March 2, 2006 | 2:52 p.m. ET

Killer poll numbers for Bush (Chris Matthews)

Video: Killer poll numbers for Bush

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February 28, 2006 | 12:18 p.m. ET

Iraq: Fault lines become turning points (Col. Ken Allard)

However over-used, the term "Turning Point" is not a bad way to describe the aftermath of the Shi'ite mosque bombing in Iraq - or even back here in the US.

During my visit there last week, Pentagon analysts were holding their collective breath about the reactions of the imams during Friday prayers - even though any judgment about civil war is probably weeks or even months away. Fact is, it's sometimes hard to distinguish the day-to-day insanities of Iraqi politics from the actual outbreak of civil war.

American military engineers routinely describe the frustrations of defending reconstruction projects - such as sewer lines - that must pass through Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods en route to the single water treatment plant serving those otherwise disconnected communities.

This is why bombing the mosque was so devastating: in a single stroke it rocked tribal, ethnic and religious fault lines so severely that the delicate edifice of Iraqi political progress trembled to its already shaky foundations. Which is how fault lines can become turning points - and why conservative stalwart William F. Buckley concluded just the other day that our efforts to construct a civil society in Iraq had failed.  At such moments, great war leaders make their marks on history, simply because they must.

What is missing and needed now is a bold new stroke from George W. - reaching out to the Shi'a and elevating IQ levels from Washington to Baghdad and on both sides of the debate. And for one fundamental - or maybe fundamentalist - reason: that having entered the fray, we simply cannot afford to lose this one.

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February 23, 2006 | 2:12 p.m. ET

'Portgate': The dubious Dubai deal (Bob Shrum)

Everyone’s missing the essential point about “Portgate.” What’s dubious about the Dubai deal isn’t the possibility of an Arab-owned company running American ports – you can’t automatically profile it into the outer darkness, or rather the outer harbor, but the implacable incompetence of a Bush Administration that no longer seems to get anything right –from Hurricane Katrina to Iraq to Social Security to Homeland Security. Why didn’t the Administration subject Dubai’s takeover of port management to the 45-day review in cases that could impact national security? Why wasn’t the President told, or the Secretary of Defense – and why didn’t they get their ducks in a row with Congress? They now say “trust us” – which is hard to do when they’ve dissembled on weapons of mass destruction, miscalculated the likelihood of an insurgency after invading Iraq, and distorted or suppressed scientific facts on global warming, stem-cell research, and Terri Schiavo. They couldn’t even tell a straight story about a Vice President who didn’t shoot straight. They can’t ask for trust because they haven’t earned it; after five seemingly eternal years in office, they don’t have a credibility gap; they have a credibility chasm.

The port issue is the latest symbol of the collapsing Presidency of George Bush. Once the process begins, it doesn’t stop – unless, like Ronald Reagan after Iran-Contra, you own up to your mistakes. That seems as likely with George W. Bush as, say, Dubai deciding to recognize Israel. What is not only likely, but already underway, is a headlong Republican flight from Bush, who now has a classic case of reverse coat-tails. To be non-partisan about it, think Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, when Democrats lost 12 Senate seats. Remarkably, the Republican break with Bush is coming over the issue of security, the trump card that saved him from folding in 2004 in what was essentially a 9/11 election. He never deserved the credit he claimed; imagine how much safer from terrorism we’d  be if the $1 trillion cost of the Iraq war had been spent on strengthening homeland security?

But the image was different: Bush was the tough guy, the man with the bullhorn; he might be wrong on other issues, but not security. Now he looks like the uninformed, indifferent place-holder whose press secretary says the Dubai takeover and the implications for port security don’t rise to a “presidential level.” Then what does – and how can you claim to be the terror-fighter if you’re not even looking at the frontlines of the battle?

As Bush sinks toward Cheney’s 29 percent approval rating, Republicans don’t want to run with him; fearful of losing the House or the Senate in November,
they’re rushing to run away from him, boasting that if he does veto a bill to stop or delay the Dubai deal, they’ll override it. Imagine, the first veto of Bush’s tenure could be construed as facilitating a possible threat to national security. We have now entered the long goodbye of the Bush Presidency, which will be marked by failure in Iraq and futility on most other issues except maybe packing the U.S. Supreme Court. (And smart Republicans know they should be careful what they wish for: A Republican-engineered reversal of Roe v. Wade would bring down terrible electoral retribution.)

Bush can’t even play the old Nixon trick of packing up his troubles in Air Force One and flying off to a foreign trip – to say, Egypt, where Nixon was cheered by millions just before he was forced to resign. Where could Bush go? Unless they put an isolating bubble over his motorcade and kept the crowds off the streets, he’d be engulfed by protests. Because of him, America’s standing in the rest of the world has fallen to an all-time low. Maybe he could try Dubai – or maybe not given that some of the 9/11 hijackers came from there or laundered money there and it was one of only three nations that recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. If Dubai isn’t a safe destination for a Bush visit, then maybe America’s ports aren’t safe in Dubai’s hands. Let’s at least find out by postponing the decision and conducting the 45-day review that already should have happened.

Bush is waist deep in New York Harbor; you just know there’s another wave, another mistake, heading his way. And the Republicans, try as they might to escape the ineluctable tides of Bush’s incompetence, are likely to be hit full force in the 2006 election.

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February 16, 2006 | 2:09 p.m. ET

Cheney Birdshot Peppers Media (Craig Crawford)

All this bunk about the White House Press Corps just being mad they got scooped on Dick Cheney's shooting accident is yet another prime example of Attack The Messenger: How Politicians Turn You Against The Media . When I wrote the book I knew the hits would keep on coming, but never did I imagine that the Vice President would shoot somebody, keep it under wraps for 14 hours and then blame the media for asking tough questions. In his first interview about this, Cheney tried to make it sound like the press corps was just protecting its turf because he authorized a leak to the local paper the day after the incident.

But that's not what this week's stormy West Wing briefings were about. The press was focused on why it took so long even to notify the local Texas paper, as seen in the first question to Press Secretary Scott McLellan on Feb. 13: "Scott, do you think that the shooting accident involving the Vice President on Saturday should have been disclosed to the public on Saturday?"

Despite all the bluster and blame-shifting, including Cheney's sit-down interview, that's still the unanswered question. Cheney's claim that they were too worried about the victim's condition doesn't wash. They were back at the ranch having roast beef dinner on Saturday night, while hospital doctors attended to the injured man. Somebody there, or at the White House, could have and should have disclosed this matter that night. This isn't about the media being petty. It's about holding public officials accountable for informing the public moments -- not 14 hours -- after something like this happens.


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February 15, 2006 12:25 p.m. ET

Who's afraid of Dick Cheney?  Everyone in the White House, or so it seems.
(Dee Dee Myers)

In the 48 hours since Vice President Cheney shot his hunting companion, the bulk of the media outrage and intensity has been focused on the question of disclosure:  what did the White House know and when did they know it?  And Video: View from the Briefing Room equally importantly, why didn't they tell the press, and by proxy the public? 

But as we head into the next phase of this story, which continues to have legs, the question is becoming: Who's in charge of this White House? 

Karl Rove, Andy Card and Pres. Bush were all informed about Cheney's accident on Saturday night, and not not one of them picked up the phone, called the Vice President and demanded that he handle the situation in a way that would protect the President. 

What are they afraid of?  Did Cheney threaten to take away their lunch money? 

Who's calling the shots these days?  Well, when no one, including the President himself, is willing to call the Vice President to heel, it seems pretty clear that Dick Cheney is in charge.  And the rest of the staff, right up to the top, are scared to ask hard questions, let alone demand accountability. 

It's a strange and unsettling state of affairs.  And this story won't die until some of these questions are explored, if not answered.

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February 15, 2006 | 11:05 a.m. ET

Pessimism growing about Iraq (Chris Matthews)

Video: Pessimism growing about Iraq

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February 13, 2006 | 12:18 p.m. ET

Torino Diary: People genuinely like us.
(Kemper Ohlmeyer, NBC Olympics Production Associate)

Hey, I'm the new guy...Right now I am working for NBC at the Olympics in Torino, Italy; a far cry from my college, the ineptly named Washington University in St Louis.  I must say that the first thing I've noticed is that (and yes, this may be a shock to some of you) the world doesn't hate me, us, Americans.  In fact, most of the people I have met, from all corners of the world, are actually very friendly towards me and everyone else from across the pond.   I have not found the disdain I was told to expect; hatred I was assured to encounter; or antipathy I was told to fear.  In fact, to my pleasant surprise, people truly seem to be embracing the spirit of Olympics.  People genuinely like us.  They may not agree with what Bush is doing, how he handles himself, or what he said at his recent state of the union address, but that doesn't change what they think of us as people.

Even with the world losing it's head all around us - Iran on the brink of nuclear proliferation, Muslims rioting across the continent, and Google's stock falling faster than Tara Reid at a frat party, there is a strange sense of serenity and unity here at the Olympics.  There is a common sense of purpose here at the media village.  People are here to support the games, and what they stand for. Reporters from Canada, Japan, Australia, and the US are all stuck together in a cornucopia of broadcast journalism known as the International Broadcast Center.  This is by no means utopia, but it is a distraction that people back home should try to embrace.

The politics surrounding the games have reared their ugly head: the torch was diverted from its planned path to avoid protests (a man even tried to extinguish the torch en route to protest new train construction), transit workers planned to use the event as a strike platform, and the threat of terrorism sits on everyone's mind here at the assignment desk.  But so far the whole event has been quiet.

As a 22-year-old kid I cannot imagine something I would rather be doing right now.  I will be sure to keep you updated with what is happening here throughout the Olympics. And I will hopefully continue to keep you on the pulse of what is happening in the world of collegiate politics when I return to school.  Stay tuned.

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February 7, 2006 | 1:09 p.m. ET

A tribute to Coretta Scott King

The public life of Coretta King two parts: the first being the years she supported her husband in his historic leadership of the civil rights movement; the second being the nearly four decades during which she carried on his legacy.

As someone who studies politics, I will always recall her memorable role in the great election of 1960 that pitted John F. Kennedy against Richard Nixon.

On October 19, 1960, Martin Luther King and 50 others were arrested for trespassing during a sit-in at an Atlanta department store.  While all of the others were released, King was jailed for driving with an out-of-state license.

When her husband was taken from the jail and whisked off in the night to rural Georgia, young Coretta King worried that he would be lynched.  She shared her worries with an ally of Senator John F. Kennedy.  Though worried about losing votes in the pre-civil rights south, the presidential candidate called up Mrs. King and offered to help.

Mrs. King let her husband's followers know precisely what had happened. Story:

"It certainly made me feel good that he called me personally and let me know how he felt," she told the press. "I had the feeling that if he was that much concerned, he would do what he could so that Dr. King was let out of jail."

Now it was Robert Kennedy's turn to act.   Worrying though he was that his brother's involvement might prove to be a disaster for the campaign, Robert F. Kennedy called the judge who had sentenced King and won bail for the civil rights leader.

For all these years since her husband's assassination in 1968, Coretta King has played a similar role.  She has been the living envoy of the greatest civil rights leader in American history.  For all these generations of Americans, she has been there reminding us through her dignity and heartfelt regard for this great man and his role in our country's development.

It was Coretta who led the campaign to create the Martin Luther King national holiday.  She has placed herself in the causes, many of them controversial, that her husband might well have led himself.  She was arrested in 1985 along with her children in protest of the apartheid policies of South Africa.  She opposed capital punishment, supported same-sex marriage, backed AIDS prevention and protested the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.  

It must be said that the woman we bury today did her utmost to carry on her husband's historic legacy.   Because Martin had a dream, Coretta had a cause.

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February 2, 2006 | 5:11 p.m. ET

Poll says 'Bring the troops home' (Chris Matthews)

Chris Matthews' latest vlog profiles the recent NBC/WSJ poll. What do Americans think is most important goal to achieve this year?

Video: Chris Matthews Vlog

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February 2, 2006 | 11:53 a.m. ET

NSA Surveillance - Why Was FISA Not Enough?(Lt. Colonel Rick Francona)

During his January 23 remarks to the National Press Club, Deputy Director of National Intelligence General Mike Hayden gave some insights as to why the administration believes that the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant procedures are ineffective in monitoring communications between suspected Al-Qa’idah operatives in the United States and overseas locations. General Hayden is the former director of the National Security Agency (NSA), the organization charged with this operation - it was during his tenure that the operation began. The Attorney General made similar remarks the following day.

According to the FISA law and NSA regulations, intercept of international communications originating or terminating in the United States must be done under the authority of a warrant issued by the FISA court, or in certain instances, the authority of the Attorney General. Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the President directed NSA to intercept these communications (including telephones, cell phones and emails) without FISA warrants. However, FISA warrants are not that hard to get - why not use the existing system that has been in existence since 1978?

The General explained the situation in broad terms, so as not to get into sensitive operational details. Having worked in the communications intelligence business for many years, I was able to discern some of the challenges. Technology and access to it have evolved in the last 25 years - the 1978 FISA has not. Email and cell-phones were either unheard of or not readily available then in the parts of the world we are dealing with, primarily the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. The people we are targeting now have multiple one-time use cell phones, anonymous email addresses accessed from a variety of public locations, use commercially available encryption system, etc.

FISA warrants, while generally easy to obtain, still require an application process. The key items you must have to obtain a warrant, in addition to the reason for the intercept, are a name (or unique identification) and the communications medium you plan to exploit. Given the realities of modern personal electronic communications, you may have neither. Let me explain by describing a hypothetical scenario based on events that have appeared in the media.
Based on human intelligence, the Pakistani intelligence service identifies and raids an Al-Qa’idah safehouse in Karachi. Inside the house, they find several laptop computers, cell phones and notebooks with communications procedures. The numbers in the cell phones include numbers in the United States. There are no names associated with these numbers. There are indications of when calls were made, but no idea who was on the other end of the call. (It could also have been the same with email addresses in the computers.) Obviously, the identity of that person and the content of the call are of interest to U.S. intelligence, homeland security and law enforcement agencies.

The “normal” procedure would be to obtain a FISA warrant to mount electronic surveillance against those numbers (or email addresses). The problem is that the owner/user of those numbers are unknown. Obtaining a FISA warrant on this information alone would be problematic, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it is important that these communications be monitored.

You may have noticed a time delay between these safehouse raids and any public acknowledgement or announcement. This is to allow the intelligence communities, including NSA, to exploit their newly acquired knowledge. Once the bad guys are aware that you have acquired their current phone numbers and communications procedures, they change immediately to new ones.

In 2002, there was a move to amend the existing FISA rules, to bring them in line with the technological advances of the last 25 years. The administration was concerned however that the resultant public debate would tip the targets of the operation that their communications would become vulnerable to exploitation.

Perhaps it would be useful to explain which intercept operations require a FISA warrant. In the above scenario, let’s assume an Al-Qa’idah operative is to make a trip to the United States via Paris. He calls and emails his Al-Qa’idah support contacts in Paris and New York. The communications from Karachi to Paris are totally external, so no warrant it required. The communications from Karachi to New York, however, terminate in the United States, thus requiring a warrant, despite it being an international communication. Obtaining a FISA warrant on just a phone number or email address is difficult, especially since the email can be checked in virtually any library and most coffee shops in the country.

Once the operative arrives in the United States, any of his communications back to Paris or Karachi require a warrant, since he is in the United States. If you know who he is, obtaining a FISA warrant would be routine. However, any of his communications between himself and the emails and phone numbers we know to be in the United States are solely domestic communications and now the purview of the FBI. They must show probable cause to obtain a warrant. It can be confusing and time consuming. Anytime you involve more than one agency, you also run the risk of poor coordination.

I know Mike Hayden, and I know many people that have worked and still work at NSA - I myself served there. These are honorable, dedicated intelligence professionals who take their responsibilities - and their legal obligations - seriously. Although I don’t have all the details, or even enough to make an informed determination, right now I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that the FISA was not sufficient for them to monitor the people that we really need to be watching.

Lt Col Rick Francona, USAF (Retired) is an MSNBC Military Analyst.  He served for over 15 years in the U.S. Signals Intelligence System, including tours at the National Security Agency.

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February 1, 2006 | 2:32 p.m. ET

WMD's found in Bush's State of the Union (Bob Shrum)

George W. Bush finally found WMDs and they were right where he looked for them in that tasteless attempt at video-taped humor he played to the correspondents’ dinner in Washington is 2004-in and around his own desk at the oval office.  From there and his own speechwriters’ cubbyholes, came the Words of Mass Deception that he displayed to the country last night.

He told us that in Iraq, “we are winning.”  Reporters who’ve covered the war say it is a “blackhole.”  A new Pentagon (not peace group) report says our military is so overstretched that we can’t stay long enough in Iraq to quell the insurgency.  Economists now calculate the probable cost of this hubristic folly at $2 trillion. (Just think, we could have had free healthcare for all Americans.)  With no end in site, with the violence striking Americans, Iraqis, well-guarded officials, and journalists from Jill Carroll to Bob Woodruff, it seems the only safe place is the so-called “green zone,” this war’s equivalent of a gated community surrounded by strife, faction, suicide and roadside bombs.  Bush lives in his own reality-free green zone and at the State of the Union he invited the rest of us to join him.  We’re “winning:” by what measure, at what cost, and how soon?  The presidency has been called a bully pulpit; in his speech made it a pulpit modified by another word that begins with “b.”

