By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 29, 2005
President Bush shifted his rhetoric on Iraq in recent weeks after an intense debate among advisers about how to pull out of his political free fall, with senior adviser Karl Rove urging a campaign-style attack on critics while younger aides pushed for more candor about setbacks in the war, according to Republican strategists.
The result was a hybrid of the two approaches as Bush lashed out at war opponents in Congress, then turned to a humbler assessment of events on the ground in Iraq that included admissions about how some of his expectations had been frustrated. The formula helped Bush regain his political footing as record-low poll numbers began to rebound. Now his team is rethinking its approach to his second term in hopes of salvaging it.
The Iraq push culminated the rockiest political year of this presidency, which included the demise of signature domestic priorities, the indictment of the vice president's top aide, the collapse of a Supreme Court nomination, a fumbled response to a natural disaster and a rising death toll in an increasingly unpopular war. It was not until Bush opened a fresh campaign to reassure the public on Iraq that he regained some traction.
The lessons drawn by a variety of Bush advisers inside and outside the White House as they map a road to recovery in 2006 include these: Overarching initiatives such as restructuring Social Security are unworkable in a time of war. The public wants a balanced appraisal of what is happening on the battlefield as well as pledges of victory. And Iraq trumps all.
"I don't think they realized that Iraq is the totality of their legacy until fairly recently," said former congressman Vin Weber (R-Minn.), an outside adviser to the White House. "There is not much of a market for other issues."
It took many months, and much political pain, for that realization to sink in. In the heady days after reelection, Bush and Rove sketched out an ambitious agenda to avoid the traditional pitfalls of second-term presidents. They settled on four domestic priorities for 2005: remaking Social Security, revising the tax code, cracking down on court-clogging litigation and easing immigration rules. As the year ends, only some litigation limits have passed, and Social Security, tax and immigration plans are dead or comatose.
As Bush focused on Social Security the first half of the year, the cascading suicide bombings in Iraq played out on American television screens. It was summer by the time Bush decided to shift public attention to Iraq. A speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., failed to move the political needle. Bush then escaped to Texas for August -- a vacation shadowed for weeks by a dead soldier's mother named Cindy Sheehan, then brought to an abrupt halt by Hurricane Katrina.
Plans to rebuild public confidence on Iraq were shelved as the president was consumed by the hurricane and the fiasco over Harriet Miers's Supreme Court nomination. Then after I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, was charged with perjury in the CIA leak case, Democrats forced an extraordinary closed-door Senate session to demand further investigation of the roots of the Iraq war.
That proved a galvanizing moment at the White House, according to a wide range of GOP strategists in and out of the administration. Rove, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman and White House strategic planning director Peter H. Wehner urged the president to dust off the 2004 election strategy and fight back, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share internal deliberations. White House counselor Dan Bartlett and communications director Nicolle Wallace, however, counseled a more textured approach. The same-old Bush was not enough, they said; he needed to be more detailed about his strategy in Iraq and, most of all, more open in admitting mistakes -- something that does not come easily to Bush.
Although Rove raised concerns about giving critics too much ground, the younger-generation aides prevailed. Bush agreed to try the approach so long as he did not come off sounding too negative. Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University specialist on wartime public opinion who now works at the White House, helped draft a 35-page public plan for victory in Iraq, a paper principally designed to prove that Bush had one.
Bush went into campaign mode, accusing Democrats of hypocrisy for voting to authorize the war and then turning against it. When Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) proposed pulling troops out of Iraq, the White House issued an unusually harsh and personal response comparing him to liberal filmmaker Michael Moore. The original draft, officials said, had been even tougher.
Within a few days, though, the president shifted tone. Writing off 30 percent or more of the public as adamantly against the war, his advisers focused on winning back a similar-size group that had soured on Iraq but, they believed, wanted to be convinced victory was possible.
The White House employed every bully pulpit the president has -- speeches to military, diplomatic and political audiences; interviews with key television anchors; Cheney's surprise trip to Iraq; private briefings for congressional centrists; a prime-time Oval Office address on Dec. 18 that reached 37 million people; and an East Room news conference.
The humility theme was woven into speeches, often in the first two minutes to keep viewers from turning away. Aides had noticed that anger at Bush after Hurricane Katrina subsided somewhat after he took responsibility for the response. The idea, one senior official said, was like fighting with a spouse: "You need to give voice to their concern. That doesn't necessarily solve the division and the difference, but it drains the disagreement of some of its animosity if you feel you've been heard."
Better yet, from the White House perspective, Democrats helped frame the choice when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) endorsed Murtha's withdrawal plan and party Chairman Howard Dean declared it impossible to win in Iraq. "For most of the year we were debating events," the senior official said. "Now we're debating Democrats."
The president received the results he wanted. His approval ratings rose eight percentage points in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, to 47 percent.
Bush, who had plenty to be morose about through the fall, responded with vigor as well. Instead of heading immediately to bed after the Oval Office address, as he usually does, he stuck around to chew through themes for his upcoming State of the Union address, another high-ranking administration official said.
No one in the White House expects the speech to include anything of the magnitude of Social Security. As one aide put it, instead of home runs, Bush will focus on hitting singles and doubles. "The lesson from this year," said Grover G. Norquist, a GOP activist close to Rove, "is you cannot do anything dramatic unless you have 60 votes" in the Senate, where Republicans are five shy of the count needed to break a filibuster.
With the federal deficit projected to top $340 billion and both Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demanding substantial new money, officials are discussing bigger spending reductions than Bush has advocated in the past and changes to how government puts together its budget. On the other side of the equation, administration officials pushing for health care, education and other initiatives are squeezed.
Despite the gain in polls, some advisers see trouble ahead. Bush's top aides are telling friends they are burned out. Andrew H. Card Jr., already the longest-serving White House chief of staff in a half-century, is among those thought to be looking to leave. Rove's fate is uncertain, as he appears likely to remain under investigation in the CIA leak case, people close to the inquiry said.
Some are concerned that although Bush has changed his approach, he has not changed himself. He has been reluctant to look outside his inner circle for advice, and even some closest to Bush call that a mistake because aides have given up trying to get him to do things they know he would reject.
As they end a difficult year, advisers said they know they cannot take the recent political progress for granted. "We view this as not mission accomplished," one top aide said. "It's going to need to be sustained."