White House On Sidelines In 2008 Contest

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 9, 2007

No one in the West Wing is booking tickets to Iowa. No one is scouring matchup poll numbers or hiring campaign managers or dialing for dollars. As candidate after candidate jumps into the race for president, the White House sits unaccustomedly on the sidelines.

This is the first White House in 80 years without someone running for president, a twist of history that will shape not just the campaign but also the remainder of the Bush administration. With neither a president seeking reelection nor a vice president positioned as the heir presumptive, the Bush team will increasingly turn into a spectator in the nation's political debate.

Its absence in the contest will spare the White House the trials of a campaign, easing the tensions between governing priorities and election imperatives that traditionally tear at the institution. Yet, at the same time, it means that no one will be making the case for the Bush legacy as 2008 nears. To one degree or another, all of the candidates, including the Republicans, will distance themselves from the president, particularly if he remains as unpopular as he is today.

"It creates a fundamentally different situation than we've known in the past," said Craig Fuller, chief of staff to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush as he prepared for his 1988 presidential run. "What's so starkly different about this situation is that not only is the president, by virtue of the calendar, a lame duck, but there's no champion out there on the field for him."

The early and especially intense start of the 2008 race, marked by a rush of announcements in recent weeks, has foreshadowed the changing dynamics. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the Republican most closely identified with Bush's Iraq policy, made a point of assailing the administration's performance as a "train wreck." And the focus is turning to the future. Voters dislodged Bush's Republican majorities in Congress in November, and a Newsweek poll last month found that 58 percent would like the Bush presidency to be over; 21 percent of Republicans agreed.

For Bush, the challenge will be to assert his leadership anyway. As a wartime commander in chief sending more troops to Iraq, he is more relevant than most lame-duck presidents. But he seems eager not to let the election debate pass him by. When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) in Iowa criticized Bush's actions as "the height of irresponsibility," the White House called reporters to denounce her "partisan attack that sends the wrong message to our troops."

Still, Bush's advisers see advantages in not having a candidate in the race. Bush can push energy, immigration and Iraq plans without gauging electoral consequences. When he proposed a dramatic increase in ethanol production, no one linked that to Iowa caucus politics. "I actually think it is liberating in some ways, and it keeps them from being distracted," said former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman. "The fact that you have a White House that isn't thinking at all about politics . . . is good for the nation and good for the president."

Other advisers said the White House will still think about politics but will be free to focus on broader goals, such as party building. And they take solace that top Republican candidates -- McCain, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- have backed Bush's troop increase. But they recognize that the support will not last if the situation in Iraq does not improve in six months.

The situation for Bush defies modern tradition. The last time neither president nor vice president actively ran was in 1928, when Calvin Coolidge did not seek reelection and hated Vice President Charles G. Dawes so much that he made it clear that fellow Republicans should not consider him. Even so, Coolidge had a stake in the election, with his commerce secretary, Herbert Hoover, carrying the banner. The only election since then without a president or vice president on a major-party ballot was in 1952, when Vice President Alben W. Barkley, at 74 and with no support from Harry S. Truman, lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson.

Friction typifies relations when vice presidents step forward to seek the Oval Office. Even George H.W. Bush, who vowed not to disrespect Ronald Reagan during his own presidential bid, began to distinguish himself in the summer of 1988, first by publicly disagreeing with administration talks with drug-running Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega and later by promising a "kinder, gentler" presidency.

This can fracture a White House, with the president's staff focused on polishing his legacy and the vice president's on winning votes. The schism between Bill Clinton and Al Gore after the Monica Lewinsky scandal grew so pronounced that, at one point in 2000, Tipper Gore refused to go into a reception with the president. Gore chose a Clinton critic as his running mate and kept the president off the campaign trail.

"There are always tensions," said Roy Neel, a longtime Gore adviser who also served as Clinton's deputy chief of staff. "In the Clinton-Gore years, the tensions were minimal until Gore's campaign had to begin. And then what happened was all of the expected tensions . . . [were] exacerbated substantially by the problems that Clinton was having and the backlash onto Gore."

George W. Bush avoided that in 2000 by tapping Dick Cheney, who swore off interest in the Oval Office from the start. "My advice to him is untainted by any concern I might have about how the folks in Iowa will look at me with connection with the 2008 Iowa caucuses," Cheney told CBS News last year. "And when I speak out on an issue, it's because somebody needs to speak out on the issue, and I can do it without fear, in a sense that I'm not here trying to burnish my image."

With no campaign at stake, Cheney's influence within the White House, though still potent, has clearly diminished. The rise of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the fall of ousted defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld signaled a shift. Cheney's handling of a hunting accident last year, in which he shot a friend in the face and kept quiet about it for a day, drove a wedge between him and Bush aides who blamed him for needlessly exacerbating the president's political problems.

Since then, according to some in the administration, the Cheney mystique within the White House has faded. Presidential aides are no longer as intimidated by Cheney's staff as they once were, and some who have seen the vice president in private lately said he seems personally down. His combative tone in a CNN interview last month, even as Bush was trying to reach out to Democrats, surprised presidential aides and hinted at his frustration over the turn of events.

Advisers played down reports of tension and noted that Cheney's decision not to run makes him the most loyal vice president in modern times. "Contrary to popular belief, he doesn't freelance," said Mary Matalin, a former aide. "You don't have to work parallel agendas -- the president's and your own."

Bush plans to remain neutral in the GOP primaries -- "helpful to all, partial to none," in the words of one aide. His political guru, Karl Rove, is likewise staying out of the race and refuses to handicap it even among friends for fear of showing favoritism. Some Bush advisers, such as media strategist Mark McKinnon, have signed on with McCain, while the candidates compete for the president's fundraisers.

Within the White House, there is no sentimental favorite, no candidate in the Bush mold who excites his loyalists. McCain's long rivalry with Bush makes him anathema to many, but some top aides appreciate that he has always supported the president on the issue that matters most, the Iraq war. On domestic matters, many in the White House are attracted to Romney, seeing him as the most electable conservative. Giuliani has admirers for his performance on Sept. 11, 2001, but many consider him too liberal on social issues.

As the campaign begins to heat up without him, Bush may find it irritating not to have a role. As Timothy Walch, a historian and director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, put it: "It's very hard, I think, psychologically and politically, for somebody who has been the most powerful person in the world to begin gradually to detach themselves from power."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company