Bubble Trouble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 7, 2006; 1:32 PM

Has any American president ever been less disposed to work with the opposition than George W. Bush?

Since 9/11, he has largely ignored people who don't agree with him.

Inside the bubble his loyal staff so arduously maintains, just about everyone the president sees loves him and prays for him. The important issues of the day are boiled down to a simplistic binary: You're either with me or against me.

And with the Republican Congress essentially serving as a White House annex, there's rarely been any need for Bush to doubt himself.

But American voters today are poised to breach Bush's bubble, exposing him to the real world.

In the real world, just because he says something doesn't make it so. In the real world, he can't just demonize people who don't agree with him -- he has to work with them. And in the real world, he is the president of all the people, not just his partisan supporters.

Bush's Certainty

Can Bush adapt to this reality? Whether it's bluster or bluff, he certainly hasn't sent out any signals of compromise so far.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Any doubt he may harbor, he kept to himself. Any feelings of regret are locked tight inside. The rest of the world may see an unpopular president in the midst of an unpopular war. But Bush soldiers on. He does not publicly stew as other presidents have. He powers through event after event as if he were still the leader the country rallied behind after Sept. 11, 2001.

"To his critics, it sometimes seems as if Bush lives in his own world, oblivious or unwilling to accept the shifting reality around him. His is a world of absolutes. 'I view this as a struggle of good versus evil,' he said the other day about the war with terrorists. To Bush, that is strength, not weakness -- the certitude of conviction, the power of principle. He's 'the decider' in a business afflicted by equivocation and thumb-sucking. . . .

"Bush's stump speech the past few weeks has underscored a with-us-or-against-us worldview. Democrats and some Republicans opposed warrantless surveillance of telephone calls of people with suspected ties to terrorism, objecting to unchecked executive power and arguing that officials should still get warrants from a secret intelligence court. Likewise, Democrats and initially some Republicans opposed redefining Geneva Conventions protections for prisoners and permitting harsh interrogation, preferring more traditional practices.

"In the version Bush offers campaign audiences, that boils down to the Democrats not wanting to fight terrorists at all. Democrats, he said in Missouri, 'oppose listening in on terrorist conversations' and 'oppose letting the CIA detain and question the terrorists who might know what those [next] plots are.' As for Iraq, he said in Texas, if Democrats get their way, 'the terrorists win and America loses.'"

One Last Gamble on His Credibility

The central question of this election, in a nutshell: Do you trust him?

Jim VandeHei and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post that on the last day of the campaign, Bush "was betting that the Republican Party's historic advantage with voters in times when security issues are prominent will pay dividends again. 'As you go to the polls, remember we're at war,' he told thousands of GOP supporters in Pensacola, Fla. 'And if you want this country to do everything in its power to protect you and at the same time lay a foundation for peace for generations to come, vote Republican.'"

That's one way of looking at it. The other:

"'I think, frankly, people don't believe the president anymore' when it comes to the war, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, echoing other party leaders, said in an interview. 'We are telling people if they want to stay the course, vote Republican. If you want a change of direction, vote Democrat.'"

Go Vote

Bush did put partisanship aside this morning as he cast his own vote in Texas. From his brief statement : "[N]o matter what your party affiliation, or if you don't have a party affiliation, do your duty; cast your ballot and let your voice be heard."

Rough Road

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "Running out of time and influence, President Bush faces a rough road in the twilight of his presidency regardless of who controls Congress.

"The once-unshakable loyalty of congressional Republicans is weakening. After marching in lockstep with the White House for six years, GOP lawmakers are looking at the political calendar and thinking about their own futures rather than Bush's legacy in his last two years in office. . . .

"If Democrats should take the House or Senate, Bush's problems would only get worse.

"Shut out of power for a dozen years and bitter at Bush for ignoring them, Democrats would demand a role in setting the nation's agenda and throw up roadblocks to the president's plans. Pressuring Bush on Iraq, Democrats would have subpoena powers to investigate the president's conduct of the war and to demand accountability.

"The White House also could get snarled in Democratic-run investigations of issues ranging from Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy policy deliberations to White House links with Republican corruption scandals."

More Harm Than Good?

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The closer the election came to the finish line, the more President Bush's aides battled the perception he was doing his party as much harm as good and was unwanted in many races.

"On Monday, Bush jetted to a conservative corner of Florida's Panhandle, about as far as he could get from the state's three in-play House districts. To the White House's embarrassment and irritation, Republican Charlie Crist, whom Bush came to help in his bid to succeed the president's brother as governor, decided at the last minute to skip the chance to be by the president's side."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist, made a snippy remark to reporters about Crist's decision to appear in other cities instead.

"'Let's see how many people show up in Palm Beach on 24 hours' notice, versus 8,000 or 9,000 in Pensacola,' Rove said.

"He overestimated the size of the Pensacola crowd by several thousand."

And Karen Travers blogs for ABC News: "After saying this, Rove tried to say it was off the record but the pool producer pointed out to him that the camera was rolling (and had been as he spoke earlier about GOP polling) and there were recorders in his face."

Karl Rove Watch

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times about the "symbiotic relationship in which, friends say, Mr. Rove, the president's chief political adviser, is both mastermind and supplicant, and Mr. Bush is both leader and follower. . . .

"Mr. Bush, who is more involved in the nitty-gritty of politics than he lets on publicly, gave Mr. Rove the clearance to run the White House midterm elections plan according to his standard playbook, even as other Republicans began to question Mr. Rove's reputation for strategic brilliance and detach themselves from Mr. Bush and the Iraq war.

"This year has not been easy on the two men, but in public at least, Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove usually seem to be enjoying themselves. In the campaign's waning days, Mr. Rove emerged as the campaign jester of Air Force One, a role he has taken on in all of Mr. Bush's big campaigns."

The Permanent Campaign

One of Rove's many influences on the Bush White House has been the almost complete eradication of the distinction between campaigning and governing.

Case in point, from yesterday's gaggle with Tony Snow.

"Q: What about contingency plans for a Democrat House if it comes to that?

"MR. SNOW: How many times do I have to tell you guys, you don't sit around in the middle of a campaign and say, what if we lose? You don't. You just don't waste your time doing that. You devote --

"Q: You're governing at the same time that you're campaigning. It's a little bit of a different prospect than just running a campaign and just thinking about winning.

"MR. SNOW: But you also understand, we expect to have a Republican Congress, so we're not going to sit around and start doing 'contingency plans.'"

Rove's Repudiation?

On PBS's "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" on Friday, Mark Shields and David Brooks found a rare area of agreement.

"MARK SHIELDS: . . . [W]hat we're going to see repudiated on Tuesday, I believe, is the theory of Karl Rove. Karl Rove believed that, with a permanent Republican majority, which he thought was in the offing, you could govern the nation only with Republican legislation, written by Republican leaders, passed by Republican followers, and just be totally disdainful. . . .

"JIM LEHRER: And signed by a Republican president.

"MARK SHIELDS: . . . Republican president -- and be totally contemptuous of the minority legislators in the same institution with you. This election will be the revenge of the independent and the moderates; it really will.


"DAVID BROOKS: That I completely agree with.

"JIM LEHRER: You do?"

Getting Personal

Deb Riechmann 's Associated Press story about the election today is headlined: "Voter results will decide Bush's potency."

The World Waits

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "Across the planet, people want to know: do Americans still see the world the way George W. Bush does? Do they still accept (or tolerate) his theory of how to achieve peace and security? . . .

"Voters are angry about the loss of American life and treasure, but many of them also worry about whether we are losing something just as precious, and as critical to our security: our sense of commanding moral mission in the world."

Zachary A. Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post: "Former deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage, who was an influential adviser to Colin L. Powell when Powell was secretary of state, has weighed in on today's midterm elections, saying they offer the United States a chance to win back lost allies around the world....

"'We were exporting our anger and our fear, hatred for what had happened,' Reuters quoted him as saying. 'I think it's understandable to a certain degree, but we're well past that now and it's time to turn another face to the world and get back to more traditional things, such as the export of hope and opportunity and inspiration.'"

Snow: The New Partisan Attack Dog?

John Dickerson writes in Slate about two interviews held yesterday: "Rove talked to Hugh Hewitt , and Snow talked to Rush Limbaugh . Given Rove's reputation in the minds of his enemies and his bare-knuckle style of politics, you would expect his interview to be the more combative one. . . .

"Snow, on the other hand, has a job that requires maintaining an appearance of less overt partisanship. It's a good time to keep up this tradition, since he's the one who might have to articulate administration positions if there's a Democratic-controlled House or Senate. Prudence, then, would dictate restraint. No sense in giving the single-finger salute today when you're the administration figure who might have to offer the hand of bipartisanship tomorrow. If prudence didn't dictate a little adult behavior, then Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, a sensible fellow who has his eye on the days after the election, might demand it. Plus, Snow's comments are broadcast through official channels as a government document, so surely we would expect him to be the more the nuanced and careful of the two men.

"We would be silly to think so. 'You gotta wonder if they're a serious political party,' Snow said of the Democrats at the start of his interview with Limbaugh. Rove, when offered an opportunity to take a shot at John Kerry's 'botched joke,' became wrapped in nuance, willing only to make Kerry stand in for 'elements within the Democratic Party.' Snow bashed the whole party: 'Democrats tend to have a view of the military that is not always fully respectful and even when they say they're supporting them, they're undercutting them . . . constantly trying to undermine public confidence in that military by describing defeat what people on the ground see as hard-won victory."

Blogger Glenn Greenwald takes issue with several of Snow's assertions, and writes: "The Bush administration and the Rush Limbaugh Show have all but merged this year."

Khalizad to Resign

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "Zalmay Khalilzad, the plainspoken dealmaker and Republican insider who has won praise and criticism for attempts to broker Sunni political participation in Iraq's fragile government, is likely to quit his post as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad in the coming months, a senior Bush administration official said Monday."

Blogger Mark Kleiman writes: "I can think of four possible causes, none of them encouraging."

Detainee Watch

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration's successful effort to have Congress eliminate the right of Guantanamo prisoners to challenge their detentions before federal judges is now moving toward what may be an epic battle in the courts. . . .

"The three-judge appeals court panel will have to decide whether the pending lawsuits brought by the 430 or so remaining detainees at Guantanamo should be thrown out, as the Bush administration has argued, or whether the new law is unconstitutional, as civil liberties groups have contended."

Torture Watch

Fox News reporter Steve Harrigan decided to see what waterboarding was like first-hand. There's video here .

Andrew Sullivan blogs: "[H]is conclusion is inescapable: 'As far as torture goes, at least in this controlled experiment, to me this seemed like a pretty efficient mechanism.'"

Media Matters has the transcript, and more.

Opinion Watch

Robert Novak writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "[T]he election has been nationalized around two standards that could not be more unfavorable to the GOP: an unpopular war and an unpopular president. That has generated a rising sense of panic in Republican ranks, with the fear that tomorrow's returns will be either bad or very bad for them. . . .

"A prominent Republican who asked me not to use his name said the last effective play by the White House came at the end of the summer when it defended its war policy. Then, in all seriousness, he proposed this course of action should have been taken by Bush: 'The president should go on a 2 1/2 -week vacation, and when he gets back, go right into the hospital for minor surgery. In other words, he should have disappeared.'"

From a New York Times editorial : "This election is indeed about George W. Bush -- and the Congressional majority's insistence on protecting him from the consequences of his mistakes and misdeeds. Mr. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 and proceeded to govern as if he had an enormous mandate. After he actually beat his opponent in 2004, he announced he now had real political capital and intended to spend it. We have seen the results. It is frightening to contemplate the new excesses he could concoct if he woke up next Wednesday and found that his party had maintained its hold on the House and Senate."

