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Who Has No Plan?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 3, 2006; 1:20 PM

President Bush's foremost political liability going into the mid-term elections is that the American people aren't happy he took the nation to war in Iraq and don't believe he has a way out.

In other words, they think Bush made a mess and has no idea how to clean it up.

Now, in what may be the ultimate show of Karl Rovian chutzpah, Bush is righteously attacking Democrats for not having a plan to clean up the mess he himself made.

It's a classic Rove technique to attack his opponents' strengths from a position of weakness -- no matter how deficient his own candidate's position may be.

But in this case, the public seems to have already reached some pretty definite conclusions.

According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll , only 26 percent of Americans think Bush has "developed a clear plan for dealing with the situation in Iraq." A resounding 69 percent don't believe he has a clear plan at all (not to mention a good one.)

And while Democrats have not united behind any one course of action in Iraq, the public does seem to have a pretty good idea about what they'll do if they take control of Congress.

Some 41 percent think Democrats will try to decrease the number of troops in Iraq, and another 40 percent think Democrats will try to remove all troops from Iraq. That's 81 percent in all who seem convinced that Democrats will try to reverse Bush's "stay the course" strategy, and start bringing the troops home.

The New Offensive

Here's the text of Bush's speech yesterday in Nevada: "Oh, I've heard the Democrats. I'm sure you have, too. If you listen for their plan on Iraq, they don't have one. On this crucial issue facing the country, they don't have a plan for victory. And I want to remind our fellow citizens, harsh criticism and second-guessing is not a plan."

Here's Tony Snow on CNN yesterday, talking to Wolf Blitzer: "What's interesting in this political season, Wolf, is you can ask about the president's conduct in the war, but there's also an interesting issue that I think people are going to consider between now and Election Day, which is who is actually talking about winning this war?

"Because Democrats took the calculated position going into this campaign that they'd spend their time talking about how much they didn't like George W. Bush. And there's been a concerted effort to go after the president and it has worked. . . .

"[B]ut on the other hand, is that really, do you really want to say, OK, I've called the president some bad names, so let me lead you. I don't think so."

And here's the text of Bush's speech this morning in Missouri: "So far the Democrats have refused to tell us their plan on how they're going to secure the United States. There's still four days left before the election, and there's still time for the Democrats to tell the American people their plan to prevail in this war on terror.

"So if you happen to bump into a Democrat candidate, you might want to ask this simple question: What's your plan? If they say they want to protect the homeland, but oppose the Patriot Act, ask them this question: What's your plan? (Laughter.) If they say they want to uncover terrorist plots, but oppose listening in on terrorist conversations, ask them this question: What's your plan? If they say they want to stop new attacks on our country, but oppose letting the CIA detain and question the terrorists who might know what those plots are, ask them this question: What's your plan? If they say they want to win the war on terror, but call for America to pull out from what al Qaeda says is the central front in this war, ask them this question: What's your plan?

"AUDIENCE: What's your plan?"

Bush, of course, was mischaracterizing the Democratic position on listening in on terrorist conversations and interrogation of terror suspects. Democrats support both -- just not the way Bush goes about them.

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "'The White House seems to be playing into our hands,' [Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senate campaign organization] told reporters as part of a bullish preview of the Democrats' prospects for Senate races.

"'In an effort to strengthen their base, they keep reminding the public that there's not going to be any change in Iraq,' he said, referring to Bush's statement on Wednesday that he wants Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to remain in office through the end of his term."

Editorials From Unlikely Places

From an editorial in Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot : "The administration is masterful at crafting rhetorical choices that leave any rational listener with only one option. Still, saying that the Democratic Party favors a terrorist victory in Iraq demonstrates how far the White House must now go to make its failures look good by comparison. . . .

"It is increasingly clear that the forces of good are losing to sectarian civil war, and have even lost the support of the corrupt and ineffective government. There are insufficient Iraqi troops and police to keep people safe, and no will to employ them.

"Still, it is the Democrats, the president says, who don't know what to do about Iraq. 'I want you,' he said to voters in Indiana 'to think about the Democrat plan for success: There isn't one.'

"It is the Democrats, he says, who will lose Iraq if they win next week. But, as has become clear in the past four years, at a cost of more than 2,800 Americans, Democrats can't possibly lose peace and democracy in Iraq. The Bush administration already has."

