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Portrait of a Flailing White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 11, 2007; 12:32 PM

A Washington Post report this morning about President Bush's futile search for a war czar provides one of the most fascinating and revelatory looks into the inner workings of the White House in a long time.

It is the portrait of a White House flailing around to salvage its disastrous war -- while still refusing to acknowledge just how disastrous it's been.

With Vice President Cheney remaining very much in control of the agenda, the best solution the White House could apparently come up with was one that only the nation's first MBA president could love: A new layer of management.

Meanwhile, there is apparently no serious consideration being given inside the West Wing to what has become the dominant view of the American citizenry: That Iraq is a lost cause, and that it's time to start getting out.

And -- oh yes -- no one with the stature such a job would require is interested in taking it.

Every word of the article by Peter Baker and Thomas E. Ricks is worth reading -- and re-reading.

"The White House wants to appoint a high-powered czar to oversee the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with authority to issue directions to the Pentagon, the State Department and other agencies, but it has had trouble finding anyone able and willing to take the job, according to people close to the situation," they write.

"At least three retired four-star generals approached by the White House in recent weeks have declined to be considered for the position, the sources said. . . .

"'The very fundamental issue is, they don't know where the hell they're going,' said retired Marine Gen. John J. 'Jack' Sheehan, a former top NATO commander who was among those rejecting the job. Sheehan said he believes that Vice President Cheney and his hawkish allies remain more powerful within the administration than pragmatists looking for a way out of Iraq. 'So rather than go over there, develop an ulcer and eventually leave, I said, "No, thanks," ' he said. . . .

"'There's the residue of the Cheney view -- "We're going to win, al-Qaeda's there" -- that justifies anything we did,' he said. 'And then there's the pragmatist view -- how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence.'"

Baker and Ricks explain that the nearest thing to such a czar now is deputy national security adviser Meghan O'Sullivan. But O'Sullivan, who recently gave notice, is a mid-level functionary. The new czar would be a top-level aide to Bush and would have the power to issue directions over other agencies, their sources said.

Critics, however, say no one individual can fix a failed policy -- so it's no wonder no one wants the job.

An Invitation to Agree

Noam N. Levey and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times: "Two weeks after congressional Democrats invited President Bush to negotiate over timetables for withdrawing troops from Iraq, the president issued his own invitation Tuesday 'to meet with me at the White House.'

"But he made it clear that he wouldn't compromise.

"'At this meeting,' Bush said in a speech at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va., 'the leaders in Congress can report progress on getting an emergency spending bill to my desk. We can discuss the way forward on a bill that is a clean bill, a bill that funds our troops without artificial timetables for withdrawal.'"

Here's the text of Bush's speech. "The Democrat leadership in Congress has spent the past 64 days pushing legislation that would undercut our troops, just as we're beginning to make progress in Baghdad," he said.

"We are at war. It is irresponsible for the Democratic leadership in Congress to delay for months on end while our troops in combat are waiting for the funds they need to succeed."

Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman, writing in The Washington Post, explain what Bush is up to: "[T]he White House has focused efforts in recent weeks on shoring up its backing among conservatives, who remain strongly supportive of the war effort despite its unpopularity among the broader electorate. Conservative leaders have been invited to the White House for private briefings, and presidential surrogates, including Vice President Cheney, have been dispatched to conservative talk radio and other venues.

"With conservatives in mind, Bush is also increasingly complaining about spending provisions inserted by Democrats into the bills for non-war purposes. While Republicans did the same thing when they controlled the Congress, one senior administration official said the White House received a clear 'lesson' from the midterm elections about how much conservatives dislike such 'pork-barrel' spending. 'This is right in our wheelhouse,' said this official, who discussed strategy on the condition of anonymity."

Meanwhile, however: "Democratic aides are already discussing how to proceed once the expected presidential veto is issued. One idea with growing resonance would be quick passage of a war spending bill without conditions but with only enough funds for a few more months of war. Then negotiations over binding language to force a change in war policy would begin anew."

The contrast between Bush's "invitation" and his real meaning was not lost on reporters.

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "When President Bush invited Democratic leaders for a sit-down on Iraq, it seemed to offer the opportunity for a breakthrough in their bitter differences over the war.

"For about five seconds."

Feller writes that Bush's offer "was the latest sign that his tactics remain the same: We'll cooperate just fine as long as you see it my way."

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., would not meet with Bush unless he is willing to compromise. . . .

"Reid said Bush no longer has the 'rubber-stamp' Republican Congress of years past, and he must now deal with a truly equal branch of government. He said voters handed control of Congress to the Democrats last year because of opposition to the war.

"'He's got to listen to us, because we are speaking for the American people,' Reid said. 'He isn't.'

"Reid said the Senate has proposed a measured plan that includes stepped-up training of Iraqi forces, with a goal of having U.S. troops start coming home by April 1, 2008.

"The Senate Democratic leader noted that the U.S. death toll in Iraq is approaching 3,300, and the war has been condemned by figures such as Pope Benedict XVI. 'It's not just the Democratic Congress that is crying out for a change in direction,' Reid said. 'It's the pope.'"

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino combined chirpy and smug at her press briefing yesterday.

"Q You seem to be saying that the President wants to talk to the Democrats about this.

"MS. PERINO: We have an open invitation for them to come talk to us.

"Q But he's actually ruling out any kind of compromise, is that correct?

"MS. PERINO: This is not a meeting in order to compromise. This is a meeting to discuss the way forward, because the Democrats have to admit that they don't have the votes to override the President's veto. And at the same time, they say that they want to fund the troops. So at some point, the Democrats are going to have to come to a consensus on how to move forward. And a meeting with the President is a chance for the leaders to get together -- leadership from both parties -- to sit down and figure out how they're going to do that."

Poll Watch

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times on a smorgasbord of results from the latest Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll.

On Iraq, "the poll found that Americans are also split along partisan lines over pending congressional legislation that would provide new funding for the war in Iraq, but require a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from the country.

"Asked whether Bush should accept or veto a bill that included a timetable, 48% said he should sign such a measure while 43% said he should reject it. A significant majority of Democrats -- 74% -- backed signing the bill; an even bigger majority of Republicans, 80%, supported a veto."

In other news: "Most Americans believe Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales should resign because of the controversy over his office's firing of federal prosecutors, and a big majority want White House aides to testify under oath about the issue. . . .

"The survey, conducted Thursday through Monday, found that 53% said Gonzales should step down because he claimed he had no role in the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys last year -- an account later contradicted by Justice Department documents and congressional testimony by his top assistant.

"Senate and House Democratic leaders have asked White House aides to testify under oath about the firings, in part to answer questions about the roles of Gonzales and Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political strategist. Bush has rejected those requests, but the poll found that 74% of the public believes his aides, including Rove, should comply.

"Even among Republicans, 49% said they thought the aides should testify; 43% said they should not. . . .

Here are the complete results.

Heidi Przybyla notes for Bloomberg that "Bush's approval rating was 36 percent, a record low."

Subpoena Watch

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena yesterday to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, demanding that the Justice Department turn over hundreds of pages of new or uncensored records related to the firings of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

"The subpoena is the first served in connection with the dismissals, and it escalates the legal confrontation between Democrats and the Bush administration, which has resisted demands for more documents and for public testimony from White House aides. The order comes just a week before the embattled attorney general is scheduled to testify in the Senate, a hearing widely considered crucial to his attempt to keep his job. . . .

"The administration immediately signaled that it might oppose the demand. Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that the administration would like 'to reach an accommodation with the Congress' but added that doing so may not be possible."

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press that the Senate Judiciary Committee "is expected to keep up the pressure by authorizing subpoenas Thursday to compel cooperation from White House officials. . . .

"It all adds up to relentless pressure on an administration that for six years of Bush's tenure operated with virtually no oversight from the Republican-controlled Congress."

As for testimony from White House aides, Ruth Marcus writes in her Washington Post opinion column that White House Counsel Fred Fielding apparently told Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that "the White House is interested in reaching an accommodation along the lines suggested by Specter -- unsworn private testimony with a transcript as a first step -- but worries about whether the House will agree."

Voter Fraud

If it turns out that Karl Rove was a major force behind the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys, you can bet that "voter fraud" was a major motivation.

That's because, depending on whether you take him on face value or not, Rove is either obsessed about voter fraud because it is widespread and threatens the integrity of the elections process -- or he's obsessed about voter fraud because, even though it doesn't really exist, it gives Republicans an excuse to vigorously pursue the kinds of voter-identification laws known to reduce minority turnout.

Ian Urbina writes in the New York Times with the latest in the voter fraud wars: "A federal panel responsible for conducting election research played down the findings of experts who concluded last year that there was little voter fraud around the nation, according to a review of the original report obtained by The New York Times.

"Instead, the panel, the Election Assistance Commission, issued a report that said the pervasiveness of fraud was open to debate. . . .

"Though the original report said that among experts 'there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud,' the final version of the report released to the public concluded in its executive summary that 'there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud.' . . .

"The report also addressed intimidation, which Democrats see as a more pervasive problem.

"And two weeks ago, the panel faced criticism for refusing to release another report it commissioned concerning voter identification laws. That report, which was released after intense pressure from Congress, found that voter identification laws designed to fight fraud can reduce turnout, particularly among members of minorities. In releasing that report, which was conducted by a different set of scholars, the commission declined to endorse its findings, citing methodological concerns."

Urbina notes: "In a speech last April, Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's senior political adviser, told a group of Republican lawyers that election integrity issues were an 'enormous and growing' problem.

"'We're, in some parts of the country, I'm afraid to say, beginning to look like we have elections like those run in countries where the guys in charge are colonels in mirrored sunglasses,' Mr. Rove said. 'I mean, it's a real problem.'"

Paul Kiel of TPM Muckraker has more from Rove's speech.

Stem Cell Confrontation

Rick Weiss writes in The Washington Post: "Launching an emotional political and ethical drama that is widely expected to climax with the second veto of George W. Bush's presidency, the Senate yesterday began a two-day debate over the use of taxpayer dollars for embryonic stem cell research.

"The Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, to be voted on late today or tomorrow, would loosen Bush's Aug. 9, 2001, ban on federal funding for research on stem cells that were isolated from human embryos after that date."

An "alternative measure, the Hope Act, would back efforts to isolate embryonic stem cells from 'naturally dead embryos' that succumbed after being created in fertility clinics. Proponents say the approach avoids the ethics quagmire of intentional embryo destruction. But many scientists call it a phony alternative, in part because there is no agreed-upon definition of embryo death."

In companions "statements of administration policy" released yesterday, the White House it intends to veto the one bill, while enthusiastically supporting the other.

Dragging Down the GOP?

Adam Nagourney and John M. Broder write in the New York Times that Republican leaders are growing increasingly anxious about their party's chances of holding the White House in part because of public dissatisfaction with Bush.

"Shawn Steele, the former Republican Party chairman in California, said the candidates were being dragged down by their associations with Mr. Bush as well as with the war. Mr. Steele and other Republicans argued that the candidates were in a difficult position as they tried to distance themselves from a president who is having so many difficulties, while at the same time not alienating Republican base voters and donors who remain loyal to Mr. Bush and his foreign policy.

"'It's a dying administration,' Mr. Steele said. 'There's a fatigue factor and there's a rubbing-off when it's not very smart to be closely associated with such low ratings.'"

Protest Watch

Martin Stoltz writes in the New York Times about the continuing protests at Brigham Young University against Cheney's invitation to be the commencement speaker this year.

"Some of the faculty and the 28,000 undergraduate and graduate students, who are overwhelmingly Republican, have expressed concern about the Bush administration's support for the war in Iraq and other policies, but most of the current protest has focused on Mr. Cheney's integrity, character and behavior. Several students said, for example, that they were appalled at Mr. Cheney's use of an expletive on the Senate floor in a June 2004 exchange with Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.

"'The problem is this is a morally dubious man,' said Andrew Christensen, a 22-year-old Republican from Salt Lake City. 'It's challenging the morality and integrity of this institution.' . . .

"In the two weeks since the university announced that Mr. Cheney would be the speaker at the commencement on April 26, hundreds of students have attended respectful and quiet campus demonstrations about his presence, and some 3,600 students and alumni had signed petitions by Tuesday afternoon seeking a 'more appropriate' replacement speaker."

Immigration Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board sees a "dissonance" in Bush's speech on immigration on Monday, "because it came only two weeks after he and a group of Senate Republicans circulated a list of 'first principles' about immigration that amounted to a huge step backward for efforts to fix a broken system in a reasonable, humane way.

"It proposed new conditions on immigrant labor so punitive and extreme that they amounted to a radical rethinking of immigration -- not as an expression of the nation's ideals and an integral source of its vitality and character, but as a strictly contractual phenomenon designed to extract cheap labor from an unwelcome underclass."

E-Mail Opinion Watch

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "It's a question that, until recently, was of interest only to Karl Rove and his political minions in the Bush administration: When you want some U.S. attorneys fired, which e-mail account do you use -- your White House address (because it's official business) or your Republican National Committee address (because you want them fired for political reasons)?

"Now, however, Congress is interested. Because when it comes to cooperating with legitimate congressional investigations, it doesn't matter whether relevant e-mails lurk in the 'Sent Messages' file of the White House or of the Grand Old Party. They should be turned over."

Full of Hot Air

Apparently it was just a joke.

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann on Monday night reported: "President Bush did not, repeat, did not almost blow himself up, self immolate, or even shot off any sparks while checking out alternative cars on the south lawn of the White House.

"The event, now two weeks ago, was brought back to life by the CEO of Ford Motor Company, Alan Mulally. He told the Detroit News that he pretty much saved the president from plugging a live electrical plug into the wrong outlet of the ford Hybrid car, the outlet for the Hydrogen fuel tank. . . .

"As you see from this video almost nothing about that account seems correct. The president did not come anywhere close to initiating contact with the power cord, nor was the cord left in the wrong place."

And David Shepardson writes in a retraction of sorts in the Detroit News today, describing the incident as an example of how "a story told for laughs can spin out of control. . . .

"Mulally had seen a parody of the White House event on ABC-TV's 'Jimmy Kimmel Live' that showed Bush plugging the cord into the vehicle and blowing up," Shepardson writes.

"Ford spokesman Tom Hoyt said Mulally thought it was funny and showed it a couple of times in internal meetings before the auto show appearance.

"So when Mulally told the story in New York, he picked up on the humor of Kimmel's parody and embellished the story a bit. While Mulally did lead Bush over to the vehicle, the president was never in danger and Mulally didn't mean to imply otherwise, Hoyt said. 'He did not think it would be taken seriously,' Hoyt said."

Where the Big Bucks Are

AFP reports: "A senior White House official on Tuesday admitted he was floored by the news that Singapore's prime minister earned five times more than US President George W. Bush.

"'I'm going to emigrate and run for office in Singapore,' the official said on condition he be identified only as 'a senior administration official who sits in disbelief after reading that story.'"

On Monday, the Singapore government announced a raise for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, bringing his salary to just over $2 million a year. Bush gets $400,000.

Easter Bunny Exposed!

Wonkette outs the man beneath one of the White House Easter Egg Roll's bunny costumes: Apparently it's Eugene J. Huang, a White House fellow focusing on "macroeconomic policy and technology, competitiveness and innovation."

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Helen Thomas Watch

Daniel Aloi reports for the Cornell University news service on a visit from Hearst columnist and White House briefing room doyenne Helen Thomas: "'We've never been in worse shape as a country,' Thomas said to a nearly full house in Statler Auditorium. 'Truth has taken a holiday in this war. President Bush struck a match across the Middle East and invaded that country. Who are we? What have we become? Whose war is this? . . . Is this America? This is the time to start thinking of peaceful solutions to set our world right again.' . . .

"Thomas also answered questions from the audience.

"'How do you contain your disbelief?' she was asked.

"'I don't contain it. I am a cynic with hope; I believe you should ask questions.'"

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