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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Carl Leubsdorf

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Carl Leubsdorf

Last Build Date: Thu, 19 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2009

Ex-Bush Aides Can't Leave It Alone

Thu, 19 Mar 2009 00:00:00 -0600

In doing so, they've been helped both by the predictable lack of any clear GOP voice and by the way Limbaugh and Cheney sought the headlines with outspoken denunciations of Barack Obama and his team. Limbaugh's effort to seek the spotlight is nothing new; that's his business. But Cheney's effort to keep a high profile is unusual in that the top figures of a departing administration usually leave the spotlight to their successors. Indeed, George W. Bush invoked that tradition Tuesday in his first post-presidential appearance, declaring it's time for an ex-president "to tap dance off the stage" and let his successor "have a go at solving the world's problems." Obama, Bush said, "deserves my silence." Some of his closest associates don't feel similarly bound. Obama had been in office for just two weeks when Andy Card, the normally restrained former chief of staff, was griping about a photo showing the new president without coat and tie in the Oval Office. There ought to be "a dress code that respects the office of the president," Card told the syndicated show, Late Edition. Cheney and former top political strategist Karl Rove weighed in with more substantive criticism, at the risk of looking, among other things, hypocritical. Rove regularly bashes Obama in his weekly Wall Street Journal column. Cheney went on CNN's State of the Union last Sunday and assailed the new president's handling of issues from the economy to the qualifications of the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq. Not only does veteran diplomat Chris Hill lack experience in the region, Cheney said, but he has "none of the skills and talents" of his predecessor. And Cheney said the new administration is "using the current set of economic difficulties to try to justify a massive expansion in the government and much more authority for the government over the private sector." Interesting accusations from a top figure in an administration that picked the hapless Michael Brown to direct disaster relief, created a massive new entitlement for prescription drug coverage and presided over a vast increase in spending, something he defended as "appropriate" because of the terrorist threat. Meanwhile, Rove has accused the new administration of "winging it" on issues from its economic program to Guantánamo Bay and of breaking campaign promises from tax cuts for middle-class Americans to reducing budget earmarks. On Obama's ninth day in office, Rove assailed how the new president organized his staff, including giving his "director of political affairs" a White House office. That was a strange charge from someone who was both Bush's chief political strategist and a top policy adviser. In general, their basic complaint seems to be that Obama has unwisely changed their policies. But they're also trying to justify their tenure, including Cheney's effort to disclaim responsibility for the current economic woes. "This isn't something that happened just in the Bush administration or just in the United States," he said, adding that it wasn't right to say, "George Bush was president, and that is why everything is screwed up." By changing Bush administration practices, including banning torture, Obama had made the United States "less safe," Cheney said. Those comments prompted White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to respond at his daily briefing Monday, "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal," linking two critics far less popular outside the GOP base than within it. Indeed, not only does the Cheney-Rove criticism revive questions about their own shortcomings, it makes one wonder how pleased current GOP leaders are by the refusal of top Bush figures to leave the political stage. After all, many Republicans blame Bush and his advisers for their party losing both houses of Congress and the White House in back-to-back elections. Even a leadership vacuum might be preferable to a reminder of that. [...]

Bush's Markers and Marking Time

Thu, 18 Dec 2008 00:00:00 -0600

Unfortunately, that visit may best be remembered for an Iraqi journalist hurling shoes at the U.S. president during his news conference with Iraq's prime minister.

Again in Iraq, Mr. Bush's best intentions went awry. While he made light of the episode, it seems an apt metaphor for a presidency that began with such hope and is ending with the country mired in two wars and its worst economic crisis in a generation.

Indeed, his tenure repeated a familiar pattern for two-term presidents: successes in the first four years, troubles after re-election.

Both things for which Americans give him the highest marks -- keeping them safe after the 9/11 attacks and overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein -- occurred primarily in his first term. His job approval sank from 90 percent after 9/11 to the low 50s by the start of his second term, then even further south.

The past three years, his ratings have stalled in the low 30s or even upper 20s. In last week's NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, 79 percent said they would not miss him; 48 percent said he would go down as one of the worst presidents.

"I'm looking forward to getting off the stage," he conceded in an interview with The Washington Post. "I have had enough of the spotlight."

In seeking to shape perceptions of his presidency, Mr. Bush has taken some just credit and exaggerated progress in other areas.

He observed World AIDS Day 2008 by noting that his administration and Congress delivered $148 billion to fight HIV/AIDS at home and abroad. It's a reasonable claim.

But in marking the 67th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he hailed a 115 percent increase in veterans' medical care that included funds lawmakers added.

And in assessing the Middle East, the White House optimistically said that, since 2001, the region "has become more free, hopeful and promising." But despite democratic elections in Iraq and among the Palestinians, the overall situation remains unsettled. Sporadic administration efforts to spur Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have achieved little.

The contrast between claims and reality is most evident on Iraq. More than five years after Mr. Bush hailed the end of major combat operations beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner, he remains optimistic.

"The war is not over," he said in Baghdad. But "it is decisively on its way to being won."

While the situation has improved, the U.S. still has 150,000 troops in Iraq, more than before the 2007 "surge." Mr. Bush has succeeded in delaying any withdrawal until Barack Obama takes over, ensuring that any post-pullout problems can be blamed on his successor.

Besides, his emphasis on Iraq has stretched the military and jeopardized efforts in Afghanistan, the main training ground for al-Qaeda terrorists.

Press releases won't shape ultimate assessments of the Bush presidency. Those will depend on what happens in Iraq and Afghanistan, the degree to which his policies are blamed for the economic downturn -- and his successor's ability to resolve problems he has bequeathed.

When Ronald Reagan left office, a large budget deficit seemed likely to be one legacy. But successors George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton helped spur an economic boom that balanced the budget. When Mr. Reagan died in 2004, analysts scarcely mentioned his budgetary woes.

60 or Not, Dems Have Edge They Need

Thu, 04 Dec 2008 00:35:31 -0600

But the political climate and economic crisis will make it far harder for Mr. Obama's opponents to employ the obstructionist tactics they used so successfully when Democrats enjoyed only a modest margin the past two years and the GOP held the White House.

Even Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is talking more of using the GOP's 41 seats to influence the new president's course, rather than block it. In fact, all signs are that the Democrats have enough votes to help Mr. Obama pass both a massive economic stimulus package and the energy and health insurance measures he pledged in the campaign.

In the House, a Democratic majority of nearly 260 members should enable the new administration to prevail consistently, even if it occasionally loses some of the more conservative Democrats.

And while Senate rules permit greater resistance, reality suggests it won't be that easy. A main reason is that the 41 or 42 GOP senators include hard-line conservatives from heavily Republican states in the South and moderates from predominantly Democratic states in the Northeast.

At least for the first year or two, it seems unlikely that moderates like Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Ohio's George Voinovich, Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter would try to prevent votes on major Obama proposals and nominations.

Other Republicans - like Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchison and, more importantly, Arizona's John McCain - are likely to reflect public disdain for seeking political gain with confrontational tactics.

Interestingly, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the only remaining major GOP officeholder in a state once solidly Republican, has seconded the Democratic call for a large-scale stimulus program.

It's no coincidence that he's up for re-election in 2010.

Meanwhile, Mr. Obama has shrewdly tapped into the public mood by stressing repeatedly the need to reach across party lines. Other presidents have done so before, only to fall victim to excessive partisanship on their side or from their opposition. This time, the political fallout from such tactics might be more severe.

The question is how long Mr. Obama can benefit from such a mood. Traditionally, presidents are lucky if their honeymoons last until the August congressional recess of their first year.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart conducted a recent focus group for the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center among "swing" voters who backed Mr. Obama. Results suggest the economic crisis may give him more time.

These voters, Mr. Hart concluded, "recognize the mess he is inheriting, and their expectations are reasonable and not excessive. The judgments about him are more likely to be based on the way he approaches the problems and not by instantaneous results."

Ultimately, the natural political order will reassert itself. Mr. Obama's public support may fade; Republicans will seek ways to revive their fortunes.

By the time he enters his third year in 2011, he may need 60 Senate votes more than now. But while the opposition party usually rebounds in the next midterm election, more 2010 Senate races loom on Democratic than Republican turf.

Sen. John Cornyn, the new chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will have his hands full trying to stem the Democratic tide, especially if Mr. Obama retains popular support.

Until then, Tuesday's GOP victory in Georgia seems likely to be seen as more significant in underscoring the party's hold on Dixie than in erecting a barrier to the new administration.

More on RCP: Austin, TX Aims to Be Green Energy Capital

McCain Ploy Ultimately Changes Little

Fri, 26 Sep 2008 00:39:19 -0600

Critics immediately accused the Arizona senator of political grandstanding in the face of faltering poll numbers, noting that congressional leaders and Bush administration officials already were resolving differences over the massive package.

Supporters argued that Mr. McCain's move meant he would be able to claim a large share of responsibility if a package ultimately passed because his support was needed to get enough House Republican votes to create the bipartisan support Democratic leaders demanded.

In fact, both critics and supporters may be right.

Mr. McCain's move was clearly political, since he was not directly involved in hammering out the complex legislation. But his role as the party's de facto leader may give him leverage over GOP congressmen who would otherwise not fall in line.

Indeed, the Republican standard-bearer seems to have acted less to rescue the talks than to ease the potential damage to himself and his party for opposing, or even killing, a bipartisan bailout proposal.

Circumstances leading to his announcement Wednesday strongly suggest that.

For more than a week, he has encountered increasing political difficulty on the economy. It stemmed from his initial comment that the economy is fundamentally sound, contradictory statements on successive days on the wisdom of bailing out insurance giant AIG and criticism of the bailout plan that left the impression he might oppose it.

Mr. Obama has been more consistent, outlining several conditions for the legislation last Friday that apparently will make it into the final bill. But he kept his public distance from the talks, though apparently in touch with all sides by phone.

Politically, that approach seems to be working. As Mr. McCain's slender post-convention polling lead melted away, polls showed that the public favored Mr. Obama's approach to economic issues, though by modest margins.

Interestingly, just hours before Mr. McCain's move, his campaign held a conference call to denounce a poll showing a relatively large Obama lead, raising valid doubts about aspects of that poll. But actions often speak louder than words, and Mr. McCain's moves suggest his strategists considered his position unfavorable.

While he was working through his own position, House Republicans were resisting the idea of vastly increasing the power of the federal government. In return, Democratic leaders were bristling at the idea of owning the political burden for the Bush administration's controversial idea.

By the time Mr. McCain reached Washington yesterday, Democratic leaders were announcing an agreement in principle with the administration.

But House Republicans indicated they were not on board, and a White House meeting that included President Bush, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama apparently ended without final agreement. Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd said House Republicans unexpectedly introduced some alternative ideas.

Continued impasse could increase pressure on Mr. McCain, especially if he proves unable to deliver enough House Republicans to ensure bipartisan support for a bailout package that might otherwise pass.

The apparent deadlock also continued to leave Friday night's scheduled debate in limbo, but at some point it will take place. When it does, the campaign focus will return to the fundamental differences between the two contenders.

But the longer the bailout impasse continues, the more likely its fallout could affect the presidential race. And any continuing sign of governmental gridlock could heighten public sentiment to make a dramatic change from the unpopular Bush presidency.

Can Palin Help McCain Win?

Thu, 11 Sep 2008 12:33:41 -0600

If it does, it would be another remarkable twist in a remarkable election. It has been 48 years since a vice presidential nominee had a tangible impact on a presidential election outcome.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy's choice of Lyndon B. Johnson kept Texas Democratic, prompted wary Southern Democrats to back the ticket and united the party for what proved to be a close election.

Ms. Palin's impact is potentially broader but less certain. She remains relatively unknown to many Americans. Polls show most people like her personally but that many are skeptical about her qualifications, attitudes that may vary more than for a better-known figure.

Post-convention polls and growing crowds show the Alaska governor has given Mr. McCain a big boost with Republicans, many of whom have been unenthusiastic.

Some polls also show she helped with white women and independents, two crucial voter groups that could be decisive in November. An ABC News- Washington Post poll shows Mr. McCain bounced from an eight-point deficit among white women to a 12-point advantage. In several surveys, he took the lead among independents.

The polls also show Mr. McCain with one in five voters who backed Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

If these gains hold, Ms. Palin could help Mr. McCain win such Republican-leaning states as Missouri and North Carolina and perhaps foil the Barack Obama campaign's effort to break the recent GOP grip on Colorado, Ohio and Virginia.

Democrats, meanwhile, have been thrown off stride, unsure whether to go after Ms. Palin or Mr. McCain. Their problems were underscored by a McCain effort to capitalize on Mr. Obama's oft-made comment that, even with lipstick, a pig is "still a pig."

History gives contradictory evidence whether the Palin-fueled bounce will last or recede.

Mr. Mondale's boost after picking Ms. Ferraro vanished quickly. So did Al Gore's post-convention gains.

On the other hand, the 1988 GOP convention propelled George H.W. Bush from behind to a lead he never relinquished, despite negative coverage of his running mate, Dan Quayle.

In each case, voters' judgments of the top of the ticket proved decisive. Though the focus on Ms. Palin may last longer than usual, in part because she delayed the inevitable media interviews, attention inevitably will return to Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama.

And though the Democratic nominee this week challenged Ms. Palin's positive aura by disputing her positions on budget earmarks and the notorious "bridge to nowhere," his single best argument is that Mr. McCain would continue many Bush administration policies the country opposes.

Besides, despite the hype and favorable publicity for Ms. Palin, this week's polls show the two tickets basically tied. They also show that Mr. Obama retains a double-digit lead as the candidate most likely to bring change. And many voters remain concerned about Mr. McCain's age and believe he would maintain Bush policies.

Still, the GOP convention seems to have undone some of Mr. Obama's progress in persuading voters he is ready to be president and a strong leader.

In the end, the debates starting in two weeks are still likely to be decisive. They are Mr. Obama's chance to persuade voters he can do the job, despite a slender resume.

Until then, however, there can be no doubt that Ms. Palin's emergence has added an unpredictable new factor that neither side really expected.

Why is Pelosi Pushing Chet Edwards for VP?

Thu, 17 Jul 2008 00:32:27 -0600

But there was nothing casual about the speaker's decision to push Mr. Edwards, an early Barack Obama backer she has long admired, for the second spot on the Democratic ticket.

Having decided a House member would be a good complement for the freshman Illinois senator, she settled on Mr. Edwards, best known for his key role in enacting a record increase in veterans' aid.

"He's an extraordinarily talented person" and "one of the finest people I've ever served with," she said.

The Pelosi-Edwards connection goes back some years to when they had adjoining congressional offices. She reportedly believes that his personal skills, centrist record and work to expand aid for veterans and their families would appeal to swing voters.

Having as your chief advocate the first female speaker and permanent chair of the upcoming Democratic National Convention is a big plus. But it won't automatically make Mr. Edwards a serious contender.

And the state of play in the selection process is hard to discern, since Mr. Obama is playing it close to the vest.

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Edwards is reluctant to say much besides conceding his interest. "My honest answer is that I cannot imagine any American thinking it would not be an honor to serve their country as vice president," he said.

He flatly refused to answer a direct question of whether the Obama team has asked him to provide material for vetting. To a veteran observer of political behavior, that suggests the answer is "yes." Several presumed contenders also have said they are not being vetted.

If Mr. Edwards is among those whose finances and past record are being scrutinized, that would indicate that he is, in fact, receiving serious consideration, as unlikely as his selection would be. After all, despite being widely admired on Capitol Hill, he's unknown to the public and relatively inexperienced in high-level national politics.

Even Mr. Edwards' advocates concede that Democrats won't carry Texas except in an unlikely landslide. Besides, he hasn't faced anything like the pressure of a national race, despite two tough re-election contests since the 2003 GOP redistricting made his district even more heavily Republican.

Mr. Edwards brings a varied background, from being an honored graduate of Texas A&M to his MBA from Harvard Business School.

He was an aide to the late Rep. Olin "Tiger" Teague, a veteran Texas lawmaker who championed the nation's veterans, a pattern Mr. Edwards adopted. In 1978, he narrowly failed to make the runoff for the seat vacated by Mr. Teague, trailing his one-time economics professor, future Sen. Phil Gramm, by just 115 votes.

Later, he won a state Senate seat and, in 1990, was elected to the House. In 2006, he was re-elected with 58 percent in a district President Bush won in 2004 with 69 percent, making him the Democrat with the most Republican district in the House.

Citing his role as an appropriations subcommittee chairman, supporters say he combines substantial knowledge and experience in Congress with being a fresher face than some of the well-known senators being considered.

But they acknowledge he's still something of a long shot.

"The likelihood of it happening is probably somewhere about 10 or 15 percent," said one longtime Texas strategist. After all, the last House member nominated for vice president was Republican William Miller in 1964; the last one elected was the late Speaker John Nance Garner - another Texan - in 1932.

How Will Supreme Court Look?

Thu, 03 Jul 2008 00:22:30 -0600

The reason is that the justices most likely to be replaced in the next four years are members of the court's liberal bloc. Mr. Obama would be unable to shift the court to the left, but Mr. McCain could move it even further to the right.

In a recent speech, Mr. McCain joined the outcry against judicial activism, ironic since Republican domination of the White House the past few decades means its appointees dominate the federal courts, including seven of the nine Supreme Court justices.

That court's two oldest members are pillars of its liberal bloc, Justice John Paul Stevens, an appointee of Republican President Gerald Ford, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Bill Clinton appointee.

Mr. Stevens will be 89 in April, and Mrs. Ginsburg, who has suffered some poor health, will be 76 in March. Many court watchers believe the election of a Democratic president might prompt them to step down and permit the selection of successors with similar ideological views.

Still, that would only maintain the court's current balance, which basically has four conservatives, four liberals and one moderate conservative, Anthony Kennedy, who often tilts the balance.

Mr. McCain made it pretty clear he would tip the court even further to the right when he cited as judicial exemplars two conservative George W. Bush appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. Mr. Obama voted against confirming both.

To be sure, there are limits on any president's ability to change the court's direction.

For one thing, justices sometimes vote differently from what nominating presidents expect. Witness the generally liberal record of David Souter, named by the first President Bush.

But the early track record of Justices Roberts and Alito indicate the second President Bush fulfilled his 2000 campaign vow to name justices like the court's more senior conservatives, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Second, it's unrealistic to expect any president to be able to name more than two Supreme Court justices in a single four-year term. The last one to do so was Richard Nixon, who filled four vacancies in his first term, in part because of the heavy-handed and ultimately unsuccessful way President Lyndon Johnson tried to install longtime crony Abe Fortas as chief justice after deciding against seeking re-election.

Fewer appointees are more likely to be the rule. Ronald Reagan picked only three justices in his eight years. Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush each named two in eight years. Jimmy Carter served a full term without naming any.

Third, nominees must pass muster with the Senate, which is likely to be more Democratic next year than it is today. That could force a President McCain to pick someone less conservative.

But it may not take more than one additional conservative justice to achieve the longtime No. 1 conservative goal of overturning Roe vs. Wade, the court's 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

That's something that should be of special concern to those moderate and liberal women who, upset by Mr. Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, talk of voting in November for Mr. McCain.