The Pariah President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; 11:27 AM

President Bush isn't headlining any big political rallies this time around. Far from it.

No, with two whole weeks still to go to before the election, Bush attended his final political event of the 2008 campaign last night - a fundraiser for fat-cat GOP donors, as usual hidden from public view. His primary job from this point forward, as far as Republican candidates from John McCain on down are concerned, is to stay out of the way.

Never before in modern history has a standing president been such a pariah that candidates of his own party wanted nothing to do with him.

Mark Knoller reports for CBS News: "Not once this year has President Bush appeared in public at a campaign rally for the Republican Party or any of its candidates. . . .

"Tuesday's event brings to 46 the number of GOP fund-raising events Mr. Bush has done this year, but nearly all have been of the stealth variety. All but four of them have been closed to press coverage.

"It's a deliberate effort on the part of the White House, the Republican National Committee and the McCain Campaign to help Mr. Bush maintain a low political profile.

"Even the four fund-raising events he did for McCain were off-limits to reporters. . . .

"Only once since McCain visited the White House on March 5 to receive the president's formal endorsement, have the two of them been seen together in a political context."

As Knoller concludes: "It makes it laughable what McCain said that day seven months ago in the Rose Garden with Mr. Bush: 'I intend to have as much possible campaigning events together, as it is in keeping with the President's heavy schedule. And I look forward to that opportunity.'"

Sheryl Gay Stolberg blogs for the New York Times: "For a president who relishes the campaign stump -- and has always been quite good at rallying crowds -- Mr. Bush's surprising early departure from the campaign trail is the culmination of a season of political invisibility. . . .

"'The president obviously has very important responsibilities to tend to and so he is putting those ahead of campaign activities,' said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman.

"But the political reality for Mr. Bush is clear: Republicans simply do not want to be seen with him.

"'In 2006 there were a few districts where he was very helpful,' said David Wasserman, who tracks House races for the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter. 'I don't think there's a district now where he can help.' . . .

"Nine out of 10 Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, Mr. Bush's job approval ratings are at historic lows, and his days in office are numbered. Analysts are predicting significant Democratic gains in the House and Senate; Republican congressional candidates are just trying to survive.

"That is why there have been no traditional rallies -- an extraordinary break from the practice of past two-term presidents, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. It is why most of Mr. Bush's events have been to raise money for campaign committees, as opposed to individual candidates.

"And it is why the party's presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, has studiously avoided Mr. Bush."

Ryan Grim writes for Politico: "President Bush has raised $146 million for Republican Party committees and candidates this election -- $40 million less than he raised last cycle. . . .

"Bush's drop contributes significantly to the financial shortfall the Republicans face heading into November, and it represents a major shift from just a year ago. . . .

"The White House blames the drop on economic and natural disasters. . . .

"Bush did not attend the Republican National Convention this fall, appearing only on video beamed in from Washington by satellite. . . .

"One-fourth of Bush's 2008 haul comes from a single event in June -- the annual 'President's Dinner' at the Washington Convention Center. The event brought in $21.5 million. McCain did not attend."

Having avoided Bush throughout the campaign, McCain has recently been going even further to distance himself from the president. Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "For days now, Republican John McCain has been trying to separate himself from President Bush. At almost every campaign stop, he blasts the administration for heading the country 'in the wrong direction' and accuses the Bush Treasury Department of being more interested in 'bailing out the banks' than helping struggling homeowners. His running mate, Sarah Palin, echoes the point, asking voters 'to send us to Washington to shake things up and clean things up.' . . .

"But it's also no secret that the president's approval ratings are at historic lows. So [on Tuesday,] White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said that Bush, who won not one but two presidential elections, understands that a candidate for the highest office in the land has to do what he or she has to do.

"She even suggested that McCain had the president's blessings to demonstrate distance between them, saying: 'Every presidential candidate is going to run their campaign however they see fit. And remember that George W. Bush -- George H.W. Bush had to distance himself from President Reagan; President -- Vice President Gore distanced himself from Clinton. And we recognize that John McCain has to run on his own.'"

But a quick look at the historical record makes it clear that neither Bush 41 nor Gore completely rejected help from the standing president, as McCain has.

