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April 23, 2006 - Making Much of News of Superficial Changes

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Sometimes it's just hard to comment on the major political story of the day, when the big news Wednesday, April 19th, was just not very interesting. It was "more of the same," as the Los Angeles Times account opened with this succinct sentence - "President Bush on Wednesday reduced the official role that Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, will play in setting policy, and he accepted the resignation of spokesman Scott McClellan, in the latest moves aimed at reinvigorating his presidency and recovering from low public approval ratings."


Oil prices hit a record high, again, Iraq is a mess and doesn't yet have a government, we may be about to launch a preemptive nuclear war on Iran, and there was this. It's for political junkies, "inside baseball" stuff. The new chief of staff at the White House, Joshua Bolten, replacing the earnest and utterly forgettable Andrew Card, is going to "energize an administration that has been beset by a lack of progress on a number of second-term initiatives and has left Republicans nervous about losing control of Congress."


Yep, get rid of the press flak, McClellan, who since June of 2003 had the job of saying as little as possible, defending what had been done or not done, when he himself was kept out of the loop. Best he not know too much. He might say the wrong thing. He's been with the president since 1999 back in Texas, an old friend used up and sent on his way. On television he looked relieved. He's worked for Bush since he was thirty, and maybe now he gets to have a life. Seven years of humiliation, pretending he could explain what he was never really told, takes its toll. He seems like a nice fellow. It wasn't hard to feel good for him. The job is a miserable one when, in this case, it was to say as little as possible to a press corps that wanted to know as much as possible. Some change is good.

As for Karl Rove, he "will no longer have direct operational responsibility over White House policy decision-making." After the last election he had been elevated - he decided what the policies should be, as he had a finely tuned political sensibility. He knew what could be sold to America. Maybe it was Social Security reform that did him in (no one wanted that), or his advice on how to handle things when Hurricane Katrina hit (stay away). Who knows? Now his sole job will be political strategy - on the taxpayers' dime he needs to make sure the Republicans don't lost control of the House or the Senate, or both, this November. Your tax dollars at work, buying dirty tricks.

The Times explains –


Rove has been the master strategist for Bush's four consecutive victories in his races for governor of Texas and the presidency. He is known by the president variously as "the architect," for his role in plotting Bush's stunning electoral success, "boy wonder" for his political acumen, and "turd blossom," a teasing reference to the flower that blooms from Texas cow pies and to Rove's ability to turn messy situations into political triumphs.


Yeah, well, there are reports he advised Silvio Berlusconi this spring, but that didn't go so well - "Italy's highest court yesterday cleared the way for Romano Prodi, the centre-left leader, to take over as prime minister by confirming his victory in last week's hotly disputed general election." Where's Justice Scalia when you need him? Rove is having a run of bad luck. Making him a fulltime political strategist may not be the best thing.

But this is all tinkering with insiders. No one new is coming in. This administration doesn't do change. People change offices and get new business cards.

This nugget is interesting –


A former White House official who talked recently with Bolten said the moves resulted from Bolten's view that he needed to address three serious problems facing Bush: Deteriorating press coverage, souring relations with Congress and increasingly uncomfortable interactions between the White House and GOP political candidates nationwide. The former official asked not to be identified because of concern the White House might not appreciate his comments during a difficult time.


Why? That seems to be the assessment. The current troika is committed to their policies - preemptive war, regime change in nations that are troublesome, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, fighting back those who would protect the environment and all the rest. The problem, as they see it, is all this has been marketed poorly, so we get a new marketing team.

What do you do when no one buys your product? If you have no other product in the pipeline, and you just can't see how anyone would be so stupid as to refuse to buy what you're selling, you change the marketing team a little, using existing staff of course. The president has an MBA and they don't call him the "CEO President" for nothing. Cynics may call this "putting lipstick on the pig" but the idea seems to be that you can sell anyone anything with clever marketing. That is objectively just not true. Remember the New Coke? The Edsel? But you have to admire their faith in the power of "message control" and banners and speeches. Expect an ad blitz.

There's more here from Time Magazine, explaining "what's behind the White House shuffling," as if it matters. They say McClellan's predecessor, Ari Fleischer, told them the departure was "a selfless recognition by McClellan of the importance of change." Fleischer - "The American people are going to give the President a second look here in his sixth year because he's engineering these changes. That's helpful. He needs the country to give him a second look."

No, it's too late.

And the guy who takes over the Karl Rove task of direct operational responsibility over White House policy decision-making? The job they took away from Rove?

Time explains who that is –


In a second announcement that hit like an earthquake internally, the White House said that wunderkind Joel Kaplan will be Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy, taking over some day-to-day non-political turf that once had been the province of his now-fellow Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, who retains the title of senior adviser.

... Kaplan, the new third Deputy Chief of Staff, was Bolten's deputy in the policy shop in Austin during the President's first national campaign, worked in the Chief of Staff's office when Bolten was one of the two deputies in the first term, and was most recently his deputy at the Office of Management and Budget. Kaplan, who has two Harvard degrees, was an artillery officer in the Marine Corps and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, was scheduled to return today from his honeymoon.


Scalia? How odd. One gets the feeling the new marketing team is the old one, with more energy as they've not been ground down quite as much.

This is the big story - more of the same thing, with new guys who are just like the old guys, but who haven't been beat up for the last six years. It's not much of a story.

There may be more to it, if you like rumors. You might want to glace at this - "Has Rove's Security Clearance Been Revoked?" The idea is he cannot do policy stuff anymore because he doesn't have clearance, or soon will not have clearance. That happens when you're involved in revealing the name of a secret government agent to "get" your political opponents, or seem to be. The law is clear.

And Wednesday there was this - "I'm hearing rumors that Fitz met with the Valerie Plame grand jury this morning. and Rove was the topic of discussion." Will Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove this week? That would explain a lot. But this is just rumor.

As for the new policy guy, Joel Kaplan, who won't be indicted, there's this


The man Bush tapped to fill Karl Rove's spot as his policy wizard is none other than Joel Kaplan, who took part in the infamous "Brooks Brothers riot" of 2000. That's when a bunch of Washington GOP operatives, posing as outraged Floridians, waved fists, chanted "Stop the fraud!" and pounded windows in an effort to intimidate officials engaged in the Florida recount effort.

In George Bush's Washington, there's no shame in staging a fake protest to undermine a democratic election, apparently: last year, the Washington Post's Al Kamen noted that "the "rioters" proudly note their participation on resumes and in interviews." Kaplan was even the one to cheekily dub the fracas the "Brooks Brothers Riot."


Same tune, second verse.

Howard Fineman sums it up here - "White House rearranges the deck chairs, but policy course stays the same."

The core of that? This –


Bush has become a one-man holding action.

Some officials were upset when the president said that it would be up to his successor to decide when to end America's military involvement in Iraq. At least one of them told me that Bush hadn't meant to say such a thing, and didn't mean what he seemed to be saying. But it's true: He's not leaving Iraq anytime soon, or even winding the war down dramatically. Yes, there are generals who think we never should have gone there, or that the way we went was horribly botched. But that's not enough to make Bush willing to pull the plug, or even fire Donald Rumsfeld. On Iraq, in poker terms, Bush is doubling down.

Nor is he likely to make wholesale changes in his foreign policy and defense team. Bolten can rearrange the deck chairs all he wants to on domestic and economic policy. But the Axis of Believers - Cheney-Rummy-Rove-Condi - remains. The more the media and its band of Republican allies complain, the more dug in Bush will become. He's as stubborn as Slim Pickens in "Dr. Strangelove": He'd rather ride Rummy to Armageddon than seem to concede that Iraq was a botched project.

