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What's serious -- and silly -- in Washington

By Ed Rollins, CNN Senior Political Contributor
  • Washington has been dominated by talk of terrorism and Harry Reid's choice of words
  • Ed Rollins says President Obama's statement on intelligence woes wasn't very reassuring
  • Rollins says Reid's statement was a self-inflicted wound
  • He says since Obama gives Reid a pass, then he's inclined to do so as well
  • Barack Obama
  • Terrorism
  • Harry Reid

Editor's note: Ed Rollins, a senior political contributor for CNN, is senior presidential fellow at the Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency at Hofstra University. He was White House political director for President Reagan and chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

New York (CNN) -- As our nation's politicians return from their holidays, the agenda they left behind is still front and center. Getting an acceptable compromise of the very different Senate and House health care bills is still the president's and the Democratic leadership's priority. Stopping it is still the Republicans' priority. The final details may antagonize some of the Democrats' most important constituencies and the grumbling has already started.

However, the voters' priority is getting the economy moving and creating jobs. Continuing high unemployment will drive down President Obama's sagging poll numbers even more. The voters also will have a lot to say because this is an election year and they are not very happy.

Unfortunately, both the president and Majority Leader Harry Reid have run into major and unforeseen distractions in the last week.

The president's distraction is serious. Reid's distraction is self-inflicted and silly.

After the total breakdown in our security and intelligence system that allowed a terrorist to board a Christmas Day flight to Detroit, Michigan, with a bomb and the murder several days later by a terrorist double agent of our top secret CIA operatives in Afghanistan including the chief of base, national security quickly moved to the front of the president's and Congress' agenda. The real focus now must be on how vulnerable -- and maybe unprepared -- our security apparatus appears to be.

I appreciate President Obama saying "the buck stops here," as he did last week and taking full responsibility. However, laying out on international television how nearly every intelligence agency failed was not exactly reassuring to us -- or very discouraging to potential terrorists.

As any good lawyer or public relations adviser will often tell their client: "The best strategy may be to say nothing!" The White House and the national security team have certainly not learned that lesson. They fell all over themselves in telling everyone how sorry they were they had let the president down by not doing their jobs, but they all promised they would do better next time.

It's like all the losing teams not playing in the NFL playoffs last weekend telling their fans "Wait until next year! We will be better." Before the president's statement and the follow-up briefing, most people, myself included, assumed the keystone cops of the federal government, the Transportation Security Administration, had just screwed up again. (It wasn't long before the Newark incident, when the TSA's inattention let a love-crazed man wander down the wrong exit into a secure area to find his departing girlfriend. He got a farewell kiss.)

Air passengers were forced to be rescreened, flights were delayed and some canceled and the airport was closed for hours.

But we now know that the problems exposed by the Christmas Day bomb plot are greater than just the TSA -- and need to be fixed on an urgent schedule. Unfortunately, many great and dedicated people do work hard and effectively to protect us in many different agencies, but they can't brag on their successes and only get lambasted for their failures.

Reid's distraction is foolish and will quickly go away and allow him to get back to his wheeling and dealing to keep his 60 votes in the Senate for health care.

A new book, "Game Change," on last year's presidential campaign has Washington insiders all abuzz. In addition to telling how Obama won (he got more votes than Republican Sen. John McCain), it includes many unflattering side stories about other supporting players in that race. It also includes an idiotic quote from Reid.

Reid, who is the most endangered incumbent up for re-election in 2010, is burning up the Capitol switchboard apologizing for and explaining what he meant by the book's quote -- "the nation was ready to elect a 'light- skinned' black man with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one."

Reid grew up in the town of Searchlight, Nevada, that now has a population of 576, four of whom are African-American. The town had less then half that population when he was growing up and may not even have had a single African-American citizen.

Even though Michael Steele, the first African-American chairman of the Republican party, is demanding Reid step down, I am willing to give Harry a pass on what he said. If President Obama says it's OK and accepts the senator's apology, why should I care? Everyone needs to be more sensitive to what we say, and heaven help any Republican if he or she misspoke in a similar fashion.

The bad news is Reid will still be the majority leader until voters back home get to vote him up or down. His prospects today look dim. Voters have proven in recent years -- by defeating the man he succeeded as majority leader, Tom Daschle, or former House Speaker Tom Foley -- that you can be all-powerful in Washington and still lose at home.

As for the man screaming the loudest, Steele, the least popular Republican chairman in recent decades, will continue making his case until the next Republican National Committee election. And the really bad news is that the terrorists are still out there and we may not be as ready for them as we thought we were.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ed Rollins.