At White House, Juggling Staff and a Chinese Summit

Robert Siegel talks politics with E.J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution and Todd Lindberg of the Hoover Institution. They discuss the shuffle of jobs in the White House, President Hu's visit to the United States, and other news of the week.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In this country it has been an eventful week in politics. The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, is leaving, Karl Rove's job description is changing, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, despite several calls for his departure, is staying. And that's something President Bush made clear he is emphatic about.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best, and what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the Secretary of Defense.

SIEGEL: By week's end, we've seen a crack of daylight in the mess that is Iraqi politics. An official visit by China's president, one that is not quite a state visit, and among other polls, one that shows discontent with Congress on the rise. And here to discuss some of these matters are columnists E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Georgetown University, and Tod Lindberg of the Washington Times and the Hoover Institution. Tod is sitting in for David Brooks this week. Welcome back to both of you.

Mr. TOD LINDBERG (Columnist, the Washington Times): Thanks, Bob.

Mr. E. J. DIONNE (Columnist, the Washington Post): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Tod, President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld could have choreographed a resignation. Secretary Rumsfeld could easily have said, I appreciate the President's unstinting support. I've had a five-year run and I'm becoming a distraction, so I'm going to go spend more time with my family. Why didn't he?

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, you know, I think that Bush has a pretty strong track record of being very resistant to external pressure on questions of personnel and so forth. Now, there have been a few exceptions to this. Obviously, Harriet Myers is an interesting one. But in that instance, it was pressure coming from within the Republican ranks and in this case, I think there's still pretty much a perception that this is coming from outside. And Bush does not like to bend under those circumstances. For better or worse, he sticks by his man.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: Well I guess, using the President's formulation, that must mean I'm the opiner and the criticizer. That was a remarkable...

SIEGEL: I'm the decider, you're saying.

Mr. DIONNE: Yes, his I'm a decider statement. It was a remarkable piece of defensiveness from an administration you don't expect to be so defensive. I don't think the President wants to let go of Rumsfeld, because to do so would be to acknowledge that the strategy pursued in Iraq over the last two or three years has been a failure. And so I think he decided he didn't want to make that admission. What's interesting is a lot of the Rumsfeld critics don't just come from the Democratic Party. There are a lot of Republicans and conservatives, John McCain, Bill Crystal, who have said critical things of Rumsfeld. I think Bill Crystal, a neoconservative writer, came out for Rumsfeld's resignation a couple of years ago. But I just don't think the President wants to admit this policy is in the mess it is.

SIEGEL: Well, the somewhat more subtle personnel move at the White House was the change in title for Karl Rove. Tod, has he actually been demoted?

Mr. LINDBERG: No, I think that's actually a misreading of this. E.J. had a very perceptive column today, and my only regret is I was going make much of the points and have them be original, but...

Mr. DIONNE: Bless you.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Mr. LINDBERG: Look, the essential point is, Karl Rove has a mission and the mission is to maintain Republican control over Congress, and to deploy the political assets in the office of the President to that end, between now and then. And that's, you know, if you're a Republican Party guy, which I think George W. Bush is, that's a pretty important job now. And, as we're going to talk about, I daresay, you know, the challenges are pretty formidable.

SIEGEL: What are the assets?

Mr. LINDBERG: The assets are that Bush is unpopularity is not uniform. It has pockets, and there are places where he can be deployed,I think, probably to good effect. Also with someone thinking about these kinds of questions more seriously in full time in the political operation. I would expect to see the White House try to queue up at least some activity for Congress and other consumption that will make Democrats feel a bit uncomfortable. And what that might be, a little hard to say at the moment. Certainly, you know, going into the 2002 election you had the creation of the Department of Homeland Security which got a lot of Democrats feeling a bit wrong footed to the political advantage of the Republicans at that time. So I would be, I would imagine there would be something like an initiative along those lines.

SIEGEL: E.J. can, can Karl Rove and the Republicans at least argue that the economies coming along?

Mr. DIONNE: You would think they could, although the public reaction to the economy is not very positive. And I think their problem is that there are too many voters who sense that yes the bigger economy is going well, but wages aren't going up and they're having problems affording healthcare and so on.

SIEGEL: And gasoline, I guess.

Mr. DIONNE: And gasoline in a big way, and Democrats are really trying to play up the rise in the gasoline prices. But the notion that Karl Rove has lost power in preposterous. In that, you know, I talked to a very, a Bush loyalist yesterday who said look, the biggest fear in the administration right now is if Democrats take even one house of Congress there will be, as he put it, investigations of everything. And even, though I think is a long shot, the possibility of a forced withdrawal from Iraq if Congress acts legislatively. So the only issue for them this year is holding on and winning these elections.

SIEGEL: Well more on the prospects for Congress, the Pugh Research Center has found that the number of Americans who say Congress has accomplished less than usual has risen from 16 percent in July 2000, to 27 percent in November 2002, to 41 percent now. And yet, Tod, 57 percent of Americans say they'd like to see their own member of Congress reelected. What does that tell you?

Mr. LINDBERG: Well, you know, what tells you is that the people who draw Congressional districts in this country are very, very good about protecting incumbents. There are not of, there's not a lot of play and, you know, that is one of the key differences between this year and the circumstances in 1994. In 1994 you had pretty much, you know, you had about a third of the Congress that was new, and whereas now you've got really just astronomical retention rates among incumbents because they live in districts that have been drawn to the advantage of one or the other party.

So, you know, the numbers are not good. On the other hand, you know, the, for Republicans I mean, but the challenge is still pretty high just because of those other external factors.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

Mr. DIONNE: You know you, like your child's teacher even if you criticize the public schools, you criticize your religious institution but you like your priest or your minister or your rabbi, but these numbers are really striking in the Pugh survey. I was struck, for example, they note that anti-incumbent sentiment out there is something like has not been seen since late in the historic 1994 campaign, just before Republicans gained control of Congress. This mood could start brining in second and third tier Democrats whom you would think otherwise would have no chance of winning.

SIEGEL: I've just one last quick question, and Tod I guess we'll have time for you to look at it. E.J. says the Republicans are afraid a Democratic majority in one house could mean investigations. Could they run on that promise to investigate? Would it be, would it be an effective national campaign plan?

Mr. LINDBERG: Nah, I don't think it's a national campaign, I think it might be effective locally in some races. And that would be areas where, you know, a fair bit of Bush skepticism was beginning to crystallize where it hadn't been before.

SIEGEL: Tod Lindberg, E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. LINDBERG: Thanks.

SIEGEL: Once again, on the story of high gasoline prices and what it takes to fill up the tank nowadays, is coming up next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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