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Instead of a summer sipping iced tea and watching blockbusters such as Terminator 3, President George W. Bush is sitting through endless reruns of a political shoot-'em-up you might call Showdown at Credibility Gap. Using 16 ill-chosen words in the State of the Union address as a jumping-off point, Bush's Democratic critics have launched a broad assault on his character. "This Administration already has a shaky relationship with the truth," says Senator John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a 2004 White House aspirant. "George Bush already went back on his word on education funding, the environment, the deficit, and...the costs of the war in Iraq."
Even before the weapons of mass destruction debacle, Bush was facing headwinds from a struggling economy and mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq. But the flap over unverified claims that Iraq attempted to buy uranium from Niger could be even more serious. Democrats, joined by maverick Republican Senator John McCain (Ariz.), want congressional hearings to examine whether the Administration knowingly used false justifications or pressured intelligence agencies to shade their findings in the runup to war. Two Democratic candidates on July 16 called for the resignation of designated scapegoat George J. Tenet, the CIA director, and top Pentagon policymakers.
Bush loyalists dismiss the current media frenzy as a Washington sideshow fomented by desperate Democratic Presidential contenders. Perhaps. But the fierce assault on Bush's believability still threatens to knock the halo off the head of a politician that 75% of Americans view as a strong, decisive leader, according to a June 27-29 Gallup Poll.
To de-lionize Bush, Democrats are borrowing a page from the 2000 battle plan of White House political guru Karl Rove. Just as the GOP successfully painted Al Gore as a serial exaggerator, Bush's foes are alleging a Presidential pattern of playing fast and loose with the facts. White House hopeful Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) denounces "this Administration's problem with telling the truth when it conflicts with its political agenda." Connecticut Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Gore's former running mate, says the exploding deficit is yet another example: "They underestimate the size of the hole we're in. And worse, they're hiding behind the war and homeland security to excuse their own fiscal irresponsibility."
In the past, Democrats had high hopes of turning opportunities such as the Enron scandal and the corporate crime wave into cutting critiques of George W. But in both cases, a nimble White House was able to neutralize the damage. This time the Bush communications team, renowned for message discipline and crisis management, has been slow to offer a coherent response. One result: A July 9-10 ABC News/Washington Post Poll found that 50% of voters believe that the Administration intentionally exaggerated its evidence of Iraqi weaponry. Perhaps more important, the percentage of Americans calling Bush honest and trustworthy fell to 65% in late June, from 74% a month earlier, according to Gallup.
Those are still impressive numbers. But the trend line worries GOP strategists. Bush could try to put the issue behind him by offering up a sacrificial staffer. But he is always loath to give in to critics, and any sign of White House weakness might lead to escalating demands for political blood.
If the President chooses to tough it out, he'll bank on Democrats overreaching as they try to tar his regular-guy, straight-talker image. And the public could tire of the midsummer melodrama. Still, if more examples of dissembling come to light, staying the course could backfire big time. The battle against media deregulation is heating up. In passing a $279 million FCC spending bill on July 16, the House Appropriations Committee prohibited its use to implement a new rule allowing TV networks to own local stations covering up to 45% of the nation's audience. Instead, the agency would have to stick to its previous 35% cap.
A day earlier, a bipartisan group of senators, including Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.), and Susan Collins (R-Me.), introduced a rarely used legislative veto to undo new FCC media rules, including one allowing newspapers to own broadcast stations where they publish.
Foes of deregulation face a tough slog, though. The Senate veto is largely symbolic because the House GOP leadership vows to block it. And on July 10, the National Association of Broadcasters withdrew support for a return to the 35% cap because it fears other changes, such as a ban against newspaper-broadcast mergers. The Network Affiliated Stations Alliance, however, a group of over 600 network affiliates, vows to fight on. Not only is Democratic Presidential candidate Howard Dean raising big bucks on line, but he's also the first to host a Web log, cogitating at blogforamerica.com. And on July 14, Dean began filling in for vacationing Larry Lessig, a Stanford University law prof whose site has a huge following among technoids and cyber-libertarians. Campaign Manager Joe Trippi says Dean writes the blog himself.