The Note: Still Believe in a Place Called Kennebunkport/Chappaqua

If Dan Bartlett and his Democratic counterpart know one thing, it is that in politics, as we often Note, there is a big difference between what IS and what OUGHT to be.

(Just kidding: Dan Bartlett has no Democratic counterpart -- more on that below.)

In any case, a December of careful second-term planning has given way, at least partially, to one of the saddest and most serious natural disasters in modern times.

Our politics and our political media are going to be touched by the tsunami fallout and its emotional impact for some time.

Our hearts go out to the victims and their families. It has been inspiring to witness the worldwide outpouring of support and concern.

At the same time, there are some political realities swirling about, as the President prepares in short order to:

--give his second inaugural

--find a Homeland Security Secretary and an intel czar

--give his SOTU

--figure out how to sell the domestic agenda

--monitor Palestinian and Iraqi elections

The greatest immediate political effect of the tsunami has been the displacement of Iraq from the front pages and out of the leads, which as Dan Bartlett knows, is probably a plus for Mr. Bush right now.

If the Iraqi elections go poorly (violence or credibility problems, or a "disappointing" result), the tragedy in Asia will still likely overshadow events in Baghdad -- providing more political cover than could have been imagined.

And if the elections go well, we are quite confident that the President's Men and Women will be able to elevate the story long enough to take credit where credit is due.

In fact, the greater long-range consequence of the events in Asia gives the Leader of the Free World and the Commander in Chief another extended opportunity to sit astride the world look tough and compassionate at the same time.

(Which doesn't mean that one has to TRY in order to get political benefit even in -- especially in -- a moment of human tragedy. But the presidency is a political office -- something we learned a while ago.)

And, as best we can tell, the Democratic Party (such as it is) will simply nitpick and criticize on an ad hoc basis, bringing the same carping, themeless-pudding approach to disaster relief that it brought to most everything in 2004.

(Bartlett -- and his boss -- LOATHE that sort of Democratic response, although they are never quite sure whether they should be angered by it, pity it, or revel in the weakness of the opposition.)

And/but another thing Dan Bartlett knows is that all the good deeds, time, and money that are now being generated by the USG won't in the short-term erase the media's obsession with the 72-hours-of-slow-off-the-mark performance just over a week ago.

Even yesterday's naming of the 41/42 to head the relief effort (and the deploying of the Florida governor) haven't changed the media mindset. But it is headed in that direction.

More generally, the best thing anyone wrote framing the President's political future while we (and many of you) were otherwise occupied during the holiday season was by the assistant editor of Dow Jones', the estimable Brendan Miniter, who penned thusly on Dec. 28:

"History, however, is only a good predictor until it isn't. Before Election Day this year, we were incessantly told that Mr. Bush was going to be turned out of office because -- among other things -- no president had ever won re-election after having a net jobs loss on his watch. Two years ago we heard the point echoed today about a president's party losing seats in off-year elections. Yet somehow Mr. Bush managed to win re-election for himself and to add to the Republican majorities in the House and Senate in both the 2002 and the 2004 elections."

"If anything, the history of the Bush presidency so far is that it isn't following historical trends. One reason Mr. Bush has 'beat' history is that the nation is in the midst of a realignment that has been a long time in the making. The war on terror and the end of the Cold War has already transformed foreign policy. Building liberal democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq is also giving the nation a fresh look at its own moral underpinnings. Meanwhile, voters are being confronted with changing the definition of marriage and saving Social Security -- the bedrock of the New Deal -- from bankruptcy."

That might not be exactly correct, but it is providing a winning mindset and formula for the party in power.

As for the Democrats, they have a national chair to find; a set of congressional leaders still looking for a modus operandi; a bunch of liberal interest groups in a mood more grumpy than feisty; and John Kerry.

You don't have to be a fan of John Giesser's (we are) or a student of irony and understatement (not us . . . ) to get EVERY one of the (mostly unintentional) 13 pieces of humor embedded in this must-read paragraph from Evan Thomas' Bizarro World Newsweek interview with Sen. Kerry, but those traits will help:

"Kerry has become deeply fascinated by the task of rebuilding the Democratic Party from the grass roots up, say his advisers. He has hired a streetwise political organizer from Boston named John Giesser, the deputy to 2004 grass-roots organizer Michael Whouley, to run his political action committee. There is talk that Kerry is trying to make Giesser his Karl Rove, though Giesser is said to be too quiet and unassuming to play the role of master manipulator." LINK

Kerry is off on a foreign trip to "the region" with a couple of aides in tow. Let's hope he read Adam Nagourney's New York Times Week in Review piece on "whither the Democratic Party?" story before he left. LINK

We also hope he had a chance to read Tommy Edsall and James Grimaldi on Dec. 30 on how the Republicans spent smarter than the Democrats (yes, yes, Sen. Kerry, with more time to prepare . . . ). LINK

Oh, and also on Sunday, the Washington Post's Richmond alums (Mike Allen and John F. Harris) "broke" the story that Dan Bartlett is becoming Karen Hughes; Nicolle Devenish is becoming Dan Bartlett; and Steve Schmidt is becoming Mary Matalin. LINK

Everyone but James Carville seems fine with this.

