Sunday, February 26, 2006

Hell freezes over

That inconceivable phenomenon has occurred twice this weekend:
A new Rasmussen poll asks Americans the question, Who do you trust more to protect national security - President Bush or congressional Democrats? The results are in: 41 percent say Bush, 43 per cent say congressional Democrats. I know, those numbers look like some kind of optical illusion, and there is only one explanation: a visceral backlash against the administration for approving the deal that puts those six U.S. ports under the management of a company owned by the United Arab Emirates. This is not a guess on my part; the same Rasmussen poll finds that only 17 percent of Americans like the deal.
Yes, this is only one poll. But Tom Bevan, a frequently Bush-friendly commentator, sees trouble ahead for Bush, as he explains here.
It may well be true that the public backlash is somewhat irrational, given the fact that UAE is an ally in the war on terror (despite having recognized the Taliban, and despite its current official position advocating the destruction of Israel). Even Richard Clarke, the ex-national security aide who in his book hammered the Bush team for allegedly poor pre-9/11 preparedness, thinks that Bush is right on the merits of the UAE deal, as Time columnist Joe Klein reports today.
But, at the very least, the White House, its political antennae seemingly on the fritz, has been demonstrably slow in making its case -- conservative commentator William Kristol said on Fox News today, "One has the sense sometimes that the Bush administration is just mailing it in" -- and, more generally, it now appears that Bush is being hoisted on his own petard. He and Karl Rove for years have been invoking 9/11 at every turn; now comes a port deal with a country whose banking system was a key conduit for the 9/11 terrorists.
This explains those Rasmussen numbers. Congressional Democrats being trusted more than Bush on national security? That's certainly not because of anything bold that the Democrats have done (the words "bold" and "Democrats" often don't belong in the same sentence). The Rasmussen numbers are strictly a thumbs-down verdict on Bush -- on his signature issue no less -- and that could spill over onto his congressional allies as they seek re-election this year.

And that's just the first weekend shocker. The second involves conservative analyst Fred Barnes, author of the new laudatory Bush book "Rebel in Chief," which might as well have been written by Rove himself. But now Barnes has written a piece that actually rebukes the White House for being "tardy" on its handling of the ports deal, for "not seeing political trouble on the horizon." His conclusion: "Bush's strength in Congress has significantly eroded...His Republican base is no longer secure." Barnes might need to write a new closing chapter when his book goes into paperback.

I have written a long newspaper piece exploring the question of whether, or to what extent, the president has become too isolated and out of touch - a common occupational hazard, he wouldn't be the first - with helpful input from Republicans and historians. Here's an advance peek (but it's only a partial version) that moved on the Knight Ridder wire today.