Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Downsizing the presidential swagger

Just one week ago, George W. Bush was lavishing praise on Donald Rumsfeld for his “fantastic” performance at the Pentagon, bringing to mind the Katrina declaration that “Brownie” was doing “a heckuva job.” The bottom line, according to The Decider, was that Rumsfeld was staying put until 2009, no matter what the cut and run crowd wanted; and Bush’s bottom line, out on the campaign trail, was that a Democratic victory in the ’06 elections would be a bad day for a nation under terrorist threat.

But now that the voters have actually delivered a stinging rebuke – what Bush once called “an accountability moment” – the trademark presidential swagger has been drastically dialed down. Bush basically ate crow at his press conference today, serving notice that he is scrapping the Karl Rove philosophy of partisan governance (tend to the conservative base, write off Democrats and independents) that has sustained him since Day One.

Back then, you may recall, he came to the job after losing the popular vote by 600,000 – and proceeded to reign as if he had won a landslide mandate for conservatism, a strategy only enhanced by the 9/11 trauma. But his penchant for governing without substantive input from the opposition party won’t work anymore, because the voters told him to knock it off.

So today, watching his press conference as he switched to conciliatory mode, here’s what filled my notebook (in chronological order): “Let’s work together with Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country…We can work together over the next two years…find common ground in the next two years…try to work through our differences…intend to work with the new Congress in a bipartisan way…work together to address the challenges facing our nation…to find common-sense solutions…confident we can work together...”

And my personal favorite: “…I’m confident we can avoid the temptation to divide the country into red and blue.” That, of course, would be the “temptation” that drove the Rove political strategy, which was all about playing to the red base at the expense of the blue.

The new mantra, apparently, is that Bush, seeking to make a virtue out of a necessity, intends to return to the governing philosophy that worked in Texas, when he broke bread with state legislative Democrats. This was a big theme during the distant 2000 presidential campaign (the “compassionate conservative” campaign), when we in the political press were regaled with stories about how Bush always reached across the aisle to crusty Texas Democrat Charles Bullock.

Today, he insisted he can behave likewise with Nancy Pelosi. In the president’s words, “this isn’t my first rodeo.” Hence, as peace offering, the delivery of Rumsfeld’s head on a platter.

When a cocksure guy like Bush admits that he took a “thumping,” you know that the damage must have been bad enough to pierce the presidential bubble. And it surely was: the Democratic takeover of the Senate was made possible by victories in three red states (Ohio, Missouri, and Montana), and an apparent victory in traditionally red Virginia. The decisive Democratic takeover of the House was greased by the defeat of Republican incumbents in red states such as Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky. The exit polls showed that nearly 60 percent of the voters were dissatisfied or angry with Bush, primarily because of the war that he launched three long years ago, and there’s nary a Republican in sight who is bothering to spin that one away.

So it would seem that an era of comity is at hand, with a chastened president doing the people’s business with the new guns in town. But don’t be so sure.

There is a lot of bad blood, going back years, and it won’t evaporate just because the votes have been counted. Nancy Pelosi is no Bob Bullock (she hardly fits the profile of a Texas-style Democrat), and she has said some nasty personal stuff about Bush, calling him “incompetent” and “dangerous.” And the Republicans just finished a campaign that sought to paint Pelosi as a wild-eyed loon who’s in hock to the “radical homosexual agenda.” According to a Time magazine report today, Bush’s charm offensive is all about going through the motions; as one White House source told Mike Allen, the Bush strategists are “not in the mood for it, and they don’t think it would work.”

Indeed, Bush’s conciliatory rhetoric contained an important caveat. By talking up his willingness to meet the Democrats half way, he was essentially daring them to match his gesture and give up any impulse to investigate, with full subpoena power, the administration’s past behavior. Only once in the press conference today did Bush make this clear: “The Democrats will have to make up their minds how they are going to conduct their affairs.” He is putting the ball in their court. He is warning that if they start probing and issuing subpoenas, then they will be guilty of reigniting partisan passions, not him.

But how Bush would substantively reach across the aisle without ceding his own ideological principles isn’t clear, either. If he goes to the Democratic majority with a Social Security privatization plan, he’ll get nowhere. If they come to him with something he deems too liberal, he’ll wield the veto pen. As he put it today, referring to Pelosi, “She's not going to abandon her principles and I'm not going to abandon mine.” The grounds for agreement may prove to be quite narrow.

The Democrats now have the upper hand, however, for the first time. And he’s the lame duck, the target of voter ire, and the intended recipient of instructions to govern from the center. If he fails to find ways to do that, his presidency will be effectively finished.