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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch columnist
Wednesday, October 3, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Oct. 3 at 1 p.m. ET.

Bush the Fiscal Conservative?(washingtonpost.com, Oct. 3)

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch chat. Glad to be with you. Today's column leads with some observations about Bush's attempt to remake himself as a fiscal conservative. I also discuss some fascinating testimony yesterday from a former senior Justice Department official about how in the case of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, the White House obsession with keeping secrets even from its own top legal experts had nothing at all to do with keeping al-Qaeda in the dark -- and everything to do with not letting anyone argue with them or get in their way.

Let's go!


Natick, Mass.: You wrote (Oct. 2) that: Plans for broad bombing targeting Iran's suspected nuclear facilities are being replaced with plans for a more limited attack, Hersh writes, after Bush and his aides "concluded that their campaign to convince the American public that Iran poses an imminent nuclear threat has failed (unlike a similar campaign before the Iraq war), and that as a result there is not enough popular support for a major bombing campaign." Why would Bush care whether he had popular support? Nearly everything he's done for the past three years has been without public support. That can't be the reason for his hesitation. Must be something else, right?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you raise a good point -- he certainly is not nearly as influenced by public opinion as, say, anyone who will ever have to go before the voters again. But there are limits. I think he and Cheney may be correct that an incremental march to war with Iran, with the first limited attacks in the name of the troops, would go over much better with Congress and the American people than a massive an unprovoked "preventive" bombing (even if the end result turns out to be more or less the same).

The latter might actually send people into the streets -- and might even get more members of Congress talking about impeachment.


Dan Froomkin: This just in from Lancaster, Pa.! (It's a testament to Bush's growing irrelevance that nobody is broadcasting his visit live, even in the wake of only his fourth veto ever.)

There had been mixed indications about whether Bush would only get softball questions today, as he usually does. After all, Lancaster is seriously Republican territory, and seats at today's event were reserved for members of the local chamber of commerce and GOP officials.

But even in Lancaster, there are a growing number of grumbles. And as Tom Murse noted in the Lancaster New Era yesterday, "Manheim Realtor Gerry Beane, 59, was the first to secure a ticket. He said he wants to hear Bush address the numerous problems facing the United States, specifically the state of the housing market, the economy and the Iraq war."

Murse is liveblogging today's event, and reports: "Guess who asked the first question of Bush? Yep. Manheim Realtor Gerry Beane, who was first in line to get a ticket Monday. It was no softball, either. He asked Bush why we're spending so much money on the war in Iraq, given the polls that show Americans don't support the war. 'We need to bring our soldiers home,' Beane told Bush. Bush responded forcefully: 'Those same polls will tell you people are worried about catastrophes in the Middle East affecting our national security.' Bush went on, to applause and cheers, to say 'I don't want out troops feeling like I'm making decisions based on politics when lives are at stake. ... My decision have been based, or at least it is my belief, is that what we are seeing is a great ideological struggle between forces of rational behavior ... versus radicals ... who are willing to murder innocents to advance their objectives.' "


Kula, Hawaii: I am a fan of your writing from afar ... very afar. In trying to solve the puzzle of the Bush-Cheney relationship, has there been any meaningful writing about what happened in New Orleans at that first Republican Convention, where Cheney morphed from advising on Bush's vice president choice to being the choice? I think this is so pivotal to our recent history. If it had been someone else ... who knows? Mahalo!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kinds words. Precisely how Cheney morphed from vice-president-picker to vice-president (in retrospect, a hugely momentous change) never has been sufficiently explored, as far as I can tell. Here's an August 2000 story from Time by James Carney and John F. Dickerson that scratches the surface at least.


Austin, Texas: Dan, my level of frustration over the build-up to war with Iran is huge. What can we do to stop this madness? How can we break through the fog that engulfs Americans who do not see where this is heading? Dick Cheney's insane dreams are driving us over the brink!

Dan Froomkin: I kind of have been amazed at Congress's relative silence on Iran -- until, of course, the Senate overwhelmingly voted last week in favor of an anti-Iran amendment from Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) that former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) described as tantamount to giving Bush "the authority to take the first step on a road to war with Iran."

Now I see that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), who voted for that amendment, also has decided to cosponsor legislation introduced by Senator Jim Webb (D-Va.) that prohibits the use of funds for military operations against Iran without explicit congressional authorization.

My point: Congress does have some role here.


Washington: Hello. Why do you and your kind spread the lie that a Bush veto means he is trying to cut/shut down SCHIP? Nothing is further from the truth. He wants to expand it to focus it on low-income children. If parents are making more than $80,000 a year in a family of four, then they shouldn't be receiving federal subsidies for children's health care. SCHIP was set up for low-income children, not middle-class kids! If parents still can't afford coverage, they need to take a long hard look at what they are spending money on. Big TVs? Cars? Restaurants? Vacations? These parents should be held accountable for blowing money when their kids need help. I make around $50,000 a year ... should I get a federal subsidy? Where does it end? If Dems want to move everyone to a one-payer government health system, just say so ... don't do it a back-door why.

Dan Froomkin: Goodness me. Where do you get your information? Bush's proposal would not expand the program -- it wouldn't even sustain current levels. And this mythological $80,000 figure has been disputed even by members of his own party. As Elana Schor wrote in The Hill a while back, "after Bush incorrectly described the children's health bill as providing coverage for families earning up to $80,000 a year," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) "fired back."

"The president's understanding of our bill is wrong," Grassley said, his voice rising with anger. "I urge him to reconsider his veto message based on a bill we might pass, not something someone on his staff told him wrongly is in my bill."


Stamford, Conn.: Hi Dan -- excellent piece today, as always. You quote Time's Jay Newton-Small as follows: "Bush's fighting words aren't just about the current battle over spending -- they are as much about his efforts to shape his legacy as a committed fiscal conservative, all prior evidence to the contrary..." Not only does Bush ignore the will of the American people as was mentioned in the first post of this discussion, he takes us all for fools. Who in his right mind would ever consider Bush fiscally (or any other "-ally") responsible? Indeed, he sounds like a snake oil salesman.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. It is a hard sell.


Pleasanton, Calif.: What are chances that Democratic candidates sweep the field next year, and as their prize inherit a quagmire in Iraq, a war with Iran, a deteriorating economy, and no money to do anything because it's all been spent or committed long ago? Doesn't it seem only fair that the Bushies should clean up their own messes (except for the fact that they can't and won't)?

Dan Froomkin: That's certainly a possibility. But the Bushes, if not Bushies, don't exactly have a reputation for cleaning up their own messes. They have other people do that.


Charlottesville, VA: Top headline in today's Washington Post: "Clinton Widens Lead in Poll." For the past week, The Post and every major media outlet, has pronounced her the frontrunner and inevitable nominee, despite the Iowa polls and despite the fact that Obama's total money matches hers. The press is functioning here in a self-perpetuating role -- we say this is what it will be for a week and then we ask people, who will the nominee be? Am I wrong?

washingtonpost.com: Clinton Widens Lead In Poll (Post, Oct. 3)

Dan Froomkin: Allow me to use this question to explain why I won't be answering many questions like this: For better or for worse, my plan is to focus on the current occupant of the White House until his very last day in office. Only then do I intend to switch to the new guy (or gal.) The result will be that I will not be following the 2008 presidential campaign nearly as closely as many of my colleagues. So I would encourage you to direct those sorts of questions to others.

That said, I do recall that soon after every presidential election ends there is a mass self-flagellation in the media about how we did way too much horse race coverage this time, and we'll do better next time, do a better job of dealing with the issues, etc. Ha.


Houston: Dan, I don't understand the Democrats' unwillingness to use the power they have. When they were in the minority, the story was that "there's nothing we can do." Now that they control both Houses of Congress, it's still "there's nothing we can do." So the Republicans can do plenty whether in the majority or the minority, but the Dems can do nothing with either? What do these people use for a spine?

Dan Froomkin: I don't write about the Democrats either. Or at least, I don't pretend to understand them. That said, allow me to mention a very thoughtful e-mail I got from a reader yesterday.

Allan Donsig wrote to me about the "Washington Wisdom gets set on its head" item in yesterday's column, in which I noted that while the Washington elite considers cutting funding for the war to be the ultimate political suicide, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that fully 70 percent (70 percent!) of Americans think that would be a good idea.

Donsig wrote that my item was not entirely fair: "Surely what matters is not the current opinion polls but the opinion polls after a well-funded 'Swift-Boat-type' media campaign. (Similar calculations seem to be behind a good part of Republican support for SCHIP.) It is probably also worth pointing out that the Republican Party's ability to carry out such a campaign is steadily declining, along with their credibility, but it's not yet clear that such a campaign won't work."

That perhaps gives you some indication of what's motivating the Democrats.


Alexandria, Va.: When I call the White House Comment Line, am I speaking with somebody in the White House? Is the person who answers a contractor? Working in some other state, perhaps -- or (egads) another country? And what happens with my comments?

Dan Froomkin: Tee hee. Wouldn't it be ironic if you were talking to someone in Bangalore? I don't know the answer, however. I know the White House has a fair number of operators, but I don't think it's enough to actually listen to all the voicemails.


Fort Worth, Texas: Dan: In his most recent press conference President Bush flatly refused to answer any questions about Israel's reported air strike on suspected nuclear facilities being developed in Syria. Why was the White House press corps willing to accept this blanket refusal by Bush without any explanation? What are we not being told? I naively assumed that the press would think it was their job to try and find out and confront the administration with this information, but apparently I'm wrong.

Dan Froomkin: See my Sept. 21 column, What's Bush's Big Secret?. I agree that there are many important outstanding questions. But I think Bush made it clear (unusually and unsubtly so) that he wasn't going to answer. So I don't blame the White House press corps on this one -- I blame the rest of the Washington press corps! Someone in the Pentagon, the State Department or the CIA must have some idea what's going on. It could be really serious. About the only story I've seen lately is this highly speculative one by Dion Nissenbaum from McClatchy Newspapers:

"The dearth of information has allowed fertile speculation: The strike was a dry run for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. The target was an Iranian missile cache bound for Hezbollah Islamic fighters in Lebanon. The attack hit a fledgling Syrian-North Korean nuclear weapons program. Or it was meant to thwart efforts to provide Hezbollah with a 'dirty bomb' to use against Israel.

"This being the Middle East, however, the simplest theories generally are discounted in favor of more convoluted explanations. One of the latest theories is that North Korea told the United States it had sold nuclear technology to Syria, which prompted the U.S. to tell Israel that North Korea had sold nuclear technology to Syria, which prompted Israel to attack the North Korean technology in Syria. Follow?"


Houston: What do you make of the Washington Post-ABC News poll in which: "52 percent, think Bush's plan for removing some troops by next summer is either the right pace for withdrawal (38 percent) or too hasty (12 percent would like a slower reduction, and 2 percent want no force reduction). Fewer people (43 percent) want a quicker exit." Doesn't this validate the president's strategy? Those numbers don't really support the argument that the president is acting contrary to public opinion.

Dan Froomkin: I'm not a polling expert, but I think that was a really flawed question, one that echoed the White House's attempts to describe the drawing down of the surge as a "withdrawal."

Ask people: When do you want a troop withdrawal to start? When do you want it to end? And then you'll see they don't support the Bush plan at all.


Dan Froomkin: More from Tom Murse in Lancaster: "Question: 'Are you disappointed in Americans for condemning the Iraqi war since after Sept. 11 we were ready to go to war?' Bush: 'People don't like war. I'm not disappointed in America. I love America. I fully understand that people are just anxious about seeing death on the TV screen.'"


Dan Froomkin: In an e-mail, reader Bill Skeels offers a third option regarding my question in the item on secrecy in today's column: "Has the goal been to keep critical national security information away from those who would do the country harm? Or to hide conduct that is basically indefensible?"

His third option: "Or hide the fact that they're doing the job so poorly?"

Good point. Let's never forget the incompetence option.


Raleigh, N.C.: What effect do you think instantaneous electronic communication technologies have on tamping down active dissent in the U.S.? I wonder whether these new modes of communication are squelching the dynamism of "real-life" get-togethers, town-hall meetings of activists, and other means of organizing civil protest efforts. When does outrage spill over from the keyboards to the streets? What models can we see from other parts of the world where citizens have made the leap from group kvetching to taking back their government?

Dan Froomkin: I'm no sociologist, but I would say the effect is entirely the opposite. I think communication is empowering and gets people riled up. I think that the Internet has made it easier for people with strong views to find each other and organize, and that the potential for political "flash mobs" is quite fascinating.

My guess is that the emergence of new technology and the relative lack of active dissent are purely coincidental. But then again, maybe that's too much a coincidence and maybe you're on to something.


Seattle: Between SCHIP, Iraq, and the (I believe) impending attack on Iran, is there any indication that the White House is considering the fate of congressional Republicans in 2008 and beyond?

Dan Froomkin: A good question. Here's a relevant passage from Seymour M. Hersh's story in the New Yorker this week:

"At a White House meeting with Cheney this summer, according to a former senior intelligence official, it was agreed that, if limited strikes on Iran were carried out, the administration could fend off criticism by arguing that they were a defensive action to save soldiers in Iraq. If Democrats objected, the administration could say 'Bill Clinton did the same thing; he conducted limited strikes in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and in Baghdad to protect American lives.'

"The former intelligence official added: 'There is a desperate effort by Cheney et al to bring military action to Iran as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the politicians are saying "you can't do it, because every Republican is going to be defeated, and we're only one fact from going over the cliff in Iraq." But Cheney doesn't give a rat's ass about the Republican worries, and neither does the President.' "


Emmitsburg, Md.: Dan, I firmly believe that Karl Rove is not out of the picture, that he is still pulling the strings and orchestrating spin and smears from the sidelines. Either that, or he has definitely left his mark big time. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I think Rove still has a lot of influence in the White House, although not at the level of detail that he used to. I also suspect he is plotting Hillary Clinton's downfall.


Concord, N.H.: I know that Bush's veto today was hugely unpopular, but I thought that one aspect of their rationale made sense. Why put the tax burden on smokers, if you are trying to help low-income families? Demographically, a whole lot of smokers are in low income brackets.

Dan Froomkin: Fair question.


Helena, Mont.: I know Bush said his is a rational administration, but how in the world does he think that the expanded SCHIP will induce people to go off private health insurance to use SCHIP -- that is, not insure the parents, but the children? I have had health insurance for me, my spouse, and my children -- and no way would I stop insuring me and my spouse just to get a freebie from the feds.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. Thanks.


San Francisco: Dan -- any explanation for the massive gap between beltway opinion on the war and that of the general public? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: A great question. I'll have to think about that.


Lake Elmo, Minn.: Let's continue this Cheney thing ... it irks me to see him continually portrayed as a dark lord, when he's really just a garden-variety incompetent (Iraq planning, supporting Rumsfeld) with a penchant for secrecy and a track record of incompetence at Halliburton. Why does the press continue this caricature of Cheney that gives him far too much credit?

Dan Froomkin: What a fascinating perspective. But you'd have to admit that even if your theory were true, he would be a very ambitious garden-variety incompetent.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, I've got to run. Thanks for all the great questions and comments.


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