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Friday, June 24, 2005 | 9:20 a.m. ET
From Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

Going into today’s 11:25 a.m. EDT White House presser with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, we suspect that President Bush might get asked a few of these questions:

  • How does he convince a public that’s increasingly opposed to the Iraq war that the United States needs to stay the course there?
  • How does he convince the rest of the world, which has a negative perception of the US, per a new Pew poll?
  • Do his Administration’s statements about the war’s progress actually match reality?
  • What is his reaction to the five U.S. Marines who were killed last night in Fallujah, when a suicide bomber attacked their vehicle?
  • And … what does he think about Karl Rove’s statement that liberals reacted timidly and with restraint after the 9/11 terrorist attacks?

Indeed, we’ve got a strong feeling that Rove’s remarks will continue to dominate much of the political news today. The politicization of 9/11, however, is nothing new. It started in earnest in 2002, when Republicans used a spat over unionization in the bill creating the Department of Homeland Security to help defeat former Sen. Max Cleland (D). It carried over into the Iraq war and its aftermath. And it was on full display during last year’s GOP convention at Madison Square Garden. But it’s not just Republicans who have politicized 9/11: Democrats were happy to get political endorsements from 9/11 widows, and they were also eager to criticize the Administration’s handling of intelligence that could have prevented the terror attacks. All’s fair, we guess, in love, war, and politics.

But we have plenty of questions: Do Rove’s remarks (and the White House’s vigorous defense of them) close the door on any possible compromise with Democrats on Social Security and Bolton? Were they premeditated? And have they helped change the subject from other issues we should be pondering? (We think we know the answer to that last question.)

One other thing: The way in which the GOP immediately leaped to Rove’s defense yesterday demonstrates a key difference between the two parties. At about 4:00 pm, the White House released a full transcript of Rove’s remarks. Then, at about the same time, the RNC produced an email providing evidence to back up Rove’s claims. “It’s outrageous that the same Democrats who stood by Dick Durbin’s libeling of our military are now expressing faux outrage over Karl Rove’s statement of historical fact,” said RNC chair Ken Mehlman in a statement. Capitol Hill Republicans also rallied to Rove’s defense.

Now compare that with how Democrats responded to Sen. Dick Durbin’s controversial comments. They could have vigorously come to his defense. They could have issued a memo justifying what he was saying about prisoner abuse at Guantanamo Bay. But they didn’t. (That said, we have noticed that the Democratic email attacks bashing Rove yesterday seem much more coordinated than they have in the past.)

In non-Rove news today, Iran is having its presidential run off between former president Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani and conservative Tehran mayor Mahoud Ahmadinejad. Bush has now sent CAFTA to Congress. And Big Bird and Clifford the Big Red Dog seemed to be saved over at PBS. The Senate meets at 9:30 am; the House meets at 9:00 am.

Finally, in this Friday’s look at the great oh-eight race, we turn our attention to the division inside Big Labor, as some key labor unions seem ready to leave the AFL-CIO. If that happens, what does that mean for the Democratic Party, which has relied so heavily on labor’s help in the past two presidential elections?

The AP previews Bush’s meeting today with Iraq’s prime minister. Both men are expected “to underscore work being done to train Iraqi security forces … as well as efforts to draft a constitution and rebuild a nation still wracked by a violent insurgency more than two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Al-Jaafari confidently predicted Thursday that a constitution to guide his country toward democracy would be concluded by the end of August and then ratified in a popular referendum.”

In an interview with the Washington Post, Al-Jaafari said a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops would be a mistake. “‘We would like to see the withdrawal of American forces as quickly as possible, because the presence of any foreign troops on our land means there is a weakness that we cannot by ourselves control the security situation,’ Jafari [said]. But a deadline would ‘play into the hands of the terrorists.’”

On MSNBC’s Hardball last night, Al-Jaafari also said, “We are in the front lines of the war against terrorism, and this terrorism at the moment is beginning to withdraw, it is beginning to weaken. It is extremely important that the American people do not stand (ph) in the face of this and allow us to win the war against terrorism which will bring peace to the whole world.”

  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

The Washington Post also reports on the tough questions Rumsfeld received on the Hill yesterday regarding Iraq, even from Republicans. “‘I'm here to tell you, sir, in the most patriotic state that I can imagine, people are beginning to question," said Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). ‘And I don't think it's a blip on the radar screen. I think we have a chronic problem on our hands.’”

The Los Angeles Times: “The appearance by Rumsfeld and three top generals … marked the opening of a six-day push by the Bush administration to shore up confidence in its strategy in Iraq… Salvaging public support on Iraq has grown in importance for the administration as it encounters mounting opposition on other fronts, including Bush's chief domestic priority of overhauling Social Security and the nomination of John R. Bolton to be ambassador to the United Nations.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire notes that GOP party strategists are fretting “over Iraq casualties, as [a] new Emily's List poll shows one-third of women who backed Bush in 2004 don't support Republicans for Congress.”

USA Today writes about the new Pew findings about world attitudes toward the United States. “Views of the United States remain dismal in the five predominantly Muslim countries surveyed and negative in much of Europe. In every nation surveyed except the United States, a majority said the world would be better off if a country or coalition of countries emerged as a military superpower equal to America.”

More from the Pew survey: Despite a few exceptions (like in Russia and Poland), the study finds that "Bush's low standing emerges in country after country as the leading link to anti-Americanism." But former Sen. and UN Ambassador John Danforth, who spoke at the press conference releasing the study’s findings, said he doesn't think this is a personal attack against the president. 

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who also spoke at the briefing, said that based on the findings, the US should present more positive policies towards Muslim countries, participate in more humanitarian tasks, not impose democracy on countries but support it, take other nations' interests into consideration, and achieve a positive outcome in Iraq -- which Albright said was crucial.

The Washington Post says yesterday’s exchanges over Rove’s remarks “came just two days after Durbin bowed to Republican-led pressure and apologized for comparing the treatment of prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba to techniques used by the Nazis and the Soviets. Together, the episodes underscored the growing harshness and rising political stakes of the debate over national security at a time of declining support for Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq and pressure on him to outline a strategy for success there.”

The Los Angeles Times: “Democrats said Rove's comments represented an attempt to exploit the fight against terrorism for political gain. But the White House rejected that claim and turned aside Democratic demands for an apology or a presidential condemnation.”

The Washington Times: "None of the leading Democrats who criticized Mr. Rove yesterday called for Mr. Durbin to apologize for his own remarks, with some even specifically refusing to comment when asked... Asked yesterday about the different reactions, Democrats would say only that Mr. Durbin's eventual apology sets the stage for Mr. Rove to do the same." <

"In an interview yesterday with CNN, Cheney said he hadn't seen or read Rove's speech, but he defended the idea that 'there was a distinction' between what the left and the right considered the best response to the terror attacks."

The Boston Globe says that many supporters of the reformist cause dislike both candidates equally. “Some cite an Iranian proverb to explain why they will not vote today: The red dog, they say, is brother to the jackal... The election appears to hinge on two factors -- turnout, and which candidate convinces Iranian voters he is better able to relieve their mounting worries about the economy and the future of the nation's youth. Nearly two-thirds of Iran's 70 million people are under 30."

The New York Times: "There does seem to have been an organized effort among military and religious leaders to put pressure on voters to back their candidates. But what really has people outraged is that the insurgent candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is 49 and not part of the political elite in Iran, has bucked the established order by running a most effective campaign...

Despite the claims of vote fraud, there was no investigation; the appointed religious officials simply dismissed the charges. But critics have not presented any evidence, and instead have talked about unfair and inappropriate influence peddling."

USA Today breaks down the GOP Social Security proposal that would establish private accounts through the surplus in the program’s trust fund, and the paper says the plan has “emerged this week as the most popular Social Security initiative among Republicans.”

But the Washington Post notes the inconsistency between this plan and the White House’s call to shore up Social Security’s finances. “For six months, Republicans have traveled the country as fiscal Paul Reveres, sounding the alarm about the coming collapse of Social Security… But when House leaders finally rolled out their Social Security plan this week, it did nothing to address the problem that lawmakers and the president have convinced the public is looming as baby boomers retire.”

In addition, the AP says that Cheney, in his interview with CNN yesterday, “left open the possibility” that Bush might sign a bill that doesn’t include private accounts. “‘I wouldn't say that,’ Cheney said, when asked if Bush would sign a bill that lacked the personal accounts. ‘I don't know. It would depend on what's in (it).’”

The Los Angeles Times says the Senate moved closer to passing its energy bill; a final vote is expected on Tuesday. “The bill's passage would bring President Bush closer to achieving one of his major goals - the first overhaul of national energy policy in more than a decade.” But there will be obstacles in the conference negotiations with the House, especially over the House’s insistence that the legislation include liability protections for producers of the gasoline additive MTBE.

The Washington Times also notes that the energy bill could be derailed due to the MTBE issue.

The Washington Times says the White House has begun interviewing potential Supreme Court nominees. "A small group of senior White House and administration officials has quietly interviewed some of the top candidates for any Supreme Court vacancy, said Republican sources with close ties to the White House."

Reuters reports that Bush formally asked Congress to approve CAFTA yesterday, “setting the stage for a bruising fight with Democrats -- and some fellow Republicans -- over the future of U.S. trade policy… “[L]awmakers now have 90 legislative days to decide whether to reject or approve the agreement without making any changes. Congress could begin consideration of the pact as early as next week.”

NBC’s Rosiland Jordan notes that Administration officials are cautiously optimistic about the trade agreement’s passage. The major roadblock, however, is the sugar industry, which has given money to both Republicans and Democrats, and has strong lobbyists working the issue.

The Miami Herald says that CAFTA could become a hot issue over the summer because if it fails, a new trade agreement will have to be negotiated all over again -- "and it could cloud prospects for a Free Trade Area of the Americas, a 34-nation, free-trade zone, and upset already difficult global trade talks in the World Trade Organization.”

The Wall Street Journal covers Alan Greenspan’s comments to Congress yesterday, warning that an increase in tariffs on Chinese goods would lower US living standards. “But … Mr. Greenspan said China ought to adopt a more flexible currency regime for the sake of its own economic stability and for the sake of ‘all participants in the global trading system.’”

The House yesterday voted to restore the $100 million in threatened cuts from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting. The final bill gets voted on today, and then heads to the Senate.

Writes USA Today: “Clifford the Big Red Dog can breathe a sigh of relief.” But: “Not all cuts were restored. Although the House reinstated money for the CPB - which provides assistance to more than 1,000 local stations across the country - the Ready to Learn program, a preschool partnership with the Department of Education, remains unfunded. So does more than $80 million in support for public stations' transition to digital facilities and other technical upgrades.” Moreover, PBS officials are concerned about Patricia Harrison, a former co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, being named the CPB’s new president and CEO.

The Washington Post: “The vote, which drew the support of 87 Republicans, followed a public relations blitz by public radio and TV stations, which fomented a widespread protest campaign by broadcasting ads that urged viewers and listeners to call their congressional offices.”

In politics, you can't rely on much, except maybe this: the blissful marriage between the House of Labor and Democrats. Labor’s money and political operation have always been crucial to the Democratic Party, and that was especially true in 2000 and 2004. Indeed, in last year’s election cycle, unions gave Democratic candidates more than $53 million (while doling out just over $7 million to Republicans). Moreover, it’s labor that has largely bankrolled the Democrats’ efforts opposing Bush’s Social Security plan. But not all is well inside the House of Labor: It’s being split in two.

On June 15, five unions -- the Teamsters, the SEIU, the Laborers, the Food and Commercial Workers, and Unite-Here -- announced that they were forming their own coalition, another sign that these five unions could break away from the AFL-CIO after the federation’s elections in Chicago next month. These five unions believe the AFL leadership isn’t committed to spending more resources on organizing. But if a split does occur, how would that affect the Democratic Party?

Democratic consultant Vic Kamber tells First Read that it would be foolish to suggest that a split wouldn’t have a negative impact on the party, because a divided house is never ideal. But he points out that individual unions have always done their own thing when it comes to politics. “If the Teamsters sent manpower, they’re going to send it whether they are part of the federation or not.”

Another Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity because he didn’t want to offend either side in this dispute, actually thinks the split could be a positive long-term development for the party, because the two groups would be competing against each other -- and competition would produce a stronger and better labor movement. In addition, both sides have the same goal in politics: They want to elect Democrats. “It’s going to give some great copy opportunities,” the strategist says of a possible division. “But it won’t matter much.”

Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which is backing the AFL’s leadership in this dispute, tells First Read that he hopes any break from the union won't affect the Democratic party in 2008. But he concedes that labor will be hurt in areas like organizing and rallying for key issues important to Democratic voters, such as raising the minimum wage. "If the five insurgent unions leave the AFL-CIO, it'll be first and foremost harmful to American workers and harmful to the strength of the AFL-CIO, but it will also weaken and affect the ... unions that leave ... because they will be out there by themselves." And McEntee notes, "I think there is a Republican cheering section for this to come off." 

Does McEntee think this split is a crisis for the party? "Yes, but I think the country is in crisis," he chuckled. 


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