By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, July 25, 2006; A02
The candidate, immersed in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, sat down to lunch yesterday with reporters at a Capitol Hill steakhouse and shared his views about this year's political currents.
On the Iraq war: "It didn't work. . . . We didn't prepare for the peace."
On the response to Hurricane Katrina: "A monumental failure of government."
On the national mood: "There's a palpable frustration right now in the country."
It's all fairly standard Democratic boilerplate -- except the candidate is a Republican . And he's getting all kinds of cooperation from the White House, the Republican National Committee and GOP congressional leaders.
Not that he necessarily wants it. "Well, you know, I don't know," the candidate said when asked if he wanted President Bush to campaign for him. Noting Bush's low standing in his home state, he finally added: "To be honest with you, probably not."
The candidate gave the luncheon briefing to nine reporters from newspapers, magazines and networks under the condition that he be identified only as a GOP Senate candidate. When he was pressed to go on the record, his campaign toyed with the idea but got cold feet. He was anxious enough to air his gripes but cautious enough to avoid a public brawl with the White House.
Still, his willingness to speak so critically, if anonymously, about the party he will represent on Election Day points to a growing sense among Republicans that if they are to retain their majorities in Congress, they may have to throw the president under the train in all but the safest, reddest states.
It's not an ideological matter. Even as he berated the president, the candidate allowed that he opposes a pullout from Iraq, agrees with Bush's veto of human embryonic stem cell research, and supports constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage and flag burning.
"He's the best!" cheered Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) when he stopped in to shake the candidate's hand during the lunch yesterday.
But if such affection is mutual, the candidate did not always show it. "We've lost our way, we've gone to the well and we drank the water, and we shouldn't have," he said of congressional Republicans. "You don't go to Congress to become the party that you've been fighting for 40 years." Lamenting "the spending, the finger-pointing, not getting the bills passed," he counseled: "Just shut up and get something done."
The source of the candidate's anger -- and his anxiety -- is the Iraq war, which he called "the single thread that is weaving through every issue," including high gas prices and the violence in Lebanon. "People want an honest assessment from the administration, and they want to hear the administration admit we thought this, and it didn't happen that way, and -- guess what -- it didn't work, so we're going to try a Plan B." He continued: "Let's call it what it is. We thought this was going to be a different kind of engagement."
He seemed less agitated by the policy failure than by Bush's unwillingness to admit failure. "I don't know why the people around him don't see that," he said. "It is a frustration, to say the least. I think it is a lost opportunity to bring the American people along on a mission that is incredibly important."
The candidate looked the part of the contender, wearing a monogrammed shirt, his French cuffs sprouting cuff links coordinated with his necktie. He ate carefully, removing the gelatinous yolk from the four-minute egg in his salad. But he spoke with little caution as he ladled a heaping portion of criticism on his own party.
"In 2001, we were attacked and the president is on the ground, on a mound with his arm around the fireman, symbol of America," he said, between bites of hanger steak and risotto. "In Katrina, the president is at 30,000 feet in an airplane looking down at people dying, living on a bridge. And that disconnect, I think, sums up, for me at least, the frustration that Americans feel."
The response to Katrina was "a monumental failure," he continued. "We became so powerful in our ivory towers, in our gated communities. We forgot that there are poor people." The detachment remained after the storm, he said. "I could see that they weren't getting it, they weren't necessarily clued in. . . . For me, the seminal moment was the [Dubai] port decision."
Of course, picking on Bush for Katrina and the Dubai ports is hardly a daring position, even for a Republican. And in some cases, the candidate hit Bush from the right, such as when he opposed Bush's proposed guest-worker program for immigrants. "Republicans aren't very happy people right now," he argued. "The base is kind of ticked off."
He spoke of his party affiliation as though it were a congenital defect rather than a choice. "It's an impediment. It's a hurdle I have to overcome," he said. "I've got an 'R' here, a scarlet letter."
That left the candidate in a difficult spot. "For me to pretend I'm not a Republican would be a lie," he reasoned. But to run as a proud Republican? "That's going to be tough, it's going to be tough to do," he said. "If this race is about Republicans and Democrats, I lose."