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The Lost President 

Can Karl Rove help this man find his way?

Thursday, Mar 4 2004
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Is the Bush White House coming unhinged?

Senator John Kerry shouldn’t yet start picking new wallpaper for the Lincoln Bedroom. But at the Bush White House, the cracks are showing more and more. Master architect Karl Rove has had a tougher time of late keeping the crooked foundation and peeling paint hidden by smoke and mirrors.

Look at Bush’s efforts to redefine his presidency as embodying more than a tax holiday for the wealthy and a made-in-the-World Wrestling Federation foreign policy. Several weeks ago, he attempted to transcend the partisan scuffles of Washington by proposing a non-ideological Bold Idea: a return to the moon and a trip beyond (for humans) to Mars. And when Bush delivered his State of the Union address, he uttered not a word about his planet-hopping aspirations. Bush also proposed a new plan — or scheme — to revamp immigration law and allow for more guest workers from Mexico. It, too, received a lukewarm reaction (except from low-wage businesses). And Bush’s most prominent legislative success of recent months — the Medicare prescription-drug bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress — has created little, if any, political capital for him. Polls show that most Americans still believe that Democrats are better able to handle health-care policy matters. Maybe that’s because the legislation seemed more help to the drug companies than the elderly.

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Despite Rove’s efforts, Bush is still best known as the guy who (mis)guided the war on terrorism into Iraq and who responds to the loss of millions of jobs by saying the nation needs more tax cuts for the rich. Recently, Bush did take a stab at positioning himself as Defender of the Family, declaring his support for a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage. Sure, two out of three Americans say they find gay marriage yucky. And Rove can count on this issue to juice up social conservatives. But Republican leaders on the Hill — including Representative David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee, Representative Tom DeLay, the majority leader, and Senator Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee — have signaled they’re not eager to rewrite the Constitution as part of the culture wars, and Republicans are predicting this amendment will be no shoo-in. Pushing this amendment will make it tougher for Bush to revive his uniter-not-a-divider shtick.

So Bush’s issues strategy has not been stellar. Nor has his performance. After two high-profile appearances — his State of the Union speech and a much-watched appearance on Meet the Press — conservatives griped that Bush was hardly inspiring. Bush has also had to tend to self-inflicted credibility wounds. Not only because WMDs have yet to turn up in Iraq. After the White House released its proposed 2005 budget a few weeks ago, the Washington Post editorialized, “The Bush administration’s 2005 budget is a masterpiece of disingenuous blame-shifting, dishonest budgeting and irresponsible governing.” As for the weapons of mass destruction, a Post poll showed that 54 percent of the public believes Bush had either deliberately lied about or exaggerated evidence regarding Iraq’s WMDs.

No wonder Bush in several polls has been trailing Kerry. Recently I was at a lunch with Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie. He was asked why Bush was not faring well in the early matchups with Kerry. Gillespie noted that Bush has been bashed by the Democratic contenders for months and that millions of dollars’ worth of political ads decrying Bush have been aired by the Dems. In other words, the absent WMDs, the anemic job growth, Bush’s AWOL scandal, the failures of the No Child Left Behind Act, and Bush’s do-little response to the nation’s health-care crisis have nothing to do with Bush’s image. Could Gillespie be dumb enough to believe his own spin?

And the Republican troubles extend beyond the White House. There are three investigations that have Capitol Hill GOPers in the cross hairs. The Senate sergeant at arms is investigating Republican staffers for swiping thousands of computer files from the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee. A political-action committee run by DeLay is the focus of a criminal investigation in Texas for violating laws restricting the use of corporate contributions. And the House Ethics Committee is investigating whether Republicans tried to bribe Nick Smith, a GOP congressman, by offering to arrange $100,000 in contributions to the congressional campaign of his son in return for his vote on the Medicare drug bill. (Smith voted against the legislation.) Additionally, House Speaker Dennis Hastert looked like a political thug when he recently tried (but failed) to stop the independent, bipartisan commission investigating 9/11 — which is chaired by former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, a Republican — from obtaining a two-month extension to finish its work in orderly fashion.

And there’s more. Past and present White House officials have been grilled — supposedly aggressively — as part of the Justice Department’s criminal investigation of the administration leak that identified a CIA counterproliferation officer married to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, a White House critic. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has been under fire for going duck hunting with Vice President Dick Cheney while the Supreme Court is considering a lawsuit filed against Cheney’s office that requested records of Cheney’s energy task force’s meetings with industry lobbyists. And Halliburton, which Cheney ran before becoming Bush’s sidekick, is the subject of federal investigations.

To sum up: Things are messy in Bushland. But the empire is striking back. The Bush campaign has raised over $131 million. Much of that money will be used for a massive ad campaign hailing Bush and sliming Kerry, who is an uneven campaigner. Moreover, the 2004 election is likely to be shaped — if not determined — by whatever is happening in October, and events could fall in Bush’s favor (Osama bin Laden captured!).

Desperate people in desperate times often resort to desperate measures. Many of the recent miscues and missteps of Bush and the GOPers were born of desperation. But Democrats beware. Now that Bush and the gang have a clear target, their acts of desperation will be aimed at Kerry. And attacking is always easier than governing.

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