washingtonpost.com
Put a Fork in Him

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 30, 2008 10:18 AM

President Bush put what was left of his influence on the line in his push to get Congress to pass a massive financial bailout. So yesterday, when House Republicans killed his proposal, it wasn't just the stock market that took its biggest tumble in history.

Bush is now wiped out.

Dan Eggen and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "The vote marked the biggest legislative defeat of Bush's tenure and underscored the vanishing influence of a president who could once bend a pliant Congress to his will on wars, taxes, surveillance and a host of other high-profile initiatives.

"The defeat also brought into focus some of the key characteristics of Bush's troubled second term, including his weakened hold on his party, his tendency to delegate major responsibilities to aides and his continued reliance on alarmist rhetoric in an effort to get his way. Bush left much of the sales job for the rescue plan to Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., and his last-minute warnings that 'our entire economy is in danger' appeared to have little impact on the debate. . . .

"Several GOP strategists and lobbyists said the White House deserves considerable criticism for the way it handled legislative advocacy for the Paulson program. Some faulted the president for not personally lobbying lawmakers until the end, leaving it to Paulson, Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and other aides. The president began calling GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate over the past few days, White House officials said.

"Other Republicans said Bush gave too much leeway to Paulson, whom they consider tone-deaf to politics, in fashioning a plan that initially gave him broad powers with no oversight."

Jackie Calmes writes in the New York Times: "If there was any doubt that President Bush had been left politically impotent by his travails over the last few years and his lame-duck status, it was erased on Monday when, despite his personal pleas, more than two-thirds of the Republicans in the House abandoned the plan. . . .

"At the White House, aides described the president as working the phones to lobby a dozen Republicans. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former No. 2 House Republican leader, pitched in, with no better luck."

Calmes writes that some Republicans "complained that it was too little, too late. They said Mr. Bush should have summoned lawmakers to the White House and gone to the Capitol to personally plead his case -- as other presidents including Mr. Bush have done in the past to sell their highest priorities. 'Reagan did it!' one said.

"'There probably could have been an outreach that began earlier than in just the last couple of days,' said Representative Adam Putman of Florida, a member of the Republican leadership, who supported the bailout."

But that might not have made any difference.

"The episode underscored that Mr. Bush's credibility and political clout, long gone among Democrats, is lacking among Republicans as well. 'There is a fair number of people who believe we're not staring into the abyss as has been represented,' Mr. Putnam said. 'And some people do believe we are facing a market collapse and something needs to be done, but they would rather not be the ones who have to vote for it.'

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "For Bush, the defeat was the starkest sign yet that a president who once had lockstep support among congressional Republicans has all but lost his influence. He has had vetoes overridden, on a water projects bill and a major agriculture measure, but nothing to compare to the defeat of a measure he had said was critical to the nation's economy. . . .

"Yesterday, Bush called nearly every member of Texas's Republican delegation, GOP aides said. He won over four of the 19."

Richard Wolf, Kathy Kiely, Fredreka Schouten and John Fritze write for USA Today: "When President Bush came on television at 7:35 a.m. Monday to urge passage of a $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan, fellow Republicans working out in the House gymnasium jeered his remarks."

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "The fact that Bush's party rejected the bailout underscored the peculiar position he is in, and decreasing influence he has, during an economic crisis that will dominate his final months in office.

"'No one should be surprised that a presidential appeal couldn't stop this rebellion given Mr. Bush's poll numbers, and given that the idea of defying the lame-duck president was part of the public conversation among House Republicans before the meltdown at the White House meeting last week,' said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor.

"For years, Bush, preaching GOP orthodoxy of smaller government and free markets, has pitched homeownership as a part of the American dream. Now, it's become part of a national economic nightmare."

Craig Crawford blogs for CQ: "George W. Bush's White House has gone belly up, not unlike those big banks that failed. The president's political credit was revoked today as his financial bailout failed to pass in the House of Representatives.

"This is what happens to a president who lied to Congress to start a war, among other things -- even if this time he is proposing the best thing for the country."

Justin Webb blogs for the BBC: "With the Republican revolt in the House of Representatives, President Bush is now confirmed as the weakest Commander-in-Chief in modern history.

"He puts Jimmy Carter in the shade. Just as well America faces no serious problems."

Poll Watch

Gallup reports: "According to a Sept. 26-27 USA Today/Gallup poll, just 27% of Americans approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president, the lowest rating of his presidency. . . .

"In a separate question in the Sept. 26-27 poll, only 28% of Americans approved and 68% disapproved of Bush's response to the financial crisis -- the worst of six government leaders tested in the poll (although no leader received a majority positive response). . . .

"Republicans are mostly responsible for the further erosion in Bush's job rating. Sixty-four percent of Republicans approve of Bush, down from 71% in the prior poll. Independents' and Democrats' ratings are essentially the same as two weeks ago.

"There has been an even sharper drop in Bush's ratings among self-identified conservatives, from 59% to 47%, likely reflecting opposition to the expansion of government involvement in the economy that the Bush administration proposed. . . .

"Low approval ratings have become routine for Bush. He has not had an approval rating above 40% for over two years, and only a handful of ratings at or above 50% his entire second term in office. The low ratings throughout much of his second term have arguably been because of the unpopular war in Iraq. But as conditions for the United States in Iraq have improved in the past year, the economy has gotten much worse and has served as an anchor on Bush's ratings. . . .

"His high rating for the year is only 34%.

"The all-time low rating for any president is 22%, for Harry Truman in February 1952. Bush now joins Truman and Richard Nixon as the only presidents who have had approval ratings of 27% or lower in Gallup Polls."

Bush's Familiar Words

This morning would have been a good time for Bush to say something different. Perhaps to present some sort of explanation for what happened. Maybe make a new argument. Perhaps even offer an apology.

