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 Panelists Janet Hook, Michael Barone, Ethan Rarick (moderator), Michael Kinsley, and Nelson Polsby. Left to right: Panelists Janet Hook, Michael Barone, Ethan Rarick (moderator), Michael Kinsley, and Nelson Polsby. (BAP photo)

"Annual Review of the Presidency" panel took potshots at — and played defense for — a lame-duck Bush

– Putting together a good political forum is analogous to putting together a good dinner party. Ideally, hosts want guests with diverse yet overlapping interests. They hope for lively, convivial discussions in which no one gets angry and fires — or takes — barbs too personally. If one person is rambling on, they gently steer attention to another guest.

The invitation for Monday night's "26th Annual Review of the Presidency" (April 10) certainly sounded appetizing, at least to a UC Berkeley audience: "President Bush Struggles with War, Natural Disasters, and Politics." The host, Center on Politics Director Ethan Rarick, was well-prepared and gracious. And the guests were plenty distinguished: Michael Kinsley, Slate.com cofounder, briefly editorial page editor for the Los Angeles Times, and now a columnist for the Washington Post; Michael Barone, a senior writer for U.S. News and World Report and coauthor of "The Almanac of American Politics"; Janet Hook, staff writer for the Los Angeles Times Washington, D.C., bureau; and Nelson W. Polsby, UC Berkeley political science professor and coauthor of "Presidential Elections."

Yet somehow the forum never quite found its conversational stride. The problem, perhaps, was the main dish — President George W. Bush — who is more to the liking of some than others.

Capital shortage

The discussion kicked off with the president's low poll numbers: the percentage of Americans who say they approve of the job Bush is doing has sunk to the dismal mid- to upper 30s, depending on the polling group. Rarick listed some possible reasons — the Iraq war, Bush's Social Security privatization plan, and Hurricane Katrina — and asked the assembled panelists which they thought was the biggest factor in the ratings decline, or whether it was the inevitable slide of a second term.

Hook took the first pass, saying that all three elements had come into play, but that perhaps the biggest culprit was that the country and Bush himself had greater expectations for his second term after the larger margins of the 2004 election, when Bush famously boasted, "I have some political capital, and I'm going to spend it!"

Barone laid the bulk of the blame at Hurricane Katrina's feet, saying that it swept the Social Security privatization plan off the table. The televised images of the storm's aftermath left an indelible mark on perceptions of the U.S. government's competence: "I think if someone had told us that we'd see the destruction and loss of a major American city, most have us would have assumed it would be from an act of terrorism, not a Category 3 hurricane."

Later, he said that Bush was getting a "bum rap" on Katrina, getting unfairly blamed for the levees' failure and New Orleans officials' mistakes. He compared Katrina to the many hurricanes suffered by Florida, which has a "highly competent governor, Jeb Bush…unfortunately Louisiana isn't Florida."

Kinsley argued that all presidents got elected on campaign promises that they cannot fulfill, and that Bush was especially guilty of "free lunch" thinking — starting wars in which no sacrifice was required except on the part of soldiers and their families, and cutting taxes while increasing expenditures, creating huge deficits.

Polsby suggested with a straight face that the problems Bush was experiencing were because he had run as a wartime president, "and the war that this president is making is on the facts." After the laughter subsided, he went on to say that Bush was not unusual as a president in not respecting the facts. Richard Nixon, he noted, had fired his science advisers when they didn't tell him what he wanted to hear, but Bush was different in that he "respects even fewer facts" than any previous president. "What's causing the poll numbers, I would argue, is earned incompetence."

Saddam vs. Bush smackdown

Then this dinner party started either to degenerate or get really interesting, depending on one's point of view. Michael Kinsley referred to George H.W. Bush as "George the First," and said he was an "über-preppie" who believed in lying as long as it was part of a game, such as a campaign race. Afterward, everyone was supposed to realize that the Willie Horton gambit (using a convicted rapist to imply that his Democratic opponent was soft on crime) had just been all in the spirit of the game. His son, however, "lies more casually — he doesn't even consider what reality is before he decides what to say it is." (To be fair, Kinsley also said Bill Clinton raised lying to the "level of performance art.")

In response to a question about the Iraq war's effect on Bush's poll numbers, Barone — clearly irritated by the previous comments — asserted that Bush had not lied about the intelligence indicating Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. "I don't think any responsible president of the United States could have assumed he didn't have WMD," he argued, before asserting that "Saddam was killing a lot more people every day than we are now."

Kinsley took the bait, arguing the U.S. is not only torturing suspects but funding and supporting Iraqis to do so. Polsby piled on with, "If the question of the evening is who's a worse guy, Saddam Hussein or George Bush, I guess I have to say Saddam."

Hook, the perfect dinner party guest, rescued the discussion. Whether or not the Iraqi people are better off as a result of the war, or whether it was a war of choice or necessity, "Bush has not persuaded the American people, and he's lost his 'amen chorus' of Republicans," she said.

Bush had succeeded in a few things that would seem to give the lie to the lame-duck idea, Polsby pointed out, such as "appointing two far-right guys" to the Supreme Court.

"I can think of people who are farther right," joked Barone.

"Yes, and they work at our law school," cracked Polsby, without naming names.

When Barone suggested that Harriet Miers would have been a more moderate choice than Roberts or Alito, but "Democrats did not come to her defense," Polsby's jaw dropped. He said that when a president nominates someone with the quality of Harriet Miers to sit for life on the Supreme Court, it showed he was either very foolish or wasn't taking the whole thing seriously. "I hear we're about to lose another secretary of the treasury. Maybe Bush will nominate his personal income-tax accountant," Polsby cracked.

The tension grew even thicker when the subject of the Valerie Plame affair came up in response to a question from the audience. (Quick refresher: White House aide Scooter Libby leaked the identity of CIA agent Plame to discredit her husband, former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who was not playing along with the administration's case for taking America to war against Saddam Hussein. Libby recently testified that Vice President Dick Cheney told him Bush authorized the disclosure.) Barone argued that Bush was permitted under law to disclose classified information if he chose, and Libby doing so at his bidding was not considered a leak. Especially since "he was putting out accurate information about a man [former ambassador Joseph Wilson] who was a liar," Barone said.

"He was orchestrating a smear campaign!" retorted Polsby.

"Wilson's stuff was lies!" Barone jeered, referring to Wilson's op-ed that Saddam had not tried to buy nuclear bomb-making material from Niger.

The crowd started booing and catcalling, and while Rarick had trouble shifting the discussion onto a new track —  Iran — he managed. (None of the panelists believe the U.S. is about to invade.) By the time he read the preamble to a question submitted by the audience — "Only in Berkeley could you assemble such a biased left-wing panel, with not a single positive thing to say about President Bush…" — the audience was ready to laugh again.

The question was, Why do Americans still think the economy is in the toilet, even when the economic indicators are positive? A somewhat civilized discussion ensued, with the consensus being that Americans embrace or discredit whichever "facts" fit their political bias — a recurring theme of the evening.

The final question asked who the presidential candidates were likely to be in 2008. Hook smiled and demurred, quoting someone earlier in the day who'd said, "It's utterly unknowable; I'd be a fool to answer that." 

Only Barone was willing to risk a guess. "If I had to bet $1,000 right now, I'd say John McCain versus Hillary Clinton."