“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.

Thursday, February 17, 2005 | 9:25 a.m. ET
From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi and Kasie Hunt

First glance
President Bush announces his national intelligence director at 10:00 am, his only scheduled public event today.  We hear from National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley on Bush's upcoming trip to Europe at 4:00 pm. 

  1. Other political news of note
    1. Animated Boehner: 'There's nothing complex about the Keystone Pipeline!'

      House Speaker John Boehner became animated Tuesday over the proposed Keystone Pipeline, castigating the Obama administration for not having approved the project yet.

    2. Budget deficits shrinking but set to grow after 2015
    3. Senate readies another volley on unemployment aid
    4. Obama faces Syria standstill
    5. Fluke files to run in California

Also on the Bush/Hadley list of talking points, perhaps: The Iraq elections results are expected out this morning.  The CIA director's Senate appearance yesterday led to reports that the war is proving to be a recruiting tool for al Qaeda, and that al Qaeda has thought about infiltrating the United States from Mexico:
- Washington Post
- New York Times

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll shows the President's job approval at 50%, a shift in his favor on some aspects of the war, and a long, hard slog for him on Social Security.  NBC/Journal pollster Bill McInturff (R), asked what he would advise Republicans to do on Social Security, says Bush's case may be undermined by the wide-ranging conversations amongst the party about various options for fixing the program, and that they risk sustaining some damage over discussion of ideas that ultimately won't be implemented. 

At the same time, he argues that the Democratic case against Bush's plan has become, "Social Security won't go broke, your benefit will just shrink," and suggests the GOP focus on how Democrats are pushing the public toward acceptance of a benefit cut, whereas the White House is trying to avoid that.  Senate Democrats roll out a "Social Security calculator" at 12:45 pm.  More on the poll below.

Meanwhile, Republicans are cheered by Greenspan's bon mots for a gradual phase-in of Social Security private accounts, and Bush is sounding supportive of raising the payroll tax ceiling above the current $90,000, though the White House may be walking that back a bit.  A version of that option, a "gradual increase" in the payroll tax, gets narrow majority support in the NBC/Journal poll, 51%-41%, second in support only to limiting benefits for the wealthy.  The Los Angeles Times, among others, covers this move by Bush as "an important shift from his hard-line stance against tax increases".

The rarely seen Vice President -- what does Cheney do all day now? -- addresses the C-PAC conference, the biggest gathering of conservative grassroots activists there is, at the Reagan Building in DC at 7:40 pm tonight.  Karl Rove addresses the conference at lunchtime. 

The Hill will get itself in a twist over Governor Schwarzenegger, who arrived in DC last night and meets with his state delegation and other California officials in the Rules Committee offices today.  There will be a photo spray at 10:30 am and a media avail after the meeting wraps at 1:00 pm.  More on Schwarzenegger's visit and his status in California below.

And Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter faces six to eight months of chemotherapy now that he has been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.  Specter's office says he expects to continue with all Senate duties, including chairing the panel which will oversee Bush's desired tort reform legislation and judicial/SCOTUS nominees.  And he will do so under continuing close watch by social conservatives because of his friendly relations with Democrats and his pro-choice position on abortion and support for embryonic stem cell research.

The Senate and the House both meet at 10:00 am.

Social Security
To the resignation of a White House that could at any moment get distracted by some major, unexpected event, and to the consternation of a political press corps that wants things to happen, like, NOW, public attitudes toward changing an entitlement program can take a very long time to move.

The somewhat divergent polling data out there on the President's standing and on his Social Security proposals reminds us of the horse-race numbers from the campaign, and of the need to compare apples to apples.  Cue the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (February 10-14; 1,008 adults; MOE +/-3.1%) by Hart/McInturff, which shows Bush with "an incredibly stable coalition of support," but it's narrow, says Bill McInturff (R).  Or, as Peter Hart (D) puts it, it's "a 50-percent majority."  Which is what Bush's job approval weighs in at: 50%.  (Though we'd also point out that this survey sample contains slightly more Democrats than Republicans, versus our January survey, which had an even split.)

