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Put a Fork in Him

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 29, 2007 1:10 PM

President Bush's last, best chance to achieve any significant legislative victory in the twilight of his presidency died yesterday in the Senate, killed by members of his own party.

Bush's proposal to overhaul the nation's immigration policy fell 14 votes short of the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority that White House officials had assured reporters was well in hand. Three out of four Republican senators ultimately turned against their party's erstwhile leader.

Visibly shaken after yesterday's rejection, Bush appears to have little to look forward to in the last 19 months of his presidency.

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The Senate's rejection Thursday of President Bush's immigration plan was the latest in a series of embarrassments that have exposed Bush's political weakness and shaken his hold on power. . . .

"In the space of a single short week, Bush was hit with more Republican defections on Iraq, more bad news from the battlefield, more subpoenas from a hostile Congress, a new assault on his signature education plan and embarrassing disclosures about his vice president.

"He also found himself in a fight over executive privilege that begs comparisons to Richard Nixon's legal battles during the Watergate scandal.

"'It's the incredible shrinking presidency. He's lost battles in the courts. He's lost battles in Iraq. He's lost battles on Capitol Hill,' said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University.

"'His bank account is empty and there's nowhere to go for more. I think his presidency is essentially over.'"

Susan Page writes for USA Today: "The agenda during the final 18 months of his tenure is no longer Bush's to shape. . . .

"Presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton says Bush's situation reminds him of 'the ragged ends of a whole collection of modern presidencies,' including Richard Nixon amid Watergate and Lyndon Johnson during Vietnam. Greenstein has delayed publishing the third edition of his highly regarded book on presidential leadership, The Presidential Difference, until it was clear how Bush's immigration push would fare.

"'It's a plus for his impulse to lead,' Greenstein says of Bush. 'But he's caught up in the larger Greek tragedy of his presidency,' now driven by the Iraq war. "

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush likes big ideas. Yet his second term shows the risk -- big collapses. . . .

"The message spread from the president to his senior advisers to the lower-ranking staff: Keep your heads up, and keep working."

But as Feller points out: "The Iraq war, the defining issue of his presidency, will remain his priority. A key evaluation takes place in September, and lawmakers of both parties have lost patience for progress."

Julie Mason blogs for the Houston Chronicle: "[A]ll that stuff from Tony Snow about how Bush had 60 votes in the Senate and a majority of members supported many of the provisions in the immigration bill? Well, apparently not. Even as late as this morning they were saying it was too close to call. Really? . . .

"Talk about tostado. You know, spending as much time with Bush as we do, a certain myopia can creep in. Sometimes it seems like he's not totally irrelevant and that he does have some power, somewhere. They liked him in Kansas recently.

"But . . . [w]hat a butt-kickin'!"

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush began the week struggling to salvage his most important foreign and domestic initiatives: the war in Iraq and an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

"He ends it closer to losing both than at any time in his presidency.

"And in a remarkable reversal for a president who once commanded nearly unflagging loyalty from lawmakers in his party, those most responsible for his setbacks are Republicans."

Levey notes that "GOP lawmakers even publicly blamed the administration's failures for the bill's demise.

"'This is about the American people losing faith in a government to do the things that we say we're going to do,' said freshman Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, ticking off intelligence failures in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, changing justifications for the war, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina and the recent inability of federal agencies to expedite passports."

Robert Pear and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush placed telephone calls to lawmakers throughout the morning. But members of his party abandoned him in droves, with just 12 of the 49 Senate Republicans sticking by him on the important procedural vote that determined the fate of the bill."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "For practical purposes, President Bush's domestic agenda was canceled at 11:22 yesterday morning when Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate Republican leader, approached the front of the chamber to vote on the immigration legislation the president had championed. McConnell caught the clerk's attention, pointed his index finger downward, walked away silently, and smiled.

"Two weeks ago, McConnell stood at Bush's side as the president declared that 'those of us standing here believe now is the time to move a comprehensive bill.' . . .

"Then he disappeared -- literally. Sightings of McConnell were so infrequent during this week's debate of the bill that supporters began to ask whether the Republican leader's face would appear on milk cartons."

Laura Litvan writes for Bloomberg: "Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said the leader's split with a president of his own party is unusual and may reflect McConnell's reluctance to spend political capital on behalf of Bush, who is increasingly unpopular.

"'It's a question of self-preservation,' Baker said. 'It's safer now to get into the lifeboats.'"

For more of the same, here's my June 11 column chronicling the political obituaries that started rolling in after the immigration bill died in the Senate the first time.

Dejected in Defeat

Here is the text and, more revealingly the video of Bush's remarks to the press after the Senate vote.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "He looked uncharacteristically dejected as he approached the lectern, fiddling with papers as he talked and avoiding the sort of winking eye contact he often makes with reporters. And then President Bush did something he almost never does: He admitted defeat.

"'A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground,' he said an hour after his immigration plan died on Capitol Hill. 'It didn't work.'

"It was, in the end, simply a statement of reality after the Senate buried his proposal to overhaul immigration laws. But for a president who makes a point of never giving in, even when he loses, it was a striking moment, underscoring the depth of his political travails. It took almost two years before Bush acknowledged, just months ago, that his effort to reshape Social Security had failed. Now he has surrendered in what was probably his last chance of securing a legacy-making second-term domestic victory.

"The desultory appearance in a college hallway here after a speech on Iraq may have marked the death of ambition in Bush's legislative agenda. The paradigm shift that senior adviser Karl Rove saw after the 2004 election has now proved illusory. The Ownership Society that Bush promised to build in 2005 is rarely mentioned these days. Even the hope-against-hope optimism of finding bipartisan common ground after the 2006 elections has officially evaporated. . . .

"[G]oing forward, aides acknowledged, the once swaggering president will be in a defensive crouch."

Their Confidence is Meaningless

Bush and Vice President Cheney's optimistic predictions about the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular have proved to be almost completely and consistently wrong for years now. ("Last throes," anyone?)

Before the 2006 election, White House political guru Karl Rove was supremely self-assured in his public predictions of Republican victory.

White House spokesman Tony Snow recently assured the press corps that Bush had enough votes in the Senate on the immigration bill. "I'll see you at the bill signing," Bush himself told a skeptical journalist on June 11.

Bush and his staff's credibility regarding statements of "fact" is a frequent subject of debate. But their track record on predictions is something else entirely. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that those predictions are unreliable.

I mention this because Bush's core argument against a troop drawdown in Iraq -- something supported by a large majority of Americans -- is basically a prediction. As he put it again yesterday: "If we withdraw before the Iraqi government can defend itself, we would yield the future of Iraq to terrorists like al Qaeda -- and we would give a green light to extremists all throughout a troubled region. The consequences for America and the Middle East would be disastrous."

Subpoena Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "The White House invoked executive privilege yesterday in withholding subpoenaed documents on fired U.S. attorneys out of confidence that it can prevail in court and weather a political storm by blaming Congress for overreaching, administration officials said. . . .

"The statements from all sides yesterday called to mind the harsh rhetoric in Washington heard at the height of the Watergate scandal.

"'This is a further shift by the Bush administration into Nixonian stonewalling and more evidence of their disdain for our system of checks and balances,' said Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 'Increasingly, the president and vice president feel they are above the law.' . . .

"[T]he White House launched a campaign to portray the key issue as being congressional Democrats' obsession with attacking the president and his advisers, rather than addressing problems such as immigration and health care. Press secretary Tony Snow told reporters traveling on Air Force One that the subpoenas 'may explain why this is the least popular Congress in decades, because you do have what appears to be a strategy of destruction rather than cooperation.'"

For background and links, see yesterday's column.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The clash pits the Congressional right to conduct oversight -- in this case, an investigation into whether the Justice Department allowed partisan politics to interfere with hiring and firing of federal prosecutors -- against the president's right to unfettered and candid advice from his top aides. Experts disagree about how a court might rule.

"Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University and an authority on executive privilege . . . says Congress has a strong argument, because it is making a specific claim that it needs information to conduct an oversight investigation, and 'specific claims of necessity usually outweigh general claims' like the one the administration asserts, arguing the president's need for unfettered advice.

"But David B. Rivkin, who worked as a lawyer in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, argues that the president has the stronger case, because Congress has only weak oversight authority in the area of hiring and firing federal prosecutors. 'In this area, executive power is nearly absolute,' Mr. Rivkin said.

"The next step is for Democrats to decide whether to try to negotiate with the White House or to vote on a contempt resolution, a process that could take months and would lay the groundwork for sending the matter to court. Democrats did not say Thursday how they intended to proceed, although by the sound of their comments, negotiations did not seem likely any time soon."

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The House and Senate panels have sought to determine who was responsible for the firings, but have been unsuccessful in finding out how exactly the dismissals happened. That lack of success could be a factor that courts consider if they are asked to rule on a dispute over executive privilege.

"'The question becomes whether a case can be made of serious wrongdoing sufficient to overcome the invocation of the privilege,' said Walter Dellinger, a Justice Department official in the Clinton administration.

"He said the congressional argument for cooperation was strengthened by the fact that 'after months, no one has come up with a coherent or credible explanation for why [the U.S. attorneys] were fired or who made the decision to fire them. As time has gone on, the possibility that serious wrongdoing occurred has necessarily become more plausible.'"

Andrew Zajac writes in the Chicago Tribune that congressional aides "privately acknowledged that Bush could draw out the process until he leaves office in 18 months if he has the stomach for the political heat the fight might generate. Conversely, congressional Democrats run the risk of a backlash if the public perceives them as unfairly belaboring the issue."

Margaret Talev and William Douglas, writing for McClatchy Newspapers, quote Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University, as saying that Bush might decide to dig in this time.

"With low popularity ratings, time running out on his presidency with no anointed successor and a penchant for secrecy, 'It's a nothing-to-lose presidency at this point,' said Rozell, the author of 'Executive Privilege: The Dilemma of Secrecy and Democratic Accountability.'"

Here are Associated Press and Washington Post primers on executive privilege.

The Other Subpoenas

The White House's action yesterday did not apply to the separate Senate subpoenas issued Wednesday demanding documents related to the administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

But Snow characterized those subpoenas as "an outrageous request. What you have is a program that was briefed to members of Congress. Members of Congress were kept fully informed all along the route, as well as on the legal justifications and the legal findings behind them. At this juncture, we don't have a formal reply, but on the other hand, it is pretty clear that, again, members of Congress here are engaged in an attempt -- apparently since they have been unsuccessful in passing key legislation -- to try to do what they can to make life difficult for the White House."

Bush on the War

Bush's speech yesterday on the war provoked some of the most fascinating, skeptical, persuasive and diverse analyses I have ever seen from mainstream-media reporters covering the same event.

Maura Reynolds and Peter Spiegel write in the Los Angeles Times: "Faced with eroding support even among longtime Republican allies in Congress, President Bush argued Thursday that the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq is working and urged Americans and lawmakers to give the military operation more time to succeed.

"In a speech to military scholars at the U.S. Naval War College, the president gave his own report on the plan's progress, detailing what he described as 'good results' attributable to the buildup he authorized last winter, including a decrease in sectarian killings and the capture of insurgent leaders. . . .

"However, the developments cited by Bush have been the subject of debate. For instance, U.S. military commanders in recent weeks have raised questions about the Iraqi army's ability to take over on its own anytime soon. Also, one of the advances cited by Bush, involving cooperation between U.S. forces and Sunni Arab sheiks in Anbar province, was underway before the start of the troop buildup. That initiative suffered a significant setback when several of the sheiks were assassinated in the bombing of a Baghdad hotel earlier this week.

"Bush also cited declines in both civilian deaths and suicide bombings in recent months. The initial drop in civilian deaths in Baghdad earlier this year was one of the most impressive gains of the troop buildup. But killings began rising again in May."

Jonathan S. Landay writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Facing eroding support for his Iraq policy, even among Republicans, President Bush on Thursday called al Qaida 'the main enemy' in Iraq, an assertion rejected by his administration's senior intelligence analysts.

"The reference, in a major speech at the Naval War College that referred to al Qaida at least 27 times, seemed calculated to use lingering outrage over the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to bolster support for the current buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq, despite evidence that sending more troops hasn't reduced the violence or sped Iraqi government action on key issues.

"Bush called al Qaida in Iraq the perpetrator of the worst violence racking that country and said it was the same group that had carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

'Al Qaida is the main enemy for Shia, Sunni and Kurds alike,' Bush asserted. 'Al Qaida's responsible for the most sensational killings in Iraq. They're responsible for the sensational killings on U.S. soil.'

"U.S. military and intelligence officials, however, say that Iraqis with ties to al Qaida are only a small fraction of the threat to American troops. The group known as al Qaida in Iraq didn't exist before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, didn't pledge its loyalty to al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden until October 2004 and isn't controlled by bin Laden or his top aides. . . .

"Bush's use of al Qaida in his speech had strong echoes of the strategy the administration had used to whip up public support for the Iraq invasion by accusing the late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein of cooperating with bin Laden and implying that he'd played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Administration officials have since acknowledged that Saddam had no ties to bin Laden or 9-11."

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "The most important form of political compromise in Iraq is not among top Iraqi politicians in Baghdad, but at the local level, President Bush asserted yesterday, in a departure from past rhetoric on Iraqi politics.

"'To evaluate how life is improving for the Iraqis, we cannot look at the country only from the top down, we need to go beyond the Green Zone and look at Iraq from the bottom up,' he said in a speech at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. 'This is where political reconciliation matters most, because it is where ordinary Iraqis are deciding whether to support new Iraq.'

"Until now, Bush and members of his administration have almost always described political agreement in Iraq as an effort to be led by members of Iraq's national government."

But, as Ricks points out, "there have been few signs of major progress toward reconciliation among Iraq's top leaders," while "[a]t the same time, U.S. officials have taken encouragement in the apparent swing that several tribal leaders in Iraq's Anbar province have taken against al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents."

He adds: "In another sign of a potential policy shift, Bush also said in his speech that one of the encouraging signs in Baghdad is that 'citizens are forming neighborhood watch groups.' It is not clear what the difference is between those groups and armed militias, which U.S. officials have said in the past must be disbanded or incorporated into Iraqi security forces."

Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune that Bush's speech "was an attempt to buy time, to hold back the floodgates of other Republicans who might feel liberated to publicly criticize the present policy."

And Yochi J. Dreazen blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "The worse conditions have gotten in Iraq over the past four years, the further afield President Bush has looked for countries he could hold up as models of what he hopes to ultimately leave behind in Iraq.

"First, it was post-World War II Germany and Japan. More recently, it was South Korea. But in a speech earlier today at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, Bush picked a far more surprising country: Israel. . . .

"The Bush administration was ridiculed for its earlier attempts to compare Iraq to South Korea, but citing Israel as a model for a Mideast Muslim country like Iraq seemed certain to infuriate many Iraqi and Arab leaders."

Castro Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Thursday openly anticipated the death of ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro, picturing it as an opportunity to bring freedom to the Caribbean island after nearly half a century of iron-fisted rule by the fiery communist leader.

"'One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away,' Bush said during a question-and-answer session at the U.S. Naval War College here."

Cheney Watch

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post that Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel's proposal to withhold Cheney's budget failed in the House yesterday -- but only by a vote of 217 to 209.

Emanuel argued "that if Cheney is not part of the executive branch, then the spending bill funding that branch need not bother with his office. . . .

"Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) wondered aloud whether he could make himself into an executive branch official, to get 'a security detail and all that.' Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) postulated that if Cheney is now part of the legislative branch, 'that means that we can expel him.'"

Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon about the recent Post series on Cheney: "By shielding Bush from alternatives, Cheney has locked in certain decisions that Bush stubbornly defends as his own. The president's plight is not that of a removed ruler tragically kept from knowing what his government is doing in his name. He has had time to observe the consequences. He is aware of what Cheney says to him. The Decider decides that Cheney will decide what the Decider decides."

Poll Watch

Gallup reports: "Bush's job approval rating among non-Hispanic whites in the poll is 32%. Among Hispanics, including those for whom Spanish is their preferred language, Bush's job approval is 29%. Only 8% of blacks in the poll approve of Bush's performance as president."

Dana Blanton reports for Fox News: "President Bush's job approval rating now stands at 31 percent, the lowest ever in the Fox News poll."

Denver Three Watch

Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "Two people ejected from a Bush speech in Denver over a bumper sticker have filed a second lawsuit, claiming a White House manual unlawfully bars potential critics of the president from public events.

"The Presidential Advance Manual calls for Bush volunteers to distribute tickets in a manner to deter protesters and to stop demonstrators from entering. It also calls for 'rally squads' to drown out demonstrators and get between them and news cameras. The manual was obtained through a deposition in a West Virginia case."

The ACLU has Web-published a heavily redacted but nevertheless fascinating copy of that official White House Presidential Advance Manual.

Press Pass Watch

Mike McKinney blogs for the Providence Journal: "WPRI-TV, Channel 12 reporter Jarrod Holbrook had his White House press pass snatched today after he shouted 'Mr. President' twice as President Bush greeted Air and Army National Guardsmen gathered on the tarmac at Quonset airport in North Kingstown.

"A member of the president's entourage pointed at Holbrook after he first tried to get Bush's attention. The man then ripped the pass from Holbrook's belt after he shouted to the president, who was less then 10 feet away, again.

"Holbrook said afterward that he just wanted to ask Bush how he enjoyed his visit to Rhode Island. Members of the media were not told they could not ask the president questions."

Scooter Libby Watch

The Associated Press reports: "For years he was known as chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and assistant to President Bush. On Wednesday, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby became federal inmate No. 28301-016."

Edwin Chen writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush is likely to pay a political price if he decides to pardon convicted vice presidential aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby -- or if he decides not to pardon him."

The Supremes

Rick Klein writes for ABC News that if you're looking for President Bush's domestic legacy, forget immigration reform: He got what he was looking for in his Supreme Court nominations.

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "The Supreme Court's decision overturning school desegregation policies in two U.S. cities yesterday culminates a fractious term in which the new Roberts court moved the law significantly to the right, legal analysts said."

Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer read his dissent from the bench yesterday, concluding: "It's not often in law that so few have changed so much so quickly."

Late Night Humor

Jon Stewart last night continued to discuss Vice President Cheney's secrecy fetish: "Dick Cheney invented his own Top Secret-style logo, that he often stamps on unclassified internal documents -- because apparently the government's own classifications, Top Secret and Classified, don't sound appropriately Blofeldian."

He concluded: "The best part is Cheney uses the stamp on things like political talking points for staff members who are going to deal with reporters -- in other words, stuff he wants the public to know."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on the enabler-in-chief; Rex Babin on what Cheney thinks of subpoenas.

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