A Rough Political Patch for the GOP
LIANE HANSEN, host:
The indictment of Tom DeLay comes as other problems are plaguing Republicans in Washington: the slow and haphazard federal response to Hurricane Katrina, costs for rebuilding the Gulf Coast, rising energy prices and unrelenting insurgent attacks in Iraq. To discuss these and other political happenings, we're joined by Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Good morning, Doyle.
Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Liane.
HANSEN: Boy, a lot has changed since the inauguration of President Bush nine and a half months ago. The president poll numbers then were high. He had an ambitious domestic agenda. He still had the majority of the country backing him on the war in Iraq. What does his agenda look like now? What's been lost? What's been added?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, it has certainly downsized. Remember, after his election last year and at his inauguration, President Bush was talking about a big popular mandate to do big things, and he wanted to start by remaking Social Security and he wanted to go on and remake the tax code and enact new broad tax cuts. Well, all of those are dead and gone at this point. Even the relatively modest or the less-ambitious tax measures--abolishing the estate tax and making permanent the tax cuts that were passed in the first term--even those are on ice at this point.
Now in foreign policy, the president had talked about extending Iraq to be a great democratization movement in the Middle East. Well, you know, the generals who were up on Capitol Hill last week talking about much more minimal, much more restrained goals of basically getting Iraq stabilized and getting out.
The problem really is that all of the luck has been bad. Everything has gone against him. And there's a part of the political season here. It's not just Tom DeLay. Bill Frist, the Senate leader, is under a cloud. White House aides are under a cloud because of the Valerie Plame thing. So now we're looking at an agenda that is much more modest and has hurricane relief in it, it has an immigration bill in it, it has a response to energy prices to it. But it looks an awful lot like this president is playing on defense and not on offense, where he likes to be.
HANSEN: Well, talk a little bit about energy prices. Anyone who's put gas in the car knows about those rising gas prices. Winter's coming; heating costs are expected to rise. Consumer confidence in the economy is sour. Is that really warranted?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, most economists say it probably isn't warranted, at least at this point, but what they're worried about is it could become part of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you've got inflation going up because of energy prices, you've got consumers not spending because they're worried, you've got the elements there of an economy that is slowing down or turning sour. And as a political fact, look, that economic worry is already the biggest component in President Bush's trouble in the polls. He is stuck somewhere between 40 and 45 percent popularity. That's not because of Hurricane Katrina, it's not because of Iraq--it's a little bit because of Iraq--but it's mostly because people are worried about the economy.
HANSEN: The president still has three years, though, I mean, remaining in his term. Does he really have to worry about being a lame duck?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, he's not a lame duck yet, but we're beginning to have the sense that when he gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror, he checks for feathers.
HANSEN: Let's talk a little bit about the loss of Tom DeLay as leader of the House of Representatives. Does this have the potential, do you think, to undermine the Republicans at the polls next year maybe and possibly lead to the GOP losing its majority in the House?
Mr. McMANUS: You know, if you'd have asked that question a couple of weeks ago, I would have said no. Every political professional in town was saying the Republicans have too big a majority in the House and those seats are too stable. For the first time last week, the professionals who look at those numbers were beginning to say, `You know, there is a possibility for the Democrats to draw an inside straight. There is the glimmer of a possibility of changing the majority in the House.' It's still very unlikely, but it is very much a problem both for the president and the Republicans.
And the other problem, of course, in the House is that the discipline of that Republican caucus in the House has been one of their great strong cards. Well now you've got three or four members of the Republican Conference in the House saying they'd like to be majority leader, too. And they're not sure Mr. DeLay is coming back. And not only that, Denny Hastert, the speaker, is talking about maybe retiring. So you've got a lot of tensions over issues there, but you've also got a lot of ambitions that have suddenly been let loose to play.
HANSEN: What about that sliver of opportunity for the Democrats, though? I mean, no one seems to be able to take advantage of it. Why not? Isn't there a coherent message?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, of course, the Democrats have never been an organized political party. They are at odds with themselves over their message. They are struggling now towards a message. And their message--as Rahm Emanuel, their congressional campaign chief, has been putting it, their message is they're going to accuse the Republicans of the arrogance of power. They think they're going to take--they hope they're going to take a leaf from Newt Gingrich's playbook with the way Newt Gingrich took the House from the Republicans 10 years ago. Is that going to work? We don't know. But that's the theme they're going to start harping on.
HANSEN: Finally, the president will name a new nominee to the Supreme Court to fill the seat of Sandra Day O'Connor, and it could happen as early as tomorrow. What's the president looking for, a consensus candidate or one that's going to make his conservative base happy?
Mr. McMANUS: Well, if he could have all of his wishes granted, he would want someone who's both. You can't have that; it won't work. I think the betting all over Washington is he's going to try and keep the conservative base happy. Why is that? People in the center are moving away from George W. Bush; Democrats aren't going to help him out no matter what happens. But that conservative base that has been the engine of his party and his own power, he does need to do something for them. I think we're going to see a very solid conservative nominee.
HANSEN: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Thanks a lot for coming in, Doyle.
Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Liane.
HANSEN: It's 18 minutes past the hour.