Support for the President's private accounts remains unchanged since our January poll: 40% think private accounts are a good idea, and 51% think they're a bad idea.  More troubling for him is that, by some other measures, support for his proposals to change the program seems to be drifting a bit in the wrong direction.  Of those who say the accounts are a good idea, about one-third say their support for the accounts is firm, while two-thirds say they're open to changing their minds -- while the split among those who say the accounts are a bad idea is almost exactly the opposite, with two-thirds saying their minds are made up.

But the President's been out there, you say, campaigning hard for his plan in nine cities, including yesterday in Portsmouth, NH.  The normally super-organized GOP has not one playbook out there but half a dozen.  (Among the Social Security packets floating around, NBC's Mike Viqueira counts: the packet passed out at the GOP congressional retreat at the Greenbrier; one packet apparently put together by the Senate GOP Conference; the packet being put together by the House GOP conference that includes talking points, "templates" for town halls, and that video presentation by Bush; the RNC's lengthy memo to state parties and Members; and talking points from GOP pollster Frank Luntz, which he passed out to the House GOP yesterday and which includes a list of items he recommends they bring up in talking about the President's plan.)

Even so, citing the Clinton health care plan in 1993-1994 and the GOP effort on Medicare in 1995 as examples, NBC/Journal pollster McInturff cautions that when it comes to moving public opinion on changing an entitlement, it takes a lot of time, effort, and discipline by an administration on order to sustain the necessary intense focus.  "This is why presidential leadership is hard," McInturff said, because an administration could get distracted by an unexpected event -- like, say, a tsunami -- at any time.  The Bush White House, as he notes, is "an unusually disciplined bunch of people," but even they will be hard-pressed to keep this up for the amount of time a shift could take.

McInturff adds that another X factor possibly affecting public opinion is the outside groups who are spending money on advertising and whipping the grassroots.  We don't know which of these efforts will prove effective and at what levels, he cautions.

As for the White House/RNC's much larger goal here, when asked whether we're seeing any signs of a political realignment, McInturff says it's too early to tell: "You can't take one track in February and believe those interviews are declarative." 

The Boston Herald says Bush's event in New Hampshire yesterday was poorly attended, with "White House aides" collecting "empty chairs in an echoing Pease International Tradeport hangar before Bush took the stage since only about half of the 2,000 free tickets were taken."

Awhile back, we suggested that this battle will pit younger Americans versus older ones, and based on the latest polls, that's what appears to be happening.  And the NBC/Journal poll shows a divide -- not between older Americans already on Social Security and younger people, but between those Americans who are about to become eligible for benefits and younger people.  Asked whether, when it comes to Social Security and health care, Congress should place more emphasis on guarantees for the future or on more responsibility and personal control, the overall result was 61%-32%, with a big majority of people age 50-64 saying they want guarantees (and there's a gender gap overall, with more women wanting guarantees, too). 

USA Today also writes up the split, including AARP's effort to target younger folks.

Heads up, Hill message gurus: The Washington Post uses the "other" p-word in covering Greenspan's support for a gradual phase-in of those accounts: "President Bush has made the creation of personal accounts his top domestic legislative priority this year."

The New York Times examines the intense interest-group lobbying campaign on Social Security, which it says could amount to more than $100 million.  The Times also suggests that Republicans, having “amassed a far-reaching apparatus to push President Bush's plans,” might be outgunning the Democrats in this lobbying battle.

Roll Call reports on the "high-powered, predominantly liberal interest groups" who "have banded together to fund a national grass-roots counter-effort" called Americans United to Protect Social Security.  The group "is being spearheaded by [AFSCME], the AFL-CIO, and two liberal advocacy groups, the Campaign for America’s Future and USAction.  Another 200-odd interest groups are also supporting the effort.  The fundraising goal for the campaign is upwards of $40 million." 

And Roll Call gives the pro-reform CoMPASS a separate write-up.

On September 17, 2003, then-Candidate Schwarzenegger boasted to Larry King that, if elected, he would bring tax dollars back to California:  "I will be known as the Collectinator."  Today, when Schwarzenegger meets with other California officials in DC from 11:00 am-1:00 pm to press for more federal aid for his state, critics will be waiting to see whether he can deliver on that promise.

Interestingly, congressional Republicans seem to be downplaying the pow-wow a bit.  Jo Maney, a spokesperson for Schwarzenegger ally David Dreier, said the meeting will focus mainly on things the whole delegation agrees on: base closures and spending on Medicaid, homeland security, and transportation.  But she didn't suggest that the meeting will yield some sort of battle cry for more federal aid.  The meeting will take place in Dreier's House Rules Committee office.

Overall, Democrats want to know why California is getting back only 79 cents for every dollar it sends to DC, especially when members of their delegation control powerful House committees (like Appropriations and Rules), and when they have a popular GOP governor who stumped for Bush in 2004.  "It's time to put up or shut up," said a spokesman to California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, who will be accompanying Schwarzenegger to DC.  "We want the money for our state."

Although his presence will send the Hill into the same frenzy as always, Schwarzenegger's image in his home state may be showing a bit of wear, as he's in the midst of a budget fight, a squabble with state Democrats over his redistricting plan, and a ramp-up, it appears, for a re-election bid in 2006. 

But it's the budget that's wearing on him the most.  "When you are the only person known by voters in terms of state government... you wear a bad, bad budget.  No matter what," says one Democratic strategist based in the Golden State, "but especially after you said it was fixed last year."  This strategist also notes that Schwarzenegger may be looking to his Democratic-leaning state increasingly like a partisan Republican.  Still, the strategist suggests, Schwarzenegger "should right himself and the Democrats really aren't offering up star power to take him on."

Perhaps not living up to his promise of being the “Collectinator” (yet) and also not getting rid of special interests, Schwarzenegger yesterday abandoned “one of his most far-reaching and controversial proposals since taking office:" his plan to eliminate 88 regulatory and policy-setting boards," says the Bee.  “Although Schwarzenegger still plans to proceed with a reorganization of the umbrella agency that runs California's prison and parole system, his about-face on the larger reorganization signals a big win for consumer activists, unions and Democrats.”

The Bee also says that more than two years after the passage of Proposition 49 -- the after-school program that helped launched Schwarzenegger’s political career -- children are being squeezed out of these programs.

Bush's Other Priorities
You might've thought it would be Democrats who would pounce on "unnecessary" items in the supplemental, but no: "House Republican leaders said yesterday that they may cut some of the nonmilitary parts of President Bush's $82 billion budget request for Iraq and anti-terrorism efforts because they are not emergencies.  The sharp comments they made in challenging the budget request marked an abrupt departure from the deference the Republicans have shown Bush on earlier war funding.  Party members said they are determined to reassert their authority over the budget at a time when the White House is accusing lawmakers of being big spenders."  - Washington Post

Bush officials were hard-pressed yesterday to make the Administration's case against drug importation in the face of the rising costs of the Medicare prescription-drug law. – Washington Post

With Social Security getting most of the attention, the New York Times writes about the start of negotiations among the Administration, Congress, and state governors over the future of Medicaid.  “Medicaid spending has shot up 63 percent in the last five years, so that federal and state outlays together now total more than $300 billion a year.  With no change in current law, the Congressional Budget Office says, the cost will grow an average of 7.7 percent a year in the next decade.”

The Los Angeles Times says Bush's tax-reform commission, in its first meeting yesterday, "acknowledged that it might be wiser to modify the existing income tax than to replace it."  The story adds that per co-chair Connie Mack, "the panel would not include the Social Security payroll tax in its review."

The Wall Street Journal says co-chair John Breaux "suggested he favors moving to a hybrid income and consumption tax system...  The Bush administration has suggested it favors a shift toward a consumption tax, having advanced proposals to reduce taxes on capital gains and dividends, and to revamp tax treatment of Individual Retirement Accounts."

