Veteran reporter calls highway debate muddled

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More spending on highway construction is desperately needed, longtime Washington correspondent Fred Barnes told attendees Wednesday, June 7 at the CCJ Spring Symposium in Tuscaloosa, Ala., sponsored by Randall-Reilly Publishing.

“What we need is more asphalt,” Barnes said. “We just need more lanes.” Unfortunately, Washington insiders tend to dismiss highway spending as “pork” and confuse it with funding for light rail, public transit and “smart highways,” “which means no new lanes,” Barnes said.

Barnes is co-host of The Beltway Boys on Fox News and executive editor of The Weekly Standard, which he helped found in 1995. His print and broadcast resume includes 10 years at The New Republic, 10 years on The McLaughlin Group and stints at The Baltimore Sun and the now-defunct Washington Star. His new book is Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush.

Barnes offered attendees 10 observations about current politics, which he helpfully numbered as he went.

  • “In politics, public opinion isn’t everything. Presidents can have clout even with low poll numbers.” Bush has proceeded with his tax cuts, his judicial appointments, his diplomacy against Iran’s nuclear program and so forth, despite his low public approval ratings, Barnes said.
  • “Conservative talk radio is killing the chance of a compromise on immigration.” Because hard-liners won’t consider amnesty or citizenship provisions for current illegals, and because the U.S. Senate won’t pass a bill without them, Barnes expects no immigration bill from Congress this year.
  • “In Iraq, the insurgents can’t win. They can’t hold territory. They can’t prevent governments from forming. They can’t foment civil war. In short, they can’t stop democracy.” He quoted an Arabic proverb: “The dog barks, but the caravan moves on.” The insurgents can, however, “commit hideous acts of terror” and prolong U.S. troop involvement, Barnes said. Barnes expects the next U.S. president to have troops in Iraq, too.
  • “One way or another, Iran will not get nuclear weapons.” Barnes said he doubts diplomacy will work, which will leave the allies only with the military option, which Israel will exercise if the United States won’t, since Iran’s president has pledged to wipe Israel off the map. “This is a risk no Israeli prime minister can take,” Barnes said.
  • “In the 2006 election, Democrats may not win a landslide after all.” He pointed to the June 6 special election in California to fill the seat of disgraced Republican Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, sentenced in March to eight years in prison. Last week, Barnes said, the GOP “was on the verge of panic,” to the extent that Ken Melman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, called Barnes to downplay the importance of the GOP losing the seat. Instead, the “Republican culture of corruption” argument didn’t play, Barnes said, and the Republican candidate won, 50 percent to 45 percent. Barnes still expects Republicans to lose seats in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, especially in Connecticut, Indiana, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, but not enough to lose the House leadership.
  • “In 2008, Hillary [Clinton] can’t win. She’s really too liberal and not likeable enough.” Democratic presidential nominees tend to be relative unknowns (George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton) who knock off front-runners early in the primaries, Barnes said. Republican presidential nominees, in contrast, tend to be “the next guy in line,” which in this case is John McCain, Barnes said. Barnes said his ideal Republican candidate would be Jeb Bush, who isn’t running. “He obviously realizes that 2008 would not be the best environment for another Bush campaign.”
  • “The mainstream media rules.” Despite inroads by conservative talk radio, Fox News and the Internet, Barnes said, the agenda is still set by ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC and the big newspapers. This results in “overplayed stories” such as Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, the criticism of Donald Rumsfeld by retired generals, and uninformed public opinion polls on the national economy, Barnes said. The current overplayed story, on the covers of Time and Newsweek, is the alleged massacre in Haditha, Iraq, Barnes said. “You never want to excuse things, atrocities, but they happen in every war. They’re inevitable.”
  • “America is the indispensable country in a crisis.” That U.S. standing in the world has not eroded is evident in the international attempts to talk sense into Iran and North Korea, Barnes said. “Nothing good happens in the world unless the U.S. is involved.”
  • “Polls are not to be trusted.” How the question was worded, when the question was asked, and to whom was it asked – by number and by demographic – can skew any poll result, Barnes said. Exit polls in 2004 showed John Kerry sweeping the country, Barnes said.
  • “The future in politics is never a straight-line extrapolation of the present.” Bush’s approval rating in January 2005, the day of the Iraqi election, was 51 percent, but that didn’t mean he would stay popular forever, Barnes said. Similarly, just because Bush is unpopular now doesn’t mean he will stay unpopular, Barnes said.
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