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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Where's the Agenda?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, September 3, 2004; 12:50 PM

"Tonight," President Bush said at the top of his hour-long convention speech last night, "I will tell you where I stand, what I believe and where I will lead this country in the next four years."

Not much luck on that last part.

Bush's speech stirringly made the argument that he is resolute. And it eloquently articulated Bush's vision that he is an effective protector of the nation and a champion of liberty across the globe.

But in substance, there was essentially nothing new last night, no detailed agenda -- and nothing remotely unscripted. Many lines were refugees from previous speeches and Bush meticulously stuck to his prepared text, even when interrupted by hecklers.

Laying out his domestic policy, Bush was vague on the big stuff and otherwise small-bore. He didn't address the job losses that have plagued his tenure.

Mired in an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, Bush defended his actions, but didn't describe a way out.

Standing accused of having fudged the connection between the war on terror and the war on Iraq, he continued his attempt to conflate the two, without substantiation, leaving unclear where we go from here.

In the long run, in fact, Bush's speech may be more newsworthy for what he didn't say than what he did.

The Mysterious Second Term

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post that when it came to the economy and domestic issues, "anyone watching on television came away with only the barest of indications of where the president would go in those areas in a second term. . . .

"The biggest unanswered question about President Bush's reelection campaign has been whether he has a second-term economic and domestic agenda to match his commitment to fighting terrorists."

Balz writes that Bush put forth "a laundry list of ideas, big and small, that would have made former president Bill Clinton envious for its length." But, Balz writes: "What the domestic agenda lacked was both a sense of priorities that has been the hallmark of his political style and the passion that animated the second half of his speech, when he turned to foreign policy."

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times that Bush "offered few critical details of the second-term domestic agenda he outlined. His big policy ideas -- restraining government spending, simplifying the tax code, offering tax credits for health savings accounts, allowing personal investment accounts for Social Security -- were vague. And the specific proposals he cited -- increasing money for community colleges, opening rural health centers -- were mostly small. . . .

"The major items he did mention face significant opposition in Congress, and many would cost far more than his own party seems likely to be willing to spend."

But maybe it just doesn't matter.

Purdum writes that Bush "now stands as one of the most decisive, unyielding presidents of modern times. Mr. Bush is hoping that his core voters will turn out in large numbers, and that even those undecided voters who may be uneasy about some of his decisions will respect his resolve."

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that "Bush aides had said before Thursday's acceptance speech that it was his best opportunity to lay out his goals for a second term. The 'biggest goal' of the convention, campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said, was to make Americans 'understand we have a plan and an agenda.' And White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Thursday that 'at the conclusion of tonight's speech, the American people will have a clear idea of where he wants to take the country for the next four years.' "

That, indeed, was the spin. Here, as Milbank and Allen write, was the reality:

"The emphasis of the speech on terrorism reflected the calculation of Bush's staff that he is likely to win if he can shift the focus of public attention to national security and terrorism and away from Iraq and the economy. The speech continued the efforts of other convention speakers -- whose remarks were vetted or written by the Bush-Cheney campaign -- to conflate the war in Iraq, which is generally unpopular, with the war on terrorism, for which Bush still receives strong marks."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that "by focusing more on long-term changes than immediate responses to challenges in the economy and Iraq, Bush may have left himself vulnerable to Democratic charges that he has offered few new solutions to the problems many voters consider the most pressing."

That's not an accident, though, Brownstein writes. "Heading into the convention, his advisors said they intended to walk a narrow line between revealing enough of a domestic agenda to combat fears that Bush would run out of energy in a second term and revealing so many details that they provided tempting targets for Kerry to attack."

Similarly, Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune that the entire convention was carefully stage-managed.

"If this election were about the economy, President Bush would be in trouble. If it were about the war in Iraq, the bag is decidedly mixed. If it were about progress in the war on terrorism, he would be on firmer but hardly solid ground.

"So the president and his followers made this Republican National Convention largely about someone else: Sen. John Kerry."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "An unpopular war and 1.1 million lost jobs is enough to kill a presidency, so President Bush tried Thursday night to make the election about something else: himself and his leadership style."

Fournier notes how Bush acknowledged some flaws.

"Reluctant to admit mistakes, Bush copped to a few -- arrogant, too blunt and grammatically challenged -- and explained them away with laugh lines. But he didn't give an inch on the matters that matter most, a war in Iraq that has cost the lives of nearly 1,000 U.S. troops, and a job-loss record that rivals Herbert Hoover."

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday that "the message Bush will take as he embarks on the fall campaign is one not grounded in folksy familiarity but instead in fear.

"If this week's convention is any guide, Bush intends to spend the next 60 days making a pitch to voters almost primal in its appeal to a wounded nation's survival instinct -- I can keep you safe from terrorists, and John Kerry cannot. . . .

"[I]t's clear Bush doesn't expect to win the White House by having the best plan for job training."

Here is the text of the convention speech.

The Things Left Unsaid

From Milbank and Allen: "The speech dealt lightly with some of the more vexing issues facing the Bush campaign. The president dealt only briefly with jobs and the economy, and the Democratic National Committee was quick to point out that he made no reference to Iran, North Korea or Osama bin Laden."

From Balz: "Nowhere did he confront directly what he has heard along the campaign trail in battleground states such as Ohio and Michigan, which is the loss of jobs during his presidency and uneven economic recovery that casts a shadow over his hopes for reelection. . . .

"Bush also did not confront the enormous fiscal problem that has been created during his presidency, an explosion of the deficit brought about by recession, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the massive tax cuts he pushed and promoted even as he dramatically boosted spending on defense and homeland security."

From Tom Shales in The Washington Post: "Bush, however, did not address his own recent flip-flop on whether the war on terrorism is winnable."

From Howard Kurtz on washingtonpost.com: "There was, you might have noticed, no mention of the nearly half-trillion-dollar budget deficit."

From Nagourney and Stevenson: "[T]here was one notable omission from Mr. Bush's speech. The president made no mention of the foreign figure who arguably most influenced his first term in the White House: Osama bin Laden, the yet-to-be-captured leader of Al Qaeda."

From Fournier: "He didn't mention Kerry's combat service in the Vietnam War or his rivals anti-war protests, issues that have dominate the political debate the past month. "

From AFP: "Bush's speech was as notable for what was not in it: He did not mention the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction he cited as the reason for the war in Iraq, which has eroded US credibility. . . .

"Bush offered no new details on when the roughly 130,000 US troops in Iraq or their comrades in Afghanistan might return home, saying only that their goal was to help both war-torn nations 'get on the path of stability and democracy as quickly as possible.' "

And, for the record, here are a few other things he didn't mention:

• The prison abuse scandal or allegations of torture in Iraq.

• His proposed mission to Mars.

• The value, past or future, of having a Republican-controlled Congress.

• His "miscalculation" in Iraq.

• A headcount of the dead in Iraq.

• The flawed intelligence that he used to justify the war in Iraq.

The Details as Released

At the same time that the White House released Bush's prepared text, it also released six "fact sheets," on

Social Security, tax reform, health care, affordable housing and homeownership, education and job training and "opportunity zones."

The campaign also called attention to this page on the campaign Web site.

But John Tierney and Sheryl Gay Stolberg write in the New York Times: "The Walter Mondale Where's-the-Beef Award [goes to]: George W. Bush, who told the conventioneers, 'Anyone who wants more details on my agenda can find them online.' Ever the wonks, we followed the directions to georgewbush.com, seeking the details of the crowd-pleasing promise in his speech to 'lead a bipartisan effort to reform and simplify the federal tax code.' Here's all we found: 'President Bush will work with Congress to make the tax code simpler for taxpayers, encourage saving and investment, and improve the economy's ability to create jobs and raise wages.' "

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that "some of Bush's proposals, including revisions to the Social Security system and new types of 'lifetime savings accounts,' have been gathering dust for years. Some daunting barriers stand between the president and what he has dubbed his 'ownership society,' including a record budget deficit and rancorous partisanship in Washington."

When it comes to Social Security, "Bush pledged to seek adoption of that proposal four years ago, and so far it has gone nowhere because of strong political resistance," Weisman writes.

"Bush's plan to create personal investment accounts to augment the existing system would require the diversion of some Social Security payroll taxes that otherwise would have gone to existing retirees and other beneficiaries. Given his promise not to cut those benefits, that diversion will have to be made up, probably through borrowing that would only add enormously to the government's $4.3 trillion public debt."

Could this language, from the fact sheet, be much more vague?

"Any fix will require choices, bipartisanship, and public discussion. There are a variety of good plans that have been proposed to fix Social Security and to establish personal accounts, including a number of options presented by the bipartisan President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security."

Anticipating all this, Jackie Calmes wrote in Thursday's Wall Street Journal: "The project faces huge hurdles with enormous consequences for American politics and society. Mr. Bush's speech tonight isn't likely to get into the troublesome details that a credible fix for Social Security's long-term finances probably requires: some mix of retirement-age shifts, payroll-tax increases, benefit-level changes or further government borrowing.

"Meanwhile, gone are the budget surpluses that might have paid the huge cost -- up to $2 trillion -- of a transition to a system that permits private accounts. And this cost clashes with an even-higher Bush priority, making his tax cuts permanent. Finally, the rocky stock market after the Internet bubble burst took away some of the allure of private accounts, which would probably be invested in stocks."

So why did Bush say it?

Calmes writes: "Some aides felt Mr. Bush should skip this nest of controversy. Economic adviser Stephen Friedman and Chairman Gregory Mankiw of the Council of Economic Advisers, among others, argued that he had a good first-term record and should run on achievements, notably tax cuts, with a promise to protect them. This was even though the aides themselves believe in Social Security reform.

"Overpowering the stay-the-course faction was an influential big-idea camp. It argued that Mr. Bush needed a compelling domestic agenda, in part to offset the predominant focus on the war in Iraq. In this group were political advisers Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, Treasury Secretary John Snow and budget director Josh Bolten."

Some Truthsquadding

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush glossed over some complicating realities in Iraq, Afghanistan and the home front in arguing the case Americans are safer and his opponent cannot deliver."

For instance: "On Iraq, Bush talked of a 30-member alliance standing shoulder to shoulder with the United States, masking the fact that U.S. troops are pulling by far most of the weight. On Afghanistan and its neighbors, he gave an accounting of captured or killed terrorists, but did not address the replenishment of their ranks -- or the still-missing Osama bin Laden."

So, What if Bush Wins?

Washington Monthly asked 16 writers.

What If He Loses?

Laura Bush spoke with CNN's John King yesterday.

"KING: Have you ever set around with the president and talked about what if we lose, what do we do next?

"BUSH: Sure. Absolutely.

"KING: And what does he say?

"BUSH: I mean, you know, we talk about what our plans are either way. And, you know, I think he's going to win, though.

"KING: But does he ever say what he would feel like or what he thinks he would feel like if he lost?

"BUSH: No, of course not. I mean, we all know what we would feel like if we lost. Disappointed."

Editorial Roundup

Washington Post: "The chief difficulty with Mr. Bush's speech wasn't so much what he put in, but what he left out: the missteps and difficulties that have marred his first term and will make many of the goals he cited difficult to obtain."

New York Times: "The president needs to speak to the large number of moderate voters who feel that things have been going in the wrong direction over the last four years, and convince them that he has the capacity to learn from mistakes and do better. On that count, his acceptance speech fell short."

Los Angeles Times: "His well-written speech would have been more convincing if he had not actually been president for the last four years."

Chicago Tribune: "[T]he agenda Bush outlined is a refreshing balm for voters frustrated by decades of nanny-state proposals that hinge on big government solutions."

Boston Globe: "Few would doubt President Bush's intention to stay the course in a second term. . . . What is at issue, however, is not his resolve but the path itself."

New York Post: "In accepting his party's nomination for re-election last night, President Bush told the nation exactly what it needed to hear from its commander-in-chief: 'I will never relent in defending America -- whatever it takes.'"

Today's Calendar

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Even before the balloons had stopped falling, President Bush hurried back to the campaign trail Friday to peddle the main message of his Republican convention speech: that he has the steadiest hand to guide the nation in perilous times. . . .

"For his first post-convention stop, Bush chose the battleground state of Pennsylvania, where he has already visited 33 times. He was to speak at a rally at a minor-league ballpark near Scranton before making appearances at a convention center outside Milwaukee and a park in Iowa, signaling the breakneck pace he plans to keep until Nov. 2.

"Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove, said the president told him, 'I want to come blowing out of the convention and get out there quickly to the country to demonstrate how committed I am to this campaign. I want to be able to wake up early in a battleground state and get at it.' "

Vice President Cheney speaks at rallies in Pendleton, Ore., and Las Vegas today.

Mary Cheney Watch

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "Mary Cheney, the vice president's lesbian daughter, did not join her sister and the rest of her family in the hall Thursday night. . . .

"On Wednesday night, Mary Cheney had sat beside her lesbian partner in the family box to hear her father's acceptance speech, but did not appear with the rest of the family afterward for smiles and waves on stage.

"The gay couple simply left after the speech, and it was not clear whether they jumped out of the more visible onstage family picture or they were pushed."

Barney to the Rescue

Jennifer Lebovich writes for the Associated Press that delegates were treated to a campaign video "that opened with White House advisers Karl Rove and Andy Card in a heated debate about how to improve President Bush's poll numbers among an important bloc -- dogs. They decide to enlist the help of Barney, the first family's black Scottish terrier. . . .

"Barney is then shown facing off in debate with a fictional John Kerry dog -- 'Fifi' -- played by a white sock puppet in a tiny brown beret. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan moderates. . . .

Barney barks that he will 'Make tax cuts permanent!' Kerry's dog says he will 'Raise taxes forever!' "

Here are excerpts of the video.


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