It’s still early in the first lap, but we think we’ve found the frontrunner in the race for the Most Unsupported Lede of 2005. Today Adam Nagourney and Richard Stevenson of the New York Times bring us this doozy:

“President Bush begins his second term with the Republican Party in its strongest position in over 50 years, but his clout is already being tested by Republican doubts about his domestic agenda, rising national unease about Iraq and the threat of second-term overreaching, officials in both parties say.”

Wow — quite a mouthful, and quite apart from conventional wisdom. Eager to hear from those “officials” providing juicy tidbits about how the president is already being “tested” four days into his second term, we read on. And on. And on. Until we came to the end of the story, still looking for evidence to support the lede.

What we do get are a number of quotes that tiptoe around edges of Stevenson and Nagourney’s premise, without ever shoring up the contention that “officials in both parties” are suggesting that Bush’s “clout is already being tested.”

That includes:

— Republican Gov. Mark Sanford expressing worries about Bush being overconfident and, later, speculating about the political effects of an economic downturn.

— Conservative Gary Bauer worrying aloud about a possible political backlash from Bush’s agenda.

— Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel worrying about the lack of an exit strategy from Iraq.

— Republican Rep. Bill Thomas indicating he has his own idea about what to do with Social Security.

— Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe telling us, “George Bush is in serious difficulties on Social Security, tax reform, all the cornerstones of the Bush agenda that the Republicans can’t agree on.”

We also hear from several other sources speculating about the possibility of long-term Republican political dominance. But never do we get those Republican officials telling us about how Bush is being tested.

In truth, this is a story with a bit of an identity crisis.

It’s also a bit of a bait-and-switch: a provocative, attention-catching assertion in the lede, followed by a couple of sources touching on part (but only part) of that assertion, then a switch to a related subject. The lede, in this case, seems grafted on; the story is largely concerned with Bush’s possible legacy and the impact of Iraq and his desire to overhaul Social Security, and potential Republican political dominance for the foreseeable future (a subject the article touches on in the second paragraph).

In short, Nagourney and Stevenson take us on a tour down the highways and byways of idle speculation. In the end, “Some people think Bush might not get what he wants” just doesn’t add up to anything more than that.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.