It's Not As Outlandish As It May Seem
Published on Sunday, March 19, 2006 by the Guardian / UK
Sky Falls in on Bush The Outcast
Plagued by Iraq, the President's own party is abandoning him as his poll ratings plunge.
by Paul Harris
 

When president George W Bush launched a high-profile series of speeches last week aimed at calming nerves about the Iraq war he chose to do so in the heart of Washington DC. At George Washington University, he asked America to stay the course through troubled times. It was a familiar message to an audience that had heard it all before.

What was new was the make-up of the crowd: only five Republican congressmen and one senator attended. As displays of loyalty go it left a lot to be desired. It seems Bush should worry less about the US abandoning Iraq and more about his party abandoning him.

Tarnished by the war and a never-ending flow of domestic scandals, Bush is increasingly being seen as a liability to Republicans facing November's mid-term elections. Many of the party's senior members are distancing themselves from their President with a new willingness to disobey orders from the White House.

The reason for the change is simple: disastrous polls. Four published last week put Bush's approval ratings at historically low levels. Gallup and NBC gave him 36 per cent, while CBS had him at 34 per cent and Pew on an anaemic 33 per cent. 'When the President is above 50 per cent then party unity follows. When you sink into the thirties it is every man and woman for themselves,' said Larry Haas, a political commentator and former staffer in the Bill Clinton White House.

While Bush will never fight another election, that is not true for many members of his party running in the congressional ballots. The Republicans now control both Houses of Congress, but fear that Bush's sinking popularity could drag them down too. Most worrying for them was a poll of independent voters - the political middle ground - that showed Bush's approval rating at 23 per cent, down from 54 per cent when he first took office.

'The Republicans could be in real trouble if this election becomes a national vote about Bush,' said Haas.

No wonder Republican complaints are starting to emerge from behind closed doors. Many senior party members blame Bush's horrific second term on his senior staff and say a shake-up is needed. Republican Senator Norm Coleman has called for precisely that. 'I have some concerns about the team that's around the President...We're not operating at the highest level of political sensitivity.'

A year ago, fresh from the election victory of November 2004, such talk would have been brutally put down by Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove. Now it is becoming common on a number of issues. Even Bush's fresh push on the war has met internal criticism, as Republican presidential hopefuls look at polls showing 80 per cent of Americans believe Iraq is sliding into civil war and 52 per cent think troops should pull out.

'We're in a lot of trouble in Iraq. The American people know it and we need to face up to it and talk about how we get out of it,' said Senator Chuck Hagel, a possible Republican candidate for 2008.

The Republican abandonment of him has added to the woes of a presidential lame duck unable to pass fresh legislation. Several of his main aims for his second term, such as tax cuts, have been derailed. His future plans look equally hopeless. One was a guest worker programme for the millions of illegal immigrants who keep America's service industries going. But it stands little chance of success as Republican mid-term election candidates have found anti-immigration measures going down better with the electorate. Congress passed a bill mandating the building of a 12ft wall along the Mexican border. No mention was made of a guest worker scheme. 'The desire is to make sure the borders are secure first,' said Republican Senator Arlen Specter.

It has been the same on other issues. Bush has come under fire for supporting the now-scuppered ports deal with a firm from the United Arab Emirates, for being too soft on China economically and for not doing enough to protect jobs. And Republican fiscal conservatives have been appalled at the spiralling spending that has created record deficits.

All this has ensured there is no 'Bush candidate' emerging in the next race for the White House. The obvious heirs, Vice President Dick Cheney and Florida governor Jeb Bush, the President's brother, have ruled themselves out. Every other main candidate, from Senator John McCain to right-wing Senator George Allen, is running as a critic of much of that legacy.

The only bright spot in Bush's fortunes has been the continued infighting in the Democratic party, which is still failing to present a unified front to the American people. Last week Democrat Senator Russ Feingold moved a motion to 'censure' Bush over a secret service wire-tapping scandal. He wanted to raise the possibility of impeachment and the spectre of a Watergate-style investigation.

But instead of gaining Democrat support, figures such as John Kerry and Hillary Clinton refused to say if they backed the move. Feingold lambasted his party for 'cowering', as Republicans were provoked into a rare moment of unified support for Bush.

But it did not last. Bush's misfortunes had returned by the end of last week in the sort of spectacular snub late-night comics dream of. The villain was not a rogue Republican but Jessica Simpson, a reality TV star. She declined to appear next to the President at a charity event for fear of 'politicising' the cause of the disabled. It dismayed Republicans.

'It's never been a problem for Bono,' said Republican spokesman Carl Forti. But the message was clear: when even Jessica Simpson does not want to be seen with you, you know you are in trouble.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

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