Reining in runaway federal spending is on the Bush to-do list. But it isn't going to happen on his watch. He's unlikely to hit even his graded-on-a-curve target of cutting the annual deficit in half by the end of his second term. "Domestic discretionary" spending is flat, true, but everything else is through the roof: defense, of course, but also a list of entitlements recently expanded to include the president's expensive new prescription drug-benefit program.

Albeit gingerly, Bush has blamed Congress. But he doesn't dare get too nasty. After all, his own Republican Party has been in charge of the teller window throughout his presidency. And the GOP is unlikely to put a clamp on spending in the run-up to midterm congressional elections.

Sen. John McCain hates earmarks, and rightfully so. They are an abuse of process. But the GOP is trailing in generic congressional polls by huge margins. They are as far behind as the Democrats were in 1994, when Newt Gingrich led his rebels over the wall and into the citadel.

In House and Senate races, many Republicans will be left with only one argument: Don't you love the federal dollars I bring you?

And, by the way, remember Social Security reform? That was going to be the big one, the big domestic initiative of the second term. It went nowhere. A president with a job-approval rating in the 30s can't do much - certainly not revamp the most costly and crucial social welfare program on the planet.

Finally, Iran: a nightmare waiting to happen. I'm not a global intel guy, but the people I know and trust tell me that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the real deal; that is, a real menace - and not just to Israel, but to our other major client/partners/sort-of-friends in the region, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon.

But the president is hemmed in; his erstwhile British buddy, Prime Minister Tony Blair, preventively has said "count me out" of any military action.


When you're hemmed in? Improve marketing.

As for riding Rummy to Armageddon, this is curious, Tim Russert on MSNBC's Imus show saying this –


Well, I knew something was happening when I had John Murtha on several months ago and he talked about his plan for a timetable. And I got several calls from people at the Pentagon and others and they said, "You know Murtha's right." And I was stunned because you don't usually get those kinds of calls. They were obviously people who would not allow me to broadcast their names. And then it continued with General Zinni who came on "Meet the Press" and said that Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. So the last couple of weeks, as I talked to people, one former general said we have the equivalent of a civil war going on at the Pentagon. The generals are trying to reclaim control of the war because they do believe serious mistakes were made. That's a very serious statement. And then, someone very close to the President said to me, you know, he won't fire Rumsfeld because it would be the equivalent of firing himself. He can't acknowledge that it was such a big mistake, in so many ways. And so Rumsfeld will stay. And that's the decision that the President has made and I think Rumsfeld will stay and try to see this through.


The link has the video of that. The president can't fire Rumsfeld "because it would be the equivalent of firing himself."

So we need better marketing. Rumsfeld is right. Bush is doing all the right things. Sell that.

The problem is, of course, the counter-marketing, somewhat reality-based.

An example might be this week's issue of Rolling Stone, the one with the drawing of George Bush on the cover, in a dunce cap in the corner, illustrating the cover story by the historian Sean Wilentz of Princeton - The Worst President in History?

That opens with this –


George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.

From time to time, after hours, I kick back with my colleagues at Princeton to argue idly about which president really was the worst of them all. For years, these perennial debates have largely focused on the same handful of chief executives whom national polls of historians, from across the ideological and political spectrum, routinely cite as the bottom of the presidential barrel. Was the lousiest James Buchanan, who, confronted with Southern secession in 1860, dithered to a degree that, as his most recent biographer has said, probably amounted to disloyalty - and who handed to his successor, Abraham Lincoln, a nation already torn asunder? Was it Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, who actively sided with former Confederates and undermined Reconstruction? What about the amiably incompetent Warren G. Harding, whose administration was fabulously corrupt? Or, though he has his defenders, Herbert Hoover, who tried some reforms but remained imprisoned in his own outmoded individualist ethic and collapsed under the weight of the stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression's onset? The younger historians always put in a word for Richard M. Nixon, the only American president forced to resign from office.

