West Wing Story: November's In The Air

Press Secretary Ari Fleischer brought props to the daily White House briefing yesterday. He brandished the blue, bound volume of the National Energy Policy report from the podium.

"This is the report, and people can read it for themselves," he said. "I hope people will read it, and they'll see that of the recommendations that are in here, there are many that were supported by the environmental community."

His defensiveness was understandable. A court order has just forced the Energy Department to turn over documents relating to the vice president's controversial task force that put the report together. Environmental groups say they were hardly consulted compared to energy companies. And government lawyers had blotted out whole lines and paragraphs. Other pages were blank. When asked about the "censorship," Fleischer rejected the term then read from the law (which he just happened to have at the podium) under which the documents were redacted. Another lawsuit is in the works to get the unabridged version.

The Democrats couldn't be more pleased with the legal show and tell (or don't show and don't tell). Everyday I get an e-mail from the Democratic National Committee entitled "White House Stonewall: A Daily Review of the White House's Attempts to Keep America From Learning Their Secrets." Today is Day 33. Ever since the congressional Government Accounting Office filed its suit to get the White House to release the task force documents (a different lawsuit than that which forced the Energy Department's hand), the DNC has been sending out its gleeful missives. They have two full-time staffers working on the campaign.

The Democrats think they have finally found something that they can run with in the midterm elections. "One perception that has stayed [with President Bush] is that he always sides with big business," says a DNC operative. It's been hard to be the opposition party lately. None of the usual bulldogs--neither the new House Whip Nancy Pelosi nor perennial presidential candidate Richard Gephardt--feel much like barking for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. Democratic congressmen and senators alike have been pretty tame in their weekly responses to the president's Saturday radio addresses, for example.

Until last week. Every fifth week it's the DNC that gets to give the radio response. They've taken the mantle of the party firebrands. Usually they try to find someone from outside of the Beltway, someone up-and-coming from the states; they tend to feel freer to criticize Bush. Speaker emeritus of the California State Assembly Antonio Villaraigosa certainly felt free. He accused Bush of "pandering" to Hispanics--an important swing vote. "The president's trip ... to Latin America is part of an orchestrated strategy to curry favor with Latino voters in the United States," Villaraigosa said. Fleischer decried the attack, saying it was a break with the tradition of not criticizing the president while he's out of the country. The DNC responded with a list of examples where Bush 41 criticized President Clinton while he was abroad.

Welcome to the 2002 elections. In the last few weeks, President Bush has entered the fray. He has started an unapologetic fundraising swing. Today, for example, Bush held a $1,000 a plate fundraiser lunch for would-be senator Rep. Lindsey Graham at the Expo Center in Greenville. Then it was on to Atlanta for another fund-raiser for Congressman Saxby Chambliss. By the end of today, Bush helped raise an easy $2.6 million. Tomorrow he'll raise another $1.2 million or so in Dallas. Each fund-raiser today had a "First Responders" security demonstration and a speech built around it to justify the trip. Taxpayers will be happy to hear that the GOP--and sometimes the candidate--defrays the cost of flying Air Force One when the president attends a fund-raiser. They pay according to the percentage of time Bush spends on politicking.

There was a lot of politicking today. Before Bush even boarded Air Force One this morning, he signed the campaign-finance bill that just passed the Senate. His aides say he wanted to sign it immediately. It will restrict soft money to political parties but not the hard money to candidates or the state-party money Bush raised today. Was the symbolism of fund-raising the day he signed the bill a provocation? Just business as usual? When asked if he found it "ironic" that he signed the bill then passed the hat, Bush was feisty: "I'm not going to lay down my arms," he told reporters in South Carolina this morning.

Bush has doubts of the constitutionality and worth of the bill he just signed. That's why he gave it such unceremonious treatment when he signed it. So unceremonious, in fact, Sen. John McCain--one of the bill's main sponsors--was miffed. In the White House, there is a pecking order based on locale. First tier events happen in the East Room. Second tier might get the Rose Garden. Bush signed the campaign-finance bill in the Oval Office with no invited guests, no photo op--and no props.