The passion in President Bush's latest news conference was reserved, not for terrorists or evil dictators or makers of dangerous toys for tots, but mainly for Democrats. He doesn't seem to like them.
The president's greatest ire was directed at a liberal political group called MoveOn.org, which is not part of the Democratic Party but an independent group that paid for an advertisement referring to Army Gen. David Petraeus as "General Betray Us." Petraeus just endorsed Bush's "surge" tactic in Iraq.
Although the ad ran several days ago, as Petraeus testified that going from 130,000 troops in Iraq at the start of 2007 to 160,000 now and back to 130,000 in the spring of 2008 makes sense to him, Bush managed as much outrage as if he had just seen it. He said the ad was "disgusting" and "a sorry deal" and should be regarded as an attack not just on one respected general but on the U.S. military as a whole.
"Most Democrats," he said, are more afraid of irritating or alienating MoveOn.org than the military. Most Democrats? And since when is a sophomoric twist on the name of a general (who presumably can take care of himself) an attack on the men and women in the armed forces?
Bush also castigated Democrats who want to "raise taxes" by expanding the availability of state health insurance programs from 6 million children of poor working families to 10 million through a 61-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes. He pledged to veto any such plan.
As for the suggestion that U.S. race relations may be deteriorating, as might be evidenced by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, nooses on a tree on high school grounds in Louisiana and the refusal of most Republican presidential candidates to participate in a diversity debate, Bush insisted Republicans have a good record on race to run on.
With great enthusiasm, the president has returned, if he ever left, to full campaign mode.
Asked if he is an asset or a liability for Republicans in next year's elections, when a president, a third of the Senate and the entire House will be elected, Bush responded snappishly, "strong asset."
Presidents inevitably say, with a sigh, that they yearn just to govern (wisely, of course) and that they are soooo tired of political wrangling.
Nonsense. They love political jousting.
Just as former President Clinton returned eagerly to campaign mode after the election of 1994, when Democrats lost control of Congress largely as a result of his policies (including his wife's disastrous health care task force), this president, whose party lost control of Congress last year, is as eager as ever to release partisan fusillades.
For this White House, as for the Clinton White House, if you are not "for us," you are "against us." Those who oppose keeping 130,000 American soldiers in Iraq in 2008 are unpatriotic. Those who want 4 million more children to have health insurance are advocates of the slippery slope to federalization. Those who want the United States to have a broad foreign policy that advocates talking to those who don't agree with us are throwing in the towel to terrorists.
Bush came to Washington promising compassionate conservatism, unity, civility and a grim determination to return competence to government.
Historians are likely to judge his administration as just as divisive and inept as any previous administration. The war in Iraq almost certainly will be seen as his signature stroke for all time.
With more than a year left in office, now is the time for Bush to put partisan politics aside and govern as a statesman. There must be some Democrats with whom he can get along. There must be some tasks he can get done without every discussion disintegrating into partisan rancor. Let Democrats rant against him -- he could look above the fray if he disdained to get down in the dirt. Imagine a president who acted classy instead of bush league.
Alas, it is not to be. At his press conference he made clear he will go out of office with his dukes up and sarcasm on his lips, as thin-skinned as ever.
The fact that nearly all the GOP presidential candidates so far seem afraid to distance themselves from his policies means that even as a lame duck he -- and Iraq -- will continue to dominate the political landscape. There have been few if any new ideas discussed during the campaign to deal with global warming, the explosive growth of entitlement spending, the continued erosion of educational standards, the crumbling infrastructure, health care costs or our bankrupt foreign policy.
We seem to be in a holding pattern, getting nowhere fast.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986
© 2007 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer