Tuesday, May 16, 2006
Off Message: Lest anyone forget the political motivations behind President Bush's prime-time address last night, the White House sent Karl Rove to give a "major policy address" at a Republican think tank yesterday afternoon. Rove was eager to prove that, despite losing his title, he's still a serious player on issues. "We're going to stay focused on good policy," Rove concluded optimistically, "confident that that will ultimately take care of the politics of the matter."
Rove insisted, "I am so completely off message on a day that we're talking about immigration, I don't know if they'll let me back into the gates at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue." But the most interesting comments he made were in response to a question about the impact of immigration on Social Security. Instead of giving a political answer (e.g., "It's hard to say which of the two will cost us the Congress!"), Rove revealed a personal anecdote:
We're a country of immigrants. I'm from Texas. I have a lease in Kenedy County, Texas. It's half the size of Rhode Island and has 973 people who live there. And I don't care if you're hunting deer in February or mowing the roads in the middle of the pasture in August, you'll find somebody carrying a plastic jug and a plastic bag in the middle of the cold winter or the very hot summer, trying desperately to get north in order to earn money to put food on the table for their families. We've got to deal with that reality. On the other hand, we've also got to deal with the reality that people die. I've seen a couple of corpses out there. I don't want to see them again.
Rove had told the same story in more detail at a conservative dinner last year at Ashland University in Ohio:
So, we've got to match border security with a willing worker program; so, look, I have a hunting lease in Kennedy County, Texas. It's half the size of Connecticut and 973 people live in the county. My hunting lease is the size of the island of Manhattan and nobody lives there. And I could be out there and it could be cold in the winter or hot as Hades in the summer, and you're just—either time of the season, you're likely to find 10 or 15 Mexicans coming across the—I mean it is a 70 mile walk from one end of the county to the other, and these guys are carrying a little water jug, a milk jug, and a plastic bag with twinkies in it. And, I'll tell you, I found a couple of them where the plastic bag and the water didn't hold out and what is left there is moldering bones and a carcass.
I don't doubt Rove's account—anything can happen on a Bush administration hunting trip. But for those of you keeping score at home, Kenedy County has a population of 407 (not 973) and an area of 1,946 square miles, which makes it just over a third (not half) the size of Connecticut (not Rhode Island). Perhaps Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, can use these discrepancies to bolster his client's faulty-memory defense.
Outer Boroughs: What's more troubling is to see immigration policy being shaped by the perspective of men with playpens the size of Manhattan. No matter how genuine the compassion, it can sound a little like a plea to hunt quail in peace.
Kenedy County, as you may recall, is home to the Armstrong Ranch, where Vice President Cheney had to deal with a little too much reality earlier this year. A few years back, Tobin Armstrong, the late patriarch of that ranch, grew so fed up with illegal immigrants trespassing on 50,000 acres that he testified before the House Immigration subcommittee. He told Congress he was worried about "forage contamination" and foot and mouth disease.
At least until recently, one of the few potentially worthy political projects that Rove and Bush had under way was to stop the Republican party from turning inward on immigration. These days, that promise is starting to ring somewhat hollow. A compassionate conservative turns out to be someone with a really big ranch who's sorry about all the "No Trespassing" signs. ... 2:09 A.M. (link)
Monday, May 15, 2006
Sad Hacks: When the curtain came down on The West Wing for the last time last night, Republican operatives must have shed a few tears. It's not that they'll miss the show. They're just broken up that Hollywood knows something even Karl Rove can't figure out—how to pull the plug on a White House whose audience has left and isn't coming back.
Most historians will wait until George W. Bush leaves office before seconding Sean Wilentz's claim in Rolling Stone that 43 is the worst president ever. The American people are not so patient. Last week, Bush's approval fell to 31 percent in the Gallup Poll, and his disapproval reached 65 percent, a Bush family record. Nixon was at 66 percent when he was forced to resign. Truman hit 67 percent after firing MacArthur. Bush is now within the margin of error of being the most unpopular president ever.
At the Gridiron dinner two years ago, Bush joked, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and those are the ones you have to concentrate on." To displease two-thirds of the people is an extraordinary achievement. In a bitterly polarized, two-party system, it's nearly impossible. In November 2004, Bush was re-elected with a majority. Eighteen months later, he has a constitutional supermajority against him and is trying his best to make it unanimous.
Unlike unpopular presidents of the past, Bush has no exit strategy. Nixon left office. Truman and LBJ chose not to run for re-election. Carter and Bush 41 ran and lost. Short of actually solving the problems that are driving his unpopularity—gas prices, Iraq, incompetence, and scandal—the current president has no way out, unless he can transfer the powers of the office to his immensely popular wife Laura.
Why would Josh Bolten hire a made-for-TV spokesman like Tony Snow and then suggest taking the White House press briefings off camera? Perhaps it's because the congressional Republicans whom Bolten is so desperate to placate can't wait to get the Bush White House off the air.
Sinking Ship: When a president's approval rating is in the 60s, his own party loves him and the other party fears him. In the 50s, his party still loves and fears him, and the other party starts to hate him. In the 40s, love and fear are gone, and his party puts up with him only because the other party still hates him. Once a president's approval rating falls into the 30s and heads for the 20s, his own party fears being seen with him and starts thinking the other party might have been right to hate him.
Of course, as his coalition collapses, Bush has only himself to blame. The Bush majority was built on the shaky ground of giving the conservative base everything it wanted and waving the bloody shirt to keep Democrats down. Now that conservatives have stopped propping him up, Bush is in free fall.
The best thing that could happen to Bush is the 2008 presidential race, when viewers can change the channel. Until then, he faces a long war of conservative attrition he can't do much to stop. According to the Washington Post, House Republican leaders are angry at Senate Republican leaders for not pandering enough to the conservative base. Some right-wing activists are perversely hoping for an apocalypse that will teach their party a lesson. As Richard Viguerie tells the New York Times, "There is a growing feeling among conservatives that the only way to cure the problem is for Republicans to lose the Congressional elections this fall."
Tonight's prime-time address on immigration is a perfect example of the bind Bush is in. As the Post explains, the president's real audience is a handful of once loyal viewers across town who have lost interest in his show:
Tonight's speech is aimed at assuaging House Republicans who have insisted on tougher enforcement measures against workers illegally in the country. If the House contingent feels action is being taken, White House officials hope they may yet sign off on some version of Bush's guest-worker proposal, which would provide a way for undocumented immigrants to stay here legally if they pay back taxes and penalties.
When Bush was riding high, Tom DeLay could keep the House caucus in line all by himself. Nowadays, when the president needs a whip operation to get House Republicans back on the reservation, he has to call out the National Guard. ... 12:32 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, May 3, 2006
Person-to-Person: Whenever Tony Snow is asked about the transition from pundit to player, he sounds like a kid in a candy store. After years of having opinions, he is thrilled to be in a position to get them a hearing.
In an interview with Bill O'Reilly before he took the job, Snow not only made his customary mid-sentence shift from first to second person, but finished the thought by switching species:
The upside for someone like me, you become part of something that is very rare, which is the White House inner circle where you get to make decisions. It's a meaty, substantive job.
This week's Newsweek quotes him saying in that same interview, "The upside is that for someone like me who's been a pundit for many years, you sit around and you think about the way the world should be."
Clearly, Tony Snow wants to be the Bobby Kennedy of press secretaries: Some White House spokesmen see things as they are and ask, "Why?" This White House spokesman dreams things that never were and asks, "Why not?"
Pundits get to sit around and think about the way the world should be. Press secretaries get to stand in front of firing squads and think on their feet—mostly about how foolish they were to accept the job in the first place.
Man of Influence: Ever the optimist, Snow reportedly insisted on a policy role. The pundits he left behind are sitting around debating whether he'll get it. On the NewsHour, political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar ruled that out as unprecedented:
You don't want a press secretary to be involved in policy, because if a press secretary is arguing policy, then, when he comes out and talks to reporters, reporters won't know whether it's the president's policies that he's talking about, the president's thinking, or his own thinking. … White House staff are not going to talk to the press secretary if they think he has a particular policy agenda.
Obviously, the press secretary shouldn't step to the podium and pronounce views that are directly at odds with the president's. But press secretaries make policy all the time, simply because, unlike other policymakers in the White House, they have to answer questions all day long. Every sentence in the briefing room becomes official administration policy, which gives a press secretary ample leeway to influence its direction. If he throws a few extra qualifiers into the official talking points, he can turn a veto threat into a mild statement of disapproval. If he rolls his eyes or barely suppresses a giggle, he can wink at the press corps that today's official position will be gone by tomorrow.
So, Professor Kumar has it backwards: If White House staff think Snow has a policy agenda, they won't avoid him in the halls—they'll do just the opposite and spend even more time talking to him to spin him their way.
Flacks and Hacks: Should a talking head make policy? Well, by Bush White House standards, Snow is perfectly qualified to have a senior policy role: He's a political junkie with strong conservative views. Hacks haven't had any trouble making their views known in this administration; the wonks who wanted a policy role are the ones who were shut out because they didn't get in writing.
Moreover, as time and popularity run out for this administration, so do the stakes in its policy deliberations. Karl Rove cashed in his policy chips because he knew they weren't worth much anymore. Senior officials aren't nearly as turf-conscious when property values are plunging. If Snow wants to chime in, colleagues who might have tried to shut him out a few years ago will welcome his enthusiasm.
But Snow may soon discover the downside of being new blood in a old administration. He's the pundit who caught the car: His opinions may have plenty of influence in the White House—but the White House's views no longer much matter. It's a meaty job, all right—if you don't mind lame duck. ... 11:25 A.M. (link)
Friday, April 28, 2006
First Flack: Tony Snow piled up a lot of firsts in his first week as White House press secretary. He's the first pundit to take the job, a talking head turned mouthpiece instead of the other way around. He's reportedly the first press secretary to negotiate a policy role (but happily, did not have his agent demand a private dressing room). He's the first disgruntled conservative to be won over by being given a place in the president's inner circle. If only Bush had 10 million more job openings at the White House, his wayward base would be secure.
But with just a thousand days left in a lame-duck administration, Snow should strive to be more than just the answer to a Beltway trivia question. From his new platform, he has the chance and the talent to push the limits of another frontier – the English language.
Over the years, press secretaries have contributed much to the political lexicon. Ron Ziegler set the standard in another scandal-ridden second-term presidency, giving us cult classics like "third-rate burglary" and "This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative." Until then, no one in politics had used "inoperative" since Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist Papers: "It would therefore be destitute of a precise meaning, and inoperative from its uncertainty."
I know Tony Snow, and he's no Ron Ziegler. He's smart, easy to like, and a good choice for the sequestered Bush White House.
But Snow's background gives him the ideal combination of talents to make his way into the quotation books. Snow is not just aptronymonic, he is ambi-phonic – a man who has made a career as both a professional writer and a professional talker.
If you want to know how rare this combination is, try reading what Bill O'Reilly writes or listening to Kevin Phillips talk. The gift for gab that makes for easy listening in a talking head is usually grating in print, while literary pugilism can be annoyingly nasal on the air.
Failure to Launch: What do you get when you mix a Bush 41 speechwriter with a Sunday celebrity from Fox? Well, if Peggy Noonan and Terry Bradshaw had a grown son together, he might sound a lot like Tony Snow. To paraphrase Stevie Wonder, baloney and irony go together in perfect harmony.
It's too early to predict whether these talents will combine for greatness or disaster. But so far, the results look promising. Asked by Cox News whether he would be frank with the president, Snow delivered this gem:
"They want people to express their opinions. You're not coming here to drink the Kool-Aid. You're coming here to serve the president. And at this particular juncture I think what you want is as much honest counsel as you can get."
In just four sentences, Snow managed to refer to himself in the first, second, and third person – even switching back and forth in the same sentence. When he said, "I think what you want is as much honest counsel as you can get," he referred to the president in the second person and himself in the first person and (implicitly) the third. Even Yogi Berra couldn't go from first to third on a single quote.
Obviously, this verbal dexterity will serve Snow well from the podium, where evasive action is often necessary. As his predecessor and fellow aptronym, Larry Speakes, once said, "I would dodge, not lie, in the national interest."
Snowisms: Snow's linguistic adventurism should also endear him to the Great Miscommunicator, George W. Bush. In the same way that pet owners eventually look like their dogs, press secretaries should learn to talk like their boss. Snow is off to a good start. He told Cox News, "So when I agree I'm going to agree but when I disagree I disagree. But on any opinion his vote is the tie-breaker." Snow brings the Fox News motto to the White House: "We report. You the decider."
From a linguistic standpoint, it's hard not to marvel at what Snow told Brit Hume: "You never lie. You never try to shave the truth. But on the other hand, you've got to keep in mind the guy I'm working for is the president." Once again, the quick downshift from second to first person. For good measure, a daring segue (he won't lie, but on the other hand he is working for the Bush administration). And yet, like Bush, Bradshaw, and Berra, Snow somehow gets his point across even when his sentences don't parse.
When Hume asked him whether he would use the podium to spar with the administration's political opponents, like Mike McCurry, or avoid those battles, like Marlin Fitzwater, Snow said, "I'm probably more Fitzwaterian."
He could have achieved instant immortality by saying, "Fitzwatery." But give him time – he's just getting started. And according to Google, nobody had ever said "Fitzwaterian" before. For Tony Snow, it's another first. ... 1:45 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Strategery: In September 2000, George W. Bush was trailing Al Gore when the Clinton-Gore administration released part of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in response to the rising price of gas and home heating oil. Bush called Gore a flip-flopping panderer. Here's the Associated Press lede from Sept. 24, 2000:
George W. Bush, trying to slow Al Gore's momentum and overcome discouraging polls, accused his rival on Saturday of engaging in "a disturbing pattern of embellishments and sudden reversals."
"It was created for cases of war or a sudden disruption of America's energy supply," Bush said. "That's why it's called the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, not the Strategic Political Reserve."
Gas prices have doubled since then, and Bush is once again trying to overcome discouraging polls—this time, by engaging in a disturbing pattern of sudden reversals. After six years of saying there was nothing a president could do about the problem, Bush has decided to suspend purchases for the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Press reports let the flip-flop go, apparently concluding that when nobody's fooled, it doesn't count as a pander. Bush's Strategic Political Reserve ran dry a long time ago.
Bush's new chief of staff, Josh Bolten, must have felt a twinge of nostalgia during yesterday's announcement. As campaign policy director, he was responsible for Bush's gas-price talking points in 2000 as well. The Bush campaign got a political boost from promising not to play politics; now the Bush White House hopes for the same boost from taking the opposite position.
National Journal's political tipsheet, "The Hotline," reported yesterday, "Under the Bolten regime, expect to see far more X-point-plans and regular metric-tracking of said points. Bolten is a metric fan." For the Bush White House, this is considered progress: So long as X>0, then X-point plans are better than none.
In this week's Time, Mike Allen spells out Bolten's five-point "recovery plan": 1) Reassure the base with more visuals at the border with agents carrying guns and wearing badges; 2) Make Wall Street happy, because (when they're not watching gun-toting Border Patrol agents on TV) Republican base voters are investors; 3) "BRAG MORE"—nobody else will; 4) Regain credibility on security by convincing voters that Democrats will lose Iran, so they'll forget who's losing in Iraq; and 5) Court the press by hiring Tony Snow.
If you're scoring at home, give Bolten the last point. As a ham with a sense of humor, Snow is a return to the Clinton model of press secretaries Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart, who genuinely enjoyed playing cat-and-mouse with the White House press corps, and a departure from the just-shoot-me model of Scott McClellan and Ari Fleischer, two hostages who never learned to love their captors.
The rest of the Bolten recovery plan, however, makes Bush's recovery plan for New Orleans look good by comparison. John Dickerson may be right that it's too late for any Bush strategy to make a difference. But for a White House that desperately needs to put points on the board, all the metrics in the world won't help if X equals 0. ... 11:49 A.M. (link)
Friday, April 21, 2006
Wild Thing: Say this about Josh Bolten: He's a reliever. On Wednesday, the president's new chief of staff relieved Karl Rove of his policy-making duties. With less than subtle hints, he persuaded Scott McClellan to relieve himself of his Snow-job duties. All week long, Bolten has urged White House staff to pack their bags, relieving them of their loyalty duties. Today, the New York Times reports that he wants to relieve White House Counsel Harriet Miers of her has-been duties.
The banner headlines in yesterday's Washington Post heralding Rove's demotion suggest that this is how Washington spells relief. Here in the nation's capital, scandal is the favorite spectator sport, and the current owners have done an excellent job of filling the seats this season. But whenever there's a break in the action, Washington fans love the chance to watch a good, old-fashioned power struggle—especially when power is dwindling so there isn't enough to go around.
By that standard, this week's Kabuki is a good one. Scott McClellan lost the ability to snow the press long ago. If Harriet Miers has any responsibilities left, it's only because she was the first loyalist Bush forced to walk the plank and withdraw her Supreme Court nomination.
In recent months, Karl Rove's policy responsibilities have consisted of 1) trying not to go to jail; 2) trying not to get fired; and 3) making sure this year's State of the Union didn't propose any policies like the ones he put in last year's. From the White House to the Congress, Republicans' 2006 game plan all along has been to not offer a national agenda. Rove's job is to try to give voters what they want, which in this case is to relieve the Republicans of their policy responsibilities.
Here in Washington, the crowd roared its approval for taking Rove down a notch. The move gave all sides what they wanted: Congressional Republicans can take credit for the appearance of change; Democrats can keep trashing their favorite bogeyman and pointing out that nothing has changed; the White House can insist that from now on, Rove will spend every moment thinking about the elections, as if in his policy role he had ever thought about anything else.
Reality Show: There are two big problems with the Bush strategy. One trouble with insider power struggles is that the actors take them even more seriously than the fans. On Wednesday, Rove worked hard to spin the story of his own realignment. Despite his best efforts, the White House got the this-is-a-big-deal spin it wanted. Rove discovered what Democrats have said all along about the Ownership Society: You're bound to end up with a smaller portfolio.
Today's Miers story is stranger still. The Times article quotes "an influential Republican with close ties to Bolten" saying that pushing her out the door is "a reflection of Josh's thinking." Then it quotes the same Republican saying of the shake-up, "This is not Josh, this is Bush. ... Bush is very good at using other people as a vehicle to get things done." Then it reminds us that, as always, we never know who's using whom: "It was not clear whether Mr. Bolten was floating a trial balloon to gauge White House reaction to the idea, or whether he might have been intending to send a signal to Ms. Miers that he would like her to think about leaving on her own."
In a White House where Scooter Libby portrayed himself to the Times as a former congressional aide, "an influential Republican with close ties to Bolten" could be anyone from new Bolten deputy Joel Kaplan to President Bush to Josh Bolten himself. We can't make out the source from here in the cheap seats, but we're pretty sure it's not Harriet Miers.
The other trouble with Bolten's strategy is that calming Republican nerves in Washington won't help win back voters in November. On the contrary, the less congressional Republicans panic, the less likely they'll do anything productive. The new Bush White House is doing a fine job of relieving itself—but that's not a great relief to the American people. ... 1:51 P.M. (link)