By Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, May 22, 2006
Confronting the worst poll numbers seen in the West Wing since his father went down to defeat, President Bush and his team are focusing on the fall midterm elections as the best chance to salvage his presidency and are building a campaign strategy around tax cuts, immigration and national security.
Modern history offers no precedent of a president climbing from a hole as deep as the one Bush finds himself in, and White House strategists have concluded that no staff shake-up or other quick fix will alter their trajectory. In the sixth year of his tenure, they said, Bush cannot easily change the minds of voters whose impressions are fully formed.
And so short of some event outside their direct control -- such as a dramatic turnaround in Iraq or the capture of Osama bin Laden -- Bush advisers have turned to the election as the most important chance to rewrite the troubled narrative of his presidency and allow him to recover enough to govern his last two years, Republican strategists said. With that in mind, Bush last week called on the National Guard to help stop illegal immigrants, signed tax-cut legislation and headlined three party fundraisers.
If Republicans retain Congress in November, Bush advisers note, he could assert that for the third straight election, the party defied historical patterns and popular predictions. Bush, they said, could advance a fresh agenda in early 2007. But they acknowledge that a House takeover by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would foreshadow a contentious final two years fending off congressional subpoenas and hostile legislation.
"If she's not the speaker, then conceptually I think we've turned this thing around and he has two more years to get some things done," said Ron Kaufman, who was White House political director under George H.W. Bush and remains close to the former president. A Republican loss of the House, on the other hand, "makes the next two years that much more difficult."
Bush has turned his attention to the campaign. Six months before the election, he has made 36 fundraising appearances, more than at this point in 2002. He spoke at a party gala last week that broke off-year records for hard-money fundraising and later attended events in Virginia and Kentucky. Vice President Cheney has been even more active, making 62 fundraising appearances, including one in Nashville on Saturday, and he plans three more in California in the next couple of days.
With Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove reassigned from day-to-day policy management to concentrate on the fall campaign, the White House has begun setting an agenda. Bush focused on stopping illegal immigration with his National Guard plan announced in an Oval Office address last week, followed a few days later by a visit to the border. In between, he signed legislation extending $70 billion in tax cuts that he has made a signature issue on the campaign trail.
To address conservatives, who have been key to his election victories but have grown disenchanted with the administration, Bush and Senate Republicans are reviving their fight with Democrats over judicial nominations, and senators last week voted out of committee a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to set up a floor vote next month.
The White House also appears eager for a battle over the nomination of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden as CIA director. With a committee vote expected this week and a floor vote by next week, the White House hopes voters will see the warrantless surveillance program Hayden started as head of the National Security Agency as tough on terrorism rather than a violation of civil liberties.
And Bush remains a firm believer in the "Iraq first" strategy. The war has overshadowed everything else and, in the White House's view, to a large extent has poisoned the public against other messages -- to the point that many Americans fault Bush's handling of the economy even though economic performance has been strong. So the White House calculates that if the public sees any improvement in Iraq and a withdrawal of even some U.S. troops, Republicans will be rewarded.
Aides point to the president's last spike in the polls, which came late last year after Iraqi elections and a series of Iraq speeches by Bush. A top adviser said Rove and White House political director Sara M. Taylor are advising candidates not to duck the issue of Iraq but rather to make it a centerpiece of their campaigns.
The Rove-Taylor view is that one-third of Americans agree with liberal Democrats calling for immediate withdrawal and another third support staying the course. The middle third wants a new strategy, but would be leery of pulling out and leaving behind a volatile Iraq, a position strategists believe leaves those voters open to persuasion.
"Look, we're in a sour time -- I readily admit it," Rove said in a speech last week. "I mean, being in the middle of a war where people turn on their television sets and see brave men and women dying is not something that makes people happy and optimistic and upbeat." But, he added, "ultimately, the American people are a center-right country who, presented with a center-right party with center-right candidates, will vote center-right."
Perhaps the most important element of the emerging strategy will be to "move from a referendum to a choice," as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman put it. Instead of a verdict on Bush, Republicans want to frame the election as a contest with Democrats, confident that voters unhappy with the president will find the opposition even more distasteful.
"We're moving from a period where the public looks at things and says thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to a time when they have a choice between one side or the other," Mehlman said.
Nonetheless, the latest spate of polls deeply worries many Republicans, who are unsure they can rally the base as they have in past elections. The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll last week found 33 percent of Americans approving of Bush's job performance, his worst showing ever in that poll and matching his father's lowest point. Support among Republicans has fallen to 68 percent, down from 93 percent after the president's reelection.
Recent staff changes orchestrated by new White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten have not proved to be an elixir. Aides who once talked of a "Bolten bounce" now anticipate a long, difficult summer. Although these aides believe Bolten has brought new energy and a more aggressive day-to-day approach -- and bought Bush some goodwill with Congress -- they believe it will take a long time for the public to notice.
Once a president has lost the public's faith so deep into his tenure, experience suggests it is enormously difficult to win it back. Depending on the surveys used, only four presidents in the past 60 years have fallen as far in the polls as Bush, and none genuinely recovered before leaving office. Harry S. Truman opted not to run again; Richard M. Nixon resigned under the threat of impeachment; and Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush lost reelection.
Even under optimistic scenarios, aides believe that Bush's ratings may never rise above the mid-forties, and privately are mulling contingencies if Democrats win the House. Whenever the White House thinks it is turning a corner, it runs into trouble, such as a 10-day period in February when Cheney shot a friend in a hunting accident, Republicans rebelled against Arab management of U.S. ports and militants blew up a Shiite shrine in Iraq.
"The president's run into a perfect political storm where the confluence of natural disasters from last fall, gasoline prices, staff changes, the continuing war in Iraq, all are giving conservatives a defensive fatigue," said Kenneth Khachigian, a California GOP strategist who served in Ronald Reagan's White House. "And let's put immigration in there, too. . . . There's just wave after wave washing over them at this point."
Still, he said, Republicans will come back to Bush when the contest heats up this fall. "The president still needs to find ways to motivate the troops, and that means using the powers of his office to find victories here and there," Khachigian said. "If I were sitting in their shoes, I'd be looking at probably some high-profile challenges with Congress, whether it's a veto of a spending bill or a battle over judgeships."
Ed Rogers, a prominent Republican strategist, offered similar advice. "We need less panic among Republicans in town and on the Hill and to some degree in the states, and more energy from the White House," he said. "Use the Rose Garden, sign some executive orders. Activity is our friend." But time may not be, some Republicans say. "Opinions do begin to set in . . . so we need successes now," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.).
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) offered a novel model for recovery: Bill Clinton. In 1995, after Gingrich's Republicans took over Congress, the White House rebuilt public support methodically. "He split with the left, he moved to the center, he did dozens of little things that worked, and gradually, week by week, he grew more acceptable," Gingrich said.
"You get to the point where you have to take a very deep breath and rethink what you're doing," he said of Bush. "He's still president, and he's got 2 1/2 years left. It's very important not just to him but to the country" that he recover authority.