“First Read” is a daily memo prepared by NBC News’ political unit, for NBC News, analyzing the morning’s political news. Please let us know what you think. Drop us a note at FirstRead@MSNBC.com.

Friday, February 11, 2005 | 9:10 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
The Macker has left the building. 

  1. Other political news of note
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For the out party, the DNC winter meeting here in Washington is an alternate-universe inaugural.  Outgoing chairman Terry McAuliffe left party headquarters yesterday amidst some ceremony, we're told, with staffers lined up to cheer as he climbed into the committee's US-brand SUV.  Prior to departing, he met with reporters (see below) and last night, he was toasted by Bill Clinton and John Kerry.  This morning, he gets feted by more party officials and past and future presidential candidates.  Tomorrow during the general session, he'll give farewell remarks before Howard Dean is formally elected to replace him.  On Monday, Dean's transition team gathers at the DNC in force.

There was a time when the political world scoffed at the idea of McAuliffe as the party's figurehead.  Democrats worried about his ability to be an effective spokesperson; the press and Republicans rooted through his fundraising record.  Today, McAuliffe leaves having done what he was hired to do: he raised huge amounts of money, helped the party get over the McCain-Feingold hump, and organized and invested in an infrastructure.  He also matured as a party spokesperson and got a bit grayer on the sides (depending on the day, or maybe the light).  And he was indefatigable.  The party didn't net congressional seats or win the presidency during his tenure, but that blame is shared.

There's no reason to think Dean won't be able to at least match McAuliffe's record, maybe with a little more help on the management front.  And while Democratic leaders continue to send Dean not-so-subtle warnings to stay out of the policy arena, that excuse will give him cover when his grassroots supporters start clamoring for him to take the party to the left, while Democrats in closer proximity to the Beltway call for the party to move toward the middle. 

That said, the problem with Dean seeking refuge in his job description is that there's no one else in the party setting a clear policy agenda for others to follow, either.  And with potential 2008 contenders already pursuing their own paths, the party may well struggle in its search for direction for the next three years, and settle for simply honing its skills at opposing the President.

Dean had a hastily scheduled meeting with Hill leaders Reid and Pelosi yesterday in Pelosi's office.  A source familiar with the proceedings says there was "no looking back, it was all about the future."  Today, Dean spends his time addressing seven different DNC caucuses -- the gay/lesbian/transgender caucus at 12:15 pm, the seniors caucus at 12:45 pm, the women's caucus at 3:40 pm, the Native American caucus at 4:35 pm, the black caucus at 5:00 pm, the Asian/Pacific Islander caucus at 5:20 pm, and the Hispanic caucus at 5:40 pm.  After all that, at 8:00 pm, he speaks to the Young Democrats.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe has his day.  In a plenary session from 10:00 am to 12 noon, he reaps praise from Reid and Pelosi, Gov. Bill Richardson, and John Edwards.  Sources say that beyond praising McAuliffe, Edwards will "thank everyone and let them know how grateful he is for all that they did for Democrats in 2004."  He'll also talk about his new project of fighting poverty.  Reid will say the race for chair has been good for the party, that it brought Democrats together rather than tore them apart, and that the party is focused on the grassroots.  Pelosi will criticize the Bush budget as immoral and fiscally irresponsible.

In his remarks tomorrow, per a DNC source, McAuliffe will "focus on unity, no more circular firing squads, no more hand-wringing," and say the "issues are too important, there's too much at stake."  Dean is scheduled to be formally elected chair around 11:00 am, and will hold a press conference about 30 minutes after the vote.

As for President Bush, today he swears in his new HHS secretary at the department at 10:40 am, then makes remarks at the White House performance of "Lincoln: Seen and Heard" at 5:00 pm.

And it looks like we'll get some vote totals out of Iraq today, though the "preliminary" tally is not expected for another two or three days and the final tally is expected in about a week. 

Bush's priorities
The Wall Street Journal editorial page determines that "Republican Senators have already abandoned any hope of getting the 60 votes necessary to make [the Bush tax cuts] permanent...  The usual Republican suspects from New England are opposed, John McCain is sending out negative signals, and the truth is that even the White House is reluctant to push for tax cuts early, before the hard slog on Social Security.  The Rovian strategy seems to be to wait until the great tax reform debate next year, when all tax issues will be resolved and rates are reduced to even lower levels."

The Washington Times reports, "Conservative economists, while pleased that President Bush has cut taxes, are concerned that he is shifting a disproportionate share of the tax burden onto affluent Americans."

USA Today calls Senate passage of class-action reform Bush's first legislative victory of his second term; the bill now goes to the House, where it should easily pass.

