George W. Bush campaigned in 2000 as “a uniter, not a divider.” This, of course, has become something of a punchline; the Bush years have been marked by neither an abundance of unity nor a lack of division. But the slogan was rooted in Bush’s record as governor of Texas, where he did indeed build a record of relative bipartisan comity. Of course, Texas Democrats are generally to the right of the national party; it should have surprised no one that comity is harder to come by in Washington than in Austin.
Thus Bush’s gubernatorial experience left him somewhat ill-equipped for brass-knuckled Washington politics. This has been somewhat obscured, for most of his term, by GOP control of both houses of Congress. But now that Democrats have taken over Capitol Hill, Bush’s weakness as a political fighter has become suddenly consequential and alarming.
Most obvious of late has been an inability to pick battles. It’s no secret that Bush places a high value on loyalty, often to a fault. (One of his first decisions after 9/11 was to punish no one for the intelligence failure.) His decision to stick by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is a case in point. Gonzales claimed before Congress that politics played no role in the Justice Department’s personnel decisions. Of course, politics did play a role. The question of whether the role it played was proper (making sure that U.S. Attorneys share the administration’s prosecutorial priorities) or improper (interfering with specific cases) is secondary to the fact that Gonzales was either not on top of the workings of the Department he’s supposed to run, or he was fibbing. Either would be grounds for dismissal. More to the point, the whole kerfuffle provides Democrats with a handy cudgel to hit the White House with. It doesn’t take a rhetorical genius to hype this flap into a haymaking scandal; Nancy Pelosi is perfectly equal to the task.
By bleeding political capital over the U.S. Attorney firings, Bush is endangering a much more important political battle, one that could literally mean the difference between success and failure in Iraq. The Democratic Congress has passed a war-funding bill that hamstrings the war effort by limiting troop deployments and setting a deadline for withdrawal. Bush plans on vetoing this bill, as well he should. But will he win the needed funding for the war effort after the veto? In a few months, the Pentagon will face cash flow problems that must be addressed.
To put together the slim majority that voted for this constitutionally questionable attempt to micromanage the war, the Democrats larded it up with shameful pork-barrel spending. It should be easy to bludgeon them from the bully pulpit for this. After all, one can take a principled stand that we should give Gen. David Petraeus the resources to conduct the surge, or one can take a principled stand that Iraq can’t be won and withdrawal is the only option. A serious person cannot have his mind changed on this issue by federal dollars for his district. At least a few representatives should buckle under pressure when called out by name for letting their votes be bought.
But as long as the feeding frenzy over the U.S. Attorney firings continues, the Democrats will remain on the attack, emboldened by their political advantage to inch closer to the more aggressively antiwar political ground that has so far looked too treacherous. It’s time for Bush to decide whether he wants to put his energy into sticking up for Gonzales or for Petraeus.