And Roll Call ID's one difference between Bush's second-term push for tax reform and his first: "Unlike President Bush’s first round of tax cuts in 2001, which back then spawned a united, energized lobbying force of 790 business organizations and conservative groups, the possibility of tax reform has elicited shrugs at best, and jitters at worst, on K Street." 

The Wall Street Journal editorial page seriously dislikes GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's border-security bill, including the national driver's license standard, saying "the bill's provisions have long occupied the wish list of anti-immigration lawmakers and activists," approving of the President's guest-worker program; and calling for Bush to veto the Sensenbrenner bill if some version hits his desk.

GOP Rep. Mike Pence, a leading voice of House conservatives, regretfully disses the President's plan to extend NCLB to the high school level in a USA Today op-ed.

"The Bush administration's message to Amtrak is simple: Change or die" says Knight-Ridder.  If Amtrak doesn't change dramatically, Transportation Secretary Mineta says they'll be forced to "junk" the company and "save only commuter-rail segments." 

Whither the Democrats
Roll Call offers what's really the latest in a series of looks at how Hill Democrats are trying to figure out how to market themselves, this time reporting on the "major internal effort to craft a new party 'brand' that will help them better connect with the electorate." 

David Broder notes a changed Dean who seems thus far to be showing a new "deference to Washington officialdom," which Broder cautions "is not a long-term posture for success.”

Bob Novak says Dean’s ascension “reflects a party adrift, its senior leaders mired in unreality.”  He also points out that although Democratic leaders are convinced Dean won’t have an impact on policy, previous DNC chairs sometimes have. 

Some Republicans might be tickled by the thought of NARAL taking after the New York Times twice over its coverage of Democrats and abortion.  First, for its reporting on Hillary Clinton's speech "in which she reinforced her support for the pro-choice position," but on which the Times "gave the opposite impression," NARAL says.  And now for their story yesterday on the party and abortion which "gives more space to this theory about political parties distancing themselves from the choice issue," the organization claims in a memo.  "This story ignores the reality that all recent polling shows that a majority of Americans continue to support a woman’s right to choose and reject efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade..."

Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, and other Democrats today play to the party's activist and African-American bases in rolling out the Count Every Vote Act, which would "provide a verified paper ballot for every vote cast in electronic voting machines, set a uniform standard for provisional ballots so that every qualified voter will know their votes are treated equally and require the FEC to issue standards that ensure uniform access to voting machines and election personnel in every community."  The presser is at 12:45 pm.

Kerry will announce that when he sent an e-mail to his johnkerry.com list in January, 35,000 people called GOP leaders Frist and Hastert's offices asking them to make election reform a priority, says a Kerry aide. 

On the chewing-gum front, Kerry also works the national security end of the Democratic party's ongoing effort to find its footing, announcing that he and colleagues and fellow vets Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed are calling for increased US troop strength.  An e-mail to Kerry's supporters in the veterans community will lay out Kerry's proposed Military Bill of Rights.

More on 2008
A bevy of 2008 hopefuls -- Frist, McCain, Hagel and Clinton -- met behind closed doors with a Chamber of Commerce delegation from Portsmouth, NH yesterday, says the AP.  "Aides to all four said they had been invited to drop in by New Hampshire Republican Sen. John Sununu, and stressed that presidential politics wasn't on their agenda."

Republicans haven't come up with a challenger to Clinton's re-election bid in 2006, but Sen. Rick Santorum may be looking to capitalize on the support that surely would well up for any GOP opponent to Clinton by positioning himself as her lead opponent on a national scale.  Roll Call reports on Santorum's new book and book tour, scheduled for this summer: "Santorum will make his case in “It Takes a Family: Conservatism and the Common Good,” which his publisher bills as the 'conservative response' to Clinton’s heralded - and in conservative circles, controversial - look at the role played by the community and society in raising children..."

Roll Call reports on Frist's six-city tour next week, featuring a speech on health care at the Cleveland City Club and a keynote for an Oakland County, MI GOP fundraiser, and his expected appearance in New Hampshire on March 4.


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