The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Monday, October 30, 2006

It's Lonely At the Top

It's Lonely At the Top
How the election became a referendum on an isolated President--and how it is likely to reshape American politics

"Stay the course" is a time-honored rallying cry in politics. But it has always been more a slogan than a strategy, meant to show the steadfastness of the person who shouts it rather than what he actually intends to do. More telling is when staying the course turns into "constantly changing tactics to meet the situation on the ground." That is how President Bush is now describing the battle plan in Iraq. It also pretty neatly sums up what his presidency has come to as he reaches the eve of a midterm congressional election that has turned into a referendum on Bush himself--and on a policy in Iraq that has left him more isolated than at any other point in his presidency.

The last time control of Congress was up for grabs in a midterm election, it seemed Republican candidates across the country couldn't see enough of--or be seen enough with--George W. Bush. In the closing five days of 2002, Bush swooped through 17 cities, playing to tens of thousands of voters who packed tarmacs and arenas from Aberdeen, S.D., to Blountville, Tenn. This midterm election is also turning out to be all about Bush, but it's a much lonelier experience for him. He still fills smaller rooms, especially the kind where people are willing to write five-figure checks for the privilege of lunch with a Republican President. And he's welcomed warmly in places where having local reporters point out Bush's difficulties provides a diversion from the candidate's own. But when Air Force One touches down in tightly contested congressional districts these days, it often turns out that the G.O.P. candidate there has discovered a previous commitment elsewhere, the political equivalent of suddenly needing to have your tires rotated. Yes, it's true that Florida Congressman Clay Shaw has been running radio ads to boast of his record working closely with a President, but the one he's talking about is Bill Clinton.


THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL IS NOT THE ONLY place where Bush is watching his friends scatter. Only 38% percent of Americans say they still believe his invasion of Iraq was a good idea, and 61% percent say they don't think he has a clear plan for handling the war. But Bush has lived by the political philosophy that when the crowd is against you, you just strut more boldly across the stage. That's why he held a news conference a few days ago to hug his war policy even tighter. It is there that he argued that staying the course means "constantly changing tactics" and that benchmarks (good) aren't the same as timetables (bad). But it was as if no one was listening. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared that he wouldn't abide by either one if it was imposed by Washington, and that morning's headlines had Bush's top general in Iraq, George W. Casey, breaking ranks to suggest he was thinking about asking for more troops. That was just about the last thing any Republican wanted to hear with less than two weeks to go before an election. Within 24 hours, therefore, Casey was back on message with a statement in which his office said he had given the "wrong impression." Al-Maliki and Bush took a few more days to get back in synch, by issuing a declaration that they had agreed to speed up training for Iraqi security forces.

Meanwhile, even as Bush was praising Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as "a smart, tough, capable administrator," endangered Republicans like Kentucky Representative Anne Northup and Ohio Senator Mike DeWine have been joining the increasingly loud chorus of calls for the Secretary's ouster. And pressure for change is not coming only from the desperate and the wobbly. Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison--a Bush loyalist well ahead in her bid for re-election--is expressing regret for her vote to authorize the invasion and is advocating partitioning Iraq along ethnic lines. "We have to step back and stop trying to put our American ideas onto this problem," she told the Houston Chronicle.

Iraq is what has put the President on the eve of a possible rebuke by voters. And if Bush were a different kind of politician--if he loved political jawboning like Lyndon Johnson or could show political elasticity like Bill Clinton--this moment might be less significant. But Bush has perfected the art of governing from inside his razor-thin majority, and is proud above all of his ideological toughness. That's why the midterms could do more than change the balance of power in Washington, if current polls are right and one or both houses shift to Democratic hands. The election might also produce a different kind of presidential style. Bush has sounded wistful lately about his more bipartisan days as a Texas Governor. "As you know, in Austin I was able to work with Democrats and Republicans to get a lot done," he said in an interview last week with Texas-based Belo Broadcasting. That's a new tone for a leader whose confidence and convictions have given his party its backbone for the past six years.


