If President Bush has any spare time on his return flight from California to Washington, D.C., this week, he’d be well advised to read closely the lengthy Howard Fineman piece on the defection of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords — and then do exactly the opposite of what Fineman has advised. Rarely has a pundit been able to string together such a long list of bad ideas. But Fineman works for Newsweek, and brings to his political reporting all the care and objectivity that marked Newsweek’s polling during the fall’s presidential contest. Newsweek is to the weeklies what the Los Angeles Times is to the dailies — a franchise that has long ago given up on reporting the news, choosing instead to manufacture the leads and the angles that prop up the left side of the Democratic Party.

Fineman’s theme is that Bush must learn to play “the Washington inside game,” and the rules of that game are said to be the product of “the sum of advice from the wise guys” of the Beltway. Actually it sounds like the collective wisdom of the Green Room at Chris Matthews’ Whiffleball. The condescension that fairly pulsates in the piece is much more amusing than upsetting, but there’s more than a laugh to be had here. There are also clues to the lefties’ wish list.

Fineman’s hard-hitting reporting urges Bush to “get better intel,” “expand the charm circle,” “learn to love the chaos,” and without any sense of irony, holds out LBJ as a model for presidential management since the backslapping Texan of the ’60s knew that “all politics is personal.” Sandwiched in the middle of these bromides are two knifes aimed at the heart of the Bush operation, for Fineman urges the president to (1) “Don’t count on Cheney,” and (2) “Rein in Rove.” In Fineman’s world, Cheney “simply isn’t good at schmoozing the enemy,” and Rove is taken to task for raising the possibility that Jeffords jumped because of the chance of a better chairmanship.

So elite media has delivered a verdict: It doesn’t like Cheney and it’s afraid of Rove. To which we can safely expect the president to respond: “Thanks Howard. Now, where’s the vice president and Rove?”

The energy expended by Fineman and friends to avoid the obvious story of Jumping Jim Jeffords’ big bounce is revealing. Jeffords campaigned with Bush when it appeared that the Senate would remain firmly in GOP control. Jeffords stayed within the GOP and made his demands and got many of them met through the first three-plus months of the new Bush presidency. But as the media played up the Strom-watch, Jeffords opened negotiations with Daschle. When he turned, the media swallowed his cant about the Party’s move right. But this is also the media that swallow Torricelli’s proclamations of innocence because they are convenient to maintaining Democratic influence in the Capitol. So Rove thinks Jeffords went over because of a chairmanship? Yeah, that sounds right. Only in the Green Rooms does the predisposition to cast the administration as too conservative trump the obvious. Here’s the big unasked question: Does anyone think Jeffords would have jumped if there had been 51 Republicans? Obviously not — which makes Jeffords a commodity, not a hero of conscience.

And the part about Cheney? Again, only among the elite media does one hear of discontent with the vice president. Cheney is wildly popular with the center of the country – geographically and ideologically – because he is very much the anti-pol. When Cheney declared that he would be too old to run for president after a second Bush II term, one could hear the jaws of the D.C. press corps hitting the tables. No one rules themselves out – at least not among the Dems.

Cheney appears to be wholly unconcerned with the big game of up and down played out in the pages of the Washington Post and on the network chat shows, which has the effect of reducing the influence – and possibly the speaking fees? – of the chatterers. It’s pretty hard to miss the point that the vice president and Rove haven’t been calling Fineman much, and his feelings are hurt. But he can’t exactly jump to Time, especially if the new gang isn’t feeding him a morsel here or there.

When word of Jeffords’ faithlessness swept through Washington like a gale, the president could be found in Cleveland, meeting with the nuns and priests of St. Joseph’s High School. (I think Rove must have a sign in his office: “It’s the Catholics, Stupid!”) As the talkers talked all through the next 48 hours, the president was met with huge enthusiasm at the U.S. Naval Academy where midshipmen could once again cheer their commander in chief without reservation. And as the Sunday shows filled up with talk of crippled agendas, the president prepared to sign a tax bill that puts him in the select company of JFK and Reagan. In less than five months, Bush has a domestic legacy of greater significance than Clinton cobbled together in eight years.

And Fineman wants him to stop what he’s doing and emulate LBJ. It’s a good thing Howard isn’t a surgeon.

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