But no dice. Instead, when Bush briefly emerged from the Oval Office, it was essentially to repeat a series of familiar and apparently unpersuasive assertions.

The man is not just a lame duck, he's a broken record.

Bush did briefly acknowledge the news: "Yesterday, the House of Representatives voted on a financial rescue plan that had been negotiated by Congressional leaders of both parties and my administration. Unfortunately, the measure was defeated by a narrow margin. I'm disappointed by the outcome, but I assure our citizens and citizens around the world that this is not the end of the legislative process."

But his bromides about what needs to be done were retreads, uttered with neither conviction nor enthusiasm: "Our economy is depending on decisive action from the government. The sooner we address the problem, the sooner we can get back on the path of growth and job creation. This is what elected leaders owe the American people, and I am confident that we'll deliver."

The Bush Economy

The Dow is now lower than it was when Bush took office. Blogger Marcy Wheeler examines that and other key economic indicators.

Mark Knoller blogs for CBS News: "With no fanfare and little notice, the national debt has grown by more than $4 trillion during George W. Bush's presidency.

"It's the biggest increase under any president in U.S history.

"On the day President Bush took office, the national debt stood at $5.727 trillion. The latest number from the Treasury Department shows the national debt now stands at more than $9.849 trillion. That's a 71.9 percent increase on Mr. Bush's watch."

And that's without the bailout. "Buried deep in the hundred pages of bailout legislation is a provision that would raise the statutory ceiling on the national debt to $11.315 trillion."

Justice Watch

Evan Perez writes in the Wall Street Journal: "U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey appointed a federal prosecutor to investigate the firings of U.S. attorneys, after a yearlong internal investigation failed to answer the central question of whether White House officials played an improper role in the ousters."

Here's the report; here's my column yesterday, Pointing the Finger at the White House.

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Nora R. Dannehy, who will continue the inquiry, is a 17-year veteran of the U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut whose work led to the conviction of the state's former governor John G. Rowland (R) four years ago. She will make a preliminary report to Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey within two months, but lawyers involved in the case said her work will probably extend into the next administration. . . .

"[T]he conflicting explanations for the dismissals, and the refusal of key White House and Senate officials to provide documents and testimony, requires further investigation to determine whether 'any criminal offense was committed with regard to the removal of Iglesias or any other U.S. attorney, or the testimony of any witness related to the U.S. Attorney removals,' the report said. . . .

"[Former Bush senior adviser Karl] Rove and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers did not consent to interviews, and White House officials rejected attempts by investigators to review internal memos that administration aides had prepared last year. Emmet T. Flood, deputy counsel to President Bush, said in a letter to investigators that the material they sought is 'sensitive' and involves 'confidentiality interests of a very high order.' The lawyer stopped short of citing executive privilege for declining to turn over the documents, perhaps because the Justice Department watchdogs are part of the executive branch."

Law professor and blogger Marty Lederman marvels at the White House's refusal to give the Justice Department inspector general a memorandum and chronology about the scandal prepared by White House Associate Counsel Michael Scudder -- even though the memorandum has been provided to Justice Department's own Office of Legal Counsel.

"The White House Counsel's office wrote in explanation that 'we viewed the situation as in some sense analogous to civil discovery efforts to obtain an opponent's attorney work-product material.' The Counsel's Office, in other words, views the investigating components of the Justice Department as analogous to 'opponents' in civil litigation.

"The Counsel's Office also wrote that '[o]ur disclosure was necessarily partial because, in our judgment, total, unqualified disclosure of all factual portions of the entire draft chronology would have an adverse impact on the effective provision of legal advice within the White House. That impact, as we perceived it, was not outweighed by OIG/OPR's need for the undisclosed information, at least to the extent we understood that need as articulated in our discussions with your office.'

"Of course, to the extent the draft chronology does not reflect any unlawful conduct, its disclosure would be unlikely to have any chilling effect on legitimate White House communications, and would assist the IG and OPR in understanding what happened here. And to the extent the chronology reveals unlawful conduct, there is no justification for the White House to keep such evidence secret in the first place."

Scott Horton blogs for Harper's that "the first lesson to be drawn from the report is a simple one: Obstruction continues to be the order of the day. . . .

"[I]t seems reasonably clear at this point that Mukasey's prime objective in this maneuver is to ensure that the matter is swept under the rug until after the November 4 election, so that those responsible for trashing the traditions and integrity of the Department of Justice will suffer no political damage for their misdeeds. This is a disappointing, but at this point hardly surprising, development that favors White House stonewalling. Michael Mukasey has emerged as just the sort of Attorney General George W. Bush was hoping for."

Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate: "For those of us who had been waiting over a year to learn the connection between the abrupt firing of nine U.S. attorneys and the assorted muck-a-mucks who run the Bush administration, the release this morning of the inspector general's report was anticlimactic. In light of massive obstruction by the White House (which brazenly refused to turn over internal documents) and other 'key witnesses,' (including Karl Rove, Harriet Miers, Monica Goodling, Pete Domenici, and Domenici's chief of staff, Steven Bell), the gist of the IG's investigation--done in conjunction with the Office of Professional Responsibility--was that somebody with the authority to compel testimony and the release of documents seriously needs to do an investigation."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The people who have been running our government for the past eight years have nothing but contempt for government. They believe only in politics and ideology, in that order. First, win elections by any means necessary. Second, once in a position to act in the public good, govern with the ideological conviction that government is either irrelevant or harmful to the public interest."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on the dead duck, Daniel Wasserman on all hat, no elephant, Rob Rogers on bailout accomplished, and Chan Lowe on Bush's exit strategy.

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