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

First glance
No public events scheduled for President Bush today, no gaggle, and no briefing. 

  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

Some hefty moral values concerns are on the table, starting with the Pope.  Unless something changes, we won't hear from the Vatican again about the Pope's condition until Monday morning.  Officials say he had a latte, juice, and 10 small biscuits for breakfast.  But his tracheostomy prompts questions -- apparently with no clear answers -- about what would happen should he become incapacitated and require life support.  USA Today notes that the Pope himself in a speech last March said that because no one really knows when a person's mind is gone forever, "it remains a “moral obligation” to provide food and hydration indefinitely."

In Kansas, state AG Phill Kline is demanding the medical files of dozens of women who have had late-term abortions and girls who have had abortions.  Kline says he needs the files to pursue possible criminal cases of illegal late-term abortions and statutory rape.  Critics charge that Kline is really targeting doctors who perform the late-term procedure.  Two clinics are fighting Kline's pursuit of the records in the state supreme court.

And Arlen Specter raised conservative hackles again yesterday by suggesting that Republicans are partly to blame for the escalating fight over Bush's judicial nominees.  The Judiciary panel chair met with reporters to preview a heavy schedule seemingly intended to combat concerns that his Hodgkin's disease will interfere with his duties.  Specter also said he plans to manage the floor debate on the bankruptcy bill starting on Monday, and that he will oversee the hearing on Bush US circuit court nominee William Myers, NBC's Ken Strickland reports.  (The CW has it that Myers is first up because Specter hopes he'll prove less controversial than some of the others, but one Senate Democratic insider suggests to First Read "that's like asking which is your favorite Menendez brother.")

The nation's governors, including a handful of potential presidential candidates from both parties, start gathering in DC for the National Governors Association winter meeting, which kicks off tomorrow with a summit on high school education.  NGA chairman, oh-eighter, and red-state Democratic Gov. Mark Warner is all over it.  The other hot topic: bipartisan opposition among the governors to the White House goal of cutting $60 billion from Medicaid.  The governors dine with the Bushes at the White House on Sunday and meet with the President on Monday morning; the conference runs till Tuesday.  More on the govs below.

The AFL-CIO gathers in Las Vegas early next week to try to deal with declining union membership.  More on this below, too.

And in the wake of the Gannon/Guckert fiasco, and amidst the blogging surge, the Los Angeles Times asks, "What is a journalist?," pointing out why neither the White House nor the White House press corps wants to puzzle that out, while the Wall Street Journal focuses on the changes that have occurred in the makeup of the briefing room over the last few Administrations.

All First Glance links at bottom.

Bush in Europe
USA Today outlines the unfinished business remaining after Bush's trip: still no agreement with Great Britain, Germany and France "on what incentives might be offered to persuade Iran to stop enriching fuel that could be used in nuclear weapons;" no specific proposal "to work with Germany to share research and develop technology to reduce global warming;" no acknowledgement "from the leaders of Germany, France and Russia, all of whom opposed the war, that the invasion was a wise move or that Iraq is on the path to stability;" and no agreement between Bush and Putin "on the Russian president's commitment to democracy." 

The Washington Post characterizes Bush's approach as "gentle" in urging "Putin to reinvigorate Russia's fragile democracy," noting that Bush "accepted Putin's word when the former KGB colonel insisted he was not turning his country back toward totalitarianism." 

The Dallas Morning News says some analysts are skeptical that Bush can actually push Putin in the right direction on democracy and freedom. 

Incidentally, it seems that while Bush has stacked audiences at his events, Putin has a stacked press pool -- "a handpicked group of reporters, most of whom work for the state and the rest selected for their fidelity to the Kremlin's rules of the game.  Helpful questions are often planted.  Unwelcome questions are not allowed.  And anyone who gets out of line can get out of the pool," says the Washington Post.

The Chicago Tribune: “Putin downplayed concerns over press freedom in Russia, and he testily defended the abolition of direct elections of regional governors by pointing to the U.S. Electoral College, which seated Bush as president in 2000 without winning the popular vote.” 

Social Security
The Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire: "Pressure rises on Social Security.  A senior Bush adviser sees 'ice breaking' around opposition of some Democrats to the administration plan...  Despite White House courting, Democratic Sen. Nelson of Nebraska is unlikely to embrace Bush's private-account plan...  Plan B?  Republicans insist Bush could 'win' without legislation by hitting 'anti-reform' Democrats."

Several Democrats, the New York Times says, are questioning Social Security Administration deputy commissioner James B. Lockhart III's appearances at events across the country to promote private accounts.  “In a telephone interview on Thursday from Houston, where Mr. Lockhart took part in a town hall meeting with Representative Tom DeLay…  Mr. Lockhart said his objective was ‘to help educate the American public about the need for reform in Social Security, and that it should be sooner rather than later.’” 

The Washington Post covers Americans United to Protect Social Security, a new labor-driven group staffed by Democratic political operatives which aims to raise and spend $25 to $50 million -- our source put it at $40 million -- to defeat Bush's plan.

Even though (we'll repeat again) USA Next took that AARP/gay marriage ad off its website after several hours, Dean's former group Democracy for America is the latest organization on the left to seek to make hay of it.  The DFA release calls USA Next "the same hatchet group that ran the Swift Boat ads in the 2004 Presidential election" (which isn't quite the case; the group is advised by many of the same people).  DFA "has started an online petition drive asking television stations not to abet this type of slanderous platform and not to air any ads produced by USA Next.  The petition... will be delivered to every television station that aired the Swift Boat ads in 2004 and intends to air ads by USA Next in 2005."  (Although if we recall correctly, the Swiftee ads ran in just a few states, and USA Next hasn't announced plans for TV ads.)

The Governors
Last week, we ran an interview with red-state Gov. Joe Manchin (D), who suggested that Democrats can win in culturally conservative states like his own West Virginia if they just "be themselves and realize that issues such as abortion, guns, and gay marriage are personal issues, not political ones."  A Democratic consultant who works on the federal side immediately retorted in a not-so-gently-phrased e-mail that the party's governors benefit -- in red states and generally -- from not having to run on the war and terrorism, the two issues which he said encumber Democrats the most at the federal level. 

Another Democratic strategist who has worked with both US senators and governors agrees that security issues can be a hurdle for the party's candidates at the federal level and adds, "No (Democratic) senator wants to say oh my God, no senator is ever going to get elected president.  But an element of 'I told you so' emanates from the states and state parties and governors" in the wake of Sen. John Kerry's 2004 loss. 

With that, and to kick off the NGA meeting, we remind ourselves of the many upsides and a few downsides for governors running for president.  For scorekeeping purposes, Democrats' 2008 presidential field currently is believed to include -- though may not be limited to -- Governors Richardson, Vilsack, and Warner, and Senators Bayh (a former governor, but now with a voting record), Biden, Clinton and Kerry, plus former Senator Edwards.  The GOP field is generally thought to include Governors Pataki, Romney, and Sanford, and Senators Allen, Frist, Hagel, McCain and Santorum.

1) It's tough to nationalize a governor's race.  Although, therefore, you may never have run in a nationalized election before.

2) General election opponents can't mine your voting record, hold every vote cast on every spending bill against you, and harpoon you for agreeing or disagreeing with your party's Hill leadership.  (And for Democratic governors, your record on national security issues is a clean slate when you arrive in dovish Iowa.)

3) After not being a part of daily national political discourse for three years, you suddenly are center-stage.  You're a new commodity -- your warts were never made as public, and you might have had a chance to smooth them over before the national spotlight focuses on you.  Also, your state capital press corps -- with the exception of Massachusetts -- probably isn't as aggressive as the national press corps.  Downside: potential rude shock when you get your first Washington Post Style section profile.

4) Your network of fellow governors can come in handy when it comes to fundraising and, in the case of those governors who are really well-organized, a preexisting state campaign structure.  George W. Bush had 30 fellow GOP governors to help him out in 2000.  Right now, there are 28 on the R side and 22 D.

5) There are constitutional similarities between governors and presidents, both chief executive roles.  "They are agenda-setters, they are reformers, they have to work with legislatures," says former Republican Governors Association executive director Chris Henick.  Former Pete Wilson aide Dan Schnur: "It's great from a messaging standpoint, because a governor can point to accomplishments much easier than a legislator."  A downside, particularly with the more hierarchical GOP, might be in bumping up against other candidates who have been around for awhile -- "who's run in the past, who's had a history" with the party on the national level, "who's got more loyalty," Henick says.

And Schnur points out that "it helps for the governor to come from a state that reflects his/her ideology.  A Republican representing a Democratic state" -- like Wilson -- "or a Democratic governor from a Republican state is always going to face efforts to undermine him/her at home."

Which brings us to the flip side of congressional Democrats' national security problems when they try to run for president: Republican governors of blue states getting tripped up on social issues.  As the Democratic strategist who has worked at both the state and federal level observes, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) seems to have decided he can expend a few points from his current in-state approval rating to gain some points in the presidential race by firming up or reiterating (depending on your point of view) conservative stances on some hot-button social issues.

Whither the Democrats
First Read also caught up with Steve Jarding, Mark Warner's 2001 campaign manager, who calls the NGA meeting a coming-out party of sorts for Warner: "He is arguably one of the hottest stars -- if not the hottest star -- in the Democratic Party," Jarding said, noting that Warner could become even hotter property if Democrats continue to struggle in the South.

