This was supposed to be a column on how the Bush administration could turn around its political fortunes. I thought I had some good answers. But I keep running into the same problem: The administration is hamstrung by a GOP Congress that seems (collectively) to lack both principle and political sense, which is a lethal combination. How the White House can overcome not just its own past mistakes, but also the ongoing mess on Capitol Hill, is a serious conundrum.
Nevertheless, here are some reasons why, apart from Congress, the White House still has a fighting chance for some real policy successes, and also some suggestions for how to maximize their opportunities.
Among the reasons for hope:
First, Josh Bolten seems, so far, to "get it" when it comes to assessing the administration's problems. His first personnel moves -- Rob Portman for the Office of Management and Budget, Tony Snow as press secretary -- were brilliant, and the early word is that he wants an administration less arrogant and more open.
Second, there is Tony Snow himself. His first full press briefing, Tuesday, earned mostly rave reviews from the political right. Tony is smart, politically astute, articulate, telegenic, conservative, and likable. With him there to get the White House's message out, past the hostile and often petulant, mostly liberal mainstream media who make up the daily White House press corps, more of the American people might finally hear the President's side of the story in ways that make sense. Not only that, but Tony can be a big help to the White House internally because he can help the White House better understand what messages and policies work politically, and which don't. In other words, he doesn't have the same tin ear that too often has marked this administration. That's a big advantage.
Third, Karl Rove showed Monday in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that he is both engaged and engaging. Here's predicting that within another two or three weeks he will be formally cleared (by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald) in the Valerie Plame/leak case. Such a development will re-raise his political clout just when it is needed most. Meanwhile, he proved Monday that he is a terrific communicator. The White House should get him out in public more often. Indeed, if Fitzgerald does release word that Rove is off the hook, the White House should immediately call a press conference for Rove -- who then should use it as an occasion not for rehashing the Plame case, but for saying that now that the case is behind him he can focus instead on Bush triumphs like the strong economy. Then, just as he did at AEI, he could use his captive audience to push the President's line on the topic du jour.
Fourth, the economy is indeed incredibly strong. Unemployment, inflation, and interest rates are low, and just about everything good is up. And gas prices, especially in the fall, will eventually come down at least a little. At some point, especially with a new communications team in place at the White House, the American people will realize that times are good -- and they will at least indirectly or subconsciously give Bush some of the credit.
Fifth, the situation in Iraq will only get better. By the fall, I expect the administration to be able to point to some unambiguously good news from that front.
Sixth, this president is no dummy, and he is highly competitive, and he is courageous. He'll keep trying until he gets the politics right.
Seventh, a fight over judges will, almost inevitably, erupt in a way that captures the interest of at least a big part of the general public. When the subject is judges, conservatives win.
Eighth, the Democrats are prone to self-destruction. Captive to the left-wing special-interest groups, overly shrill and angry, and hopelessly out of touch with middle America, congressional Democrats can be counted on to remind Americans that their (the congressional Democrats') values are out of whack and that their policy preferences are so wacky left as to be a turn-off.
Now, for things the White House should do to help its own cause:
First, change the subject from immigration as fast as possible. Bush just isn't winning on this issue. And he's wrong, politically, to insist on comprehensive reform all at once. The best thing he could do would be to convince Congress to pass a bill heavy on enforcement and heavy on improving the INS bureaucracy, along with a mere fig leaf for a guest worker program -- something like a very short-term, temporary guest program combined with one of those usually useless commissions to study the issue further. (For that matter, the Vernon K. Krieble Foundation has a proposal that bears more study that could be way out of the morass -- after this election year is over:
And parts of the Krieble proposal are consonant with the ideas of Newt Gingrich.
But whatever happens, don't let the issue linger in active floor debate in Congress. All it does it make all sides angry, so for goodness sake, get out of that tar pit!
Second, actively push good, solid, articulate, and telegenic judicial nominees, and let them actually make their own case in public. Have them especially focus on issues of law and order. It can't be repeated often enough: When the issue is judges, conservatives win, because almost all judge-related issues are ones where conservative "positions" are politically popular.
Third, as indicated earlier, use Tony Snow and Karl Rove to best effect to get the White House message out.
Fourth, VETO SOMETHING! Even if it means apparently embarrassing a few congressional Republicans, a Bush veto, specifically on the basis of a bill being too costly, would invigorate the conservative mainstream that has been deserting this President in droves. This also means dropping the utterly absurd contention that the administration so far has actually been fiscally disciplined: It hasn't, not at all, and trying to claim that it has been is like putting a stick in the eyes of tens of millions of Americans frustrated with the spending orgy. But a Bush veto, loudly trumpeted -- and, if possible, backed by a second and a third -- would send the message that the president is now on board, finally, as a true fiscal conservative. (It also would overcome the canard that on domestic issues Bush actually has no backbone.)
For that matter, it actually would help Republicans of all stripes, not hurt them, if they were made to vote one way or the other on overriding a Bush veto. The conservatives who stick with Bush would be bolstered by their show of strong fiscal rectitude, while the moderates who vote to override would get credit from the "swing" voters they so covet for having the guts to stand up to a President unpopular in their own districts. In short, a veto gives every Republican in Congress the chance to play the situation to his or her best political advantage.
Fifth, make a big effort in the fall to ramp up operations in Iraq, while calling it something like "a final push to victory." Yes, put Iraq back on the table, with lots of upbeat noise and rhetoric and on-the-ground action, and force the Democrats to be in the position, if they oppose the ramp-up, of again looking as weak on defense as they actually are. (This does not mean they are unpatriotic; just foolish.) The Iraqi war effort needs more and louder, more Churchillian, publicity efforts, rather than being swept under the rug as an embarrassment.
The most important reason for such an effort, though, isn't political; it's moral and practical. The best way to win the post-war fight against the terrorists in Iraq, once and for all, is to hit them harder, faster, and more repeatedly, while focusing everybody's attention on the effort and raising morale for that effort. Slow fade-outs don't work; they just encourage the Zarqawis to keep fighting. What's needed, in effect, is a reverse Tet Offensive. The whole, worldwide, anti-terrorist effort needs the boost that only a major, (apparently) final victory in Iraq can provide. (Also, think creatively here: As frustrated as the president may be with Colin Powell, perhaps the way to give the big final push a real sense of legitimacy is to publicly bring back Powell to be heavily involved in planning it. Tell Powell to forget trying to be a diplomat; as one last service to his country, he is being asked to put on his military hat once again, as in the first Gulf War, and help us first cut off the terrorist network, and then kill it -- kill it dead.)
* * * *
There: That's enough for now. Other ideas, and there are indeed others, can wait. This agenda alone is far more easily said than done, especially with a Congress that has utterly lost its way and which, therefore, may well get in the way.
But this president, for all his faults and for all his honestly mistaken policy choices at times, does have the best interests of his country in his heart. All of us as Americans need to see him succeed -- because, after all, it's more than politics that is at stake here. It's our country that George W. Bush is trying to serve, and we all benefit when his efforts succeed.
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