Bush Needs a Political Exit Strategy

President Bush comments about his veto of Iraq funding legislation. i

President Bush comments about his veto of Iraq funding legislation, May 1, 2007. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images
President Bush comments about his veto of Iraq funding legislation.

President Bush comments about his veto of Iraq funding legislation, May 1, 2007.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Who would have guessed that the best news story for the Bush administration so far this year would come out of France?

The solid victory of Nicolas Sarkozy in the French presidential election is a boost for Bush because Sarkozy is an unabashed appreciator of America. This is a breed rarely seen in Paris. France has of late epitomized international disapproval for U.S. policy on many fronts — especially in Iraq — culminating in the infamous "Freedom Fries" episode in Congress.

Sarkozy now joins German leader Angela Merkel as a pro-American voice on the Continent. The White House will welcome these new friends all the more as its best foreign ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, this week announces the timetable for his departure from power.

In his own capital city, President Bush remains ensnared in bad story lines. Each seems endless, and none leads anywhere he wants to go. Yet the president refuses to make the painful changes by which he might begin to disentangle himself and regain the initiative.

Topping the list is the impasse with Congress over funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When he announced his veto of the $124 billion spending bill that featured these funds, the president radiated impatience. Now that Congress has had its little fun, he seemed to say, we can get down to the business of funding the troops.

Congress, in approving the war money, attached a minimum-wage hike and a variety of domestic projects — some of dubious value. But the real reason the president spiked the whole package was the inclusion of a timetable for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq (starting in October).

So now let's talk, the president said, designating two top staffers to speak for him. A week later, however, we see little progress toward a deal. Instead, the Democrats are hearkening to their anti-war activists, who urge them to hang tough on the timetable.

Scarcely two months ago, it seemed impossible the Democrats would jeopardize the seats of their more vulnerable members by flirting with a real funding cutoff. Now they are edging ever nearer that cliff, and doing it with a growing sense that they might get away with it.

Reinforcing that notion is the unease of Republicans, who continue to back the president but wonder how long they can do so without penalty. The war cost them their House and Senate majorities in 2006, and the war is the main reason Democrats look forward to 2008. So, how much longer will the GOP be willing to let The Decider determine their electoral fate?

Mr. Bush has not helped his case on Capitol Hill by defying congressional opinion on other fronts. His blithe disregard for Senate Republicans who lack faith in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is more than a slight. It is a provocation that will carry a price. The embattled Gonzales returns this week for more grilling in the House, where it is assumed his memory will be just as unsatisfactory regarding the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.

Each week brings the Democrats closer to cracking the Gonzales case, which is now about more than the eight attorneys. Now the search is on for the master plan (and master planners) behind making the Justice Department an arm of the White House political office. A key witness has been immunized and is expected to testify. Documents and e-mails are being subpoenaed.

And yet Gonzales stays and the president lets him, guaranteeing the whole scenario will stay on page one.

In a parallel plot line involving another White House appointee, Paul Wolfowitz continues to battle for his job as president of the World Bank. It's the job the president gave him after his stint as deputy secretary of defense, during which he was a major architect of the Iraq war. After two contentious years at the bank, Wolfowitz stands accused of engineering a lucrative job for his girlfriend. Struggling to hold on, he tears at the fabric of the institution itself.

And the White House seems unable or unwilling to take a hand.

Alongside these compelling dramas, it is difficult for other issues to be noticed in the capital. Anticipated progress on immigration overhaul and renewing the No Child Left Behind Act has proven elusive. Long forgotten is the wistful talk of tackling entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.

Will it be possible to return to these agenda items when the climate improves? Right now it's hard to be optimistic. Mr. Bush's polls have not recovered from their long slide: His approval score remains well under 40 percent in every major poll (and under 30 percent in Newsweek). That means the "political capital" he enthused about after his re-election is largely gone, and it was not really spent so much as it was frittered away.

Replenishing that supply of capital may be increasingly difficult, as the campaigns of 2008 occupy more of the media's attention. Early next year, the Republican Party will probably have chosen its next nominee. By February, the party may be transferring its flag — and its affection — to a new vessel.

If the president wants to write a different script for his remaining months in office, he needs to begin now.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.