As the War Debate Heats Up, Stagnant Air Is in the Forecast

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

He lamented, in his own way, that he is unloved these days and reflected on the "war fatigue" that has gripped his country. He looked forward to the day, not so long from now, when he will retire to his Texas ranch and tell himself that he did the right thing.

Yet no matter how battered he seems, no matter how unpopular he may be in the polls, President Bush still holds the commanding position in his showdown with Congress over Iraq. Even with Republican defections, as votes in both houses made clear this week, opponents do not have anywhere near the veto-proof majorities needed to wrest leadership of the war.

The almost-certain result, according to strategists in both parties, will be at least two more months of anger and posturing but no change in direction. A weakened president is desperately playing for time while a Democratic opposition mounts its case against him and Republican lawmakers agonize over how long to stick with him. Bush will keep pressing his strategy in Iraq in hopes that it produces more than the meager results his White House reported yesterday while his foes keep scoring political points and not much else.

"The town is gridlocked," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who served as chief of staff in the Reagan White House. "There is no give at the White House or on the Hill. The Senate doesn't have 60 votes to do anything. So, at least for the foreseeable future, which may be September, the only result is stalemate. That may benefit the president, and if you listen to the Democrats, they think it benefits them."

Both sides have stuck to their familiar positions. Bush has long seen a virtue in refusing to relent to pressure and operating as he sees fit regardless of Congress, while the Democrats, until January, had spent the Bush presidency essentially in the minority, lobbing criticism but with no responsibility for governing. Neither side shows even passing interest in forging a bipartisan consensus, preferring instead to bend the other to its will.

"In many ways, everybody's trapped," said Clinton White House chief of staff Leon E. Panetta, who served on the Iraq Study Group as it produced a bipartisan plan largely discarded at first by both sides. "The president in many ways is trapped in the realities of what's taking place. The Congress is trapped because, while they want to change strategy, they don't have the votes. And both sides are trapped by the fear of the consequences of what happens if they do make a change."

The defections of core Republican senators such as Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) in the past couple of weeks alarmed the White House and prompted a series of hastily called meetings and strategy sessions to shore up its eroding base. But as the days passed, Bush advisers calmed down and recognized that they can preserve their policy for now. "As long as we can sustain a veto, we have got some leverage on this process," one White House aide said.

That became evident in votes this week. Seven Republican senators abandoned Bush on Wednesday to vote for a measure requiring more rest time for troops between combat deployments, but the bill still fell four votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster and 11 short of the 67 needed to override a veto. Just four House Republicans voted yesterday for a timetable for withdrawal, leaving pullout proponents nearly 70 votes from a veto-proof majority.

Still, the clock is ticking for Bush, and it seems to be speeding up. Just two weeks ago, White House aides bemoaned the political missteps that made September a deadline of sorts for demonstrating the success of the president's troop increase. Too soon, they complained. Now September looks like the holy grail as Bush and his team find themselves practically begging fellow Republicans to hang on until then.

The strategy pursued by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) is to keep scheduling votes to pressure Republicans, who, in turn, would pressure the White House to change its war policy. "The president hasn't seen the last of these votes," said Reid spokesman Jim Manley. "We'll look forward to additional votes in September."

Patrick Griffin, who was President Bill Clinton's chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill, said the current stalemate is just a step in a process that inexorably will force Bush to change his policy. "This isn't going to go away," he said. "Eventually, something's going to stick, or something's going to change. Either he's going to lean into this, or more people are going to shift positions."

Yet Democrats appear uninterested in reaching out to Republicans, preferring to keep party differences on the war clear heading into the 2008 elections and fearing that any proposal moderate enough to attract GOP support could anger the antiwar wing of their party. "I'm not supportive of where the president is, but they haven't engaged any of us here," said an angry Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "They're just trying to score political points."

At the center of this remains Bush, pummeled yet defiant, rejected yet still in charge. From the lectern in the newly reopened White House briefing room yesterday, he alternated between being grim and relaxed, unpopular commander of an unpopular war one moment and light-hearted pol the next.

"Do we ever use 'kinder and gentler'?" he asked after cutting off a reporter. "No," he said, rejecting his father's mantra with a smile.

At another point, he stopped to answer a shouted question after starting to leave the room, something he rarely does. "This is amazing," he declared. "The new me!"

But it did not really seem like a new Bush. Most of his arguments sounded familiar -- the need to persevere in Iraq against the radicals who would spread chaos, the search for signs of progress on the ground in the face of unremitting violence, the faith that success is still in reach. He tried to show he was willing to take on all comers, even calling upon nemesis Helen Thomas for the first question.

Yet, there were moments of reflection for a typically unreflective president. It was hard not to wonder whether he was talking about himself as he mused about the "ugly war" and how the American people have wearied of it. "You know, they're tired of the war," he said. "There is a war fatigue in America. It's affecting our psychology."

And then there was the concession that while he still commands policy, he no longer commands the affection of his nation. "I guess I'm like any other political figure -- everybody wants to be loved," he said. "Just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved."

Leaning on the lectern, Bush anticipated the day when the responsibility would no longer be his and expressed his hope for vindication. "When it's all said and done . . . if you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to say, 'I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics,' " he said. "And that's important to me."

Staff writers Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.

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