Elections May Leave Bush An Early Lame Duck

By Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On desks around the West Wing sit digital clocks counting down the days and hours left in the Bush presidency, reminders to the White House staff to use the time left as effectively as possible. As of 8 a.m. today, those clocks will read 825 days, four hours. But if the elections go the way pollsters and pundits predict, they might as well read 20 days.

At least that would be the end of George W. Bush's presidency as he has known it. If Democrats win one or both houses of Congress on Nov. 7, the result will transform the remainder of Bush's time in office and dramatically shift the balance of power in Washington. Ending a dozen years basically passed in exile, congressional Democrats would have a chance to help steer the nation again -- following a campaign spent mostly assailing Bush's vision rather than detailing their own.

Around Washington, key figures in both parties have been trying to figure out what a Democratic victory would mean. Bush has been meeting privately with Cabinet secretaries in recent weeks to map out an agenda for his final two years in office. The White House says it is not making contingency plans for a Democratic win, but Bush advisers are bracing for what they privately recognize is the increasing likelihood. And Democratic leaders have been conferring about what they would do should voters return them to power.

Emboldened by victory, and bitter from grievance, Democrats could use their ascendance to block Bush's agenda, force him to respond to theirs and begin a new era of aggressive oversight and investigation. A Democratic victory, analysts in both parties said, could mean that some of Bush's tax cuts would not be renewed, attempts to revive his Social Security investment plan would be doomed and efforts to further broaden national security powers in the face of civil liberties concerns would be thwarted.

Most worrisome to the White House is the subpoena power that Democrats would gain with a majority in the House or Senate. For years, Republicans have been mostly deferential in scrutinizing the Bush administration, but Democrats are eager to reexamine an array of issues, such as Vice President Cheney's energy task force, the Jack Abramoff scandal and preparations for the Iraq war.

"It obviously affects things a lot," said Charles Black, a Republican lobbyist with ties to the White House. "History tells you that administrations have a hard time achieving things in their last two years. I think the president wants to be as aggressive as he can with a good menu of ideas.

"If he had to deal with a Democratic majority in one house or both," Black added, it makes it that much harder.

Steve Elmendorf, a former House Democratic leadership aide, said of Bush, "He would lose control of his agenda. He would have to make a decision: Does he want to compromise and work cooperatively with the Democrats, or does he want to keep pushing what he's been pushing and lose all the time?"

The most salient analogy may be the last time Congress changed hands, after the 1994 elections. President Bill Clinton was left trying to assert that "the Constitution gives me relevance" even as new House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his Republicans seized the initiative. Clinton ultimately recovered through a mixture of confrontation with Republicans, most notably in a government shutdown, and "triangulation" in which he embraced some of their priorities, such as overhauling the welfare system.

The difference is that Clinton's presidency was still young, while Bush is heading into the twilight of his administration -- and is stuck in an unpopular war. But some Republicans think that Bush could play off overreaching Democrats as Clinton did with Gingrich. Or he could pivot to the more bipartisan mode he promised to bring from Texas and seize opportunities for progress in areas such as immigration, where his proposed guest-worker program has been blocked by his own party.

"One of the lessons for President Bush if he loses one or both chambers is the California example," said Sergio Bendixen, a pollster for Democrats. "Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at this time in 2005 was considered to be in deep trouble. But now he is a shoo-in for reelection. How did he turns things around? He has gone from a very partisan Republican to somebody who was working with the other party. I wouldn't be surprised if Bush does the same thing."

John Bridgeland, a former Bush domestic policy adviser consulted by the White House in recent planning, said that regardless of who wins the election, the president would benefit from cooperating across party lines. "Without doing so, it will be more difficult to get things done that will be lasting," he said. "You can do things by executive order, but they may not survive into other administrations."

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