On a less positive note for the President, who wants his guest-worker program to be a congressional priority, the House yesterday passed an immigration bill which tightens restrictions on drivers' licenses.  "Democrats and Republicans said the strong House vote in favor of the bill is a sign of trouble for President Bush's plan for a... program that would allow non-citizens who are living and working here unlawfully to earn legal status."  - USA Today

Noting that the bill also "toughens requirements for obtaining US political asylum and requires the federal government to complete a fence along a portion of the US-Mexico border in California," Knight-Ridder says the legislation, though endorsed by the White House "earlier this week,... nevertheless faces uncertainty in the Senate, where even some Republicans are wary of its restrictions on asylum."

The Los Angeles Times predicts that where the White House comes down on efforts to add the bill to the Iraq supplemental, or keep it off, could affect the fate of Bush's guest-worker program in the House.

The New York Times looks at the Administration’s budget projections and notes that Bush cannot meet his long-term budget goals “without making deep cuts in programs that have strong political support, including veterans' medical care, education, scientific research and nutritional assistance for impoverished mothers and small children.”

Bush budget director Josh Bolten did a Monitor breakfast yesterday, in which he:

-- again tried to make the case that Social Security was left out of the budget because the budget was done before Bush laid out the "preliminary elements" of his plan;

-- said that halving the deficit by 2009 actually represented "cautious estimates;"

-- said the budget is "clear and transparent."  Asked why no list has been made available of the 150 programs facing cuts or elimination, he said such a list is forthcoming, and that the White House wanted the focus to be on the overall budget.  Bolten objected to the idea that the administration is trying to hide something: "Everybody who's aggrieved" about the cuts "knows they're aggrieved by this point."

-- said the President took part in the ongoing discussion about what programs would be cut, and that Cabinet officers were free to engage the President directly on their views;

-- said they want to take care of the AMT problem within the context of fundamental tax reform; and,

-- when asked when the cost burden of Bush's proposed Social Security reforms would start to ease, replied that he couldn't say: "You have to know a lot more about the program to know when costs will start to drop off."

Democrats on the House homeland security panel yesterday said they'll fight the Administration effort to revamp the civil service regs and implement performance-based pay at DHS. - UPI

Social Security
The New York Times on Bush’s stops in North Carolina and Pennsylvania to pitch his plans for Social Security: “Mr. Bush appeared to acknowledge that he was facing an uphill fight, saying the effort to overhaul the system would be ‘an interesting experience in dealing with the Congress.’  And while he repeated several times that he was open to ideas, he rejected some that were advocated in Washington on Wednesday by the chief executive of AARP, William D. Novelli, who said raising the income cap on Social Security taxes to $140,000 would nearly halve the shortfall foreseen in the current system by 2042, the year insolvency is projected.”

Speaker Hastert tells the Chicago Tribune that Americans are not yet persuaded that Social Security is in crisis.

Compromise-seeking GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham tells USA Today in an interview that "private investment accounts 'are being oversold' as a solution and said President Bush will need to compromise in order to transform the program."  Graham "said Bush and Republicans who control Congress eventually will have to agree to increase Social Security revenue, such as by lifting the cap on income subject to payroll taxes.  And he said the key to closing the program's future money gap is changing the way benefits are calculated to slow their growth for future retirees."  He also called Bush's plan to borrow trillions of dollars to cover the transition costs the plan's "Achilles heel."

Graham "said it's too early for Bush to give ground on the issue, but the president will have to compromise later to attract the votes needed to pass the Senate."

The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire says, "Consensus remains elusive on Social Security in the Senate.  California Democrat Feinstein joins bipartisan group of seven assembled by... Graham.  For now, staffers seek 'principles' for agreement, not specifics.  At recent retreat, House Democratic 'Blue Dogs' were near-unanimous against creating private accounts from Social Security taxes...  But ex-Democratic Rep. Penny, a private-accounts advocate cited by Bush in his State of the Union speech, predicts 'the power of the presidency' will win out."

National Journal's insider poll shows that nearly three-quarters of Democratic insiders (33 out of 46) believe that Bush's plan to overhaul Social Security will hurt the Republicans.  On other hand, a plurality of Republican insiders (17 out of 38) believes it will help the GOP, but nearly one-third (11 out of 38) think it will actually hurt the party. 

Whither the Democrats
The Los Angeles Times' Brownstein determines that "Democrats are consistently choosing confrontation over conciliation in their early responses to Bush in his second term...  Republicans believe the shift opens Democrats up to charges of obstructionism...  Yet some Democrats believe that by following a more partisan course, the party is merely emulating Bush's strategy of primarily pursuing policies that motivate his political base."

Brownstein adds, "Kerry is assuming a day-to-day opposition role unprecedented for recent presidential losers.  He has even conferred with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who initially led the Labor Party when it was a minority in Parliament, on how to build an opposition party."