So he also wrapped himself again in 9/11, as he did in 2004, deceptively conflating the Iraq War with al Qaeda’s attack on America.  But that deception, which got him re-elected in a squeaker, has worn thin and transparent; no one but the Bush true believers believes it anymore.  He defended unchecked Presidential spying by saying that with it, we could have overheard two of the 9/11 hijackers talking on the phone to their terrorist contacts.  But if that’s true then he is guilty of dereliction of duty.  On his own authority he had the authority to eavesdrop for 72 hours, then go to a secret board for a warrant (only 5 of 19,000 applications have ever been turned down.)  Why didn’t he do it?  Was he too busy clearing brush at the ranch that August.  And Bush said democracy was the best defense against terrorism and in effect argued for spreading democracy by armed force.  He talked right past the glaring fact that the Palestinians just elected a terrorist government and the Iranians freely chose a fanatic pro-terrorist President whose seeking to build an arsenal of nuclear bombs.

The second cache of words of mass deception was found in the President’s sudden, Nixonian call for the federal government to do something about domestic needs other than privatizing and destroying Social Security.  We have to break our “addiction” to foreign oil, but we won’t tax world record oil company profits to do it.  We have to deal with the healthcare crisis.  But his plans typically focus the resources on wealthier Americans who already can afford healthcare.  And would anyone believe a promise to control healthcare costs from a President whose prescription drug program benefits the drug companies and confuses and burdens the elderly?  He empathized with the victims of Katrina but instead of asking for the additional help they desperately need, Bush sought more tax cutting for those at the top who don’t need it.  He called for investment in education to provide “a firm grounding in math.”  But maybe he first ought to learn a little math himself, since he didn’t say one honest word about the $400 billion federal deficit.

At least Nixon actually did something domestically-maybe not because he cared, but to give him space and time to prosecute his foreign policies, including the Vietnam War.  Bush’s new domestic proposals are political cotton candy, confected under the pressure of a failing Presidency, contrived to signify a lot and do very little.

At the end, he retreated to home base with the Rove section of the speech, checking off the right-wing boxes on abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell research.  Although here again we found the coded words of mass deception: stem cell research was human cloning, which it is not; marriage was threatened by “activist” judges said a President who seized office by a margin of one vote on an activist Supreme Court.

Commentators noted that the President wasn’t talking anymore about WMDs; but they were barely hidden in virtually every paragraph of the speech.  The official Democratic response on the other hand, just insistently proclaimed “there is a better way,” life imitating the satire of Robert Redford’s movie The Candidate, where “there is a better way” was just a calculated way to say nothing.  Maybe Democrats can win-Redford’s character did-merely by being there as Bush and the Republicans stumble toward the mid-term election.  But I’m not so sure.  Conservatives didn’t get their grip on power by running from their convictions (they may lose it, of course, because of convictions of a different kind in the months ahead).  Democrats will never be seen as strong leaders in a testing time until we actually stand up for our beliefs.  Call for repealing the Bush giveaways to the top 1%.  Defend a woman’s right to choose.  Demand healthcare as a right for all Americans.  The country agrees with us on all this, so why are we afraid to speak out?  We followed that fear to defeat in 2002; let’s not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in 2006.

Finally let’s speak our conscience and the national interest.  How many more Americans and Iraqis have to bleed and die for the fundamental and defining failure of the Bush Presidency, a conflict conceived in deception that in reality weakens our position in the world and the worldwide fight against terrorism?  It’s time to set a timetable to leave Iraq instead of continuing a march of folly into a descending valley of death and war without end.  The country is ready to hear that too.

With the State of the Union, we encountered Bush’s words of mass deception.  The Democrats need to respond with more than their own WMDs-whispers of mushy disapproval.  It can’t be that hard, for example, to point out that the President who praised Coretta Scott King at the start of his speech-he didn’t have much choice-is trying to rollback much of the progress she and Dr. King fought for.  Or are we too afraid now, and too calculating, even to speak plainly and proudly for the cause of civil rights?

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February 1, 2006 | 12:17 p.m. ET

SOTU: The Six-sentence disaster (Craig Crawford)

A major metropolitan area wiped nearly off the face of the Earth, and it merits only six sentences on the next-to-last page of the President’s State of the Union Address?!?!?

Can there be any more proof that the federal government is washing its hands of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Dozens and dozens of paragraphs on rebuilding other nations, but barely a mention of New Orleans. Even more amazing is how Democrats could not see this gaping hole in the President’s speech, at least not in the interviews I watched.

Give credit to NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams for seeing it and directly asking Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) about Bush’s after-thought treatment of rebuilding the Gulf region. But Obama glossed right over Williams’ on-target question, didn’t rise to the bait in the least. No wonder Democrats cannot win elections.

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February 1, 2006 | 12:17 p.m. ET

It was all so ... second term  (Dee Dee Myers) 12:48 a.m.

The headline from tonight's State of the Union speech will almost certainly be Pres. Bush's statement that Americans are "addicted" to oil. After fighting the urge toscream "Doh!" at the television screen, I had to confess that this was a welcome admission by the president from Big Oil. What's more, he called for some "green" solutions to our fossil fuel dependence -- ethanol, hybrids, hydrogen. Of course, he couldn't bring himself to demand higher mileage standards for American cars...but nor did he mention drilling in the Arctic Wilderness. (Increasing mileage standards would save half again as much oil every year by 2025 as ramping up ANWAR, but who's counting?) His call for increased nuclear production will no doubt set off a debate among enviros, but it is a debate worth having.

