Bush Ousts Embattled Rumsfeld; Democrats Near Control of Senate

By Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 9, 2006

President Bush emerged from an election in which his party took what he described as a "thumping" and ousted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, saying that a "fresh perspective" is needed to guide the military through the difficult war in Iraq.

Speaking at a White House news conference the day after Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, and possibly the Senate, an apparently chastened and conciliatory Bush said he was nominating former CIA director Robert M. Gates to replace the long-embattled Rumsfeld.

After six years of a presidency that has been about drawing lines against the Democrats and taunting them as weak, Bush presented a sharp about-face in an appearance in the White House East Room. "What's changed today is the election is over," he said, "and the Democrats won."

Acknowledging that the elections amounted to a rebuke of Republican leadership, Bush said voters had signaled they wanted cooperation and problem-solving in Washington.

If anything, he seemed to greet defeat with an air of relief, as though the results had allowed him to abandon an all-is-well pretense that was increasingly at odds with his actual political circumstances.

He said that he had begun to contemplate Rumsfeld's exit before the election -- even while he was publicly vowing that he would keep the defense secretary through the end of his term and insisting that polls forecasting Republican defeat were wrong. "I thought we were going to do fine yesterday," Bush insisted. "Shows what I know." But "win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee."

Rumsfeld understood as well as he did, Bush said, that "Iraq is not working well enough, fast enough."

The defense secretary's removal was part of a broader White House effort to restructure Bush's presidency in the wake of the Democratic victory. Beyond the switch at the Pentagon, White House aides in recent weeks developed an agenda designed to attract bipartisan support, including an increase in the minimum wage -- a longtime Democratic priority -- as well as comprehensive immigration legislation, energy measures, and the extension of the No Child Left Behind education program.

"The message yesterday was clear," Bush said. "The American people want their leaders in Washington to set aside partisan differences, conduct ourselves in an ethical manner, and work together to address the challenges facing our nation."

Despite the sharp confrontation that has characterized his tenure, Bush "will make the best of the situation he finds," predicted Ari Fleischer, his former press secretary. "If that means he'll compromise, he'll do so. The question is, will the Republican base let him? And will the Democratic base let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid compromise?"

Some senior voices from the Republican base already are urging Bush to forget cooperation. "I guess you're supposed to say that, regardless of whether you're actually planning on doing it. I hope he doesn't really mean it," said Grover G. Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. Instead, he said, Bush should use the next two years to define differences between the parties heading into the 2008 election.

Although the White House had insisted repeatedly that it was not making contingency plans for a Democratic victory, an official said yesterday that Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten assigned deputies Karl Rove and Joel D. Kaplan, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, counselor Dan Bartlett, and other aides to begin "quietly preparing in case this eventuality came," the official said.

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