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Archive for Thursday, November 24, 2005

Bush faces credibility gap

November 24, 2005

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Back from Asia, President Bush and his family are gathering at his Crawford, Texas, ranch this week for their annual Thanksgiving celebration. But the mood may be a bit more restrained than last year.

Just weeks after his re-election, Bush and his tight inner circle were looking ahead optimistically to a second term in which he could reform Social Security, simplify the tax system and cement his Republicans as the majority party.

Now, he faces record-low approval levels, a widespread sense the country is headed in the wrong direction and increasing GOP disquiet as he prepares to take stock and set his course.

In recent weeks, Bush has received a lot of advice on how to turn things around. Some want him to stress immigration, a subject he plans to push on a border tour next week, or a tax simplification plan, based on proposals by his bipartisan study panel.

Others emphasize the need for overdue changes in a top command worn down after five years in energy-draining jobs.

Staff changes would be useful; there seems little chance of passing any broad-ranging immigration or tax-simplification legislation. In any case, all this advice avoids his real problem: Iraq.

"It's the elephant in the living room," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, one of the GOP's sagest, most candid strategists. The problem, he told a Christian Science Monitor press breakfast, is that "the war is not going according to plan," and the administration has not prepared people for the long haul and rising death toll.

The war is a particular problem with independents, noted Davis, whose northern Virginia suburban district has many independent-minded voters who back him but voted this month for Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Kaine.

"It would be great if we could start bringing some troops home next spring or summer," he said.

Conservative strategist Grover Norquist was more direct. "If Iraq is in the rearview mirror by 2006, we'll do fine," he said. "If it's on the windshield, we'll have problems."

There was other evidence last week of increasing public disquiet over the war.

One sign was the decision by Senate Republican leaders to back a resolution calling on Bush and his top aides to explain their strategy for Iraq and make quarterly reports on their progress.

GOP leaders portrayed the proposal as a sign of support for Bush. In part, they acted to block a Democratic measure calling for a withdrawal timetable.

But some GOP senators acknowledged the move was also designed to signal the White House that Republicans who face the voters next year are restive about doing so without more tangible signs of progress in Iraq.

Another sign was the call by Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania for U.S. withdrawal in the next six months.

Despite White House efforts to link him to the most rabid Democratic war foes, Murtha is no anti-war, MoveOn.org-type Democrat. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran, he has long served on the defense appropriations subcommittee. He voted for the war but has expressed doubts about its conduct for some time.

He suggested strongly his concern was that the war was damaging the American military, a view he reiterated in Friday night's bitter debate precipitated by House GOP leaders to force Democrats to vote against a resolution urging immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

The administration, meanwhile, responded to this rising tide of opposition with heated denunciations of Democratic accusations it misled the nation in gaining support to attack Iraq.

Its assault got the partisan juices flowing and met the concerns of some Republicans that it has been slow to counter Democratic criticism.

But last weekend, officials toned down the rhetoric, presumably recognizing it will hardly assuage public concerns reflected in the polls and the comments by the likes of Davis and Murtha.

After all, as Davis put it, the ultimate determinant will be "the facts on the ground."

The week's verbal crossfire intruded on Bush's Far East trip, but he's unlikely to hear much of it this week on his ranch respite.

Yet it won't go away, given that polls show increasing numbers question not only his policies but his leadership and credibility.

"People in leadership make mistakes all the time," Davis replied to a question about the president's credibility. "The people that admit it are a lot better off."

Carl P. Leubsdorf is Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.

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