Bush Plan in Flux?

And for those 29 percent who think Bush does have a plan? This just in: It may be changing.

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Following Tuesday's elections, President Bush will face some of the most difficult decisions of his presidency as he struggles to craft a strategy for dealing with the ruinous mess in Iraq. . . .

"The coming policy debate will . . . involve basic conflicts that have emerged in the past year over Middle East strategy -- for which the rough Beltway shorthand would be Condoleezza Rice's State Department vs. the office of Vice President Cheney.

"The central question for Bush . . . : Is America's best hope for stabilizing Iraq a broad effort to resolve tensions in the Middle East, including the Arab-Israeli dispute? This comprehensive regional approach to Iraq is controversial for two reasons: The United States would have to engage Iraq's troublesome neighbors, Iran and Syria; and it would have to push Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians as part of a broader peace deal."

Stump Watch

Here's the text of Bush's speech in Montana yesterday.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush warned Thursday that a Democratic Senate would block many of his judicial nominees and never allow justices such as John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. onto the Supreme Court, a message intended to win back his restive conservative base. . . .

"The visit to Montana opened a six-day, 10-state final campaign swing for the president as he left Washington for the last time until Tuesday's elections. . . .

"A Republican president normally would not need to come to a conservative bastion such as Montana this close to an election, nor to Nevada's 2nd District, which has never voted for a Democrat since it was created in 1982. But Bush is playing defense in red-state territory and sticking to states that voted for him two years ago."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "If there is one thing the White House can usually count on when President Bush campaigns in small, Republican-leaning cities like this one, it is friendly wall-to-wall news coverage of his arrival. And his visit here on Thursday did make the front page of The Billings Gazette.

"But news of his impending arrival took second billing in the paper. It ran below the fold and under a package of articles about the return of a local sailor's body from Iraq, accompanied by a photograph of the flag-draped coffin at Billings Logan International Airport. . . .

"During the last two elections, the fumes of Air Force One worked like political magic dust for the candidates lucky enough to score visits from Mr. Bush.

"Candidates flew to Washington just to be seen arriving back home on his 747. Local newspapers doubled as welcome mats, and television reporters and radio hosts excitedly echoed his verbal jabs at Democrats long after he had left."

Careful White House stagecraft still makes maximal use of Air Force One, however, which Mark Silva , blogging for the Chicago Tribune, correctly calls "a heckuva prop."

The White House used the plane as a backdrop for Bush's talk in Nevada yesterday. Silva describes "White House press office people politely but furtively asking arriving reporters and photographers to move out of the path of 'the picture' of the president and his plane."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Bush "made one gaffe in Montana that may be a sign of the toll of frequent campaign trips. He spoke of the lives lost on Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Lancaster, Pa. Lancaster is 165 miles east of where United Flight 93 crashed into a field in Shanksville, killing everyone on board."

Kerry Watch

White House spokesman Tony Fratto announced to the press corps yesterday morning that the White House was done with the Kerry Kerfuffle. (See yesterday's column for background.)

"MR. FRATTO: Senator Kerry made his apology, maybe four days late, yesterday, but it was the right thing to do. And I don't think we have anything more to say on that."

But apparently, the message didn't get out to Vice President Cheney.

Here's Cheney in Idaho yesterday: "Aren't we lucky he lost that election? (Applause.) I see you all remember John Kerry -- (laughter) -- . . . He's the one, you'll recall, who last year said that American soldiers were terrorizing children in Iraq.


"THE VICE PRESIDENT: And just this week he took another swipe at the U.S. military."

And so on.


Fratto, a recent arrival in the press office, flubbed up in response to a question about Bush's visit to Nevada when he announced: "There is no Senate candidate in Nevada."

Bush was in fact there in part to support Sen. John Ensign, who is being opposed by Jimmy Carter's son, Democrat Jack Carter.

Oversight (Non) Watch

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "Open-government advocates are howling this week over a newly released transcript of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in April on topics including domestic wiretapping and surveillance, treatment of potential terrorists, and the president's power to declassify information.

"During the session, Gonzales evaded most of the four dozen questions asked by Republican and Democratic members by claiming ignorance, or telling the committee -- which oversees the Justice Department -- that the answers were too secret to share."

Here's that transcript , from the Web site of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.

