From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
Fifty days until election day... President Bush's aggressive posture in his Friday news conference, which aides called an attempt to better explain the White House's position on detainee trials and treatment, may not have had its intended effect. The GOP heads into a second week debating the issue amongst themselves, detracting from their effort to keep the heat on Democrats over security issues going into the midterm elections. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, taken in the days leading up the Bush's primetime speech on September 11, indicated that effort was at least somewhat effective, up until that point, in nudging Bush's job approval rating and other standard measures of the political climate in a positive direction for Republicans.
Further fueling interest in the GOP split over detainee policy is that the debate between Bush and Sen. John McCain -- among others, to be sure -- is laden with overtones of Bush's legacy and McCain's presidential prospects. The former Vietnam POW clearly feels very personally and passionately about this issue; he told NBC's Chip Reid last Friday that he considers it "a matter of conscience." But to the extent that the debate undercuts Republicans' prospects in November, it may inadvertently wind up helping McCain. The conventional wisdom among political analysts is that a midterm election that results in serious losses for Bush's GOP will boost McCain's chances of winning the party's nomination because more Republicans will decide they need to nominate a candidate who represents a change from the status quo.
Arguments can be made in the other direction, too -- that McCain's dispute with Bush over detainee policy might cost him Republican presidential primary votes. And some analysts don't think the current debate will wind up hurting Republicans much at the polls in November. NBC political analyst Charlie Cook notes that as long as Topic #1 is detainee policy instead of the unpopular war in Iraq, that's a plus for the GOP.
McCain and his team seem to have the presidential race in mind. The Financial Times reported late last week that McCain "told aides he was willing to risk the presidency, because of possible loss of support from Republican lawmakers and voters" over his stance on this issue (see Friday's Security Politics section). The issue also very publicly distances McCain from Bush on one aspect of the national security debate, while his support for Bush on the unpopular Iraq war gets less notice.
Although the involved parties hinted over the weekend that a compromise might be possible, this debate is expected to dominate the discourse on Capitol Hill as Congress returns for its second-to-last week in session; members are scheduled to leave town for the rest of the election cycle on September 29.
As his party struggles with an issue that will affect how the United States is viewed around the world, President Bush heads to the United Nations. Today he drops by his wife's first international conference, a forum on global literacy. He then does a bunch of bilats (i.e., bilateral meetings) with various world leaders. He caps off the day by headlining an estimated $1.4 million Republican National Committee fundraiser at a private home which is, guess what, closed to the media.
Tomorrow brings Bush's big address to the United Nations General Assembly, which aides have billed as the capstone of his series of speeches casting Iraq as central to the overall war on terror. He'll also meet with the President of Iraq. But the White House campaign continues past tomorrow: On Friday, Bush meets with the President of Pakistan, and next week he meets with the President of Afghanistan.