Now, though, George W. Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever. In early 2004, an informal survey of 415 historians conducted by the nonpartisan History News Network found that eighty-one percent considered the Bush administration a "failure." Among those who called Bush a success, many gave the president high marks only for his ability to mobilize public support and get Congress to go along with what one historian called the administration's "pursuit of disastrous policies." In fact, roughly one in ten of those who called Bush a success was being facetious, rating him only as the best president since Bill Clinton - a category in which Bush is the only contestant.

The lopsided decision of historians should give everyone pause. Contrary to popular stereotypes, historians are generally a cautious bunch. We assess the past from widely divergent points of view and are deeply concerned about being viewed as fair and accurate by our colleagues. When we make historical judgments, we are acting not as voters or even pundits, but as scholars who must evaluate all the evidence, good, bad or indifferent.


And the extremely long and devastating argument follows. The answer is yes. Worst ever.

As for this showdown with Iran, see William Beeman, a professor of Middle East studies at Brown University, here


Indeed, the danger in this situation could be dismissed if there were other leaders in power. However, in both nations the leadership needs this conflict. President Bush and the Republican Party face defeat in November without an issue to galvanize the voting public behind their assertion that they are best able to protect the United States from attack - the only point on which they have outscored Democrats in recent polls. President Ahmadinejad also needs public support for his domestic political agenda - an agenda that is paradoxically opposed by a large number of the ruling clerics in Iran. Every time he makes a defiant assertion against the United States, the public rallies behind him.

This creates what political scientist Richard Cottam termed a "spiral conflict" in which both parties escalate each other's extreme positions to new heights. It is entirely possible that Iran could goad President Bush into a disastrous military action, and that action would result in an equally disastrous Iranian reaction.


Ah, eggheads. What do they know?

Here's more


Thirteen of the nation's most prominent physicists have written a letter to President Bush, calling U.S. plans to reportedly use nuclear weapons against Iran "gravely irresponsible" and warning that such action would have "disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world."

The physicists include five Nobel laureates, a recipient of the National Medal of Science and three past presidents of the American Physical Society, the nation's preeminent professional society for physicists.

Their letter was prompted by recent articles in the Washington Post, New Yorker and other publications that one of the options being considered by Pentagon planners and the White House in a military confrontation with Iran includes the use of nuclear bunker busters against underground facilities. These reports were neither confirmed nor denied by White House and Pentagon officials.


Who are these guys?


– Philip Anderson, professor of physics at Princeton University and Nobel Laureate in Physics
– Michael Fisher, professor of physics at the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland and Wolf Laureate in Physics
– David Gross, professor of theoretical physics and director of the Kavli Institute of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Nobel Laureate in Physics
– Jorge Hirsch, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego
– Leo Kadanoff, professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Chicago and recipient of the National Medal of Science
– Joel Lebowitz, professor of mathematics and physics, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey and Boltzmann Medalist
– Anthony Leggett, professor of physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Nobel Laureate, Physics
– Eugen Merzbacher, professor of physics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former president, American Physical Society
– Douglas Osheroff, professor of physics and applied physics, Stanford University and Nobel Laureate, Physics
– Andrew Sessler, former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and former president, American Physical Society
– George Trilling, professor of physics, University of California, Berkeley, and former president, American Physical Society
– Frank Wilczek, professor of physics, MIT and Nobel Laureate, Physics – Edward Witten, professor of physics, Institute for Advanced Study and Fields Medalist.

Meanwhile they're rearranging the deck chairs at the White House, as Fineman puts it. Saw the movie and loved the computer-generated iceberg. Impressive.

Or there's the other metaphor - the guys just reassigned to marketing are "putting lipstick on this pig," hoping we'll think this one, and all the others, are real babes.

No change, really. The big news story of the week just wasn't that interesting.

Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik

The inclusion of any text from others is quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law.  See the Legal Notice Regarding Fair Use for the relevant citation.
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