James Glanz writes in the New York Times: "Investigations led by a Republican lawyer named Stuart W. Bowen Jr. in Iraq have sent American occupation officials to jail on bribery and conspiracy charges, exposed disastrously poor construction work by well-connected companies like Halliburton and Parsons, and discovered that the military did not properly track hundreds of thousands of weapons it shipped to Iraqi security forces.

"And tucked away in a huge military authorization bill that President Bush signed two weeks ago is what some of Mr. Bowen's supporters believe is his reward for repeatedly embarrassing the administration: a pink slip.

"The order comes in the form of an obscure provision that terminates his federal oversight agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, on Oct. 1, 2007. The clause was inserted by the Republican side of the House Armed Services Committee over the objections of Democratic counterparts during a closed-door conference, and it has generated surprise and some outrage among lawmakers who say they had no idea it was in the final legislation."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "Whatever our leaders may say about their determination to stay the course complete the mission, when it comes to rebuilding Iraq they've already cut and run. . . .

"[M]ajor contractors believed, correctly, that their political connections insulated them from accountability. Halliburton and other companies with huge Iraq contracts were basically in the same position as Donald Rumsfeld: they were so closely identified with President Bush and, especially, Vice President Cheney that firing or even disciplining them would have been seen as an admission of personal failure on the part of top elected officials. . . .

"You can see, by the way, why a Democratic takeover of the House, if it happens next week, would be such a pivotal event: suddenly, committee chairmen with subpoena power would be in a position to investigate where all the Iraq money went."

Scooter Libby Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby will not be allowed to use a memory expert at his perjury and obstruction trial, a federal judge ruled Thursday, blocking a key tactic in Libby's defense strategy.

"Libby, who is accused of lying to investigators in the CIA leak case, wanted an expert to testify that memory is unreliable, especially during times of stress. Libby says he had national security issues on his mind and any misstatements he made about the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's name were mistakes, not lies.

"U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said allowing a memory expert would be a waste of time and would only confuse the jury. . . .

"The issue provided the case's first courtroom drama last week when Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald spent hours questioning the research of memory expert Elizabeth Loftus. Fitzgerald picked apart the psychologist's testimony until she acknowledged errors and misstatements in her findings."

Nuclear Proliferation Watch

Dafna Linzer writes in The Washington Post: "In the waning days of the 20th century, nearly a dozen countries abandoned nuclear weapons programs, betting on the promised security of a post-Cold War world.

"But the trend toward disarmament seems to have tapered off almost as quickly as it began. . . .

"Officials and nuclear experts who felt nothing but optimism in the early 1990s now see a world on the threshold of a dangerous arms race. Some fault the Bush administration for policies that rewarded nuclear-armed friends while denouncing foes accused of building the same weapons. Others say the current situation is a natural byproduct of a fragmented world in which countries no longer have to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union, but can go separate ways and build independent alliances."

Optimist in Chief

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush was hosting lawmakers in the Oval Office last week when he asked House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to size up GOP prospects in the midterm election.

"When Boehner said he had already written off some Republican House seats, naming one in the South, Bush protested loudly and called in his chief political advisor. Karl Rove entered on cue with an armful of charts to prove that the seat was still in play and that the party could hold on to its House majority. . . .

"Senior party officials, including Rove and Bush, insist that Republican fundraising and voter-mobilization advantages -- or some 11th-hour surprise -- will preserve their Senate majority and keep GOP losses below the 15 seats that would give Democrats control of the House. . . .

"Many strategists in both parties dismiss that kind of talk as a Pollyannaish effort to keep GOP voters from being so discouraged they stay home on election day. The fact that Republicans are fighting so hard in some of the country's most conservative regions is a measure of how tough a road they face."

Haggard and Bush

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post: "One of the nation's most influential conservative Christian leaders, the Rev. Ted Haggard, resigned yesterday as president of the National Association of Evangelicals and temporarily stepped aside as pastor of a Colorado mega-church after a self-described male escort accused him of paying for gay sex."

How close was Haggard to the White House?

Tim Grieve of Salon talk to Lauren Sandler, the author of "Righteous: Dispatches From the Evangelical Youth Movement," who reports: "Haggard participates -- or at least he did -- in weekly White House conference calls, and he and the president like to joke that the only thing they disagree on is what truck to drive."

