The Bush political recovery may just have begun. A number of steps remain, though — difficult steps worth examining (highlighted in bold) in some detail. First things first: With the commutation of the prison sentence of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, President George W. Bush not only did (at least partially) the right thing; he also took the first step towards a long-shot but still possible comeback in public esteem and influence, and in the ultimate judgment of history.
Although the commutation was both reasonable and well-reasoned on the merits — without regard to political considerations — the basic political reality is that Bush cannot regain his political standing without first securing (or re-securing) the strong allegiance of the conservatives who have been his most bedrock supporters. Most of those conservatives would not have forgiven Bush if he had let Libby serve time in prison; conversely, the commutation might go a small way, at least, toward re-energizing them.
But Bush still has a long way to go. To recover politically, he must do at least four more things.
First, he must learn to lose gracefully and turn losses to his advantage.
Second, he must try new tactics and styles of communication.
Third, he must skillfully use battles over the judiciary to his advantage.
Fourth, he must be seen as working to mitigate high energy prices.
Meanwhile, of course, even as Bush works on all four of those tracks, which are ones he has a reasonable chance of controlling, he will never complete his comeback without achieving identifiable success in Iraq. But that is mostly a topic for another day.
SO, YOU MIGHT ASK, how can Bush accomplish those four big tasks? Let’s start with losing gracefully (1), where he can learn a lesson from current Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.
The big loss Bush just suffered, of course, occurred on the massive immigration bill that went down in flames last week. His first reaction to the loss wasn’t helpful. He looked and sounded shaken, and in effect he chided Congress for not producing results. The response was politically tone-deaf. It made him sound like a sore loser. But there is still time to change that impression.
When Gov. Riley pushed a massive and complicated tax reform package in his first year in office, only to see it rejected by a stunning 2-1 margin, he greeted the news with an open and engaging, if somewhat sheepish, smile. He said he had learned something from the people of Alabama and would take it to heart. He said he would find another way to meet their needs and his public obligations, and that state government would need to perform better in order to re-earn the trust of its citizens. And he did it with all the grace and good humor with which golfer Jack Nicklaus was justly famed for greeting tough losses to the likes of Lee Trevino and Tom Watson.
Riley went back to work, attacked the state’s fiscal problems and tax inequities in bite-sized chunks…and, three years later, despite having won his first term by a mere 3,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast, Riley earned re-election in a landslide even as his Republican Party took major losses nationwide.
Bush could do likewise. After the Independence Day recess, he should say that he accepts the judgment of the American people on immigration, namely that existing laws ought to be better enforced and that government performance must be upgraded before more comprehensive reforms are attempted. He could vow, in addition to better enforcement, to approach the subject with smaller, piecemeal reforms (i.e., bite-sized chunks), beginning only with those that are less controversial and more easily implemented.
A newfound ability to acknowledge and learn from losses or mistakes, and to adjust accordingly, would begin to earn him respect from disaffected voters in the political right and center.
ALL THAT SAID, the immigration defeat was partly a symptom of a larger problem: President Bush has not communicated his positions in a way that persuades people who aren’t already on his side. He needs to try new methods of communication (2).
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