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Blame It on the Democrats
Washington Post
By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 4, 2007; 1:32 PM

President Bush's Iraq strategy may be coming straight from Vice President Cheney, but his political attacks on Democrats who dare to demand a pullout are pure Karl Rove.

When the president is on the defensive, Rove's signature move is to disdain the quaint constraints of reality and attack the critics where they are strongest -- ideally, by tarring them with Bush's own weakness.

The ultimate example, of course, came during the 2004 campaign when Rove was marketing a man who had ducked service in Vietnam against a war hero. Somehow, Rove managed to make John Kerry look like the guy with the problem.

Rove's approach was very much on display yesterday at Bush's Rose Garden news conference.

The president's current weakness is profound. His war in Iraq appears to be a colossal failure, and as a result the public has turned against him and wants the troops home and safe.

But to hear Bush talk, it's the Democrats who are the party of failure. It's the Democrats who are defying the will of the people. And in the latest, truly dazzling talking point unveiled by the president yesterday, it's the Democrats who would keep the troops in harm's way.

What Rove can still count on, in spite of everything, is that the president's assertions make it into the headlines no matter how dubious they may be -- and that all too many reporters prefer uncritical transcription to the kind of tough but fair analysis that would be required to put what the president says in context.

Here is the transcript and video of yesterday's mini-news conference.

"The bottom line is this," Bush said. "Congress's failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines. And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war earlier than they need to. That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people."

There's so much to unpack just in that one paragraph alone. For one, strictly speaking it's not Congress that would be failing to fund the troops, it would be Bush's veto. Bush of course has promised to veto the bill precisely because it requires him to withdraw troops sooner than he wants, not later. And the American public is overwhelmingly in favor of such a withdrawal.

Consider also Bush's repeated assertion that the Democratic legislation substitutes "the judgment of politicians in Washington for the judgment of our commanders on the ground." It wasn't long ago that Bush replaced the commanders who wouldn't fall in line behind his plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq -- a desperate, last-ditch plan that, by most indications, does not seem to be working.

On CNN with Suzanne Malveaux yesterday afternoon, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino boiled the White House spin down to its essence: "[I]t's President Bush who is standing firm with the troops, with the Iraqis and with the troops' families. And that's a much better place to be than where the Democrats are," she said. "I think it's the Democrats who have thumbed their noses at the troops."

The Coverage
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Bush's strategists see the fight over war-spending legislation as an opportunity "to demonstrate strength and turn the tables on a Democratic Congress that may be overreaching.

"But as he answered questions yesterday before heading off for an Easter break, Bush was confronted with another narrative, this one about friends and voters losing faith in his leadership. . . .

"Bush presented himself as an unwavering leader trying to avoid the 'cauldron of chaos' he believes Iraq would become if Democrats succeed in forcing him to withdraw U.S. troops. He sees the broader threat that others overlook and will do what needs to be done to defend against it, the president said, even though he knows his path is tormenting the country. . . .

"As Democrats see it, Bush is having a hard time adjusting to life in a two-party government. His vow to veto any spending bill with timetables for a withdrawal, they maintain, betrays a unilateral approach to governing. 'He is president of the United States, not king of the United States,' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told reporters in his home state. 'He has another branch of government, a legislative branch of government, he has to deal with.'"

And Baker notes: "With Congress already out of town for spring vacation, the president's news conference was an attempt to have the last word in Washington before flying to California and then to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., for a long weekend. He ridiculed lawmakers for leaving without finishing their war-spending legislation, but he opted not to use his power to call them back or to give up his own break."

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "The political brinkmanship over Iraq war spending intensified Tuesday, as President Bush said Congressional Democrats had 'undercut the troops' by passing legislation that ties continued war financing to mandated timelines for the withdrawal of American combat units. . . .

"White House officials and Republican allies in Congress say they believe that the Democrats will lose the public if they overplay their position and are perceived to be putting troops at risk, while Democrats say election results that put them in power, and polls since, indicate that the public wants to pull out of Iraq and expects them to force a withdrawal."

Here's precisely the kind of lead Rove was hoping for:

Mark Silva and Jill Zuckman write in the Chicago Tribune: "President Bush warned Tuesday that some American soldiers might have to stay longer in Iraq if Congress does not quickly deliver a war spending bill that he can sign, and he lashed out at Democratic leaders as 'irresponsible' and accused them of making the war 'a political dance.'

"With Congress in its spring recess, the president slammed the Democrats on a war funding bill that he pledges to veto because it includes timelines for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. It was the latest salvo in an escalating battle as both sides gird for a standoff that could echo the 1995 shutdown of the federal government."

By contrast, Fred Kaplan writes in his Slate opinion column that Bush "made statements of extraordinary cynicism even by his considerable standards."

Dana Milbank writes in his Washington Post column about the atmosphere yesterday: "When President Bush gets a question he doesn't like, he often cocks his head to one side, juts his chin out and says 'Hmmm' with an air of thoughtful consideration. And as news conferences go, yesterday's event in the Rose Garden was a real hmmmdinger. Over the course of 40 minutes and more than a dozen questions, reporters elicited three 'hmmms' from Bush -- not to mention several 'uhs' and a displeased 'yeah' or two....

"Bush's perplexity may have resulted from the questioners' failure to cooperate with his chosen theme: scolding Democrats for the 'political theater' -- as Bush and Vice President Cheney have put it in recent days -- of attempting to end the war in Iraq. . . .

"At first, Bush's only uncertainty was how to describe his opponents. He referred to the 'Democrat leaders' and the 'Democrat leadership' before correcting himself to say 'Democratic leadership.'

"But reporters' questions further snarled the Bush syntax. NBC's David Gregory got him to say 'My concern, David, is several,' CBS's Bill Plante got him to mention 'suiciders,' while Bloomberg News's Ed Chen elicited the phrase 'air traffickers' in lieu of airline passengers."

Fact Check Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "To President Bush, they are 'pork-barrel projects completely unrelated to the war,' items in the House and Senate war-spending bills such as peanut storage facilities and aid to spinach farmers that insult the seriousness of the conflict and exist only to buy votes.

"But such spending has been part of Iraq funding bills since the war began, sometimes inserted by the president himself, sometimes added by lawmakers with bipartisan aplomb."

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The president and most Republicans say the Democrats' stance undermines the troops and micro-manages a mission that's better left to the military, although Bush himself manages key elements of the war strategy, such as how many more troops to send to Iraq this year."

USA Today reports: "On Tuesday, President Bush said troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would suffer if Congress doesn't pass an emergency spending bill soon. However, previous bills were passed later in the year than the current one, and military and budget experts say the situation is not so dire. For example: . . .

"What Bush said: 'The Army will be forced to consider cutting back on equipment, equipment repair, and quality-of-life initiatives for our Guard and Reserve forces . . . . to support the troops on the front lines.'

"What others say: The Government Accountability Office reported in January that many of the Guard's equipment and supply problems were caused by the Pentagon's failure to plan well. Army delays, the report said, hurt the Guard's ability to buy equipment and supply local units."

Bush yesterday responded to a reporter's question about the Iraqi failure to meet benchmarks by ticking off several ways in which he said the Iraqis have stepped up. But Leon Panetta writes in a New York Times op-ed that there's been little progress towards important milestones. For instance:

"The Iraqis promised to achieve, by the end of 2006 or early 2007, the approval of a provincial election law (so far, no progress); approval of a law to regulate the oil industry and share revenues (while the Council of Ministers has approved a draft, it has yet to be approved by the Parliament); approval of the de-Baathification law to reintegrate officials of the former regime and Arab nationalists into public life (no progress); and approval of a law to rein in sectarian militias (no progress).

"By March, the government promised to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments (no progress)."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek that "some of Bush's warnings suggest that the president is holding the Democrats to a different standard than he held his own party when it ruled Capitol Hill -- and building a political case against Congress' course that doesn't quite add up.

"Bush began by complaining that it had been '57 days since I requested that Congress pass emergency funds for our troops.' He said that if Congress doesn't give him a bill he can sign by mid-April, the Army will be 'forced to consider cutting back on equipment, equipment repair and quality-of-life initiatives for our Guard and Reserve forces,' as well as training, so that money can go to 'troops on the front lines.' And if he doesn't get a bill by mid-May, Bush said, 'the problems grow even more acute'-forecasting delays in funding repair depots, training active-duty forces needed overseas, and in forming new brigades.

"Yet previous Republican-controlled Congresses have left for spring recess without passing the sort of supplemental bill Bush was talking about. In 2006, the GOP Congress didn't approve the supplemental until the middle of June."

Hirsh concludes that "a quick reality check suggests that his Rose Garden offensive was all about politics, not policy. His administration knows it badly needs a victory in the arena of public opinion, which continues to tilt in support of early withdrawal. Perhaps that's one reason that Bush tried to make the case -- in what was no doubt his biggest stretch -- that the Democratic plan calling for a withdrawal date by 2008 'will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines.' That's a particularly difficult case to make--since the same day, the newspapers carried stories about how the surge was shrinking the amount of time troops had at home between tours of duty. And his own plan calls for an open-ended commitment -- not exactly a hurry-home strategy. Despite Bush's attack on the Democrats Tuesday, 'the administration . . . has lost control of the [Iraq] narrative,' says [Andrew Krepinevich, a leading military strategist in Washington]. Bush, with just 20 months left to serve, is trying mightily to get the country once again to listen to his side of the story.

The US News Political Bulletin reports that "White House strategists are increasingly resigned to a long, miserable spring because of bad news on so many fronts. . . . Bush is clearly aware of his PR problems. That's one reason he lashed out so strongly against anti-war Democrats in his Rose Garden statement this morning. He's attempting to regain the offensive on Iraq in domestic political terms."

Original Text