Pool Follies

Joseph Curl of the Washington Times uses blind items and turgid prose to spice up his pool report. From yesterday morning: "On a crisp, sunny morning, the president's first step down the stairs of Marine One at Andrews Air Force Base was shaky, but he quickly grabbed the handrail and righted himself. Still, that split second was enough time for one White House reporter to let loose a delighted 'Aha!' (try to figure out who). Bush's second step, though, was confident, bold, fully presidential -- a step that said he would not quit those stairs until the job of walking down them was done. And, no Defeatocrat, he did not. . . .

"The president made goo-goo eyes at one TV reporter (a favorite target) as he pretended to straighten an askew, make-believe pocket hanky (mocking the reporter's gold-colored flourish). Frivolity ensued."

Loose Ends From the Pool Reports

Mark Silva described the flight from Montana to Nevada: "On board Air Force One a ' senior administration official ' who is not Karl Rove came back to talk about the itinerary and strategy of this 10-state tour of states that Bush carried. It got a little testy when the press office attempted to control the subject of questioning but your poolers prevailed in asking the questions we wanted - if not prevailing in forcing an on-record attribution to said official."

What was the testiness about? And what was the White House's rationale for not putting this on the record?

And here's Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times describing the flight from Nevada to Missouri: "At about 6:30 pm EST, those on the right side of AF1 gasped. Your pool was called over to witness condensation which was apparently cast off by another plane flying rather close. Pool could not verify."

What was that about?

Flipping the President Costs Driver Job

Manuel Valdes writes in the Seattle Times: "An Issaquah school bus driver fired for allegedly 'flipping off' President Bush during a visit to Seattle in June is appealing her termination.

"According to Issaquah School District officials, the incident happened when a district school bus stopped for the president's motorcade while returning from a field trip in Seattle.

"As the president waved to the school children from his limousine, the bus driver made an obscene gesture, said Sara Niegowski, a spokeswoman for the district.

"Bush was in Seattle attending a fundraiser for Congressman Dave Reichert, who was riding in the same limousine.

"Reichert campaign officials confirm that Bush told Reichert about the gesture and that the congressman later called Issaquah's superintendent to let her know about the incident."

Who's More Threatening?

Julian Glover writes for the Guardian: "America is now seen as a threat to world peace by its closest neighbours and allies, according to an international survey of public opinion published today that reveals just how far the country's reputation has fallen among former supporters since the invasion of Iraq.

"Carried out as US voters prepare to go to the polls next week in an election dominated by the war, the research also shows that British voters see George Bush as a greater danger to world peace than either the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, or the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad."

Bad Luck

Michael Hirsch writes in his Newsweek.com column: "Was there any more mind-boggling bit of historic bad luck than what happened after Election Day 2000, when those 537 votes in Florida wobbled, then stayed in George W. Bush's column? Never mind what kind of president Al Gore would have been--he would have been adequate, I suppose, but so would have most Republicans--it is hard now to avoid the conclusion that Bush was precisely the wrong man at the wrong time. Perhaps Bush would have been OK fighting another kind of war, a Jacksonian Battle of New Orleans-type war. But at a moment in history when we faced the most subtle sort of global threat, when we needed not just a willingness to use military force but a leader of real brilliance--someone who would carefully study a little-understood enemy--we got a man who actually took pride in his lack of studiousness. No surprise: Bush never once presided over a grand-strategy session to divine the nature of Al Qaeda, and he ended up lumping Saddam and every Islamist insurgent and terrorist group with Osama bin Laden. He ensured that a tiny fringe group that had been hounded into Afghanistan with no place left to go--one that could have been wiped out had we focused on the task at hand--would spread worldwide and become a generational Islamist threat.

"And at a time when we needed a world leader who understood the nuances of burden-sharing in the international system, we got a president who so badly wanted to be a cowboy and not his father (offending even some Texans: 'all hat and no cattle' is the term they use down there) that he proudly declared he doesn't 'do nuance.' Bush stomped around huffily in his first term, talking loudly and carrying a big stick, in the process all but trashing a half century of carefully nurtured American prestige. No surprise: he alienated a world we desperately needed on our side, thus leaving America alone with all the burden and generations' worth of bills to pay. Now we face two serious rising threats, North Korea and Iran. And having squandered our attention, resources and prestige on a trumped-up threat, Iraq, we are simply too weak and friendless to confront them as they should be. That's what I call bad luck."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today a little after 2 p.m. ET.

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