By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 9, 2006
President Bush had many explanations for what he called the "thumping" his party took on Tuesday, but the most creative was the notion that his chief strategist, Karl Rove, had spent too much time reading books.
"I obviously was working harder on the campaign than he was," the president said at yesterday's East Room news conference. The reporters laughed. The Architect, who had challenged Bush to a reading contest, wore a sheepish grin and stared at his lap.
True, Rove will have to surrender his "genius" credentials after the GOP lost the House and apparently the Senate. But the recriminations weren't stopping at Rove's door. The president, who started his appearance with an admission that "I share a large part of the responsibility," went on to blame everybody else.
He blamed corruption: "People want their congressmen to be honest and ethical, so in some races that was the primary factor."
He blamed Mark Foley, whose name remained on the Florida ballot: "People couldn't vote directly for the Republican candidate."
He blamed ballot rules. "You could have the greatest positions in the world . . . but to try to get to win on a write-in is really hard to do."
He blamed Democratic organization: "I'm sure Iraq had something to do with the voters' mind, but so did a very strong turnout mechanism."
He blamed bad luck: "If you look at race by race, it was close."
Implicitly, of course, he blamed Donald Rumsfeld, by firing him as defense secretary in favor of the "fresh perspective" of Robert Gates.
And, not least, he blamed the uncomprehending voters: "I thought when it was all said and done, the American people would understand the importance of taxes and the importance of security. But the people have spoken, and now it's time for us to move on."
The president's performance fit neatly into yesterday's version of the post-election ritual in Washington: The winning side gloated, and the losing side pointed fingers every which way.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, the party's bantam rooster, barely waited until sunrise to start crowing. In a morning news conference at the National Press Club, he stood with hands in his pants pockets and used the word "extraordinary" nine times and "huge" 12 times to explain the triumph: "Huge night!" "Huge achievement!" "Huge step forward!" "Huge mark!" "Huge piece!" "Huge breakthrough!" Dean, who spent much of the election season squabbling over strategy with his fellow Democrats, boasted: "We all worked together, and it came out great."
Republicans were equally determined to show their disunity. While Dean spoke, conservative leaders held dueling news conferences in other rooms at the press club. Their theme: Blame the party, not us. "This was not a repudiation of conservatives," said Pat Toomey, a former GOP congressman. "It was a rejection of the Republican Party." At the rival conservative event across the hall, Richard Viguerie was condemning "the failed big-government policies of President Bush."
GOP officials pointed the finger elsewhere. On Fox News, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said the party's vaunted turnout operation works only "in the very close races." Rep. Tom Reynolds (N.Y.), who led House Republicans' campaign efforts, said more Republicans could have won -- if they had acted more like him. "Just take a look at my race," he suggested. He blamed his colleagues for "self-inflicted wounds" and being "caught unprepared," and he blamed the "stiff wind" blowing in Republicans' faces.
The creator of this stiff wind, however, was in no mood for contrition. "Say, why all the glum faces?" Bush asked when he entered the East Room. In fact, his aides had worn exaggerated grins as they took their seats.
Clearly, Bush was trying to tone down the rhetoric from the campaign, when he said the Democratic "approach comes down to this: The terrorists win, and America loses." Yesterday, he voiced soothing notions of "consultations" and "bipartisanship."
But he seemed unsure how much to concede. He began by saying "Iraq had a lot to do with the election." He amended that to "Iraq had something to do with it." And finally he cited cases where "I'm not sure Iraq had much to do with the outcome." While he said "many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure" with Iraq, he looked puzzled when a reporter suggested that voters wanted the troops withdrawn. He said he was "making a change" at the Pentagon to respond to the voters, but he also said he was going to sack Rumsfeld "win or lose."
Likewise, he wrestled with the message voters sent on Tuesday. "If you look at race by race, it was close," he reasoned. "The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping." But when the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg repeated the "thumping" description, Bush bristled. "Let's make sure we get the facts," he said. "I said that the elections were close. The cumulative effect: thumping."
Ken Herman of Cox News teased the wounded president. "That was 'thumpin',' without a 'g,' correct?" he queried. "I just want to make sure we have it right for the transcript."