The New York Times covers the linguists, preachers, and marketing gurus who are trying to help Hill Democrats solve their “values” problem.  “On Friday, a left-leaning evangelical Christian author, Jim Wallis, will visit Democrats for the second time in recent weeks, this time to instruct Senate press secretaries about how to ‘discuss the budget in terms of moral values,’ according to an invitation to the closed-door event..."

Terry McAuliffe did a Monitor luncheon yesterday.  Some highlights:

Q: What are the challenges for Dean?  A: One, he must rebuild the state parties.  And two, he needs to go into red states and get Democrats' message out.  The job of a DNC chair, he added, is to raise money, to be the chief cheerleader, and to build up field operations.  "It is not your job to inject yourself into policy," he said.  "Howard understands it."

Q: How can Democrats do a better job with Catholics?  A: Democrats must do a better job at religious outreach.  There are 15 people at the RNC, he claimed, who work on religious outreach every day.  He also said he was "dismayed at the Catholic Church in the last election" for sometimes exhorting their parishioners to vote against Kerry.  That, McAuliffe said, "was nothing short of outrageous."  "We have to do a much more effective job of reaching out to religious voters," he added. "I was glad what Senator Clinton did the other day," referring to her recent speech on abortion. 

He went on: Democrats should not say that pro-life people are unwelcome in the party.  "I did not like the tenor of the DNC chair race... I have never seen so much opposition research...  I did not like the way Tim Roemer was treated."  Nevertheless, he stated later on that Roemer would have had a difficult time being party chair, since the party is pro-choice.

Q: Can Democrats win in the South?  A: McAuliffe said he argued to the Kerry campaign that they should have campaigned in Arkansas from day one.  In the South, he explained, "it all comes down to your message...  John Kerry -- and he has admitted this -- should have responded to the Swift Boat Veterans immediately." 

Gallup surveyed DNC members and found them saying "Democrats should become more moderate and reach out to swing voters but should not compromise with President Bush."  Easy enough...

"Of the 223 DNC members surveyed, about half said Democrat John Kerry lost the presidential race because he was up against an incumbent president in wartime.  Twenty percent said inferior grass-roots efforts were the main culprit, and 16% said it was Kerry's fault...  A majority, 56%, said major changes are needed in the party's approach to winning elections.  Six in 10 said persuading undecided and swing voters is the key to future victories, twice as many as those who picked mobilizing the base.  And 52% said they'd rather see the party become more moderate, compared with 23% who said more liberal."

Also, from the most recent Gallup national survey: "Thirty-one percent of 1,010 adults in the poll taken Feb. 4-6 had a favorable opinion of Dean, compared with 38% unfavorable."

The Washington Post asks, "Can Howard Dean cure what ails the party, or is Howard Dean symptomatic of why those ailments may be so difficult to cure?...  Dean symbolizes two of the major challenges Democrats have in regrouping after Bush's victory.  He represents the antiwar wing of a party debating where it should stand on national security issues, and he offers a secular vision of the world at a time when Democrats worry that they have ceded the values of faith and spirituality to Republicans."

The Wall Street Journal also asks a question -- "whether Mr. Dean, as Democratic chairman, will display the strengths that made him a hot White House candidate or the weaknesses that defeated him."

The Boston Globe previews a possible tug of war between Dean's grassroots supporters wanting the party to go left, and more Establishment types wanting the party to head to the center.  The story notes, "Some major fund-raisers, who declined to speak on the record, said they expect large donors to wait on the sidelines with the emergence of Dean, preferring to give money to Democratic organizations other than the DNC."

The New York Times says that both Kerry and Clinton offered words of caution to Dean at the Macker's party last night: “‘This great party of ours doesn't need a makeover,’ said Mr. Kerry, who was defeated by President Bush in the November election.  ‘This party of ours doesn't need a massive shift.’”

And, after dodging and weaving and narrating lingerie ads on his radio show for a few hours yesterday, Al Franken let it be known that he will not seek the open US Senate seat in Minnesota in 2006, leaving Democrats to continue their efforts to coalesce behind one candidate.

Media notes
Two House Democrats, the New York Times says, are pressing for an investigation into how James D. Guckert -- aka Jeff Gannon of TalonNews -- was able to obtain White House press credentials despite a pseudonym, and how he had access to classified documents involving outed CIA operative Valerie Plame. 

The Dallas Morning News notes the White House defended the access Guckert was given to the White House.  “‘In this day and age, when you have a changing media, it's not an easy issue to decide or try to pick and choose who is a journalist,’ Mr. McClellan said.  ‘It gets into the issue of advocacy journalism.’”  The paper also interviews Guckert, who admitted his question at a press conference had a partisan bent, and confirmed that he had developed Web sites with sexually suggestive addresses (but they were never used).  “And he said a picture of him on the Internet in his underwear was just that.”

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