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "At this point, nobody should have any illusions about Mr. Bush's character. To put it bluntly, he's an insecure bully who believes that owning up to a mistake, any mistake, would undermine his manhood -- and who therefore lives in a dream world in which all of his policies are succeeding and all of his officials are doing a heckuva job. . . .

"In other words, he's the sort of man who should never have been put in a position of authority, let alone been given the kind of unquestioned power, free from normal checks and balances, that he was granted after 9/11. But he was, alas, given that power, as well as a prolonged free ride from much of the news media."

Frank Rich writes in his New York Times opinion column: "In retrospect, the defining moment of the 2006 campaign may well have been back in April, when Mr. Colbert appeared at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Call it a cultural primary. His performance was judged a bomb by the Washington press corps, which yukked it up instead for a Bush impersonator who joined the president in a benign sketch commissioned by the White House. But millions of Americans watching C-Span and the Web did get Mr. Colbert's routine. They recognized that the Beltway establishment sitting stone-faced in his audience was the butt of his jokes, especially the very news media that had parroted Bush administration fictions leading America into the quagmire of Iraq.

"Five months later, a video of Mr. Colbert's dinner speech is still a runaway iTunes hit and his comic contempt for Washington is more popular than ever. It's enough to give you hope that the voters may rally for reality on this crucial Election Day even as desperate politicians and some of their media enablers try one more time to stay their fictional course."

Those Nuclear Secrets

I didn't link on Friday to William J. Broad 's story in the New York Times, because I wasn't sure how much the White House was involved.

Broad wrote: "Last March, the federal government set up a Web site to make public a vast archive of Iraqi documents captured during the war. The Bush administration did so under pressure from Congressional Republicans who had said they hoped to 'leverage the Internet' to find new evidence of the prewar dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

"But in recent weeks, the site has posted some documents that weapons experts say are a danger themselves: detailed accounts of Iraq's secret nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The documents, the experts say, constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb.

"Last night, the government shut down the Web site after the New York Times asked about complaints from weapons experts and arms-control officials."

Since then, the Hullabaloo blog called my attention to this Weekly Standard article by Stephen F. Hayes .

Hayes wrote in March: "On February 16, President George W. Bush assembled a small group of congressional Republicans for a briefing on Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley were there, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad participated via teleconference from Baghdad. As the meeting was beginning, Mike Pence spoke up. The Indiana Republican, a leader of conservatives in the House, was seated next to Bush.

"Pence . . . [quoted] Abraham Lincoln: 'One of your Republican predecessors said, "Give the people the facts and the Republic will be saved." There are 3,000 hours of Saddam tapes and millions of pages of other documents that we captured after the war. When will the American public get to see this information?'

"Bush replied that he wanted the documents released. He turned to Hadley and asked for an update. Hadley explained that John Negroponte, Bush's Director of National Intelligence, 'owns the documents' and that DNI lawyers were deciding how they might be handled.

"Bush extended his arms in exasperation and worried aloud that people who see the documents in 10 years will wonder why they weren't released sooner. 'If I knew then what I know now,' Bush said in the voice of a war skeptic, 'I would have been more supportive of the war.'

"Bush told Hadley to expedite the release of the Iraq documents. 'This stuff ought to be out. Put this stuff out.' The president would reiterate this point before the meeting adjourned. And as the briefing ended, he approached Pence, poked a finger in the congressman's chest, and thanked him for raising the issue. When Pence began to restate his view that the documents should be released, Bush put his hand up, as if to say, 'I hear you. It will be taken care of.'"

Bush v. Plants

Reuters reports: "The construction of a helipad in Indonesia's famed botanical gardens for an upcoming visit by U.S. President George W. Bush will damage protected plants, an opposition party said on Tuesday."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. E.T. Whatever will we talk about?

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