We have more to discuss in the coming days to tee up the month and the year, but we want to ease you back in slowly.

So -- on to today's news.

Neither President Bush nor Vice President Cheney has any public events today, but on Capitol Hill, House leaders, both Republican and Democrat, gathered at 9:00 am ET at the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill for a bipartisan prayer service with singing, praying and Old and New Testament readings.

At 9:30 am ET, the Congressional Black Caucus holds a swearing in ceremony for caucus members at the Library of Congress.

At 10:00 am ET, Reps. Curt Weldon (R-PA), Solomon Ortiz (D-TX), Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), Fred Upton (R-MI), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) and Eliot Engle (D-NY) hold a presser on the Hill about their trip to North Korea.

Also at 10:00 am ET, retired generals and admirals hold a news conference at the National Press Club to release a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging members to look at the role played by White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, the nominee for attorney general, in setting U.S. policy on torture.

At 11:00 am ET, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) holds his first pen-and-pad briefing of the 109th Congress.

Also at 11:00 am ET, critics of President Bush's medical liability plans will hold a pre-emptive conference call on its impact on families and insurance companies -- and the targeted advertising campaign they're planning. Among those participating: Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL); Joanne Doroshow, Center for Justice and Democracy; Doug Heller, Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights; Jay Angoff, Director, Missouri Department of Insurance, 1993-1998.

The House and Senate convene at noon ET.

Vice President Cheney swears in new and re-elected Senators. At 1:00 pm ET Senators re-enact individual swear-ins in the Old Senate Chamber.

The House is called to order, hears prayer, and accepts nominations for Speaker of the House. After a roll call vote, the Speaker-elect is introduced by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and is then sworn in by Dean of the House, Rep. John Dingell. The Speaker then swears in members en masse. At 3:00 pm ET House members re-enact swear-ins.

Looking ahead this week . . .

Tomorrow, President Bush travels to Collinsville, IL, to deliver remarks on medical liability reform at 2:05 pm ET.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers his state of the state address tomorrow. Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell delivers hers as well.

Also tomorrow, there will be a memorial service for Rep. Robert Matsui at the U.S. Capitol Building, Statuary Hall, at 12:30 pm ET. He will lay in state at the California State Capitol Building in Sacramento on Thursday and Friday, and will be buried on Saturday after memorial and funeral services.

Our condolences and good wishes go out to the family, friends, and staff of Rep. Robert Matsui. LINK; LINK; LINK

And to the family and friends of former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, our thoughts and prayers as well. LINK

On Thursday, the House meets in joint session to count electoral ballots. Note that Sen. John Kerry's 13-day Middle East trip takes him away from the certification of the results. We wonder meta-aloud why that is.

On Thursday at 10:00 am ET, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins its hearings on the nomination of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) presides.

Also on Thursday at 10:00 am ET, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions convenes to begin confirmation hearings for Margaret Spellings to be Secretary of Education.

The House is not in session on Friday.

Social Security:

Jonathan Weisman and Mike Allen of the Washington Post preview the Bush Administration proposal for overhauling Social Security, starting with possible benefits cuts, and via "price indexing," dealing with transition costs. In case you missed that first part, we'll quote them directly: "cutting promised benefits by nearly a third in the coming decades, according to several Republicans close to the White House." LINK

"Under the proposal, the first-year benefits for retirees would be calculated using inflation rates rather than the rise in wages over a worker's lifetime. Because wages tend to rise considerably faster than inflation, the new formula would stunt the growth of benefits, slowly at first but more quickly by the middle of the century. The White House hopes that some, if not all, of those benefit cuts would be made up by gains in newly created personal investment accounts that would harness returns on stocks and bonds."

While some Democrats are already pronouncing themselves shocked/shocked (and while rising media star Trent Duffy will surely tell all who ask that "no decisions have been made"), no one should be fazed by this.


Supporters of such a plan (or "scheme" as the Brits say) believe that the combined benefit (guaranteed benefit+investment earnings from the personal accounts) will make up the difference, but there is, of course, no guarantee of that.

Paul Krugman channels his best Michael Kinsley-channeling-Paul Krugman as he prepares two weeks of columns to explain why Social Security partial privatization would "undermine Social Security" entirely. LINK

Today -- where's the crisis?

