The Wall Street Journal leads its world-wide newsbox, and the Los Angeles Timesfronts, Defense Secretary Robert Gates telling a Senate panel that he wants to resume troop withdrawals quickly. The statement came hours after President Bush officially backed Gen. David Petraeus' plan to indefinitely halt any further troop withdrawals after this summer, a story that leads the New York Timesand Washington Post. "I've told him he'll have all the time he needs," Bush said while also emphasizing that the war "is not endless."
USA Todayleads with an analysis that shows "independent political groups" have spent $17.3 million in the first three months of the year, which is more than double what was spent during the same period in the 2004 presidential contest. The vast majority of that money has helped Democrats (around 80 percent), although, of course, that's seen as a result of the drawn out battle between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. "We can expect to see much more money," a campaign finance expert said. The LAT leads locally with news of a deal between Plains Exploration & Production Co. and environmental activists that would discontinue oil production off Santa Barbara County in exchange for permission to tap into underwater reserves. The oil company said it would also donate thousands of acres of land for public use.
Gates made sure to note that although he no longer thinks the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will fall to 100,000 by the end of the year, "the hope, depending on conditions on the ground, is to reduce our presence further this fall." A similar sentiment was expressed by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Although these divisions within the Pentagon are well-known, "rarely have they been aired publicly," says the LAT.
Democrats, including the party's presidential contenders, immediately criticized Bush's statements yesterday as an endorsement of a war with no end and made it clear that they expect to soon start clashing with the White House over the war-funding bill. Members of both parties also said that Bush is trying to direct war policy after he leaves the White House by signing a long-term agreement with Iraq relating to the status of U.S. forces there. Although the administration insists the agreement won't tie the hands of the next president, the WP points out that the White House "has only vaguely outlined what the commitment would be."
The NYT fronts a vivid account of the fighting currently going on in Sadr City and describes how the U.S. military is using this latest outbreak in violence to shift responsibility to the Iraqi military and test how the local troops perform under pressure. To be sure, American troops are still very much involved in the fighting and provide lots of air support. But U.S. service members on the ground are often providing strategic advice and then pulling back to allow Iraqis to take the lead. The NYT goes inside with another dispatch from "deep in Sadr City" and describes how Mahdi Army fighters move around with impunity in the area. The NYT's Stephen Farrell describes how unmasked men set up grenade launchers and roadside bombs in the middle of the day and "nobody blinked."
The top beneficiary of the spending by independent groups has been Obama. Between Jan. 1 and March 31, $7.4 million was used to help the Illinois senator, most of which came from a labor union. Comparatively, independent groups have spent $5.4 million to aid Clinton's candidacy.
In related news, the WP off-leads a look at how, despite Obama's claim that he has created a "parallel public financing system," he still relies on rich bundlers for much of his money. The paper doesn't deny that Obama has raised lots of money from small-time, individual donors and points out that about half of his money has come from donations of $200 or less. But for the other half of the whopping $240 million he has raised, Obama has, just like the other contenders, relied on rich, well-connected people. Seventy-nine bundlers have helped raise at least $200,000 each, and much of it came from typical Democratic donors, such as Hollywood stars and trial lawyers. But Obama has also managed to get newcomers into the bundling game, including many who had never made a contribution to a presidential campaign.
In other news from the campaign trail, everyone points out that Sen. John McCain switched his position on how much the government should help homeowners who are having trouble keeping up with mortgage payments. He had been criticized for taking a largely hands-off approach and saying the government shouldn't "reward those who act irresponsibly." But yesterday he put forward a plan that "included a heavy dose of policy more typically associated with Democrats," says the WSJ. The plan would aid homeowners who are having trouble making their payments, but McCain insisted that it won't help speculators and investors.
The LAT notes inside that "a long-standing Philadelphia ritual" involves political candidates handing out "street money" to Democratic operatives in the city who then mostly give it out as a sort of payment to the "foot soldiers" working to get out the vote. It's perfectly legal, but it seems Obama's campaign is telling local leaders that it won't pay up. Neither Clinton nor Obama is publicly talking about whether they'll hand out the money. But some ward leaders say that Obama's campaign has made it clear it won't pay up and are warning that this could hurt Obama's chances in the April 22 primary. "It's our tradition," a ward leader said. "You don't come to someone's house and change the rules of someone's house. That's just respect."
The LAT goes inside with a look at how a Navy officer who testified yesterday that she worked as an escort for the so-called D.C. Madam could face punishment and might even be discharged. The Post's Dana Milbank points out that while the powerful men who allegedly used the D.C. Madam's services "appear likely to get a pass," the 15 women who were forced to "recount in graphic detail their past work as prostitutes," including a 63-year-old, are seeing their lives turned upside-down. The prosecution wants to make public the names of other former prostitutes, but Milbank deftly wonders why all the fuss. "Prosecutors act as if they've caught a major organized crime figure," but the prostitution ring brought in "$2 million over 13 years—small potatoes for a federal racketeering and money-laundering case that could ruin the lives of 132 women."
And while on the subject of sex scandals, Laura Frost writes in the LAT's op-ed page about Max Mosley, the president of Formula One who was filmed participating in an orgy that involved S&M and, apparently, Nazi choreography (for more details, see Slate's "Explainer"). Frost focuses on how, after it was all done, Mosley had a cup of tea "in the nude with his former tormentors." That cup of tea shows how people can keep their sexual fantasies separate from their normal lives. Whatever one might think of Mosley's acts, "we should be mindful that erotic enactments do not necessarily reproduce the power relationships they portray, and we should beware of putting fantasy on trial."