Consider Clinton's schedule in the final week of the 2000 campaign. On October 31, he headlined a rally in Louisville; on November 2 he held a rally in Los Angeles; on November 3, he held rallies in San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland; on November 3 he held three rallies in New City; and on November 5, he led rallies in Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Ark.

And Ronald Reagan -- 77 at the time -- held to a sometimes grueling campaign schedule for Bush 41 in 1998. On October 27, for instance, he held three rallies in three states: one in Little Rock, another in Springfield, Mo., and the third in San Diego.

In the final week of the campaign, Reagan held rallies in Fullerton and San Bernardino, Calif.; in Berea, Ohio; in Palos Hills, Ill.; in Voorhees, N.J.; in Mount Clements, Mich.; in Mesquite, Texas; in Long Beach and in San Diego.

Maybe that had something to do with the fact that, according to Gallup, Clinton's approval rating was 63 percent at the time, and Reagan's was 52 percent, while Bush, at 25 percent, is near the all-time low for any president in modern history.

Poll Watch

According to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, the second biggest drag on McCain's candidacy is Bush (the first is his selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate).

Laura Meckler writes for the Journal that McCain is "pressing his independence from President George W. Bush, whose job approval is at a record low in this poll. At last week's debate, Sen. McCain told Sen. Obama that he should have run four years ago if he wanted to challenge President Bush, a line he repeats on the trail. But the poll finds nearly six in 10 voters believe Sen. McCain's direction, agenda and policies would be mostly the same as President Bush's, down just slightly from those who said so a month ago."

One out of four Obama supporters say their vote will be more a vote against Bush and the Republican party than a vote for Obama. And a plurality of voters -- 35 percent -- feel the Bush administration is most to blame for the "problems the country is facing right now."

Al Qaeda Heard From

Joby Warrick and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "Al-Qaeda is watching the U.S. stock market's downward slide with something akin to jubilation, with its leaders hailing the financial crisis as a vindication of its strategy of crippling America's economy through endless, costly foreign wars against Islamist insurgents. . . .

"'Al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming election,' said a commentary posted Monday on the extremist Web site al-Hesbah, which is closely linked to the terrorist group. It said the Arizona Republican would continue the 'failing march of his predecessor,' President Bush."

Iraq Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Iraq hasn't gotten much attention recently in the American presidential campaign, thanks to the reduction in violence there, but U.S. policymakers are increasingly worried about what's ahead.

"The negotiations to complete a new status-of-forces agreement for U.S. troops are deadlocked. With a Dec. 31 deadline approaching, Baghdad and Washington seem to be running out of bargaining room. The Iraqis are determined to assert their sovereignty through legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces, while American officials are demanding broad protections from Iraqi law until U.S. troops are gone in 2011.

"U.S. officials are warning that if the talks remain stalled, there isn't an easy Plan B, such as a new U.N. Security Council resolution to replace the one that expires at year's end and now provides the legal mandate for American troops. . . .

"Iraq has been regarded as such a success story in recent months that many have forgotten that all the old cleavages still exist -- Sunni vs. Shiite, Kurd vs. Arab, regional autonomy vs. central government. With growing uncertainty about the future of U.S. forces in the country, these tensions are returning with a vengeance."

Mary Beth Sheridan writes in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi cabinet called Tuesday for reopening negotiations over a draft agreement to keep U.S. forces in this country beyond 2008, but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates immediately expressed 'great reluctance' about more talks.

"The apparent stalemate comes just 10 weeks before the expiration of the United Nations mandate that authorizes the presence of the 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Without a new legal agreement, 'we basically stop doing anything' in the country, Gates told news service reporters in Washington."

Ned Parker and Saif Hameed write in the Los Angeles Times: "Only the country's Kurdish bloc is publicly backing the current accord, while Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab allies of the U.S. remain wary of endorsing the draft, which had been described by Americans and Iraqis as in its final form."

Alissa J. Rubin and Katherine Zoepf write in the New York Times: "Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was traveling in Latvia, issued a stark warning to the Iraqis to think hard before rejecting the agreement. In some of the sharpest comments to date from the American side, he said that Iraqi Army and police forces would not be able to counter insurgent and terrorist violence after Dec. 31 without the help of the American military. The Iraqis, he said, 'will not be ready to provide for their own security.'"

