Pumping Up the Campaign
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2004; 8:35 AM
When I saw that gas had jumped to $2.19 at my local station on Connecticut Avenue, I had two reactions.
One is unprintable.
The other was to wonder whether this would have an impact on the presidential race.
The Democrats are certainly trying to hang the higher pump prices around Bush's neck. Chuck Schumer and other Capitol Hill Dems are demanding that the president release as much as 60 million barrels from the government's petroleum reserve. No way, says the administration, chiding Democrats for failing to pass Bush's let's-drill-in-Alaska energy bill.
This seems to be a quadrennial ritual. In September 2000, Al Gore demanded that his own administration release some reserves, and George W. attacked that as a political ploy, saying he would jawbone the oil-producing countries. The next day, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson agreed to cut loose 30 million barrels.
The campaigns are taking this seriously, as evidenced by Bush's negative ad accusing Kerry of favoring a 50-cent gas tax (he did, briefly, a decade ago). A Bush/Cheney e-mail now says the Kerry and his wife urged support for the Kyoto global warming agreement, which the Bushies say would have boosted gas prices, and in 2000 opposed a Trent Lott plan to temporarily suspend 4.3 cents of the federal gas tax.
A Kerry campaign e-mail noted that Dick Cheney favored higher gas taxes--as a congressman in 1986. And that John Ashcroft raised gas taxes--as Missouri governor in 1992. Tom Ridge and Tommy Thompson also proposed increases in their gubernatorial days.
Will all this matter to fed-up motorists more concerned about American gas than Iraqi oil?
I'm not so sure. I don't know that most folks blame Bush for rising gas prices--yes, despite his oil industry background--any more than they blamed Clinton. They probably sense that such matters have more to do with foreign producers (OPEC cut production earlier this year) than White House policy. Plus, as annoying as today's prices are, they are lower, in inflation-adjusted terms, than the equivalent of $3 a gallon charged in the early '80s.
But that won't stop both sides from fueling the debate. Here's the Los Angeles Times:
"The price of gasoline, passing a national average of $2 a gallon for the first time, fueled a volatile political debate today, bringing calls for the use of oil from the nation's strategic reserve and a promise from the Bush administration to discuss with Saudi Arabia a production increase by the world's leading oil providers.
"The White House spokesman and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats' likely presidential candidate, scrambled to get ahead of what politicians believe could be a welling of voter discontent. " 'The president is, like Americans, concerned about rising gas prices,' said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "Kerry accused Bush of failing to take steps to reverse the sharp price increase. He said the president should press the Saudis and other Arab countries for greater oil production. But Kerry stopped short of endorsing the suggestion of some Democratic senators that the administration tap the National Petroleum Reserve to increase supply and, presumably, lower prices."
The New York Times blows the whistle on an old trick:
"Like many of its predecessors, the Bush White House has used the machinery of government to promote the re-election of the president by awarding federal grants to strategically important states. But in a twist this election season, many administration officials are taking credit for spreading largess through programs that President Bush tried to eliminate or to cut sharply.
"For example, Justice Department officials recently announced that they were awarding $47 million to scores of local law enforcement agencies for the hiring of police officers. Mr. Bush had just proposed cutting the budget for the program, known as Community Oriented Policing Services, by 87 percent, to $97 million next year, from $756 million. . . .
"Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, announced recently that the administration was awarding $11.7 million in grants to help 30 states plan and provide coverage for people without health insurance. Mr. Bush had proposed ending the program in each of the last three years."
Guess they thought no one was watching.
The Wall Street Journal questions Bush's CEO style:
"The unfolding Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal is giving new life to questions that critics -- and even some Bush admirers -- have harbored about whether the first president with a master's in business administration relies too much on like-minded advisers, too readily equates dissent with disloyalty and is too averse to admitting mistakes."
Duncan Hunter has already hit the media for promoting the prisoner abuse scandal, and now, says the Washington Times, he's blaming Senate Republicans:
"The House Armed Services Committee chairman yesterday said the ongoing Senate hearings into prisoner abuse in Iraq are hurting the U.S. military's ability to wage the war."
The Philadelphia Inquirer finds Howard Dean out on the campaign trail again--this time with John Kerry:
"Dean was making his first campaign swing of the year for the man who vanquished him and was attempting a neat trick: to transfer the allegiance of his Deaniacs, who were almost religious in their devotion to 'new politics,' to Kerry, a cautious establishment figure.
"For many, it wasn't an easy sell."
Josh Marshall is charging cover-up:
"Right out of the gate, multiple officials at the White House and the Pentagon pretty clearly lied about their own roles in putting in place the policies that led directly to what was taking place in those photos and went along with trying to pin the whole thing on these half dozen jokers whose pictures we've now seen again and again.
