LIANE HANSEN, host:
President Bush delivered the second in a series of speeches on Iraq policy this past Wednesday. The next one is set for tomorrow. The first two, prompted by growing criticism of the conduct of the Iraq War from many quarters, received mixed reviews. The Democrats have been having their own tussle over Iraq policy with Senator Joseph Lieberman supporting the president's policies and many others substantially opposed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had her own difficult week trying to calm European leaders about alleged CIA secret prisons. And here to discuss all of these issues is Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Good morning, Doyle. Welcome back.
Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Washington Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Let's start with the modest increase in the president's approval ratings in the most recent polls. Can you attribute that to the speeches?
Mr. McMANUS: To the speeches on Iraq? No, you can't because, in fact, that little bump which gets the president to around a 40, 42 percent, approval rating--which is still not great, but is up off the floor. He was heading for the mid-30s. That bump came because of good news on the economy. Basically, gas prices went down, president's numbers went up. It still leaves the president with this big problem of his second term, and that is still Iraq. And what we are seeing in these four speeches the president is giving is, if you like, a great lab experiment on whether a president of the United States can use his bully pulpit and actually change what the public thinks about a big issue.
And happily, for those of us who write about it, there are two different sets of political scientists out there arguing the two sides. John Mueller, of Ohio State, says it's probably too late. There are too many casualties in Iraq. Public opinion has kind of settled in. People don't like this war. He's probably not going to succeed. At Duke University, Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi argue that, no, actually if a president does a good job of reframing an issue, of showing people that victory is possible, and that's why you've heard the word `victory' a lot, then he can move the needle. Professor Feaver, incidentally, is on leave from Duke and working in the White House to help write these speeches.
HANSEN: Last January, when the Iraqi elections were held, the American people were more optimistic afterwards. Do you think that this Thursday's national elections in Iraq can have a similar effect?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, they will probably help it. It is worth noting that the political side of the administration's program in Iraq has gone reasonably well. As you say, national elections, ratifying a constitution, and now this parliamentary election is probably going to work. Although the insurgents, as we've seen, have kicked up the violence.
The problem the administration has is the American people have seen a series of elections in Iraq. They know Iraq can have elections now. They've sort of pocketed that part of it, and it just essentially returns folks, I think, to this--to what is a more bottom-line question for Americans, which is: When are the casualties going to come down? And when are we going to see some troops start to come out?
HANSEN: What's the story with the Democrats? I mean, Nancy Pelosi, Howard Dean, very critical of the president's Iraq policies. Senator Joseph Lieberman, very supportive.
Mr. McMANUS: And what is going on there is Democrats are being Democrats. It's very tough for a party in opposition to congeal around a unified position, especially on an issue as difficult, as divisive, as tough to crack as this one on Iraq. This round of recriminations and debate among Democrats, of course, was kicked off a couple of weeks ago when Congressman John Murtha, of Pennsylvania, the ex-Marine, got up and emotionally said, `This war isn't working anymore. I'm getting off the bus.'
Senator Lieberman, a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, wasn't comfortable with that. Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, after a little bit of hesitation, came out in support of Congressman Murtha. What you have here, to some Democrats with long memories, is an echo of what happened back in 1968 when Eugene McCarthy was running and the party was split. Interestingly enough--well, what some Democrats wanted to do was simply hang back and let the president and his party wrestle with this war and not get involved. That--they couldn't quite sustain that. The Democrat's campaign leader in the House, Rahm Emanuel, of Illinois, says, `We don't need a unified position. Who needs it?'
HANSEN: Talk a little bit about diplomacy. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Europe. It was a real delicate trip. She was trying to allay all those concerns about secret CIA prisons in Europe, flying terror suspects through European airports. Was she successful in your opinion?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, if the question was: Could she calm the Europeans down, especially the European governments? Yes, she was quite successfully. She went into a series of meetings with European leaders and foreign ministers, and they all came out saying they were perfectly satisfied by what they had heard from Secretary Rice. But if your question is: Did she explain the current American policy on torture or mistreatment of detainees to the European public or even the American public? I think the answer still has to be no. She took two big tries at clarifying the policy and the questions are still out there, exactly what's permitted and what's not.
HANSEN: The criticism about torture, has it changed at all the administration's stance on John McCain's anti-torture amendment?
Mr. McMANUS: Yes, it has, actually. McCain, as you'll remember, put an amendment on the defense bill to outlaw torture by American personnel. President Bush--the White House initially said he would veto that bill, but the Senate passed that amendment, 90-to-9. The combination of enormous support for that idea in Congress and this foreign pressure has caused the administration to backpedal and they are working very hard to find a compromise with McCain. And that amendment is very likely to pass.
HANSEN: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Thanks a lot for coming in today, Doyle.
Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Liane.
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