IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

First Read: War on terror turning point

War on terror turning point.   “First Read” is an analysis of the day’s political news, from the NBC News political unit.

• Monday, May 22, 2006 | 2:00 p.m. ETFrom Huma Zaidi

Reaching a War on Terror turning point
Admitting that there have been "setbacks" and "missteps" -- like Abu Ghraib -- in the execution of the Iraq war, President Bush told a gathering of the National Restaurant Association in Chicago today that the US has reached a "turning point" in the War on Terror. Speaking proudly of the formation of a new Iraqi government, Bush also cautioned Americans that the future will bring more "challenges" and "loss" in Iraq and that success in the region would take time.

In a question-and-answer period following his brief remarks, Bush was asked why he thinks Americans have an increasing "lack of trust" of the government. As he told NBC's David Gregory last week, Bush said he thinks it's because there is an "unease" over the war. Calling the progress in Iraq "incremental," Bush reassured the audience, though, that freedom in the region is spreading.  But Americans don't see it that way -- at least, not yet.  A slew of recent polls gauging Bush's overall job approval have been hovering in the mid-to-low 30's while an overwhelming majority disapprove of the way the President is handling the Iraq war.

One of Bush's staunchest supporters for the war, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, will be visiting Washington, DC later this week. During this morning's White House press gaggle, Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters that Bush and Blair will be discussing future plans for Iraq. Snow declined to comment on reports that Blair is considering withdrawing troops from Iraq.

When asked if he'll see Al Gore's environmental documentary, Bush responded, "doubt it." And when asked if his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will run for president in 2008, Bush said that while he thinks Jeb would make great president but doesn't think he'll run... that was after the President made a joke about the Florida governor's weight.

• Monday, May 22, 2006 | 10:25 a.m. ETFrom Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray and Huma Zaidi

First glance
President Bush has some accomplishments to tout and more expected wins queued up for this week before Congress departs for the Memorial Day recess.  A new Iraqi government.  A forthcoming broad immigration bill from the Senate, though it may not survive a conference committee.  An emergency supplemental spending bill which will either adhere to his prescribed dollar limit, or provide him with a chance to encourage GOP conservatives by casting his first veto.  A new CIA director and a new appellate court judge favored by his party's base.

NBC's Ken Strickland advises that Gen. Michael Hayden's nomination to head the CIA is likely to be voted out of committee in the Senate on Tuesday, with a floor vote probably on Thursday.  Judicial nominee Brett Kavanaugh is also expected to win confirmation this week.  The final vote on the Senate immigration bill could happen either Wednesday night or Thursday morning.  A final vote on the emergency supplemental by both chambers is expected for Thursday, with a price tag close to what Bush has said he'll accept.

At least some of these topics -- particularly immigration and the war -- are expected to come up in Bush's 11:35 am ET speech to the National Restaurant Association's annual convention in Chicago.

Also confronting the President and his party this week, however, are many of the factors which are eroding their chances of retaining control of Congress.  Hill Democrats plan to focus on energy and gas prices, the GOP's biggest domestic sticking point, over the next few weeks.  On Wednesday, Bush visit Pennsylvania, where just last week disgruntled GOP voters ousted a bunch of their state legislators in primary upsets and gave one House incumbent a disturbingly close call.  The state is hosting a handful of competitive House races and the biggest Senate race of the year.  Vice President Cheney today starts a two-day trip to California that will include fundraisers for two House incumbents and one candidate who are vulnerable because of scandals.

And after five guilty pleas, the first criminal trial stemming from the influence-peddling investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff is set to begin today.  Former top White House procurement officer David Safavian is charged with making false statements and obstructing investigations into an August 2002 golfing trip to Scotland he took with Abramoff and GOP Rep. Bob Ney.  NBC's Joel Seidman reports that one of the prosecution's expected witnesses is Neil Volz, Ney's former chief of staff, who has pleaded guilty in the probe.  Last Friday, two Ney aides also received subpoenas.  Ney is one of his party's most vulnerable House incumbents, and his ties to Abramoff are fueling Democrats' case against a scandal-ridden GOP in Ohio.

The analysts at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report have adjusted their House race ratings to reflect what they see as increasing odds of a shift in control of that chamber in November, noting that it's hard to see how the standing of either President Bush or Congress improves much before election day.  "The turn-out dynamic for the mid-terms looks increasingly problematic for House Republicans, especially those who sit in marginal districts," writes House analyst Amy Walter.  "Increasingly, we are hearing about and/or seeing polling in these districts that confirms the drag this environment is having on individual Republican candidates...  We are also seeing mediocre, even weak candidates and campaigns on the Democratic side, performing way above levels that one might expect."

Back in 1994, the Report began noting a similar increase in the pool of competitive races starting in April, with a corresponding decrease in the number of vulnerable seats held by the then-minority GOP.  The Report currently lists 11 GOP-held seats in their toss-up category and "another 25 seats that currently lean Republican, but could end up in the toss-up column with a more substantive wave," Walter writes.  By comparison, they rank only one Democrat-held seat as a toss-up, and nine as leaning Democratic.

