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.
The removal of Rumsfeld stunned Washington, because Bush had stubbornly resisted calls to dump his Pentagon chief for years despite rising pressure from within his own party and the ranks of retired generals. He had twice refused Rumsfeld's offered resignation during scandals over military detainment and interrogation methods, and he had rebuffed bids by his chief of staff to remove the defense secretary. Just last week, Bush declared publicly that he wanted Rumsfeld to remain at the Pentagon for two more years.
Gates served as CIA director and deputy national security adviser in the administration of Bush's father, whose foreign and defense policies have long been implicitly criticized as weak by some senior officials of the current administration. He is currently a member of a bipartisan panel headed by the former president's secretary of state, James A. Baker III, that is studying the Iraq situation and is scheduled to make policy recommendations in the next few weeks. Signaling a likely shift in Iraq policy for an administration that has been loath to make significant changes in how it wages the increasingly unpopular war, Bush yesterday made several references to the upcoming Baker report.
While emphasizing his campaign insistence that the United States cannot leave Iraq without achieving victory, Bush said that Gates "can help make the necessary adjustments in our approach." He said his national security team would meet with members of both parties in coming weeks to brief them on developments in Iraq and listen to their ideas for moving forward.
Rumsfeld earned a small army of enemies inside and outside the Pentagon during his tumultuous tenure, and his critics rejoiced at his departure yesterday. Just minutes before Bush announced the defense secretary's departure, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), suggested at her inaugural news conference as likely the next House speaker that the president dump Rumsfeld in response to the election. She and other Democratic leaders later welcomed the move and said they hoped it would prove to be the beginning, not the end, of change in Bush's leadership in Iraq.
"I hope the departure of Mr. Rumsfeld will mark a fresh start toward a new policy in Iraq," Pelosi said.
A number of Republicans were equally hopeful that the president's apparent openness would culminate in policy changes.
"This change in leadership at the Pentagon is the right opportunity for the administration to develop a new strategy," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "The current approach has not led to a reduction in the insurgent violence that our troops and the Iraqi people face every day."
Bush cautioned the nation's enemies not to take heart from Rumsfeld's removal or the election results. "Do not be joyful," he said. "Do not confuse the workings of our democracy with a lack of will."
Still, some of those waging the insurgency in Iraq reacted with glee to Rumsfeld's ouster. "We hope that Bush will go next, after this butcher, who's responsible for killing tens of thousands of civilian people in Iraq and Afghanistan," Abu al-Zubeir Dulami, a member of the Mujaheddin Shura Council, an umbrella organization for al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni insurgent groups, said by telephone from Ramadi. "We consider it a big accomplishment for the people of al-Qaeda in Iraq."
Bush said that Rumsfeld would serve until Gates is confirmed. White House officials were exploring yesterday whether the current Senate could act on his nomination during a lame-duck session later this month or if the matter would have to wait until the new Senate convenes Jan. 3. His confirmation would raise questions about the fate of other top Pentagon officials, particularly Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen A. Cambone. Cabinet secretaries typically get to bring in their own teams.
Gates has privately expressed deep reservations about the situation in Iraq, according to at least one person who has spoken to him about it in the context of the Baker group's deliberations. "He is basically very concerned about what is happening over there, and he thought that bad mistakes were made -- and he was frustrated that the administration was unable to adjust and make the changes that he feels needed to be made."
Correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad contributed to this report.