"When benefit payments start to exceed payroll tax revenues, Social Security will be able to draw on that trust fund. And the trust fund will last for a long time: until 2042, says the Social Security Administration; until 2052, says the Congressional Budget Office; quite possibly forever, say many economists, who point out that these projections assume that the economy will grow much more slowly in the future than it has in the past."

"So where's the imminent crisis? Privatizers say the trust fund doesn't count because it's invested in U.S. government bonds, which are 'meaningless i.o.u.'s.' Readers who want a long-form debunking of this sophistry can read my recent article in the online journal The Economists' Voice ("

Krugman's "Medicare and Medicaid are bigger problems" mantra is one that the White House is just waiting to bash back.

Bush agenda:

President Bush is urging Congress to make its first act this session approving aid to tsunami victims. LINK

The Los Angeles Times' Maura Reynolds takes a look at the big picture President Bush laid our for freshperson lawmakers yesterday, urging them to join him on "big issues" like the overhaul of Social Security, limiting medical liability and changing the "complicated mess" of a tax code. LINK

The Los Angeles Times' Nick Anderson takes a great look at the Bush secondary education agenda, Noting that while the President's ducks appear to be in a row as he begins his push for testing in high schools, he could end up facing stiff opposition from both sides in the aftermath of No Child Left Behind, as lawmakers insist that the program be implemented differently in terms of both money and reconciling state and federal standards. Anderson also Notes the prominence that governors will have in the discussion, particularly given the National Governors Association planned "education summit" during their February winter meeting. Read all the way to the end for the very salient comments of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. We look forward to seeing how his . . . platform continues to take shape. LINK

We also wonder if Gov. Schwarzenegger will address the issue as it pertains to California tomorrow in his state of the state address. LINK

Bush Cabinet:

The Washington Post's Dan Eggen reports that some high-ranking retired military officers including Army Gen. John Shalikashvili are squeamish about the nomination of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general, and sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday outlining their concerns over his role in handling detainees and other portions of the war on terror. Interesting to Note the number of officers who had signed on as advisers to the Kerry campaign. LINK

The Washington Times notes the array of questions Judge Gonzales faces at his confirmation hearing. LINK


Two New York Times bigs -- Rich Oppel and David Sanger -- dip their toes into the "election delayed?" scenario for Iraq.

"The (American) officials insisted that Dr. Allawi, Iraq's interim leader, did not tell Mr. Bush that the elections should be delayed, though his defense minister said in Cairo on Monday that the voting could be postponed to ensure greater participation by Sunnis. 'There was no substantive conversation about delay,' a senior administration official said. Dr. Allawi, the official said, 'wasn't even a bit wobbly' on that point." LINK

"But some officials in Washington and in Iraq interpreted the telephone call as a sign that Dr. Allawi, who is clearly concerned his own party could be headed to defeat if the election is held on schedule, may be preparing the ground to make the case for delay to Mr. Bush."

We wonder what the difference between "no substantive conversation" and no conversational at all is.

Read today's Wall Street Journal front pager on the delicate balance between ideology and pragmatism inherent in Mr. Bush's plans for Iraq and the Middle East, and then get in to the nitty-gritty about the presumed desire among some in the policy world and in Iraq to delay the election.

Disaster relief:

The Los Angeles Times' Ed Chen and Maggie Farley wrap President Bush's decision to tap former Presidents Bush and Clinton to assist with fundraising efforts for tsunami victims and the difficulties of getting aid out to the people who need it in the affected countries. LINK

The Washington Post's Peter Baker and Alan Cooperman look at the role former Presidents Clinton and Bush will play in the U.S. relief effort for the tsunami victims. LINK

House ethics:

The Washington Post's Mike Allen reports that House Republicans are bagging the plan to loosen ethics rules, which would have made censuring a House member for unethical behavior more difficult and allow House members under indictment to continue to hold leadership posts. They are, however, going forth with another proposal requiring at least one Republican vote before an ethics committee inquiry can begin. LINK

"Those attending the Republican meeting, which was held on the day before the opening of the 109th Congress on Tuesday, said Republicans unanimously agreed to restore the old rule after Mr. DeLay told them that the move would clear the air and deny Democrats a potent political issue," the New York Times' Carl Hulse reports. LINK

Adds the Wall Street Journal's David Rogers, "Republicans last night did agree to a rules change making it easier for one party to block an ethics investigation demanded by the other, and Mr. Hastert shows little appetite still for extending the tenure of Committee on Standards of Official Conduct Chairman Joel Hefley (R., Colo.), who has won praise for his independence. But the decision to preserve both the old indictment rule and code of conduct show a clear recognition by Republican leaders of the political problem they face as a result of the accumulated ethics problems for the party after 10 years in power."

The Boston Globe's Rick Klein offers more detail. LINK

As does the Los Angeles Times' Richard Simon. LINK


Jeanne Cummings has a great sketch of the coming SCOTUS nomination debates in today's Wall Street Journal.