While Mayor Ray Nagin was celebrating his upset victory on Saturday night, another prominent New Orleans politician was seeing an escalation of a federal probe into allegations that he accepted bribes.  The FBI raided Democratic Rep. William Jefferson's Capitol Hill office that evening.  Per an affidavit filed by the agency, they have videotape of Jefferson accepting bribes.  He has not been charged with any wrongdoing and declared in a recent press conference that he will not resign if indicted.  Some members of Congress are irked over what they see the FBI's late-night raid saying about their constitutional rights.  Public opinion of Congress being what it is, these protests may not find much sympathy outside the Beltway, but growing dissent among a bipartisan group of lawmakers could escalate the already brewing battle between Hill lawmakers and the Administration over the executive branch's authority.

New Orleans, incidentally, is one of four cities to have submitted formal bids to host the 2008 Democratic National Convention; the other three are Denver, Minneapolis, and New York.  The DNC has tried to boost New Orleans lately, but there are questions as to whether the city will have recovered enough to host an event the size and scope of a presidential convention -- not to mention that the Democrats' convention is scheduled to take place during the height of hurricane season.  Today is the deadline for cities to submit their bids to host the GOP convention.

The midterms
A staff shake-up alone was never going to turn the Bush presidency around.  It was a bar set mainly by a chattering class in Washington, some of whom may have subconsciously wanted to see if a White House that never admits mistakes could be pressured by a constant drumbeat into making such an admission by changing the players on its team.  The White House used the opportunity to quiet their critics in Washington and buy some time.

Now, they appear to be setting up the midterms as their big chance to turn the Bush presidency around -- or so says the Washington Post, which reports that Bush and his advisors "have concluded that no staff shake-up or other quick fix will alter their trajectory," and that the "best chance to salvage his presidency" is to retain control of Congress in the midterm elections with a message of tax cuts, immigration and national security.  "If Republicans retain Congress..., [Bush] could assert that for the third straight election, the party defied historical patterns and popular predictions," and he could "advance a fresh agenda in early 2007."

NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports that top Bush midterm election strategist Karl Rove gives a speech in Las Vegas today.  A new statewide poll there shows that 42% of Nevadans say they will vote for a Democrat for Congress "because of President Bush's job performance," compared with 32% who say they will vote Republican. – Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Los Angeles Times rounds up recent signs -- including in fundraising -- that the GOP base is both restive and unenthused.

Republican party operatives are taking advantage of the fact that First Lady Laura Bush is popular in many areas of the country where her husband is not, including New England and some Southwestern states. – USA Today

Even though Rep. Tom DeLay (R) is resigning from Congress, Democrats are still hoping to use his fall from grace to win seats in November.  The Dallas Morning News reports that a new documentary chronicling the rise and fall of DeLay is a step in that direction.  Democrats "hope that voters will still see Mr. DeLay, who is awaiting trial on charges that he misused corporate funds to elect Republicans to the Texas Legislature in 2002, as the personification of a wider 'culture of corruption' in GOP-dominated Washington."

The immigration debate
Some Senate Republicans spoke optimistically yesterday about a compromise bill being hammered out by the two chambers of Congress at some point this year. – Los Angeles Times

Bob Novak writes that the Senate bill is a “hard bill to love, even for senators who have been supporting it” -- noting how both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly backed an amendment to reduce the number of guest workers after a Heritage Foundation study showed that the bill would help admit an unprecedented 103 million immigrants over the next 20 years.

"The director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that would administer a new guest-worker program and rule on applications from millions of illegal aliens, says the pending Senate bill doesn't give his agency enough time to prepare for that giant task," reports the Washington Times.

Security politics
Boston is a hotspot in national security politics today as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivers the commencement speech at Boston College, which some students and faculty are protesting, and Rep. John Murtha (D) receives the JFK Profile in Courage Award six months after the former Marine called for the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

The Boston Globe says the controversy over Rice's speech underscores "deep divisions between liberal and conservative Catholics" over the Iraq war.  "Over the past weeks, people on both sides of the debate have written public letters, have started petitions and countering petitions, and have accused one another of selectively invoking Catholic doctrine."

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on ABC yesterday that the US government has the authority to prosecute journalists who divulge classified material. – New York Times

As NBC's Seidman points out, the Safavian guilty plea is one of five secured by the Justice Department in the Abramoff investigation.  The other four are: Abramoff himself, former Ney chief of staff Volz, Abramoff business partner Adam Kidan, and Michael Scanlon and Tony Rudy, former top aides to outgoing GOP Rep. Tom DeLay.

If convicted, Seidman says, Safavian faces up to 25 years in jail and over $1 million in fines.  Abramoff will not appear as a witness at this trial, but his presence will be felt when prosecutors introduce over 200 e-mail exchanges between the two men.  Safavian attorney Barbara Van Gelder suggests that the e-mails reflect the communications between two old friends, Seidman reports; she also has said in court that Abramoff did not have a formal business relationship with the GSA at the time of the golfing trip.  The trip took place at a time when Abramoff was expressing interest in acquiring several properties controlled by the GSA.  Ney, for his part, is now being investigated by both the Justice Department and the House Ethics Committee. 

Bloomberg reports that Safavian's attorney doesn't plan to call Ney to the witness stand.  "She told Friedman last week that she was having trouble getting some witnesses to respond to subpoenas because they feared they are targets in the larger Abramoff probe.  She wouldn't give any details after the court hearing."

Noting that the raid of Jefferson's office on Saturday night may be the first ever of a congressional office, Roll Call reports that per an affidavit filed by the FBI, "Jefferson is being investigated for bribery, wire fraud, bribery of a foreign official and conspiracy to bribe foreign officials," that "the FBI filmed Jefferson allegedly receiving $100,000 in cash from one of their cooperating witnesses," and that "the Justice Department and FBI agents are also looking at 'at least seven other schemes in which Congressman Jefferson sought things of value' in return for official acts," per an affidavit filed by the FBI.  "That suggests that additional avenues for prosecuting Jefferson could be revealed soon."  Jefferson has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Disaster politics
The immediate verdict of close observers and political analysts who witnessed the Nagin upset on Saturday is that his challenger, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, didn't do enough to distinguish himself from Mayor Ray Nagin.  Democratic party insiders in Washington also suggest that Landrieu took some of his supporters for granted.

"Political observers had speculated that to win a second four-year term, Nagin would have to quadruple his dismal 6 percent showing among white voters in the primary and broaden his reach beyond the almost 70 percent of African-American votes he earned in the April 22 contest," writes the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  "It appears the mayor executed that strategy in textbook fashion to earn 52 percent of Saturday's vote, compared with 48 percent for Landrieu, whose challenge was to broaden his base of white voters and hang on to the 24 percent of black voters' support he earned last month...  In the end, a slip among black voters for Landrieu and Nagin's two-pronged approach wrote the latest lines in the often-unpredictable tale of a city still reeling from Hurricane Katrina."

Nagin's first order of business today will be to come up with a 100-day recovery plan. – Times-Picayune

Potential presidential candidate and Gov. Mitt Romney (R) says Massachusetts residents should know this week if they are eligible for federal assistance to rebuild their homes after last week's storms which produced torrential rain and flooding, reports the Boston Globe.  "Romney said he hoped a decision could come as early as today, but a FEMA spokesman was less definite, saying it was unclear when officials would decide if Massachusetts residents will be eligible for federal assistance."

More on the Bush/GOP agenda
With a vote on a gay marriage amendment scheduled for the first week in June, one Senate Republican is already saying he won't support it.  Potential GOP presidential candidate and Sen. John McCain said on FOX yesterday that he would vote no, "saying to do otherwise would be to act from 'political expediency'...  Mr. McCain cited his 2000 stance on South Carolina's display of the Confederate battle flag as an example of when 'political expediency' had motivated his actions." – Washington Times

The Democrats
USA Today takes the latest look at hit documentary filmmaker Al Gore's comeback of sorts.

The Washington Post profiles liberal-leaning think-tank the Center for American Progress: "Bankrolled by wealthy liberals such as financier George Soros and bankers Herb and Marion Sandler, the center has emerged as a growing force within the Democratic Party, aggressively making the case against the Bush administration even when congressional leaders and the party itself do not."  The story notes that "some see Podesta's center as a Clinton White House in exile, an ideas factory for the expected presidential run of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)."

The Wall Street Journal editorial page looks at the "angry left," noting how McCain got heckled at the New School for supporting the war, and how centrist Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman's liberal primary challenger, Ned Lamont, took 33% of the delegate vote at the Connecticut Democratic convention.  "Mr. Lamont's performance will be noticed by Democratic Presidential hopefuls, some of whom (Al Gore, John Kerry) are already maneuvering to get to Hillary Rodham Clinton's antiwar left.  Well before 2008, this passion will also drive sentiment among Democrats on Capitol Hill...  We doubt all of this will help Democrats with the larger electorate, which whatever its doubts about Iraq does not want a precipitous surrender."

The New York Times Week in Review examined at how failed Democratic presidential candidates get so stigmatized within their party that they have a tougher time than Republicans in recovering and running for president again.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, chair of the Democratic Senate campaign committee, is writing a book criticizing both parties for failing “to articulate a vision of government that addresses contemporary concerns…  At the heart of Mr. Schumer's critique is the idea that the political system has failed to provide answers at a time when Americans are increasingly alarmed about how technology is reshaping their lives.”  The book is due out in January. – New York Times

And the New York Post gets a look into Sen. Hillary Clinton’s iPod playlist, which includes Aretha Franklin's “Respect” and the Eagles’ “Take It to the Limit.”  “Clinton shared her iPod preferences with The Post before she shredded the iPod generation during a speech earlier this month to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accusing Generation Y of thinking ‘work is a four-letter word.’”