FOR THE MOMENT, HOWEVER, SILVER linings in the President's predicament are so scant around the White House that when a conservative commentator recently asked Bush to give him some good news, Bush replied, "You're talking to Noah about the flood." Even the President knows this election has become a national referendum on him and his performance. In the latest Washington Post--ABC News poll, 31% of those surveyed said they will use their congressional votes to register their opposition to Bush, which was almost double the percentage who said they felt that way before the last midterm. By comparison, only 17% said they plan to use their vote to show support for Bush. And Democrats are stoking that sentiment in ads like the one the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is running on television in Connecticut's Second District, in which an announcer intones: "Rob Simmons said he'd represent us, but George Bush always comes first." In fact, you are far more likely to see Bush in a Democratic ad this year than a Republican one. The President is now being featured in 89 separate TV commercials for Democratic House candidates nationwide. Says DCCC spokesman Bill Burton: "No other issue is that dominant."

Of course, the President and his party still have some built-in advantages. The gerrymandering of the past decade has turned the vast majority of congressional districts into fortresses for incumbents, to the point where the number of House seats in serious contention is only about three dozen, compared with roughly 100 in the 1994 landslide that brought the G.O.P. to power with a 54-seat pickup. And the Republicans retain their advantage in money and, most operatives on both sides agree, the pinpoint sophistication of their turnout operation among a conservative base in which Bush still has nearly 90% approval in most polls. But even Republicans fret their loyalists have been discouraged by the Mark Foley scandal, and can't match the Democrats in passion. That fervor is being fueled by the bare-knuckled veterans who are heading up their House and Senate campaigns--New York Senator Charles Schumer and Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel--who have been urging their candidates to punch back at Bush directly on national security. And they have. In Rhode Island, Democratic Senate nominee Sheldon Whitehouse has been running an ad in which he says, "We need to send a clear signal that, folks, we are really getting out" of Iraq. So upended is the political calculus that it is now Republicans like Senate majority leader Bill Frist who are urging their candidates to steer clear of the war in favor of pocketbook issues.


SO WHAT DOES IT MEAN IF WASHINGTON does become a stage of sectarian conflict after Nov. 7? For one thing, most of Bush's legislative agenda could be bound for gridlock. White House officials still talk hopefully of expanding Bush's No Child Left Behind education legislation. Other issues for which they argue they could get some kind of bipartisan traction include moving toward energy independence, lowering health-care costs and measures to fight terrorism. Bush's advisers even talk of enlisting Democrats for some grand push for entitlement reform, although anything like Bush's disastrous effort to add private accounts to Social Security would seem out of the question, given his inability to get anywhere even with a Republican Congress.

One area in which the President and a Democratic Congress might be able to make common cause is the immigration bill that has been one of his signature issues. The Senate has gone along with Bush's comprehensive approach, which includes both tougher enforcement of the border and expanded legalization for immigrants who are already in this country. But the closest thing to an immigration policy to come out of House Republicans was a 700-mile "virtual fence" along the border--a politically expedient idea that, enacted on its own, leaves Bush with less to horse-trade in his efforts to get what he really wants, which is serious reform. With that in mind, White House officials resisted holding a signing ceremony on the fence bill. But House Republican leaders were so insistent that the White House finally agreed to a low-key event in the Roosevelt Room with just six minutes of presidential remarks.

As for what direction the Democrats are likely to take, much would depend on whether would-be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decides the next two years are about revenge, or about governing--and whether she can keep her troops in line. "They listen to no one," she told TIME earlier this year. "They don't even listen to each other." Pelosi's initial goals, which she says she wants to accomplish in the Democrats' first 100 legislative hours in power, are modest and relatively uncontroversial. She would have the House pass bills aimed at raising the minimum wage, cutting student-loan interest rates, allowing the Federal Government to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices for Medicare patients, and reforming lobbying practices.

Pelosi needs 15 seats to become the next Speaker, but if her majority is only a vote or two, she's not likely to get much further than her 100-hour plan. More conservative Democrats, many of them newly elected from Republican-leaning districts, would hold the balance of power. If the Democrats have a more comfortable majority, however, the party's edgier, angrier side could emerge, especially on the question of whether or how quickly to withdraw from Iraq. One of the early tests of which direction Pelosi would take could be an expected fight for majority leader between the current whip Steny Hoyer and Pennsylvania's John Murtha, who has become a hero to the antiwar left.

If lame-duck Presidents are to achieve anything, they often have to look for ways to go around Congress, especially when it is in the hands of the other party. Clinton used Executive Orders and his bully pulpit to encourage school uniforms, impose ergonomic rules on employers and prevent mining, logging and development on 60 million acres of public land. White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush may take the same bypass around Capitol Hill. "He told all of us, 'Put on your track shoes. We're going to run to the finish,'" Snow said. "He's going to be aggressive on a lot of fronts. He's been calling all his Cabinet secretaries and telling them, 'You tell me administratively everything you can do between now and the end of the presidency. I want to see your to-do list and how you expect to do it.' We're going to try to be as ambitious and bold as we can possibly be."

In fact, when it comes to deploying its Executive power, which is dear to Bush's understanding of the presidency, the President's team has been planning for what one strategist describes as "a cataclysmic fight to the death" over the balance between Congress and the White House if confronted with congressional subpoenas it deems inappropriate. The strategist says the Bush team is "going to assert that power, and they're going to fight it all the way to the Supreme Court on every issue, every time, no compromise, no discussion, no negotiation."


AS FOR THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF ALL to Bush's presidency, some clarity on Iraq may come after the elections, when Bush receives a much anticipated report from the Iraq Study Group, the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker (Jimmy, as the President calls the longtime family consigliere) and Lee Hamilton, vice chairman of the 9/11 commission. Administration officials say they expect the report no sooner than December, and they hope it includes recommendations they can embrace rather than a menu of options that would put the ball back in their court.

Baker has said he wants the panel of Republicans and Democrats to come to a consensus--which has some Administration officials skeptical about how much clarity will emerge. "I welcome all these efforts," Bush said at his news conference. "My Administration will carefully consider any proposal that will help us achieve victory." That gives Bush a lot of leeway for a real course correction without saying--perhaps even knowing--what is to come from the Baker-Hamilton group. A senior Administration official says, "The only things we've ruled out are getting out immediately, phased withdrawal without any reference to events on the ground and partitioning the country into three parts. Those are all nonstarters." That's a very narrow range of exceptions; even the Democrats, by and large, aren't advocating those approaches.

However bleak the President's situation may look to outsiders, aides say he appears to be reveling in campaigning, and was joking about Detroit Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers' doing better in the World Series than he did when he played for Bush's Texas Rangers in the 1990s. "Sometimes he'll premise a point he makes by saying 'Call me Mr. Happy, but I think ...' or 'I know I'm Mr. Optimism, but ...,'" says an aide. A presidential adviser who has recently talked to Bush says he believes the President will finish stronger than most people think, largely because of the determination that critics call stubbornness. "This guy, at 11:59 and 58 seconds on the 20th of January 2009, in the moment before his successor is inaugurated, is still going to be trying to make it work in Iraq," the adviser says. "He really believes it can work, and he believes that his will can be part of a formula to make it work in Iraq, and that's a course for us to defeat radical Islamic terrorism."

Friends describe a President who knows he's the same person today that he was at his Gallup-poll peak of 90% approval after 9/11 and that he was in the depths of 31% last spring. In Journeys with George, her documentary about Bush's first campaign, former NBC producer Alexandra Pelosi--who, as it happens, is the daughter of the woman who has the most to gain in these elections--tells of being invited to Bush's private compartment on his campaign plane when she was having a low moment. "They can say what they want about me," she remembered him saying, "but at least I know who I am, and I know who my friends are." As Bush girds for tectonic change, that certitude will be tested as never before.

For the latest Campaign 2006 news, blogs and analysis, go to
With reporting by With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., Massimo Calabresi, Timothy J. Burger/ Washington,8816,1552033,00.html


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