Otherwise, the speech offered few surprises: grandiose rhetoric and a few smallish initiatives (increased funding for math and science education, expanded tax-free health savings accounts). To be sure, there were standards from the Bush repertoire: Make permanent the tax cuts! Fight the terrorists abroad before they come after us at home! Honor the American way of life! But gone were the big ideas that dominated even a year ago: reforming Social Security, overhauling the tax code, and tackling immigration. The president seemed caught between competing urges to rally the base -- the strategy that has sustained him so far -- and giving his presidency a fighting change to actually solve the problems that plague the country. It was unclear from the speech which impulse will prevail.

The bottom line is: the people who watched the speech -- self-selected and more pro-Bush than the country as whole -- no doubt liked it. People who deeply oppose the direction this president has chosen to lead the country probably didn't tune in. And while the president seemed more in command than many Americans have come to expect, it won't change a thing. It won't effect the outcome of current policy debates, let alone the midterm elections. In the end, it was all so...second term.

A view from the Windy City (Eric Martin) 11:56 p.m.

Eric Martin

The president's speech Tuesday night was uplifting and full of the platitudes that have come to be the centerpiece of his rhetorical style. Bush seemed near the top of his game. He came across as coherent, personable and appealing, as he did to so many voters in his first campaign.

On foreign policy, the president offered mostly a continuation of the war in Iraq, ceding little to his critics. He did offer some new and refreshing ideas on health care, energy and education.

But I was left wondering how the president plans to pay for the American Competitiveness Initiative, continue cutting the deficit at its current rate and make tax cuts permanent. It may be difficult to make the 2001 tax cuts permanent, passing a slew of new domestic initiatives and pay down the deficit at the same time.

Few of my friends on campus at Northwestern University in the suburbs of Chicago watched the speech, but not because students are apathetic or don't understand politics. The meager following from young people is less proof of our lack of interest than an indication that we're finally learning how the game of political theater is played.

Growing up, students of my generation dreamed about running for office and changing the world. But as we've come of age and prepare to enter the workforce, we've become aware of the constant campaigning by our leaders and the promises unfulfilled. A generation of students raised on the tonic of NBC's "The West Wing" are disappointed when the spontaneity and sincerity of real events in Washington fail to live up to the Hollywood version. It isn't just a Bush problem; we've been listening promises that are later largely abandoned for so long that Generation Y has become "Generation Why Bother to Tune In?"

In last year's speech, for example, Bush pledged to make college more affordable by increasing Pell Grants. This year's budget bill, backed by the White House, would cut funding for student loans by $12.7 billion over five years. The bill would also eliminate Medicare and Medicaid benefits for poor and elderly even though the president promised to help those groups in this year's speech.

Given the lost focus from some of his 2005 initiatives, I was pleasantly surprised but still skeptical about the president's promise to explore renewable energy. Realizing that "America is addicted to oil" is good, but recognizing dependency is only the first step toward recovery. Convincing city dwellers to abandon their SUVs for more efficient hybrids is easier said than done.

The president outlined bold ambitions tonight and realistically still has time to see many of them to fruition. His administration stands at a precipice, with the question being the same that he posed to the nation: "Will we turn back or finish well?" If he can put a renewed energy and vigor behind his words, he may craft an accomplished domestic legacy in his final three years.

Keep it simple, stupid (Joe Scarborough) 11:35 p.m.

Listening to the chatter from my perch on Capitol Hill makes it clear that the Democratic Party is in dire need of guidance. So here is a Republican’s humble suggestion on how to gain traction with the majority of American voters.
Hammer home these three themes over the next ten months.

1. There is a culture of corruption in Republican-run washington.
2. There are record deficits, record debts and record government waste in Republican-run Washington. 
3. Soldiers are dying across the world for reasons that are still not clear three years later.

Keep it simple, stupid. And tell Ted Kennedy to keep his head down in 2006.

Read Joe's blog 'Regular Joe' AND watch him each weeknight at 10 p.m. ET

Observations from the college crowd (John Lichman) 11:10 p.m.

John Lichman

And now, for your slightly unscheduled commentary on tonight’s SOTU from Hardball’s own former “Hardblogger Jogger,” who’s not at the “Bis” but writing from New York.  And while I do wish I could enjoy the night with the District’s finest, it’s appropriate that I’m torn away from the usual Beltway spiel to give my own jaded New York perspective. 

I’m a bit shocked at the complacence that the President took with his speech. He spent a rather healthy chunk on 9/11 starting at 9:15 p.m. and dragging that through his concept of creating “democratic nations” and Bush following this with “no honor in defeat.” In fact, I agree with Joe Scarborough and finding a problem with half the chamber leaping to its feet while the other half does nothing but a golf clap. 

Tonight’s rallying speech does nothing but promote questions. President Bush did not once bring up education, rising college costs or his lack of help for Pell Grants, an essential need to the current college student.

If anything, this “democracy” heavy speech presented absolutely nothing to most people my age and it brings more questions than answers. I mean, “liberty is the right and hope of all humanity?” What about a stable job market or a working labor force? As much as I love blogging, I don’t exactly receive health care for this nor do I get any better benefits from my current schooling.

What about Bush’s Iraq and Middle Eastern statements? We’re supposed to accept them as “liberty” while my friends are serving overseas as grunts waiting for a bullet or an order to come home? I’m sorry if I think this is a cop-out, especially while all the pundits and politicos enjoy drinks at the “Bis,” but this is exactly what I hoped not to expect. I’m glad the President can enjoy such a laissez-faire time, especially while the TALON act accuses non-violent groups of being “potentially violent” and friends of mine wait in the deserts of Iraq for orders.

All in all, I thought the SOTU was lacking a concrete direction. Tackling the Middle East can be seen as an answer, but there was no definite answer given in regards to either the President’s plan or his “democratic” sensibility in dealing with the problem at hand. Instead, the president gave nothing more than a usual bait and switch which will be forgotten in a few days and lectured upon for countless months.

Regardless, I hope my correspondents in the District find something better and I hope to speak more about the President’s lack of correspondence with college-aged voters and pundits.