What about Warner possibly running for the Senate against fellow potential oh-eighter George Allen (R) in 2006?  Jarding says he doubts that either one -- if they truly have presidential ambitions -- will actually run in '06, since their time would be better spent in Iowa or New Hampshire than stumping through rural Virginia.  With the presidential race wide open, he suggests candidates will be wanting to hit the campaign trail earlier than ever before.

Speaking of, Edwards addresses the Broward County, Florida Democrats' Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Fort Lauderdale tomorrow.  An aide tells First Read that Edwards doesn't plan to make any news -- that his remarks will be very similar to his New Hampshire speech from a few weeks ago.  He also will speak at Mount Olive First Missionary Baptist Church in Wilton Manors, FL on Sunday morning (no cameras allowed).

A Wall Street Journal op-ed makes the point that the GOP's loathing for Hillary Clinton means she can move toward the center without losing support on the left.

The Democratic party and choice community's internal debate over how to talk about abortion continues.  The Planned Parenthood Action Network e-mailed a note to supporters praising DNC chair Howard Dean for his record on choice -- and on abortion "prevention."  If you click to send Dean a note of thanks, as requested in the e-mail, you're taken to a form thank-you letter to Dean which you can "sign."  The form e-mail to Dean reads, "I'm aware that there are some in your party who are urging that Democrats back away from their unwavering support of reproductive rights as basic human rights.  I know you won't let them succeed.  While you understand the importance of a woman's right to choose, you also are among the party's leading voices in support of prevention as the primary means of reducing the need for abortion."  And yes, there is an "edit" button.

EJ Dionne nails the DNC's primary commission for what it is: "It's an old habit: If an election is lost, there must be some fix in the party's rules and procedures that will turn things around."

Labor's decline
The AFL-CIO kicks off its annual winter meeting in Las Vegas on Tuesday.  The AFL, with 13 million members from 58 unions, is hoping to restructure and reorganize after months of criticism from within that labor support and membership are dwindling.  Last November, AFL president John Sweeney called on members to submit ideas about how to reform the group so they could have a “full and open discussion about our future and about the choices we must make together.”  Dozens of proposals from various unions have been submitted, and next week the AFL-CIO executive council will review those proposals and possibly make some recommendations.

AFL-CIO spokesperson Suzanne Folkes says that at the meeting, Sweeney wants to focus on unity, honoring the rights of members, and reorganizing priorities to make union efforts more efficient.  Sweeney is running for re-election in July despite talk among labor folks that perhaps he should step down. 

First Read asked the AFL’s director of organizing, Stewart Acuff, about the decline in union membership.  His response: “Many more workers would organize if they had a right to."  He argues that the right of workers to form and join unions has been “eroded” by the Bush Administration and that “manufacturing, the foundation of the modern American labor movement, has been steadily losing jobs over the past 15 years.”  But Acuff admits that while “the Bush Administration has more than its share of responsibility, it’s not the only issue here…  It’s a deeper problem than that.”

On the SEIU blog yesterday morning, union president Andy Stern says the problem is that “[i]t used to be unions and the Democratic Party that valued and rewarded work.  But the party has lost its voice and moral compass."   Stern has threatened to break off from the AFL-CIO and take his 1.7 million members with him if the organization doesn’t make some drastic changes.  Even so, Acuff says “the party that is most worker friendly is in fact, the Democratic Party.  Does that mean they are always right?  No.  Not at all…  But the issues of working people and Democrats line up.” 

No matter what the reason for the decline, the fact is that this downward spiral spells trouble for Democrats who have gotten millions in campaign donations and the support of voters interested in what Democrats at least used to be good at selling -- bread-and-butter issues.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 12.5% of America’s workforce belongs to a union, down from 20.1% in 1983.  The AFL-CIO boasted 22 million members in 1975 and now has 13 million.

Also yesterday, AFSCME submitted a "proposal for growth" to the AFL.  President Gerald McEntee said in a statement that labor should focus on increasing membership and committing more money to organization, and that "winning in politics has everything to do with whether the labor movement grows, and that must be our greatest priority."

The New York Times says Sweeney has announced he would support cutting individual unions’ contributions to the federation, to make more money available for organizing.  “Labor leaders said Mr. Sweeney's announcement would mean tens of millions of dollars more for organizing and could cause the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to reduce its staff and responsibilities and focus more on politics and legislative matters.”

But the Wall Street Journal says that "even as Mr. Sweeney has embraced some reform ideas, it remains unclear whether the 70-year-old labor president... can implement sweeping changes fast enough to satisfy a coalition of union leaders threatening to create an alternative organization that would drain strength and stature from the AFL-CIO."

First glance links
The Pope
What's a journalist?


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments