Political Wrap: 2006 Election, Iraq and Scandals

For a wrap-up of the week in politics, both at the White House and around the country - Robert Siegel talks with political observers E.J. Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post, and Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now our guest political commentators, columnist E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and sitting in for David Brooks once again, Rich Lowry, editor of The National Review. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. RICH LOWRY (The National Review): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And as we've heard, the White House tried to change the discussion of the war in Iraq this week. E.J., do you get any sense that the discussion or public opinion of Iraq policy has in any way been remolded by that effort?

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (The Washington Post): Well, I think the administration has been remolded by a look at the polls and how unhappy are on Iraq. I was struck by trying to figure out what was the theme of that news conference? I'm not as stubborn or inflexible as you think I am? Vote for us. We're finally admitting we made a lot of mistakes.

I don't know whom they appeal to with what the president said because they really didn't signal a major change in policy. The just signaled a major change in the way they would talk about policy. And in Don Gonyea's piece, it's so striking that the administration claimed he had only said stay the course eight times. It turns out a lot more than that. You can't even trust their Google counts. I was reminded of that old feud between two literary figures: every word she says is a lie and that includes the and it. I think it was a very embarrassing moment for Tony Snow, whom I find a thoroughly likable person most of the time.

SIEGEL: Rich Lowry, what do you think? Is there any chance of either changing the way the war in Iraq is discussed, as the White House apparently would like to change, or changing the subject altogether?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, I think this a necessary rhetorical shift for the White House and it should have been done long ago because President Bush has remained obviously relatively optimistic and resolute about the Iraq war all along, but people have concluded that that resolution and optimism are a product of his disconnection from reality. So it's very important for him to say implicitly as he did in that press conference look, I see the same things that you see in Iraq. Actually, not implicitly. He said this explicitly. I see the same things you see. You're dissatisfied and I am, too. And these are the things I'm going to do to try to make it better, I'm open to new ideas, and this is why it's still important to win.

So what he did at that press conference, I think, was the entry ticket for anyone really taking seriously anything else he tries to say or do in Iraq.

And just one last point. I think his administration's policy had been somewhat disserved by his rhetoric. His theory of what a president does in these sort of situations is just project absolute confidence, which he has done throughout, but his policy has changed over the three years we've been there and it's still changing now. We may have more troops in Baghdad. They've moved to these benchmarks to pressure Maliki. They may move to having the Iraqi Army rather than the Iraqi police involved in the street-by-street security in cities. Those are important changes but they've all been obscured by that emphasis on stay the course.

SIEGEL: E.J., much of the campaign for the Congress, for one-third of the Senate and also for a lot of governorships, comes to us via commercials. Many of the commercials are negative and it's now almost boilerplate, I find, to say some time in late October this is the most negative campaign ever if we're judging from the commercials.

So this year, is this the most negative campaign ever that you've seen?

Mr. DIONNE: I think it may well be the most negative campaign ever. I think what's really striking and Rich has actually said this himself, that Republican consultants realize that they really don't have a lot to say that's positive. I mean, they don't want to talk about Iraq. They don't want to talk about their budget deficits. They don't want to talk about the achievements of this Congress because as Rich himself has been honest enough to write, there aren't very many. And so they've decided the only way they can win this election is to really destroy Democrats. There is that add in Tennessee showing the very pretty woman basically telling Harold Ford to call her that I think is just unmistakably racist, I mean, we can argue about that but I think it has a racist undertone at the very least and Republican.

SIEGEL: The crime is that she met him at the Playboy party, I guess.

Mr. LOWRY: Right. And the ad ends, you know, with her on the phone. Harold, call me. And it's got all of these sexual undertones that make a lot of people think about the, you know, the misogynation in the South. How unpopular that is. It really is a sleazy ad. And this is not a party ad, but the Washington Post reported today that a very big Republican contributor, J. Patrick Rooney, is running ads in two dozen congressional districts saying Democrats want to abort black babies. Now, give me a break. This is a really, this is really way over the top and I think it signals a movement that is, or at least a governing majority that is close to bankrupt.

SIEGEL: Rich, E.J has already sided you on the subject, but I think you should tell us.

Mr. DIONNE: Both sides, fair and balanced, Rich.

Mr. LOWRY: Well, look, I don't think that ad was racist. I think that the ad was trying to get Harold Ford to talk about his attendance at this Playboy party, which is not a big deal in the scheme of things. But he's in running a very shrewd, nearly flawless campaign in Tennessee, partly based on this choir boy image where he's created. The impression there is nothing he'd rather do than be in church.

So for him to have to talk about oh, yeah, actually I did go to this party is a problem for him, and I think the ad was effective. I don't think it has anything to do with race.

On the general matter of negative ads, two points. One, it's not a kind of 1984 Reagan reelection, morning again in America type of campaign, that's for sure. The mood, the public mood is very sour, there's not a lot for Republicans to run on positively, at least not a lot that is punching through. So they do need to try to undermine the credibility of their opponents.

And also, I think, ironically, because the Democrats have, are putting up some fairly unorthodox and more conservative oriented candidates this time around. Harold Ford in Tennessee. We've talked about James Webb in Virginia and others. If there were more standard issue of liberal candidates, there'd be clear issues to hit them on. And I think Republicans are finding it hard to find those issues and that's why you're seeing a little bit more personal tension to these ads.

SIEGEL: We have so little time left, very, very short question to both of you. The New Jersey Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage. Does it put an issue out there for the election season that Republicans are going to try to use or the Democrats are gonna try to use it? Rich Lowry, yes or no?

Mr. LOWRY: Well, Republicans will definitely try to use it. It will help them. The issue of activist, judged generally, has won and energizes all Republicans and gay marriage in particular energizes social conservatives. There's been a lot of talk about social conservatives being the spirited this year, I think that's been exaggerated and this controversy in a certain way will put a little more tiger in their tanks.

SIEGEL: E.J., the last and brief word on that issue.

Mr. DIONNE: The Republicans were very grateful for that ruling cause they don't have anything else to talk about. But I don't think it will affect very many races.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne and Rich Lowry, thanks to both of you for talking politics with us once again.

Mr. LOWRY: Thank you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you very much.

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