The Washington Post's Chuck Lane yesterday looked at the contingencies set up around Chief Justice Rehnquist's health. LINK

Dems regroup:

The Boston Globe's Rick Klein takes a look at Sen. John Kerry's 13-day trip through the Middle East that began yesterday with his arrival in Amman, Jordan, as a way for Kerry to maintain his foreign policy credentials and keep his seat warm at the table. He's stopping in Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank, and will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Jordan's King Abdullah, Syria's President Bashar Assad, Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, military commanders and troops from Massachusetts. We'll be on the lookout for the media availabilities. LINK

Elsewhere in the Democratic circle . . .

Messieurs Ickes, Dean and Roemer have yet to officially decide whether to run. Someone who spoke recently with Mr. Ickes reports that the famously, often profanely (LINK), indecisive strategist was more pro-go than not.

Hopes abound in some circles (causing worries in others) that Rep. Martin Frost and former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk will join forces.

On Thursday, as the Hotline reported first, Simon Rosenberg throws his beanie into the ring. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein turned in a shot across the bow at the uneasy peace among Democrats, looking at the fissures underlying the mostly calm post-election hand-wringing that are now threatening to break open. LINK

The professor kindly offered the whole thing up in a tiny shorthand graf: "Democrats have now moved back to the barricades, at least in their intellectual circles. The lines of battle evident in these disputes also could resurface in the race for the DNC chairmanship, which will pit liberals Dean and party operative Harold M. Ickes against centrists such as former Indiana Rep. Tim Roemer and Simon Rosenberg, president of the centrist New Democrat Network."

Washington Governor's race:

When Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed certified the gubernatorial results last week, he declared Democrat Christine Gregoire the winner over Republican Dino Rossi by 129 votes. But, to beat a cliche even further into the ground, it ain't quite over yet -- though Gregoire's inauguration is scheduled for Jan. 12, a contest can be filed until Jan. 22, and the election could yet end up in the courts. Gregoire hasn't bought into Rossi's re-vote suggestion, and state Republicans continue to allege wrongdoing in the counting.

The Washington state Republican Party is calling on election officials in King, Pierce, Snohomish, Clark and Kitsap counties to explain what it calls a nearly 8,500-vote discrepancy between vote tallies in the counties and the number of people counted as voting in the gubernatorial election, reports Chris McGann of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. LINK

Don't miss this passage:

"County auditors and election officials say Republicans have based their conclusions on there being many more votes than voters on preliminary lists, and they say much of the deviation would be accounted for as voter lists are updated."

"But they do not dispute that the numbers don't add up."

"And most agree they never will."

Meanwhile, the push for a re-vote continues, reports David Postman of the Seattle Times -- in the form of a group called ReVote Washington, backed by former Gov. Dan Evans. LINK


In the New York mayoral, Giff staffs up, including Brian Hardwick . . . LINK

Throw into the mix in Virginia may be an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage: LINK


Headline watch: "Jeb Bush Enters the World Stage," from the Orlando Sentinel. LINK

Sen. Frist is getting lots of good local coverage for his visit to the tsunami zone. LINK

The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi looks at Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney on the list of 2008 hopefuls, with ambitions broad on ideas and less detailed on local issues that she thinks call into question his concern for his current constituency. LINK

The Washington Post's Rich Leiby has all kinds of . . . interesting details about former Vice President Gore's INdTV. LINK

House of Labor:

The Washington Post's Tom Edsall outlines the stakes in the fight for the leadership of Big Labor, and the serious challenge that the AFL-CIO's John Sweeney is facing as unions try to figure out their structures and strategies going forward, and to determine how to keep unions' membership high and the seat at the table prominent. LINK


It's inauguration madness. LINK


The Boston Globe's Peter Canellos argues that political gamesmanship and partisan jockeying for advantage in redrawing districts or approach to the electoral process (i.e., recounts) can lead to real danger and assumptions about the status quo. LINK

What part of Steve Schmidt's body would he NOT have given to read a headline like this roundabout four months ago: "U.S. Manufacturing Shows Pickup in Momentum." LINK

Bush-Cheney '04 filed a brief with the Ohio Supreme Court on Monday, asking the state's chief justice to throw out the challenge to the election there. Thirty-seven Ohio voters filed a challenge to the state's election results, and Rev. Jesse Jackson is among those urging the U.S. Senate to look at the results. LINK

Imagine a world in which a cousin of Howard Dean's just became the mayor of Salt Lake City, UT . . . LINK

Do read our colleague Jonathan Karl's book review of "The Dominion of War" in the Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Art section. It'll take you back to the first challenges faced by the U.S. military and its civilian controllers and bring you right to the front page of said newspaper.