Bruce Ackerman and Oona A. Hathaway write for Slate: "With the threat of an Iraqi parliamentary veto monopolizing the headlines, it is easy to forget that Bush is proposing to shut Congress entirely out of the process. He is claiming the unilateral right to commit the country to his agreement.

"This claim has no constitutional merit, as we've explained previously. It is particularly problematic when Americans will soon be choosing between two presidential candidates who have taken positions that are at odds with the Bush agreement. In claiming unilateral authority, a discredited administration is trying to secure its legacy by striking at the very heart of the democratic process--and, ironically, making the Iraqi government look more democratic than our own. . . .

"Only one thing is clear. The agreement is intended to make it harder for a potential Obama administration to carry through on its pledge to end combat operations within 16 months, not three years. This is hardly a move the Democratic majority in Congress would approve, precisely why the administration is refusing to recognize lawmakers' constitutional prerogatives."

Spencer Ackerman of the Washington Independent predicts: "When the definitive history of the Bush administration's prosecution of the Iraq war is written, its attempt to force the Iraqi government to sign a bilateral agreement authorizing an indefinite occupation will stand as its final massive blunder. . . .

"What happened? Most important, the administration again miscalculated the depth of Iraqi hostility to the occupation. It especially miscalculated the degree of pressure placed on Iraqi leaders by their people not to sign away the country's independence, especially with provincial elections set for next year.

"But as a matter of basic strategy, the administration didn't realize that it boxed itself in. By opting against renewing the U.N. Security Council mandate authorizing the occupation -- which will expire Dec. 31 -- it had no choice but to accept any deal by the time the mandate expires. . . .

"[B]ecause of the administration's hubristic insistence on forcing its successor to operate within the framework of its war, so much of what it wanted will be reversed by the very Iraqis who never asked for a U.S. occupation in the first place."

The Boston Globe editorial board sees Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's close ties to Iran as being a major factor in his government's lack of enthusiasm for an agreement: "The Iraq policy of the next American president will have to be rooted in a realization that Bush has opened Iraq to Iranian influence. The soundest way to counter that influence is to cease being an occupying power as quickly as possible and to strengthen ties with Iraqi factions that truly want a pluralist, independent future."

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "An agreement reached between a lame-duck President Bush and Iraqi leaders is the wrong way to go. . . .

"A better way would be winning an extension from the United Nations with the proviso that the issue would take top priority for the next president. In two weeks, Americans will be selecting Bush's successor. For the sake of a smooth transition, Bush should be prepared to consult with the president-elect who will be inheriting this mess."

Gitmo Watch

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "The government has temporarily dismissed charges against five detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions announced yesterday. All the cases had been handled by a military prosecutor who quit last month, citing 'ethical qualms' about what he said was his office's failure to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense.

"The five defendants were also linked in various charge sheets to Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein, better known by the nom de guerre Abu Zubaida, an alleged al-Qaeda leader who was subjected to waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques while in CIA custody, U.S. officials have acknowledged. . . .

"All five men will continue to be held as 'enemy combatants,' a status that the government argues allows it to hold detainees regardless of whether they face trial.

"Defense lawyers and some legal observers seized on the dismissals as evidence that the military tribunals at Guantanamo are simply unable to proceed with cases tainted by allegations of torture. 'The implosion of these five prosecutions painfully underscores how the Bush administration's torture and detention policies have failed to render justice in any sense of the word,' Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU, said in a statement. 'Any evidence of potential wrongdoing is forever poisoned from being used in real courts when it is obtained through torture, waterboarding or rendition.'"

William Glaberson writes in the New York Times that the five dismissals "came in the same week that administration lawyers changed course in another highly publicized terrorism case, abandoning efforts to prove that six other Guantánamo detainees took part in a 2001 plan to bomb the United States Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The moves appeared to be fresh indications of a long pattern of the administration's making sharp changes in its legal strategy as it encounters resistance to its detention policies."

Subpoena Watch

A little late for the tough talk, isn't it?

