President Bush's power appears to have reached a nadir in Washington, with important legislative measures stalled in Congress, top administration officials shadowed by a leak scandal, and mainstream politicians launching strident critiques of America's strategy in Iraq.
The administration's current impotence was on clear display yesterday as a bipartisan group of senators tripped up a White House-backed reauthorization of the Patriot Act, a major appropriations bill was voted down on the House floor, and a moderate Democratic congressman, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, called for an immediate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
One political analyst said there is no obvious end in sight for the administration's political difficulties. "They're in a nose dive," said Chuck Todd, the editor in chief of a political newsletter, the Hotline. "I don't know how they pull out of it. They're facing too many problems," he said.
Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa) calls for the withdrawal of U.S. military personnel from Iraq while at a news conference on Capitol Hill November 17, 2005. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
A political science professor who studies White House crises, Martha Kumar of Towson University, said the president's problems advancing legislation in Congress are remarkable because his party controls both the House and the Senate. "Just look at the way people are moving away," she said. Ms. Kumar said the marked unraveling of Mr. Bush's authority dates back to the government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina in August. "That really took the bloom off the rose."
In recent weeks, Mr. Bush has weathered a string of legislative and other setbacks. Last month, the Senate ignored administration objections in voting 90-9 to place new restrictions on the interrogation of prisoners. On Tuesday, 79 senators voted for a measure calling for a "phased redeployment" of American troops in Iraq. Just yesterday, moderate Republicans joined with House Democrats in a rare defeat of an appropriations bill they said made unacceptable cuts in education and health programs.
Under pressure from labor unions, Democrats, and some Republicans, Mr. Bush also retreated last month from a policy that exempted federal contractors from paying union-scale prevailing wages to workers involved in hurricane-related construction work.
The administration's latest tactical response had been to launch an aggressive assault on critics of the president's Iraq policy. Last week, Mr. Bush used a Veterans Day speech to take on those who have accused the administration of distorting pre-war intelligence. "These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will," the president said.
At a black-tie fund-raising dinner on Wednesday, Vice President Cheney kept up the attacks, accusing administration opponents of leveling "dishonest and reprehensible charges."
Analysts said images of the tuxedo clad vice president lambasting war critics were unlikely to improve Mr. Bush's approval ratings, which have sagged below 40% in a variety of polls.
"That is very counterproductive," a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, Stephen Hess, said. "That impugns the position of an awful lot of people who are Bush people, and with him. They're not just sort of weak-kneed Deaniacs," Mr. Hess said, referring to followers of the most avowedly anti-war candidate in the 2004 presidential race, Howard Dean.
Mr. Bush's speech last week contained an explicit attack on the Democratic presidential nominee, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts, who voted for the war but has grown increasingly critical of it. The White House has sometimes tried to energize its political base by picking fights with left-wing Democrats. Mr. Kerry picked up the gauntlet yesterday, doing a round of TV interviews where he fired back at the White House. He called the administration "incompetent" and accused it of employing "disgraceful fear tactics."
While the White House may have relished the fight with Mr. Kerry, it apparently misjudged the reaction the administration's tough talk would draw from some moderates, such as Congressman Murtha.
During a news conference, Mr. Murtha, who is a decorated veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, thumped the lectern as he dressed down Messrs. Bush and Cheney.
"I like guys who got five deferments and never been there and send people to war, and then don't like to hear suggestions about what needs to be done," said Mr. Murtha, who has served in Congress since 1975.
"I resent the fact, on Veterans Day, he criticized Democrats for criticizing them. This is a flawed policy wrapped in illusion. The American public knows it. And lashing out at critics doesn't help a bit. You've got to change the policy."
Mr. Murtha said American forces should "immediately redeploy" from Iraq in order to help Iraqis take control of their country. "The presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress. Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces, and we have become a catalyst for violence," the congressman said.
Mr. Hess said he believes that many of the problems Mr. Bush is facing are proxies for or at least dwarfed by the situation in Iraq. "These are irritants, foot faults. Basically, his problem is the American people are fast losing patience with Iraq," the professor said.
The latest political blows to the White House came just as officials there thought they were regaining their footing. The president's aides were dismayed last month by the indictment of Mr. Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby, on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, but many insiders expected the CIA leak scandal would quickly retreat into the background. Instead, new disclosures about the involvement of a star Washington Post reporter, Bob Woodward, have thrown the story back onto the front pages.
However, Mr. Hess warned against pronouncing Mr. Bush's political demise. "Be cautious about making assumptions like that. This president still has three-plus years in office. He's not going to be impeached," the longtime Washington observer said.
Others presidents who experienced similar second-term problems have tried a staff shakeup to get back on course, but Ms. Kumar said she doubts Mr. Bush would oust loyal staffers.
Mr. Todd said whatever the president chooses to do, the continuing verbal clashes and criminal charges have left many in the capital dejected. "The atmosphere is toxic. I think we're getting close to the atmosphere we had during Clinton's impeachment," he said. "Thank God, there's a holiday coming. I think everybody needs a time out."
© 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC.