McCain vs. Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 23, 2008; 12:28 PM

With the dead weight of the last eight years sinking his campaign, Republican presidential candidate John McCain yesterday made his most vigorous attempt yet to throw President Bush overboard.

McCain had previously relied mostly on zingers to counter the charge that he is running for a third Bush term. But perhaps recognizing that wasn't doing the trick -- the two men do, after all, share positions on core issues such as tax cuts and national security -- McCain is now describing his areas of disagreement with the incumbent in greater detail, and in so doing, adding his voice to the already considerable chorus of Bush critics.

Joseph Curl and Stephen Dinan write in the Washington Times: "Sen. John McCain on Wednesday blasted President Bush for building a mountain of debt for future generations, failing to pay for expanding Medicare and abusing executive powers, leveling his strongest criticism to date of an administration whose unpopularity may be dragging the Republican Party to the brink of a massive electoral defeat.

"'We just let things get completely out of hand,' he said of his own party's rule in the past eight years.

"In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. McCain lashed out at a litany of Bush policies and issues that he said he would have handled differently as president. . . .

"'Spending, the conduct of the war in Iraq for years, growth in the size of government, larger than any time since the Great Society, laying a $10 trillion debt on future generations of America, owing $500 billion to China, obviously, failure to both enforce and modernize the [financial] regulatory agencies that were designed for the 1930s and certainly not for the 21st century, failure to address the issue of climate change seriously,' Mr. McCain said in an interview with The Washington Times aboard his campaign plane en route from New Hampshire to Ohio.

"'Those are just some of them,' he said with a laugh, chomping into a peanut butter sandwich as a few campaign aides in his midair office joined in the laughter."

Curl and Dinan write that McCain "rejected Mr. Bush's use of issuing 'signing statements' when he signs bills into law, in which the president has suggested that he would ignore elements of the bills, labeling them potentially unconstitutional.

"'I would veto the bills or say, "Look, I don't like it but I'll obey the law that's passed by Congress and signed by the president." I think the signing statements was not a correct implementation of the power of the executive. I think it was overstepping,' he said.

"And Mr. McCain emphatically rejected Mr. Bush's claims of executive privilege, often used to shield the White House from scrutiny.

"'I don't agree with that either. I don't agree with [Vice President] Dick Cheney's allegation that he's part of both the legislative and the executive branch,' he said."

McCain also said Bush lacked the resolve of President Reagan.

"'I think, frankly, the problem was, with a Republican Congress, that the president was told by the speaker and majority leaders and others, "Don't veto these bills, we need this pork, we need this excess spending, we need to grow these bureaucracies." They all sponsor certain ones. And he didn't do what Ronald Reagan used to and say, "No"; say, "No. We're not going to do this."'"

Meanwhile, the McCain Web site is telling supporters: "While Senator Obama is busy running against someone who is not even on the ballot this year, John McCain has been offering Americans real solutions to the challenges our nation faces. This election is about the future, not about the past.

"Fill out the form to the right and tell Senator Obama this is 2008 ... not 2004."

This morning on NBC's Today Show, David Gregory reprised some of the themes I hit on in yesterday's column, Pariah President. Gregory reported that Bush "may be a big target on the campaign trail, but you're not going to find him anywhere near the trail itself. . . . President Bush is viewed as the kiss of death."

And it's important to note that Bush isn't just a threat to McCain's election bid -- he's a threat to Republicans everywhere. For instance, Robert Imrie writes for the Associated Press how Bush has become a central figure in a Wisconsin congressional race, with each candidate trying to link the other to the president.

And all of this makes me wonder: When is the last time McCain had anything good to say about the man who's led his party for the past eight years? He opened his Republican convention acceptance speech with a cursory acknowledgment of the incumbent, though not by name: "I'm grateful to the president of the United States for leading us in these dark days following the worst attack in American history," he said, "and keeping us safe from another attack that many -- many thought was inevitable."

But since then, what? Someone should ask him what overall grade he'd give the Bush presidency.

Whose Summit?

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Mark Landler write in the New York Times: "President Bush will convene leaders of 20 nations in Washington on Nov. 15 for an emergency summit meeting to discuss the economic crisis, the White House said Wednesday. But the session, coming less than two weeks after the presidential election, could put Mr. Bush on a collision course with his successor.

"The White House said Mr. Bush would 'seek the input' of the president-elect, and both the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, and the Democrat, Senator Barack Obama, praised Mr. Bush for convening the session. But neither man committed to attending, and the White House conceded it did not quite know how the meeting would play out. . . .

"[F]rom the American political perspective, the timing -- at the tail end of a lame-duck administration -- is terrible.

"If history is any guide, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain might prefer to steer clear. Historians say Mr. Bush's summit meeting brings to mind similar efforts of another president facing tough economic times, Herbert Hoover. During the Great Depression, in the waning days of his administration, Hoover tried to draw the president-elect, Franklin D. Roosevelt, into policy prescriptions for the economy, but Roosevelt steadfastly resisted.

"'Roosevelt simply did not want to get close to him or be identified with anything he would want to do, because he was terribly unpopular, and the same now exists with George W. Bush,' said the historian Robert Dallek. 'In some ways, he's trying to rescue his reputation, and the last thing Obama or even McCain are going to care about is saving George Bush's reputation.'"

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The prospect of Bush running a major international meeting during the transition to a new administration, and possibly with the president-elect sitting at the table, raises questions about how much impact the Nov. 15 conference can have and whether the other leaders will be looking beyond Bush.

"But the crisis is occurring now, the possibility of global recession looms, and financial markets are in turmoil. 'We didn't want the financial crisis to happen at all . . . but now that it's happened, we can't control the timing of it,' White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "What's a lame-duck U.S. president to do between Election Day and his successor's inauguration 77 days later?

"If you are George W. Bush, with the global financial system in its worst crisis since the Great Depression and allies clamoring for action, you host a summit of world leaders. . . .

"[T]he meeting could give Bush, his opinion poll numbers at home near historic lows and his popularity overseas even lower, one of his last chances to stay relevant in his final weeks in office.

"It will be no easy task. Leaders sitting at the table with Bush will also be looking beyond him, wondering how the next occupant of the White House will deal with the turmoil shaking global markets and deepening fears of a worldwide recession."

About that Ownership Society . . .

Keith Koffler writes for Roll Call (subscription required): "President Bush during his first term aggressively sought to loosen mortgage loan qualification standards for first-time homebuyers, seeking to reduce or even eliminate down payments for those who might otherwise have trouble affording their loans.

"The White House has pushed back hard against charges that Bush policies led to the current financial crisis, pointing the finger squarely at Congressional Democrats for refusing to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But Bush's own efforts to increase homeownership among those who could least afford it -- an initiative ardently backed by many Democrats -- added risk into the system that contributed to the current problem, critics say. . . .

"Bush's efforts to increase homeownership became the core of the 'ownership society' that he sought to promote as he ramped up his 2004 re-election bid. Bush pitched the idea as a way to strengthen the country by making people a part of its success.

"'The more ownership there is in America, the more vitality there is in America and the more people have a vital stake in the future of this country,' he said in June 2004."

Iraq Watch

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration on Wednesday warned of 'real consequences' for Iraq if it rejects a newly negotiated security pact. Without a deal, the United States could be forced to end its military operations.

"The White House said Iraqi security forces are incapable of keeping the peace without U.S. troops, raising the specter of reversals in recent security and political gains if the proposed security deal is not approved by the time the current legal basis for U.S. military operations expires Dec. 31.

"'There will be no legal basis for us to continue operating there without that,' White House press secretary Dana Perino said. 'And the Iraqis know that. And so, we're confident that they'll be able to recognize this. And if they don't, there will be real consequences, if Americans aren't able to operate there.'"

Meanwhile, Charles Levinson writes in USA Today about how badly the negotiations have gone: "When the clock strikes midnight Dec. 31, the U.S. military's days of operating freely in Iraq will come to an abrupt end -- regardless of whether a new long-term security agreement is in place, current and former military officials say.

"The U.S. military will face restrictions that could make it extremely difficult for troops to operate effectively if the security agreement, which is being negotiated between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, passes in its current draft form, the officials say.

"If Iraq's leaders take a hard line and fail to pass the agreement before Jan. 1 -- a possibility that has appeared more likely in recent days -- U.S. military operations could come to a halt as soldiers retreat to bases, ground their aircraft and stop supporting Iraqi forces."

This Won't Help

Candace Rondeaux writes in The Washington Post: "Nine Afghan soldiers were killed and four others injured by a U.S. airstrike on an Afghan army checkpoint Wednesday in an apparent friendly-fire incident in eastern Afghanistan, according to Afghan and U.S. military officials. . . .

"The apparent mistaken strike comes after a series of errant air operations that have stirred controversy in Afghanistan in recent months. . . .

"NATO and U.S. forces have recently been under pressure from the government of President Hamid Karzai to curtail the use of airstrikes during their operations."

Torture Watch

Richard Norton-Taylor writes in the Guardian that the British High Court yesterday "condemned as 'deeply disturbing' a refusal by the US to disclose evidence that could prove a British resident held at Guantánamo Bay was tortured before confessing to terrorism offences.

"The court said there was 'no rational basis' for the American failure to reveal the contents of documents essential to the defence of Binyam Mohamed, who faces the death penalty.

"In a particularly damning passage, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones said claims by Mohamed's lawyers that the US was refusing to release the papers because 'torturers do not readily hand over evidence of their conduct' could not be dismissed and required an answer.

"The judges said they were unaware of any precedent for such serious allegations against 'the government of a foreign friendly state and our oldest and closest ally' as those made in this case. . . .

"They said David Miliband, the foreign secretary, conceded there was an 'arguable case' that Mohamed had been subjected to torture and inhuman treatment. Yet Miliband also wanted to suppress relevant documents, not because they would reveal any intelligence operations but because the US claimed that if they were disclosed serious harm would be done to 'intelligence sharing' between the UK and the US. . . .

"Clive Stafford Smith, the director of the charity Reprieve, described Mohamed's treatment by the US as a 'litany of misconduct'.

"'First they tortured him, then they held him for more than six years without trial, now they want to cover up evidence that could set him free,' he said."

Peter Finn writes in The Washington Post: "Military prosecutors swore out charges against Mohammed in May, including the accusation that he was involved in plans to detonate a radioactive 'dirty bomb,' among other attacks inside the United States. The charges, however, were not approved by the Pentagon official in charge of military commissions. On Tuesday, the charges were dismissed. Earlier this month, the Justice Department withdrew the most serious allegations against Mohammed in a habeas corpus proceeding in Washington."

Stacy Sullivan writes for Salon: "When Army Lt. Col. Darrell Vandeveld began his work in May 2007 as a prosecutor at the Guantánamo Bay military commissions, the Iraq war veteran was one of the most enthusiastic and tenacious lawyers working on behalf of the Bush administration. He took on seven cases. In court hearings he dismissed claims of prisoner abuse as 'embellishment' and 'exaggeration.' Once, when a detainee asked for legal representation only for the purpose of challenging the legitimacy of the military commissions, Vandeveld ridiculed the request as 'idiotic.'

"So it came as a shock in mid-September when Vandeveld announced that he was resigning as a prosecutor because he had grave doubts about the integrity of the system he had so vigorously defended.

"In the days following his resignation -- now testifying, remarkably, for the defense counsel in one of his own cases -- Vandeveld said that he went from being a 'true believer' in the military commissions to feeling 'truly deceived' about them."

Wiretap (Non) Watch

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "When Congress passed a landmark electronic-spying bill last summer, the measure included a key provision that ordered the inspectors general of U.S. intelligence agencies to produce the first-ever public report on President Bush's warrantless-surveillance program.

"The report isn't due until next July -- long after Bush leaves office. But when the inspectors general recently submitted their first 'interim' report to Congress under the measure, it wasn't made public. Instead, the brief document, written by CIA inspector general John Helgerson, was marked classified -- a move that has drawn a stiff protest from House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes.

"In an Oct. 10 letter, Reyes complained to Helgerson (who is coordinating the review by 16 different inspectors general) for submitting a secret interim report when Congress envisioned a document that could be shared with the public. . . .

"Reyes's letter also included a request that the inspectors general issue a 'preservation order' preventing White House or intelligence community officials from removing or destroying documents relating to the warrantless-surveillance program. With barely three months left in the administration, Reyes wanted to make sure that 'they don't destroy anything before they walk out the door,' [Courtney Littig, a spokeswoman for the House Intelligence Committee,] says."

W, the Conversation

Slate is hosting a conversation about Bush's presidency, prompted by Oliver Stone's film W, with Stone and Bush book authors Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind and Jacob Weisberg.

Weisberg writes in support of Stone's central theme: "To me, the evidence does show George W. to be engaged in an epic battle with his dad. That Oedipal struggle is at the very heart of his presidency's failure. The son came to define so much of himself -- his personality, his religion, his decision-making -- in opposition to his father. More important, 43 developed his substantive view of the world by rejecting his father's moderate, diplomatic realism. Seeing his father as a failed president (while at the same time wanting to avenge him), W thought the path to success on issue after issue was to reject 41's choices in favor of 40's. You've lost some nuance along the way, but I think you depict the contours of this vexed relationship accurately."

Suskind writes that the movie doesn't answer key questions: "What got us into Iraq? Why are we there? Did Bush know, or at least suspect, that there may not be WMD? Did the beast of Iraq spring, fully formed, from Bush's brain, from his Oedipal architecture? Did President Bush take this nation to war under false pretenses?

"I realize, of course, that this question is in a sense unanswerable. The difficulty you face, Oliver, is one we all face. Five-plus years into this war -- a war, most certainly, of choice -- the reasons we invaded Iraq remain largely shrouded in classified files, lost conversations, carefully guarded secrets. Like the rest of us -- from the most seasoned reporters to the tourists walking alongside the ornate iron fence on Pennsylvania Avenue -- you had to make use of the prevailing best guesses.

"That's why this movie -- vivid, raucous, reality-based, well-acted -- is a first cinematic rough draft. One of the movie's most jarring scenes, a real keeper in terms of the crisp dialogue and acting and gravity, is the moment Bush is told there are no WMD. He feels as if he's been conned, misled. He rages against his senior advisers. They look away. [Then-defense secretary Donald] Rumsfeld takes a 'screw you' bite of pecan pie.

"Someday, with the arrival of new disclosures and fresh evidence, someone will rewrite this scene. Because Bush was not so much a victim of circumstances and birth order -- or of bad advice from ambitious advisers -- as he seems in W. He knew more than he's letting on. He made choices of his own free will. And in the fullness of time, he'll be held responsible for his actions, as history eventually demands of all presidents."

Woodward writes in response to Suskind: "Ron, I'm struck that you feel we don't have a general understanding of the cause of the Iraq war. . . .

"I strongly disagree. I believe . . . the work that has been done on the Iraq war answers this question.

"The foremost cause, in Bush's mind, was 9/11. It set an atmosphere of 'We are in peril, we need to do something.' Bush believed Iraq was a threat. The second was, I believe, his conviction that Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction. . . . Third, the war plan that was presented to President Bush in a dozen or more briefings, and subsequently outlined in several books, shows that it was thought the invasion would be comparatively easy and that it got easier as the war plan was refined. Fourth, there was an undeniable momentum to war at the time. Fifth, in Oliver's movie and in many of the books, the portrait of Bush is that of 'the Impatient Man.' When some intelligence suggested that the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Hans Blix, was not being fully forthcoming, Bush ordered war.

"The military was ready, and the invasion looked like it was going to be easy. Congress and the public supported it. And the press, very much including myself, was not inquisitive enough to dig deeper into the allegations of weapons of mass destruction."

Woodward adds that Bush "was heavily influenced by Cheney and a number of others, but the decisions were his. As he said to me, 'I believe we have a duty to free people,' to liberate people. Many have said this is something that was concocted after weapons of mass destruction failed to surface. But I watched him jump in his chair when he said it, and I think it is a deep and genuine conviction on his part. Certainly many would disagree with it, but I think this conviction was one of his primary drivers. I doubt very much that there was some mysterious, Oedipal force at work or that there is a secret reason that remains carefully guarded. The drivers in all of this are not really shrouded."

As for the scene in the movie where Bush and his advisers debate whether to go to war, Woodward writes: "In it, the Colin Powell character makes his case against the invasion. The problem is, as best I can tell, no such meeting ever took place. The president never called the National Security Council and the top advisers together to have a real knock-down, drag-out, come-to-Jesus meeting. It gives Powell more credit than he deserves. This is the broad meeting that Bush should have had to hash it out among his advisers. Powell's plea to the president in August 2002, which he recently affirmed, was that the administration needed to look at the consequences of war, but he never argued openly to the president that he should not invade Iraq."

Stone weighs in: "The issue of the 11-minute-long scene of the meeting in the 'situation room' is a very interesting one to me... Yes, the scene is entirely invented, as I am sure there is no way that these principals could have assembled in one room and so clearly summed up their points of view. But, I think the dialogue fairly represents the point of view of Cheney (geopolitical domination), Rumsfeld (draining the swamp, shaking up the Middle East, re-establishing the Pentagon's dominance after the Afghan war), and Powell (objections to the war). . . . I agree that we made Powell probably stronger than he was, but in the end, we remained accurate to his capitulation."

As for the bigger picture, Stone writes: "While we attempted to paint a human portrait of George W. Bush, I firmly believe that history will not spare this man. His record of playing the fiddle while Rome burned will speak for itself. But I believe our film offers, ironically to me, a strange compassion for W, who is so hard to like. By trying to achieve compassion rather than condemnation, I do hope that we can open our thinking and understanding to the great price we have paid for allowing him to be our leader for the last eight years. Compassion for the man, yes, but a greater compassion for our country. And maybe some long-forgotten humility from all of us. Whether our leaders understand it or not, there is great strength in humility."

Still Easily Annoyed

Bush may seem checked out when discussing the financial crisis, but by golly he can still jump into action when needed.

You may recall that the president does not like people wearing sunglasses around him.

Bush held a brief photo op with Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf yesterday morning. Mike Allen of Politico later informed his colleagues: "As the pool departed, the President ignored a question about whether he missed the trail. The Staff: 'This way, please.' Then the President summoned [photographer] Charles Ommaney of Newsweek: 'Chuck! Do you have an explanation why you've got the sunglasses on?' Mr. Ommaney moved in the President's direction, but had no comment. The Staff: 'Thank you, everyone. This way, please.' The President, playfully: 'I just need an EXPLANATION why you're wearing the shades in front of the president.'"

Late Night Humor

Jimmy Kimmel via U.S. News: Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin "told a bunch of third graders that the vice president 'runs the Senate,' which the vice president does not do. That's a major -- not knowing what the job is. I mean, even President Bush will tell you the vice president doesn't run the Senate. The vice president runs the White House."

Cartoon Watch

Jim Morin on not Bush, Ben Sargent on the last eight years, Rob Rogers and Matt Davies on W, the movie, David Horsey and RJ Matson on the White House of horror, Dwane Powell on official portraits, and Tom Toles on voter fraud.

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