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Democrats on Tuesday subpoenaed Attorney General Michael Mukasey for testimony and documents about the Justice Department's legal advice to the White House on detention and interrogation policies since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., complained to Mukasey that after five years of efforts to glean the information, the committee still has seen only a fraction of the documents it is seeking.

"'There is no legitimate argument for withholding the requested materials from this committee,' Leahy wrote in a letter to Mukasey that accompanied the subpoena.

"The Justice Department blasted the subpoena as a partisan move. . . .

"The subpoena compels Mukasey to appear before Leahy's panel on Nov. 18 and bring with him documents from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel concerning the legality of White House policies toward military detainees."

'This administration's stonewalling leaves this Committee without basic facts that are essential to carrying out its oversight responsibilities,' Leahy wrote to Mukasey.

John Stanton writes for Roll Call (subscription required): "Leahy, ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and other House and Senate lawmakers have engaged in a largely fruitless showdown with the administration for more than five years regarding documents related to the policy."

So Last Minute

Dina Cappiello writes for the Associated Press: "Rushing to ease endangered species rules before President Bush leaves office, Interior Department officials are attempting to review 200,000 comments from the public in just 32 hours, according to an e-mail obtained by The Associated Press.

"The Fish and Wildlife Service has called a team of 15 people to Washington this week to pore through letters and online comments about a proposal to exclude greenhouse gases and the advice of federal biologists from decisions about whether dams, power plants and other federal projects could harm species. That would be the biggest change in endangered species rules since 1986. . .

"House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., whose own letter opposing the changes is among the thousands that will be processed, called the 32-hour deadline a 'last-ditch attempt to undermine the long-standing integrity of the Endangered Species program.'

"At that rate, according to a committee aide's calculation, 6,250 comments would have to be reviewed every hour. That means that each member of the team would be reviewing at least seven comments each minute.

"It usually takes months to review public comments on a proposed rule, and by law the government must respond before a rule becomes final.

"'It would seem very difficult for them in four days to respond to so many thoughtful comments in an effective way,' said Eric Biber, an assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law. Along with other law professors across the country, Biber sent in 70 pages of comment."

International Aid Watch

Dan Eggen and Anthony Faiola write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, who has made international aid a cornerstone of his foreign policy, warned yesterday against cutting U.S. assistance to impoverished nations in the midst of the financial turmoil sweeping Wall Street and Main Street, arguing that doing so would undermine America's economy, national security and moral authority.

"'During times of economic crisis, some may be tempted to turn inward -- focusing on our problems here at home, while ignoring our interests around the world,' Bush said at a White House summit on international development in Washington. 'This would be a serious mistake. America is committed, and America must stay committed, to international development for reasons that remain true regardless of the ebb and flow of the markets.'

"The remarks came amid fears that the financial crisis could further harm developing nations already whipsawed by surging food and energy prices over the past two years."

Bush spoke for an unusually long time -- 36 minutes -- and was particularly animated and passionate on the topic.

Global Summit Scheduled

The White House this morning announced a date for its previously planned emergency summit of leaders from the world's top economies to map out a response to the global financial crisis. It'll be on November 15, in Washington. Still unclear: the role of the president-elect.

Karl Rove Watch

Terry McSweeney reports for KGO-TV in San Francisco (with video): "There was major political theater involving President Bush's former chief of staff Karl Rove. A protestor tried to arrest Rove for treason Tuesday morning while he was speaking at the Mortgage Bankers Association Convention, continuing in San Francisco. . . .

"A protestor tried to smack handcuffs on Karl Rove, but Rove slapped back, and the woman was taken off stage. . . .

"There were three protests during a very lively back and forth between former senate majority leader George Mitchell and Karl Rove. Rove blamed the Democrats for everything wrong with the economy."

And there was this exchange: "'Yesterday, John Kerry, your nominee of your party in 2004, stands up and said if John McCain was asked the question of whether he wears boxers or briefs his answer would be Depends. I think that is pretty much under the table and pretty nasty,' said Rove.

"'I have to say I feel like Dorothy in the land of Oz - hearing you lecture about negative campaigning,' said Mitchell."

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