Political Fallout of Ports Deal Filters Through Washington

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Renee Montagne talks to NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts about the political furor over Dubai Ports World and its potential takeover of terminal operations at six U.S. seaports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Joining me now is NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So, Cokie, what do you think? Will this decision to add another layer of reviews to the Dubai company's deal to take over some ports in America, you know, will this end the furor?

ROBERTS: Not if the Democrats have anything to say about it. They have been loving this. Finally, they have found a place where they are able to look tougher than the President on the issue of homeland security, which has been the one issue that he continues to win on in the polls. Of course, the Republicans jumped right in there with the Democrats because they see the polls, too, and know that this is their issue. So they were perfectly happy to give the back of their hands to the White House and join forces with the Democrats to oppose the Dubai company taking over some operations at some ports.

Now, after lots of backtracking and trying to fix this problem, the White House and lobbyists of both parties have worked this deal for another review. Republican leaders at least say that legislation will be postponed, but as you just heard, Renee, in Adam Davidson's piece, New York Democrat Charles Schumer, the most vocal opponent, is still saying that Congress must review this deal, some of it must become public, that legislation to insure that a proper investigation is done should be introduced, and even some Republicans are still saying there should be hearings on all of this.

MONTAGNE: Well, it seems that every Monday we talk there's another fire that the Bush White House is trying to contain. Is bungling a word that could be used here?

ROBERTS: Well, it really is interesting. It is very different from the first term, certainly. And you're right. We talk and it's something that's just sort of piqued up over the weekend just takes over through the week. I think part of it is that they aren't on their game in the White House. There is no reelection campaign. There are bad numbers for the President in terms of his approval ratings. But I think the big thing is dealing with Iraq, and that that is what is occupying everyone's time.

The President feels very strongly about leaving this legacy of democracy. He's going to India this week and he's been interested since before he ran the first time entreating with that nation in a more friendly fashion because it's the world's largest democracy. And he talked about it back in 1999 and then realized he had to tack towards Pakistan after September 11 and the need for help with al-Qaida.

But he is still trying to get going this notion of spreading democracy around the world, using democracies to form common cause to try to make the world a better place. And I think that that's what he's going to India about, as well as trying to get a nuclear deal.

But of course over the weekend his notion of democracy in Iraq was spent trying to avert civil war, so when you're dealing with a great huge problem like that, things happen that just don't hit the radar screen and I think that this port deal was obviously one of them.

MONTAGNE: But many of the people who have been with the President all along are still in the White House and their political instincts have traditionally, at least the last few years, been quite good. Is it surprising that they've been having such a hard time keeping Washington focused on the President's agenda?

ROBERTS: I think part of it is at this point in the presidency when people are still there, they're tired. But also there's bad luck, you know, you can't predict a Vice Presidential hunting accident, although you could certainly handle it better. And there's so much that you can't control. And of course that's especially true of Iraq.

But even intangibles that sometimes make a big difference in terms of how Americans feel, like the Olympics didn't go particularly well. But I think the truth is that people in the White House are just not paying a lot of attention. Now, they would argue, look, we've gotten two Supreme Court justices approved without much fuss, although it came after Harriet Myers' problems. And the President, though, you know, says he doesn't want to think about a legacy. He says he'll leave it to historians.

He points to the fact that books are still being written about George Washington, analyzing him, and that he's got plenty of time for people to figure out what kind of a presidency this has been, but the fact is that that is where his head seems to be, is that he is thinking about what happens after he leaves the presidency and not so much paying attention to what's going on right now.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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