Something wrong with Democrats' message machine (Joe Scarborough) 10:48 p.m.

Were you one of the fourteen Americans who watched the Democrats' response to Bush’s State of the Union address tonight?

What the hell did he say? Fell asleep two minutes into it.

If you’re a Democrat and you have a shot at talking to the American people, you should talk about the culture of corruption in Washington. You should hammer home the fact that our federal debt is higher than ever. And you should talk about how young Americans are dying overseas in wars without apparent end.

Instead, we heard another bland Democratic response. Maybe not making news is the best way to win elections. But it is no way to inspire Americans.

Check out Joe's blog 'Regular Joe   AND  watch him each weeknight at 10 p.m. ET

By the numbers (David Shuster) 10:30 p.m.

The president's speech tonight was 51 minutes long... and was interrupted by applause 64 times.  63 were likely anticipated by the President's speechwriters, one was not.  (The President's speechwriters gave Mr. Bush this line:  "Congress did not act last year on my proposal to save social security," and before the President could get out the next word, democrats were on their feet applauding.)

In any case, we've been talking among the hardball staff about key words/phrases we thought President Bush would hammer over and over.  The most repeated word tonight was "terror."  Mr. Bush said the word "terror" or "terrorist" or "terrorism" 19 times.  The President repeated the word "freedom" 17 times.  Iraq was mentioned 16 times.  Iran, which is presenting the United States with a potential crisis over nuclear weapons, was mentioned 6 times.

When it comes to domestic policy, the president mentioned the word "economy" or "economic" 11 times.  "Reform" was mentioned 9 times.  "Hopeful," a key word that always works well in political speeches, was repeated 9 times.  Health care was mentioned twice tonight, though there were three other references to health care related issues.  Last year, the President referred to social security 18 times.  In 2005, the President's social security proposals went no where.  Tonight, in his 2006 state of the union, the President mentioned "social security" 3 times.

Perhaps the most intriguing number that we've found relates to how the speech was divided up... in other words, how much focus was given to each particular presidential priority.    The total number of sentences in the speech was 256.  Iraq or the Iraq war covered 35 sentences.  Iran covered just seven sentences.  Keeping americans competitive and creative covered 13 sentences.

Emperor Bush? (Tucker Carlson) 10:21 p.m.

For most of America’s history the State of the Union address was not read aloud, but delivered in written form to Congress. The Founders and the early presidents understood that there’s a fine line between a chief executive and an emperor. A spoken address, they thought, would be an invitation to demagoguery. They were right.

Nothing temps a president, even a conservative, to grandiose overreach like a State of the Union address. Tonight George W. Bush promised, among many other things, to end tyranny in the world, make American children better at math, and “strengthen the doctor-patient relationship,” though it was unclear how he’s accomplish the last one. (Counseling sessions?) He also, and this was my personal favorite, announced a federal initiative designed to “encourage innovation.” That’s right: A government program that’s going to make you and me more creative.

Seven years ago, when he was running for president, Bush would have laughed in disbelief if you’d told him he would ever say something so absurd, on national television no less. Now that’s he’s president, it seems natural to him. The founders were right to worry. Everyone in power becomes emperor after a while.

Check out Tucker Carslon's blog 'Untied' AND watch him each weeknight at 11p.m. ET

Fear and loathing (Joe Scarborough) 10:10 p.m.

So here’s the story behind the story inside the halls of Congress.
Politicians in both parties are running scared.

Republicans are all talking about reform programs meant to insulate them from the multitude of scandals hitting Capitol Hill. No arrogance around here anymore.

I smell fear.

Democrats remain jittery on national security issues. You could see it whenever the President pushed on Iraq. And you could sense it also when Bush talked about wiretaps.

All in all, Fear and Loathing on Capitol Hill. Bad news for all involved.

Check out Joe's blog 'Regular Joe' AND watch him each weeknight at 10 p.m. ET

A doomed but noble cause (Tucker Carlson) 10:04 p.m.

Bush included Zimbabwe in his list of tyrannies tonight. Good for him. I’ll be there some in the White House who argued against lumping in Mugabe with Kim Jong Il. But they deserve to be together.

Bush just called on Congress to pass the line item veto, as a way to reduce government waste. The line item veto is a great idea (as is the old-fashioned veto, which Bush has never used) but it’s a hopeless cause. Why would Congress voluntarily give up power to the executive branch? It wouldn’t and it never will. But that doesn’t keep Republican presidents from trying, in State of the Union after State of the Union. It’s a doomed but noble cause.

I watch and wonder (Hilary Rosen) 10:00 p.m.

OK,  I am receiving this speech with amazement and wonder at the President's ability to give this speech with a straight face.

Three quick observations:

1.  Coretta Scott King - Why not say it.  Hypocrisy.  On the day that Bush nominee Sam Alito was sworn in joining fellow conservative Justice John Roberts, the President salutes the values of MLK and Coretta Scott King?  He and his appointees have opposed everything the Kings stood for.  They've emasculated the Civil Rights Commission, they've made a mockery of the Voting Rights Act, they oppose Gay and Lesbian Rights and Affirmative Action.  I mean come on..... why bother applauding the Kings.  Be honest at least and say you have done everything you can to dismantle their legacy, not honor it.

2.  Iraq - Yes, I heard name calling.  Criticism of the war is tantamount to defeatism and a lack of support for the military.  Instead of acknowledging that there is concern about the strategy and laying out a realistic plan for victory instead of rhetoric, the president accuses his critics once again of a lack of patriotism.  And how ironic that he implies that only those who know the "costs" of the war know the stakes.  With this comment he introduced the family of a fallen soldier.  I certainly believe that soldier and his family deserve the honor.  But it is just not true that all the families of fallen soldiers agree wit the president.  Cindy Sheehan is in the audience tonight.  No acknowledgement of her son or her feelings.

3.  Health care - this is a whopper.  Can the President actually suggest that he wants to help the crisis of health care in this country?  Tomorrow the House of Representatives will likely vote on a Budget bill that throws 100,000 or more CHILDREN off the Medicaid rolls.  Stop the cuts before you call for a commission Mr.. President.  The same bill gives a $22 million gift to the health insurance INDUSTRY.  He calls for extension of tax cuts and it results in cuts in education.  He calls for energy independence and yet he opposed every provision promoting alternative fuels in last years Energy Legislation.

I watch and wonder.

Bush wants us to be proud of America (Tucker Carlson) 9:50 p.m.

President Bush wants us to be proud of America. This is my favorite thing about Bush. Unlike many of his critics, he is genuinely, instinctively proud of our country, and he’s right to be. But Bush also wants us to be proud of the work we’ve done spreading democracy around the world. (In 1945, there were 24 democracies in the world, he boasted tonight. Today there are 122.) I’m not so sure I’m proud of this.

For one thing, I wouldn’t want my son to die for someone else’s democracy. To protect the United States? Sure, and I’d join him. But so that Iraqis can cast ballots for some Islamic party? Nope. No way.

Democracy isn’t an end; it’s a means, a mechanism. Democracies reflect the nature of the people who participate in them. Stable, peaceful cultures produce stable, peaceful governments. Primitive, violent cultures elect governments to match. The goal isn’t representative government. The goal is humane, decent government. Last week, Palestinians handed an electoral victory to Hamas. It was a free and fair election, but it was still an atrocity. 

Bush seems to recognize this. Tonight he warned Hamas that it must stop supporting terrorism. Then, just moments later, he said this: “Democracies in the Middle East will not look like our own because they will reflect their own traditions.”

But what if “their own traditions” include suicide bombing? You see the problem.

Bush clearly doesn’t. A paragraph after calling on the people of the world to stop Iran’s nuclear program, he told “the people of Iran” that “we respect your right to choose your own future.” But not your own nuclear programs.

The president’s job is not to make the world a perfect place. It’s to protect America and America’s interests. And often you can’t do both. Conservatives used to know this.

Not Smart (Joe Scarborough) 9: 36 p.m.

The State of the Union Address is the greatest political show on earth. I’m standing in the House chamber under Laura Bush’s seat. To my right is the press corps sitting as impassively as the Supreme Court justices they look directly down upon.

The rest of the chamber is jumping up and down like sports fans, but all drama seems to be sucked out of this event.

Who can root against a speech that is poll tested, and market driven? Maybe that’s why the applause lines have the President declaring war on evil and fighting for freedom.

So far, the only split has been when the President declared our troops were winning in Iraq and promised military officials would make war strategy and not politicians in Washington.

Democrats remained seated. Does that mean they think we are losing? Or that politicians should draw up war plans? 

Not smart

I love the image   (Tucker Carlson) 9: 28 p.m.

Greetings from the bar at Bistro Bis, one of the very few decent restaurants on Capitol Hill. I’d planned to cover tonight’s speech from the chamber of the House, where it’s taking place. But it’s almost impossible to get a decent steak in Congress, so I’m here. Plus it’s always instructive to watch a news event in a room full of people who don’t cover news for a living. Consider this a focus group, as well as a blog.

My first question of the night: How does Sheila Jackson Lee always get an aisle seat? Every year, as the president walks toward the podium, shaking hands and greeting members of Congress, there’s Congresswoman Lee, smiling at the camera. Lee is not a serious Washington player, but on this one night she looks like one. Which of course is the point. How early does she show up to get that seat? Does she camp out overnight, like a 15 year-old hoping for Aerosmith tickets? I hope so. I love the image.

Funny little moment (Tom Curry) 9:24 p.m.

One funny little moment we noticed here as we watched at Bistro Bis: as the Cabinet members filed in, Treasury Secretary Snow shook hands with Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Breyer and Alito.

Breyer was playing the role of buddy to the new guy, Alito. After Snow walked off, Alito seemed - from the look on his face - as if he had no idea who that bald-headed man (Snow) was.

Breyer leaned over & seemed to be explaining to the rookie what Snow was.

Read Tom Curry's latest columns:
Alito lends touch of Drama to State of the Union
Why Bush won the Alito fight

Alito Reigns (Joe Scarborough) 9:19 p.m.

Minutes before the President entered the House chambers, the newest Supreme Court justice sent a jolt of electricity through the packed gallery with his entrance.

Sure, Sam Alito is no Elvis. But don’t tell that to conservatives, who consider him the rock star of the moment.

Make that the next 30 years. Republicans I have spoken to today are giddy that Alito joined fellow arch-conservative John Roberts on America’s highest court.

The way they see it, whatever happens in tonight’s speech is irrelevant. The conservative movement has already won big today.

Forget the President’s speech, they say. Tonight their eyes are fixed on Justice Alito.

Hello from Bistro Bis at the Hotel George in Washington! (David Shuster) 7: 35 p.m.

This is one of the more fashionable watering holes for political junkies of every stripe.  Earlier today, some of my hardball colleagues spotted Senator Ted Kennedy having breakfast with Congressman Patrick Kennedy.  At lunch, I spotted Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack... a possible 2008 presidential candidate.  For the record, Iowa beef ranchers, Vilsack was eating a steak.

Tonight, we are here at "the B" to blog about the crowd, their reaction to the President's state of the Union address on the television monitors, and anything else that strikes us as interesting.  One of the things I'll be doing is tracking the number of key phrases and words the President hits in his speech.  It is smart politics to hit your buzz words over and over.  And often, key phrases can be an intriguing way to dissect and examine how an issue is being framed or what the priorities are.   Last year, for example, President Bush mentioned social security 18 times and Iran 3 times.  Tonight, we are anticipating a heavy emphasis on "health care" related phrases... and very few mentions of "social security."  In any case, we will go through a variety of interesting numbers after the speech.

