North Korea Adds to Bush's Busy Agenda

President Bush has condemned North Korea's claims of a nuclear test, calling it "provocative" and "unacceptable. Madeleine Brand speaks with Ron Elving about what North Korea's reported actions might mean for a Bush presidency already absorbed by Iraq and Afghanistan.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, panic among homeowners now that interest rates are rising. First though, we begin the week with a bang, literally. North Korea allegedly tested a nuclear weapon underground today and that's causing consternation around the world. In Washington, though, it is helping the White House shift the focus away from domestic political troubles.

Joining us to talk about some of these issues is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING: Hello, Madeleine.

BRAND: Well, the test by North Korea defied the U.N. Security Council and it basically threw down the gauntlet to the U.S. and the world. And in a strange way, the U.S. - the Bush White House, at least - may be welcoming that.

ELVING: Well, it should get everybody back to the subject of national security. It must be said that unstable dictators in desperate countries getting nuclear weapons is a serious national security question. Of course North Korea's bid to join the nuclear club has been a concern for years now. We've known it's coming. We've known they've been working on it.

So whether this particular test means a crisis - full blown crisis - or not, we'll emerge from the U.N. Security Council in the next few days and from whatever U.S. response goes on top of that. But it is clear that the North Korean leadership thinks this is a good time to press their claims.

BRAND: And we've seen many times before, including with this Bush administration, that when potential threats develop overseas the president can shift the focus away from domestic problems to overseas problems and change people's perceptions of the president in a more positive light. Do we - can we expect that now?

ELVING: We saw an example of that in September, just exactly what you're talking about, Madeleine. The president got the country talking about 9/11 with the anniversary and putting some of the alleged planners of 9/11 on trial at Guantanamo Bay. And that leverage was enough to make Congress pass the law the president wanted and it moved the public opinion polls. The president came up from the 30s into the 40s.

Now, nuclear tests in Korea, that's a more spontaneous event and it's harder to control and harder to predict in terms of its consequences. But under normal circumstances, we'd expect it to give the president a bit of a bump. And he could use it, because in the last week the president had fallen back down below 40 - 36 percent in Time magazine, 33 percent in Newsweek. So we'll see what some of the big polls find this week.

BRAND: And a lot of that negative polling due to Iraq and the public's perception there. Fewer Americans see any progress there. And now, interestingly, James Baker III - a figure from the first Bush administration - is coming out and saying some interesting things. He's talking about trying a new course of action. What is he saying?

ELVING: Well, this commission that Baker is leading along with Lee Hamilton, who was the Democratic chair of the 9/11 commission, is trying to reassess the U.S. policy in Iraq, really give it a fresh look and make recommendations, probably after the election.

And the speculation is that Baker will try to find some way to justify a limit on our commitment in some sense. You remember Richard Nixon in the Vietnam era talked about peace with honor. This might be described as phased withdrawal with honor, perhaps.

BRAND: Not cutting and running.

ELVING: Exactly. Anything but cutting and running.

BRAND: Right. And let's talk about the congressional page scandal. Any news this week?

ELVING: Well, this is going to go quietly forward behind closed doors. The subcommittee of the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct - that's a dull name and meant to be to try to sort of batten down the excitement about any kind of story that they get involved with - they're going to be taking testimony. They're going to be hearing from some of those 50-odd people that they've subpoenaed.

But in the meantime, of course, you have the L.A. Times finding a former page who says he went from e-mailing to actually having sex with Congressman Foley, not until he was 21. And the Washington Post says at least one other congressman knew what Foley was up to and confronted him about it as long ago as 2000. So those kinds of stories are going to continue.

BRAND: And do you have any prediction on how this will play out in the midterm elections four weeks from today?

ELVING: If the election were tomorrow, I think that the upshot of this Foley scandal and the way it was handled by Republican leadership in the House would probably mean that the Democrats would win the House with a few seats to spare. Remember, we were calling it pretty much 50/50, even before anyone had heard of Mark Foley 10 days ago. So this is clearly a factor that the full dimension of which has not been measured, but it would seem to be enough to push that 50/50 to a Democratic House.

As far as the Senate? The Senate would probably come very close to a 50/50 tie, probably driven by poorer turnout on the part of Republicans in some key states. But as you say, it's four weeks away and we need to watch where all these stories are going over the next month.

BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron writes the Watching Washington column at npr.org. Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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