Archive for Saturday, April 7, 2007

Even Bush friends express disappointment

April 7, 2007


To many Texans, the sharply conservative, partisan President Bush of the past six years has seemed a lot different from the bipartisan-minded "compassionate conservative" who governed Texas.

Now, a top Bush strategist, pollster Matthew Dowd, has broken dramatically with Bush, expressing public chagrin over that contrast and concluding that he misjudged Bush.

In a quite remarkable interview with Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times, Dowd criticized Bush for failing to build a bipartisan consensus, for ignoring public sentiment on Iraq and for approaching governing with a "my-way-or-the-highway mentality."

He said he had hoped Bush would revert to his Texas style after the 2004 election but, after noting his handling of Hurricane Katrina and refusal to meet with anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, concluded that "maybe all these things along do add up, that it's not the same, it's not the person I thought."

"I really like him, which is why I'm so disappointed in things."

The White House reacted by citing recent developments in Dowd's personal life: In the past two years, he was divorced, suffered the loss of a daughter born prematurely and saw his oldest son prepare to go to Iraq.

"He himself has acknowledged that he was going through a lot of personal turmoil," counselor Dan Bartlett said Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation." "That could only impact a parent's mind as they think through these issues." Similarly, Bush said Tuesday, "I can understand Matthew's concerns."

But Dowd's comments underscore a theme likely to figure in historical assessments of Bush, though the explanation for his different political approach and leadership style can be explained in part by the contrast between Austin and Washington.

Four of the last five presidents were governors, a job regarded as excellent presidential preparation.

In fact, such experience differs widely in different states. The Austin in which the support of key conservative Democrats like Bob Bullock helped Bush forge a moderate-to-conservative bipartisan majority is less like Washington than was the vigorous two-party competition in Ronald Reagan's Sacramento of the 1970s.

Facing a highly partisan atmosphere in Washington, Bush, Karl Rove and other White House advisers opted to govern through a Republican Party with only bare majorities in national attitudes and congressional strength. While successful initially, this strategy left little room for error when Bush antagonized some key backers by abandoning conservative economic tenets and the small band of GOP moderates by his consistently conservative tilt. He lost political clout when his job approval dropped sharply.

Dowd said he began to rethink this approach while advising California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who built a bipartisan majority to win re-election last year. "I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people but bring the country together as a whole," he said. Initially, he blamed the hardening of Bush's stances on his advisers, but he concluded that the person "who is ultimately responsible is the president."

If Dowd has hit upon a key factor in the decline of the Bush presidency, he has also matched the unfortunate example of recent years in which top advisers deliver negative judgments while their advisees are still in office. In essence, they put their own reputations ahead of the person responsible for their prominence.

By contrast, the author of an even harsher criticism of the Bush presidency, longtime conservative author and activist Vic Gold, has had no real role in this administration, though he was a personal adviser to the president's father, former President George H.W. Bush.

In a new book, "Invasion of the Party Snatchers: How the Holy-Rollers and the Neo-Cons Destroyed the GOP," he writes: "George W. Bush has been, by comparison to even hapless Jimmy Carter, the weakest, most out of touch president in modern times. Think Dan Quayle in cowboy boots."

His comments, too, reflect more than those of an individual. They are a more extreme version of the sub rosa criticism one hears from some Bush 41 associates about how his son has handled policy issues, especially Iraq.

Much of the criticism a White House receives comes from political or ideological foes. A measure of the dire straits of this president is that this pointed criticism is coming from his friends.

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


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