U.S. personnel have died since the March 2003 invasion, 2,259 of those as a result of combat. There have been 21,419 wounded.

"'No question October has been a tough month,' the president said."

Worth More Than Just One Question

Also from the interview, on Cheney's comment about how a "dunk in the water" for suspected terrorists was a "no-brainer" to save lives:

"We don't discuss methodology in terms of how we question our detainees because I don't want them adjusting. ... My answer is that we don't discuss the techniques we use. And the reason you don't is because we don't want people practicing on how to avoid the techniques we might use so that we can get information from people."

New Media Strategy, Part One

Last week, in an interview with conservative journalists, Bush expressed moral reservations about publicizing body counts, a controversial hallmark of the Vietnam war.

"First of all, we are on the offense and we had made a conscience [sic] effort not to be a body count team. . . .

"They're moving hard and they're pressing hard. And I don't want to give you numbers. It's frustrating however, because . . . it's the perception that this great military power full of decent people is just getting picked off and nothing is happening. And I share the same frustration you share. And the American people, most of them out there are saying, how are you doing; get after them.

"And so we explain we are, but -- and I think the judgment is right in the Pentagon not to be talking about the number we kill and capture on a weekly basis because it then begins to -- they're just fearful. There's a culture over there. And I believe they're right. Maybe we're wrong. I'd be interested in your opinion."

Well, apparently Bush has gotten over his misgivings.

Here he is in yesterday's wire-service interview: "It's estimated that our troops and Iraqi troops killed or captured over 1,500 people during this period of time."

New Media Strategy, Part II

Julian E. Barnes writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As concern in the Defense Department mounts over eroding public support for the Iraq war, the Pentagon has launched a rapid-response public relations effort to rebut news stories that officials believe are inaccurate or misleading.

"Although all administrations have been critical of the media, most have avoided regular, ongoing public fights with journalists. But in recent weeks the Bush administration has shown a willingness to fight over facts and reporters' analysis of news events.

"The Defense Department's rapid-response efforts echo an initiative called ' Setting the Record Straight ,' in which the White House identifies what it says are news reports' inaccuracies or quotations out of context. Among the first results of the Pentagon response is a new ' For the Record ' section of the Defense Department's Web site."

New Media Strategy, Part III

And the new official White House policy appears to be: If you oppose the war in Iraq, you hate the troops.

Here's White House press secretary Tony Snow at yesterday's briefing : "You can't say, I support the troops, but I hate the cause, because that's why they signed up. And you've got men and women who are risking their lives for what they consider a noble cause, which is not only defeating al-Qaeda and defeating terrorists abroad, but also creating conditions that are going to allow people in that part of the world to brush aside terror as an unnecessary distraction to building a better life through free and democratic society."

Lickspittle Limbaugh

Can anyone imagine any major media figure asking such sycophantic questions of a Democratic president?

Here's the transcript of Bush's interview yesterday with right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh.

When the subject turned to terrorism, Limbaugh let loose with a tirade -- not against terrorists, but against the media and Democrats. Bush then had this to say:

"I am deeply concerned about a country, the United States, leaving the Middle East. I am worried that rival forms of extremists will battle for power, obviously creating incredible damage if they do so; that they will topple modern governments, that they will be in a position to use oil as a tool to blackmail the West. People say, 'What do you mean by that?' I say, 'If they control oil resources, then they pull oil off the market in order to run the price up, and they will do so unless we abandon Israel, for example, or unless we abandon allies. You couple that with a country that doesn't like us with a nuclear weapon and people will look back at this moment and say, 'What happened to those people in 2006?' and those are the stakes in this war we face.'"

Here is Limbaugh's hard-hitting follow up:

"Well, that is extremely visionary. One of the things, if I may make this personal, one of the many things I've admired about you is that you see down the road 20 or 30 years. You just illustrated that with your comment. What if down the road 20 years we look back to this time and with 20-20 hindsight realize we blew it. You're not, as far as it sounds to me, you're not going to let that happen. You're going to do whatever it takes to secure victory."

Asked about China, Bush test-drove a new talking point. It crashed: "One great opportunity for China, Rush, is to encourage China to develop a society in which there are savers. In other words, a society in which there's a pension plan. Let me rephrase that: a society in which there's consumer because now there's a society of too many savers."

About That Apology

As I noted in my Tuesday column , Bush was asked in a television interview last week about Limbaugh's mocking of actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease.

"Well, I, I, I, I, I recognize that Rush apologized," Bush said. "He apologized, and I think we all ought to accept his apology."

But as Eric Boehlert writes for Media Matters, that was no apology.

Laugh Out Loud Funny

Here's the text of yesterday's briefing.

Although the press corps did play along with the White House -- by asking 31 questions about Kerry -- Snow's disingenuousness on the topic was so extreme that at one point, the reporters in the room burst out laughing.

Greg Sargent at TPM Cafe has the video clip.

Snow: "And again, how hard is this? You say something, it's not what you meant to say, you apologize. You say, I'm sorry. And instead, he's coming out and accusing Republicans of dirty tricks. This is helpful advice. We're trying to help you out. We're throwing you a lifeline, buddy. Just say you're sorry. It's not hard. (Laughter.)