Tonight we will also be watching and reading the leading democratic and republican blogs as they talk about the President's speech in real time.  The blogs have become a useful way of determing what is important to activists.  And the activists, as we have seen, are often the first to point to factual problems, mistakes, or possible points of controversy.

I'm joined tonight at Bistro Bis by my colleague Tom Curry, a national affairs reporter for MSNBC.com.  Tom has a terrific eye for who's who in the Washington political scene.  And he is also an excellent writer.  Tom has just published a facinating piece on Justice Samuel Alito and the drama surrounding his possible appearance.  Tom also has a colorful quote from Senator Arlen Specter regarding those who say Alito should show his independence by staying away from the state of the union.  By the way, Justice Alito, we have room for you over here at the B if you want to just kick back. 

We are going to have fun over here all night long.  Herb, the maitre d' is taking good care of us!  You can keep track of everything right here on hardblogger.msnbc.com.

What are the big topics tonight? (Tom Curry) 7: 20 p.m. ET

Hardball correspondent David Shuster and I are patrolling the aisles of Bistro Bis, the Capitol Hill rendezvous for congressional staffers, lobbyists and political operatives.

We aim to find out what Capitol Hill denizens expect of the president's State of the Union address and how they react to it.

With the 2006 elections in mind it will be well worth listening to what President Bush says on these topics:

  • Immigration: a wedge issue that divides Republicans. Do family values still not stop at Rio Grande, as President Bush used to say, or will he adopt a new, more skeptical tone about immigration?
  • NSA surveillance: Will the president add more substance to his defense of eavesdropping on al Qaida contacts inside the United States?
  • The Medicare prescription drug entitlement: Another powerful wedge issue that divides Republicans. Remember, 25 House Republicans voted "no" on this bill back in 2003, nearly killing it. Now the messy start of new drug entitlement is causing headaches for Bush and his party.

Read Tom Curry's latest columns:
Alito lends touch of Drama to State of the Union
Why Bush won the Alito fight

A peculiar annual ritual (NBC News Correspondent Mike Viqueira); 6:25 p.m. ET

A peculiar annual ritual has been playing itself out yet again this year in the House chamber.

Members of the House, both Republicans and Democrats, have been staking Video: View from the Hill out seats on the center aisle for hours now. The idea is to be in a prime location to shake the president's hand as he enters the room after being announced by the House Sergeant at Arms. Bush greets the congressional well-wishers and glad-handers as he makes his way to the dais. You've seen the shot a thousand times with presidents down through the years, right?

What's curious is that it is not only the president's supporters on the Democratic side of the aisle who do it, but also many of his staunchest political enemies. Earlier this afternoon one could look out from the press balconies and see Democratic Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Dale Kildee, and Cynthia McKinney maneuvering for position and marking their territory on the aisle. Later it was no less a Bush foe than Dennis Kucinich who wrote something down on a piece of scrap paper - I'm going to assume it was his name - and tape it down to a seat.

Last year House authorities tried to clamp down on the practice, but were widely ignored. So this year the flood gates are open and there all the prime real estate has been snatched up. On the GOP side is Rep. Mark Foley - noted for his camera-ready approach to life - Shelly Moore Capito, and others.

Again as in years past, the electric red suit - which has the benefit of drawing the eye of the viewer when the camera pans the chamber on a wide shot - is the uniform of the day for members of Congress. I counted at least 5 during the last vote.

January 31, 2006 |

Setting the stage for State of the Union (David Shuster)

The more you pound a particular issue or particular phrase, that‘s the way you frame the national agenda. 

We‘re going to be looking at a couple keys tonight.  We‘re told the president will focus on health care, energy, Iran.  What‘s so interesting about tracking the number of times the president refers to Iran is when you look at the 2005 State of the Union, the president only mentioned Iran three times.  He talked about Social Security 18 times which was his big domestic agenda. 

This year, being the big agenda, health care, how many times does he talk about health care and how many times does he not talk about Social Security.  That will be fascinating. 

Think about it, the number of times the president can say we need to stay in Iraq because it‘s necessary, we need to keep troops there because it‘s necessary.   He mentioned necessary eight times in the press conference last week.  When the people hear the president say something is necessary, it becomes difficult to argue against. 

Likewise, the president has an opportunity this time in the State of the Union speech to hit themes over and over.  We‘ll be counting how many times he hits the themes.  Remember there won‘t be much of an opposition except in the Democratic response.

It‘s not only going to be was the president factually accurate, and you think the White House is going to be far more careful this time, but when he talks about the Iran, what are the main themes and how often does he repeat those themes?  Does he talk about Iran being a nuclear threat, having weapons we don‘t want them to have, or does he mention Iran in the context of democracy, liberty, three people having more of a vote as far as reformist issues. 

The way he frames that and the number of times he repeats that I think is going to be very telling and our viewers should find very telling.  Was the speech effective?  How many people thought the speech did what it was supposed to do? 

We'll be all over this story both on-air and on-line.  Tonight in Hardball's special State of the Union coverage, we'll go to the Capitol Hill hot spot where Senators, Congressmen, celebrities and powerbrokers gather, the Bistro Bis restaurant.  As legendary House Speaker Tip O'Neill put it, "here in Washington, we're all friends after six o'clock."  We'll see if that still holds, when we bring you live reports on MSNBC TV from Bistro Bis for reaction to the President's State of the Union address. 

I, along with my other Hardblogger All-Stars, will also keep you up-to-date all night right here. 

We'll see you on-line and on-air.

Comments?  Email DShuster@msnbc.com

January 26, 2006 |

Can Hillary win in 2008?  (Chris Matthews)

Chris Matthews vlogs about what recent polls may indicate about Hillary Clinton's chances of winning the White House in '08.

Video: Chris Mathews video blog

Comments?  Email Hardblogger@msnbc.com

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