"The whole progression of the story has an odd doubled-up quality. On the one hand we have repeated claims from top officials insisting that the abuses were the isolated work of a few miscreants. Then, simultaneously, we have numerous stories showing specific policy decisions (often confirmed on the record by slightly lower-level officials) which sanctioned pretty close to all the stuff we're seeing in those photos, even if not quite practiced with the same relish and glee.
"This new article in Tuesday's [New York] Times says that the head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib apparently put military police at the disposal of interrogators and gave them orders to do stuff like strip detainees, shackle them and generally give them a working over (though only, he said, when there was 'some good reason'). But, along with this, there was no superivision of what they were doing and no guidelines or rules given to them saying what was acceptable and what wasn't. And remember, this isn't the testimony of a disinterested observer, but rather someone who is on the line for a lot of it and who presumably has an interest in putting the best face possible on the situation.
"At a minimum, that sounds like giving benzine, some cordite, a gallon of gas, firecrackers, and a hundred rolls of toilet paper to some teenagers, telling them to see if they could put it all together to have some fun in the neighborhood on Friday night and then leaving them to their own devices."
The New Republic's Michelle Cottle examines the gender issue:
"Angry as I am about Iraq, I nonetheless feel a pang of sympathy for all those Bush fans who increasingly find themselves laboring to defend the indefensible (e.g., the continued employment of George 'Slam Dunk' Tenet or Donald 'Don't Show Me the Torture Pics' Rumsfeld). Whatever outrage-related stress I'm suffering, it's clearly negligible compared with the complete mental meltdown occurring on the right, particularly in regards to the torture of Iraqi internees at Abu Ghraib.
"As photos (and maybe even video!) trickle out documenting the misdeeds of American soldiers, conservatives are scrambling to find an acceptable party to blame. A few, like George Will, have risen brilliantly to the occasion, offering the administration a tough-love critique. But most have treated the two most logical candidates -- the Pentagon and the White House --as off-limits. For them, the current unpleasantness must be somehow pinned on a reassuringly liberal villain. You can actually hear the gears whirring in their heads as they cycle through the usual suspects: Bill, Hillary, unions, tree-huggers, taxes, the French -- surely some left-wing bogeyman can be found to take the heat off poor Rummy!
"Fortunately, a trio of right-wing chicks -- Linda Chavez, Peggy Noonan, and the perennially unbalanced Ann Coulter -- have leaped into this breach, peddling the ideologically soothing notion that Abu Ghraib is the sad, but predictable, by-product of permitting women in the military. (Ah, feminism! The perfect fall gal!) Coulter, true to form, doesn't bother with logic. In her recent sit-down on 'Hannity and Colmes,' the blonde bomb-lobber simply asserted that women should not be allowed in the military because, 'in addition to not being able to carry even a medium-sized backpack, women are too vicious.' In Coulter's case, this may be true. . . .
"But, such exceptions notwithstanding, we have several thousand years of evidence suggesting men are more than capable of perpetrating major-league atrocities without any help from the fairer sex."
Andrew Sullivan, out flogging his book on same-sex marriage, has run into a booking problem:
"Anderson Cooper asked the best questions. I've actually known Anderson for well over a decade -- we used to work out in the old Washington YMCA together. But that was before he was a mega-star. He's still the same, though, engaging, funny, smart as a whip. One small note about media bias: it seems, sadly, that Fox News Channel won't have me on at all. They like their gays, as Homer did: easily characterized as left-wing and flaming. Oh well."
Here's why headline writers have to be cautious:
"Gandhi Stakes Her Claim To Lead a Rattled India"--Monday's NYT
"Gandhi Refuses Top Post in India"--Tuesday's NYT
Everyone else was faked out, too.
Participants in an online CNN poll say John Edwards is most likely to get the veepstakes nod. The importance of such an unscientific survey of people who have no way of knowing what Kerry will do? "Next to nothing," announced CNN polling director Keating Holland. Glad to have that cleared up.
A special edition of Media Notes in today's Washington Post looks at Sy Hersh's role in the prisoner abuse scandal.
Finally, because I know you've all been clamoring for it, here's a Kurtz/Dan Balz piece on Kerry and the media, filed from Portland, Ore.:
Sen. John F. Kerry was the big story hereMonday. His dinnertime rally downtown with former Vermont governor Howard Dean drew thousands of supporters and dominated the local television news that night. "Portland crowd rallies around Kerry," a front-page headline in Tuesday's Portland Oregonian said.
But the presumptive Democratic nominee barely caused a blip on the national media radar, even though he was paired against President Bush in ceremonies in Topeka, Kan., commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Kerry got a one-sentence summary on the "CBS Evening News" and a two-sentence summary on "NBC Nightly News." ABC's "World News Tonight" aired a two-sentence sound bite -- to Bush's three.
Earlier this year, the senator from Massachusetts had little trouble attracting national attention as he racked up a series of primary election victories. Since then he has been far less visible, struggling almost daily to compete for attention with the news out of Iraq and the bully pulpit of the White House.
All this has left Kerry with a smaller megaphone at a time when challengers often struggle to be heard. But Kerry advisers argue that, with Bush on the defensive and his poll numbers dropping, their candidate has hardly suffered from the lack of national media visibility.
Tad Devine, a senior Kerry strategist, said the nonstop Iraq coverage is a double-edged sword: "I think the information people have gotten about Bush for the last two months on the network news has been bad for him."
Other Democrats worry that Kerry has been slow to develop a compelling message for his candidacy, rendering him unable to take full advantage of the president's weakened position.
Kerry has offered only a few major policy initiatives since wrapping up the primaries and has been inconsistent in delivering the message of the day emanating from his Washington headquarters, according to some Democratic strategists. Unless he talks about Iraq, his speeches and events are constantly overshadowed or eclipsed in the national media.
On May 6, Kerry unveiled a sweeping education initiative in California, promising to provide more than $20 billion to hire more teachers and boost their salaries.
On the network news that night, CBS ran nothing, NBC aired a profile of Teresa Heinz Kerry and ABC's Peter Jennings reported a Kerry comment on the Iraq prisoner-abuse scandal.
From April 1 through last week, the three network newscasts did not run a single story on Kerry's proposals on jobs, education, health care, the environment or other issues he has been hitting on the stump, mentioning them fleetingly just five times. But they carried stories that tended to portray Kerry on the defensive: the controversy over his throwing away his Vietnam medals or ribbons, an attempt by some Catholic leaders to deny him communion, and Vice President Cheney's attacks on his defense record. CBS ran a piece on Democrats worried about his candidacy, while NBC did one on how Kerry's message is being drowned out.
With the newscasts heavily focused on the violence in Iraq, the prisoner scandal and the beheading of an American contractor, Kerry is often glimpsed uttering a sound bite on the day's events. He has approached the Iraq issue carefully, refusing to comment on every development.
"There are a lot of overwhelming news stories going on at the moment requiring extensive coverage, and they eat up most of the news time day to day," said Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News." "I've always believed presidential campaign coverage starts well before most of the public is ready to pay attention."
Mark Halperin, ABC's political director, said television is faced with "big world events in which Bush is a central player and Kerry is only a player if he chooses to be. He is not saying anything bold, different or particularly relevant to that day's story. It's not our obligation to hold our breath and turn purple and insist he inject himself into these international stories."
Bill Wheatley, an NBC vice president, offered a similar rationale, saying it is "difficult for a candidate to get covered in the middle of a major international news story" but "it's only May. It will even out."
Criticism of Kerry in Democratic circles has lessened in the past week, as several new polls show Bush's approval rating dropping over Iraq and Kerry leading inmatchups. The latest numbers quieted complaints by Democratic donors and consultants about the campaign's inability to break through.
Kerry strategists say they are not concerned. "How he gets covered in Pittsburgh or Ohio or Ann Arbor is tremendously different from what we see on the national news," said Mary Beth Cahill, the senator's campaign manager. "We've spent a lot of time on the road with local media, and we think that's going to pay off."
But such coverage must be earned one market at a time, compared with a combined network news audience of 25 million. And local television reports are sometimes fleeting.
When Kerry visited Wheeling, W.Va., last month, the CBS affiliate reported: "He was greeted by local supporters with cheers of 'Jobs first!' and 'Push Bush out!' But about 30 of the more than 100 people who showed up yesterday for Kerry were showing support for President George W. Bush."
The NBC affiliate's report focused on local residents: "Kerry's backers say he's better for health care, education, jobs and better for America. . . . Dozens of pro-Bush supporters showed up toting signs and a blow horn."
Even when local coverage is upbeat, other news can send a different message. In Tuesday's Oregonian, the splashy coverage of the Kerry-Dean rally ran beneath a story about the first day of same-sex marriage licenses in Kerry's home state of Massachusetts.
Kerry's domestic themes regularly generate stories in major national newspapers, though usually on inside pages these days, and on the cable news channels. But these reports have also been diminished by war and terror.
Democratic strategist Ron Klain, a former adviser to Al Gore, said "the incredible dominance of news events" won't sideline Kerry indefinitely."
"There will be plenty of moments between now and November when John Kerry is front and center," Klain said. "What you need to do as a campaign is get ready for those moments and not wring your hands over things you can't control."
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