"Q: Lifesaver Tony Snow. . . .

"Q: We believe that. . . .

"Q: Have you thought about sending Senator Kerry a gift basket? [Laughter.]"

Rove Watch

Mark Knoller of CBS News sat down with Karl Rove for an interview yesterday.

Knoller asked: "Does this issue have legs?"

Rove: "John Kerry's name is not on the ballot. It will remind people of why they didn't vote for him. And it may remind them of the tendency of some of the Democratic party to be dismissive of our military, to be less than supportive of our military in a time of war. But, you know, I think it's a sideshow."

Andrew Sullivan Watch

Blogger Andrew Sullivan was on a roll yesterday.

Here he is on Time.com : "While the media is obsessed parsing the ad libs of someone on no ballot this fall, something truly ominous has just happened in Iraq. The commander-in-chief has abandoned an American soldier to the tender mercies of a Shiite militia. . . .

"The U.S. military does not have a tradition of abandoning its own soldiers to foreign militias, or of taking orders from foreign governments. No commander in chief who actually walks the walk, rather than swaggering the swagger, would acquiesce to such a thing. The soldier appears to be of Iraqi descent who is married to an Iraqi woman. Who authorized abandoning him to the enemy? Who is really giving the orders to the U.S. military in Iraq? These are real questions about honor and sacrifice and a war that is now careening out of any control. They are not phony questions drummed up by a partisan media machine to appeal to emotions to maintain power."

And then, as Editor and Publisher reports: "Andrew Sullivan, the conservative writer who was once a key media supporter for the Iraq war, denounced the latest Bush statement on CNN on Wednesday night, stating that the president is so delusional, 'This is not an election anymore, it's an intervention.'

"Sullivan said the president was 'so in denial,' comparing the Rumsfeld endorsement to applauding the job FEMA's Michael Brown did on Katrina: 'It's unhinged. It suggests this man has lost his mind. No one objectively could look at the way this war has been conducted, whether you were for it, as I was, or against it, and say that it has been done well. It's a disaster.

"'For him to say it's a fantastic job suggests the president has lost it, I'm sorry, there's no other way to say it. . . . These people must be held accountable.'"

Social Security Watch

Bloomberg's Richard Keil with more from that wire-service interview: "Looking past the election, Bush has said he wants to revisit the issue of creating private investment accounts for Social Security as part of a broader effort to restructure entitlement programs including Medicare and Medicaid.

"He said today he would send Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to Capitol Hill to solicit ideas from Democrats and Republicans alike.

"'I am willing to listen to anything,' Bush said. 'But I recognize it's going to take a bipartisan approach.'

"Bush made clear that he believes Social Security can be restructured without increasing taxes, something leading Democrats like former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin have insisted must be part of the equation.

"'Everyone knows my position: I believe we can solve this problem without raising taxes,' Bush said. 'It's going to be important for people, if they are interested in going forward, not to put any preconditions on it.'"

No preconditions?

As Lori Montgomery wrote last week in The Washington Post: "In recent days, Bush has said Social Security remains one of the 'big items' he wants to tackle next year and he continues to 'believe that a worker, at his or her option, ought to be allowed to put some of their own money . . . in a private savings account, an account that they call their own.'

"The statement appeared to represent no substantive change for the White House, and it varied little from the president's previous remarks."

The Cheney Documents

Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun: "A new executive privilege battle is looming in Washington as a federal appeals court considers whether to intervene in an election-eve dispute over records of visitors to Vice President Cheney's home at the Naval Observatory, as well as his offices in the White House complex.

"Last month, a federal judge in Washington, Ricardo Urbina, ordered the Secret Service to disclose two years of visitor logs to The Washington Post immediately or explain in detail why the records are exempt from release under the Freedom of Information Act.

"The Justice Department has asked the U.S. Court of Appeals to block Judge Urbina's order to allow the parties to present more extensive legal arguments about the dispute.

"'Disclosure of the records at issue could reveal an ever-expanding mosaic that would allow observers to chart the course of vice presidential contacts and deliberations in unprecedented fashion,' government attorneys argued in a brief filed yesterday. 'Such an unwarranted intrusion into the most sensitive deliberations of the vice presidency cannot be countenanced.'"

Bush Unbound?

Robert Kagan writes in a Washington Post opinion column that those who hope a Democratic victory in the congressional elections will finally shift the direction of American foreign policy in a more benign direction may be in for a surprise.

"'Bush hobbled' -- is less likely than the alternative: 'Bush unbound.' Neither the president nor his vice president is running for office in 2008. That is what usually prevents high-stakes foreign policy moves in the last two years of a president's term."

Olbermann Watch

The Crooks and Liars blog has the video and transcript of Keith Olbermann on MSBNC last night: "So now John Kerry has apologized to the troops; apologized for the Republicans' deliberate distortions.

"Thus the president will now begin the apologies he owes our troops, right?

Late Night Humor

Crooks and Liars also has video of the Daily Show's look at ways in which Bush is funnier than Kerry.

© 2006 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive