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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Orange-Alert Campaign

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2004; 8:40 AM

Maybe, in the end, there will be no other issue.

In the last 48 hours, terrorism has turned the campaign upside down.

_____More Media Notes_____
Fox Picks Its Spots (washingtonpost.com, Aug 2, 2004)
Kerry Wows the Media (washingtonpost.com, Jul 30, 2004)
July Surprise? (washingtonpost.com, Jul 29, 2004)
Bouncing Back in Boston (washingtonpost.com, Jul 29, 2004)
Edwards Scores, Kerry On Deck (washingtonpost.com, Jul 29, 2004)
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Since Tom Ridge boosted the threat level after learning of al Qaeda plans against financial buildings in New York and Washington, all the convention talk about Kerry's health care plan and Edwards's Two Americas has been wiped out.

Yesterday, I watched with amazement as Kerry accused the Bush administration of "encouraging the recruitment of terrorists" in the process of saying he would keep America safer. (Aides explained that this had to do with not forging adequate ties with moderate Arab leaders.)

Then the White House fired back with a full panoply of appearances.

There was the presidential announcement ("We're a nation in danger"), with Bush accompanied by Ridge, followed by the Andy Card/Condi Rice briefing, followed by various administration types fanning out for TV interviews (Dan Bartlett on CNN, Rice on Fox, others I must have missed). And, of course, Pataki and Bloomberg were press-conferencing as well.

Bush announced that he was embracing the 9/11 panel's recommendation of naming a national intelligence director.

Will there be any flip-flop stories pointing out that a) Bush opposed creating the commission, and b) the White House was initially lukewarm about a national spy chief, with the acting CIA director opposing it--until Kerry endorsed all the findings and made homeland security a major theme of his acceptance speech?

Kerry, meanwhile, was being peppered with questions about Howard Dean suggesting the new alert was politically motivated--a glimpse into what life would have been like (more exciting for journalists, at least) had Dean won the nomination.

I have to imagine that Bush has an edge if the election turns on terror because he already is commander in chief and responded to 9/11 by toppling the Taliban (though the deeply divided emotions over Iraq could undermine that). Kerry obviously figured that he couldn't duck the issue and tackled it head on in Boston. This week's events show that to be a rational decision.

Those who question whether the orange alert was hyped will find some ammunition in this New York Times piece:

"Much of the information that led the authorities to raise the terror alert at several large financial institutions in the New York City and Washington areas was three or four years old, intelligence and law enforcement officials said on Monday. They reported that they had not yet found concrete evidence that a terror plot or preparatory surveillance operations were still under way."

Years old. No concrete evidence.

"But the officials continued to regard the information as significant and troubling because the reconnaissance already conducted has provided Al Qaeda with the knowledge necessary to carry out attacks against the sites in Manhattan, Washington and Newark. They said Al Qaeda had often struck years after its operatives began surveillance of an intended target.

"Taken together with a separate, more general stream of intelligence, which indicates that Al Qaeda intends to strike in the United States this year, possibly in New York or Washington, the officials said even the dated but highly detailed evidence of surveillance was sufficient to prompt the authorities to undertake a global effort to track down the unidentified suspects involved in the surveillance operations."

Kerry has little choice on this battlefield, says The Washington Post:

"Rather than questioning the timing of the administration's latest warnings about a possible al Qaeda attack, Kerry accepted the warnings as credible but said they highlight the weakness of Bush's record.

"A variety of polls and public opinion analysts make it clear that the Democrat faces an uphill climb with this argument. But some strategists in both parties said that Kerry is hardly waging a war of choice: The latest warnings underscored how much the balance of the presidential campaign will be shaped by outside events and hovering public anxiety over a potential terrorist attack. Kerry, they said, must prove himself credible on an issue that could shadow the next three months -- even if he might prefer the race be dominated by jobs or some other blue-chip Democratic issue."

The Wall Street Journal captures the changed dynamic:

"With the latest alert, terrorism returned to the forefront of the presidential campaign, dramatizing the unpredictability of the first election since the horrors of Sept. 11, 2001.

"After a weekend in which both President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry stumped in industrial states emphasizing economic issues, the debate was whipsawed back to national security with the headline-grabbing alert from the Bush administration Sunday.

"That is the ground, polls have shown, where the incumbent commander in chief is strongest. While Mr. Bush has increasingly been on the defensive about his policies toward Iraq, he had continued to lead Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts on the broader question of handling the global war on terrorism. Not surprisingly, the Kerry camp was bristling yesterday -- privately, mostly -- about whether Mr. Bush is playing politics with the issue.

"Certainly the news grabbed national media attention away from last week's convention and Mr. Kerry's cross-country campaign trip."

When you burrow down into the details, says the Los Angeles Times, the picture of what Bush is proposing changes:

"The director of national intelligence would serve as the president's chief advisor in that area but would not head a specific agency. The counterterrorism center would coordinate anti-terrorist operations across the government and prepare a daily threat assessment. But Bush's proposals differed from the commission's recommendations in two critical ways.

"First, the president said the intelligence czar should not be part of the White House. Second, Bush said the new director should have 'input' in, but not control over, the budgets of the country's 15 intelligence agencies. Those differences, and other vague elements in his statement, ensured that his endorsement would serve more to promote debate over the recommendations than to decide them. . . .

"Politically, the president's decision to back the reforms allows him to say he has accepted the commission's recommendations, which have proved popular and persuasive with the public and members of Congress.But experts and administration critics said that without budgetary authority over the entire intelligence apparatus, the new director would hold little sway over the agencies that are part of the Department of Defense, especially the powerful Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. Together the defense intelligence organizations account for more than 80% of the intelligence budget, while the Central Intelligence Agency spends less than 20%. Precise figures are classified."

Josh Marshall, who begins by quoting the NYT, isn't buying at all:

"'White House and Bush campaign officials have long said that the details [of White House counterterrorism proposals] matter far less than the pictures and sounds of Mr. Bush talking in any way about his campaign against terrorism, which polls show is still his strongest card against Mr. Kerry,' writes Elizabeth Bumiller in the Times today.

"Ain't it the truth!

"But wouldn't it be nice if we had a press which would make some effort to point out instances where the 'details' utterly belie what the president says he's doing?

"In fact, when you look closely at it, it's nothing like what the commission recommended at all. The president went out into the Rose Garden, said he was adopting the commission's proposals. But in fact he was doing close to the opposite, doing more or less what they said shouldn't be done. . . .

"What's more, this is such a pattern for this White House that you'd think the Kerry campaign, and the Dems on the Hill, would get hold of this as a pretty manageable critique of this administration: That is, you just can't trust them."

On the Bounce Watch, it's The Washington Post's and ABC's turn, with a poll giving Kerry a 50-44 lead among registered voters, but only a 2-point edge among likely voters. Still, Kerry is now "viewed by 52 percent all voters as better able to serve as commander-in-chief while 44 percent back Bush. And he has erased the president's double-digit advantage as the candidate best able to deal with terrorism."

The press has invested so heavily in Bounce Theory that it can't let the matter go:

"There was a bounce after last week's Democratic National Convention," says USA Today.

"But it went to President Bush, not John Kerry.

"Pollsters and strategists are puzzling over Kerry's failure to get a boost from a convention that even critics acknowledged went almost precisely as planned. Polls show it improved voters' impressions of Kerry as a strong leader and a potential commander in chief. It burnished views of the Democratic Party. . . .

"Republicans were delighted. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd dubbed it an oxymoronic 'negative bounce.' Democrats were dismissive . . .

"Two other post-convention polls released Monday also showed Kerry failing to get the traditional boost from the convention. One showed his support unchanged; the other had him up 3 percentage points among likely voters. Neither found Bush gaining ground.

"Some of the same voices who confidently predicted at least a modest bounce for Kerry last week suggested theories for why that didn't happen: The Democrats miscalculated by limiting the partisan bashing of Bush. Or perhaps in this polarized electorate there's simply no one left to persuade. Or Kerry could still benefit from a delayed bounce."

The media are looking for bounces in all the wrong places, says Boston Globe columnist Steven Stark:

"For the past several weeks we've heard from television, the print press, and bloggers how important the convention and acceptance speech were to John Kerry's prospects of becoming the next president. In truth, they didn't mean much of anything. And for the next month, we'll hear how essential defining a second-term vision or picking a different vice president -- not to mention staging a successful convention -- are to the reelection chances of George Bush. But they won't mean much either.

"This year, more than any year since 1960, the election will come down to one thing: which candidate impresses the American people the most in that reality television series otherwise known as the fall televised debates."

Journalists all too rarely report on what's not being talked about, which is why I take note of Daniel Gross in Slate, writing that he "expected there would be a concerted effort to ignore the train wreck that has been the Bush administration's fiscal policy at a political convention this summer. I just didn't expect it at the Democratic convention.

"Keynoter Barack Obama never mentioned fiscal policy. The only national debt vice presidential nominee John Edwards spoke of Wednesday night was Iraq's. Thursday night, Clinton-era fiscal talisman Robert Rubin was seated next to Teresa Heinz Kerry. But Kerry's nomination speech contained little in the way of Rubinomics. Kerry did mention that 'When I came to the Senate, I broke with many in my own party to vote for a balanced budget.' And he did promise a 'return to fiscal responsibility' by offering a plan to 'cut the deficit in half in four years' and by reinstituting pay-as-you-go budgeting. But that was it."

Paul Gigot, the Wall Street Journal editorial page chief, offers this Kerry critique:

"If things look different after Nov. 2, the seeds of defeat will have been sown on Thursday night, with the Kerry speech that went on forever but said too little.

"Not that I don't appreciate Mr. Kerry's strategy. Like the other Democrats here, he and his strategists believe they've all but won. They think the voters have already decided to fire President Bush, so Democrats didn't need to make the case themselves. Their task was merely to present Mr. Kerry as a safe alternative. Then come November, as in 1980 and 1992, the undecided will break largely for the challenger and Mr. Kerry will realize his lifelong ambition.

"So they staged a convention that was all biography and flags. Don't propose a new idea because it might create a political target. Make the campaign instead about Mr. Kerry's life, or at least that part of it before 1984 when he entered the Senate. And sound very tough on terrorism. On the latter point, I had to rub my eyes sometimes to make sure these were Democrats. Some of the rhetoric was so hawkish I half expected Donald Rumsfeld to show up. 'You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you,' said John Edwards about 'al Qaeda and the rest of these terrorists.'

"Whatever happened to all that shouting over the last year about Iraq? What about the reckless folly of pre-emption, the 'illegality' of the war because we haven't found WMD, and the necessity of U.N. approval? Last week all that vanished. Joe Wilson and Paul Krugman were kept in undisclosed locations, while someone must have slipped Howard Dean a Prozac."

I was amazed that Bush would propose a flex-time Beltway mandate, but no one else seems to care except The Note:

"How are we to comprehend the Notion that the candidate who is running on a platform asserting that he is for limited government -- and the other guy is for big, Washington-knows-best programs -- is out there touting a new plan for flex time for workers so parents can go to Little League games?

"Even though the campaign and White House have offered up no details whatsoever about how this plan would work, Mr. President, we wonder how having such a thing done from D.C. can possibly be consistent with your vision of limited government. (Of course, there IS that farm law and that Medicare law . . . )"

Colin McNickle, the reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (the conservative outlet owned by Richard Mellon Scaife) who was on the receiving end of "shove it," has had a rough go since then:

"By week's end, I and/or the exchange had been immortalized in some hilarious editorial page cartoons and become a part of David Letterman's 'Top 10.' But liberals also did their best to demonize not only me but the Trib. 'Right-wing rag' became the pejorative du jour, vomited repeatedly by liberal media elitists.

"Heinz Kerry said I attempted to 'trap' her. To defend her intemperance, she publicly impugned my personal and professional integrity. On national television the woman who herself raised the specter of McCarthyism with her unexplained remarks insinuated I was engaging in the same tactic . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Entertainer Patti Labelle told the Boston Herald that Heinz Kerry 'should've pimp-slapped' me. Molly Ivins either repeated or created the myth that I had grabbed the possible future first lady. I didn't touch her.

"Bombastic, fact-challenged liberal filmmaker Michael Moore supposedly called me 'rude.' . . . Longtime liberal national political columnist Jack Germond -- now retired and a convention 'guest' who was shilling for his new book -- told CNN's Judy Woodruff that I was 'not a legitimate newspaperman.' Ms. Woodruff allowed the slander to pass without challenge. Mr. Germond's wife, Alice, is secretary for the Democratic National Committee, noted a profile published before the incident in Editor & Publisher, a trade magazine . . .

"'I hope you burn in hell,' read one e-mail. 'You're a (expletive) Nazi,' went another. 'Teresa should have told you to go (expletive) yourself,' another friendly e-mailer offered. And these were among the milder communiques; those that included death threats will be forwarded to the senders' respective hometown police departments."

I guess "shove it" was the least of it.


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