Does Bush Mean It?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 1:04 PM

The morning after a dramatic vote of no confidence from the American electorate, White House aides are fanning out to promise a new era of bipartisanship in the final two years of the Bush presidency. The president himself is expected to do the same in an afternoon news conference.

On a rhetorical level, it's a neck-snapping reversal from the savage smearing of Democrats as troop-hating terrorist-appeasing cowards that continued right up until last night, when the will of the voters became undeniable even by White House standards.

But more substantively, is President Bush actually prepared to reverse any of the controversial policies that have put him so dramatically out of step with the public?

One important test case will likely be Iraq. Bush apparently has taken an enormous step in that direction by accepting the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Another critical test: Whether he'll keep pushing for private accounts as part of a Social Security overhaul.

Pre-election signs certainly didn't point to any desire to compromise on Bush's part. Whether it was bluster or bluff, he and Vice President Cheney drew several very clear lines in the sand just in the past two weeks.

In an interview with ABC News broadcast on Sunday, Cheney was asked if the election would have any effect on the administration's Iraq policy. "I think it will have some effect, perhaps, in the Congress, but the President has made clear what his objective is, it's victory in Iraq. And full speed ahead on that basis, and that's exactly what we're going to do," Cheney said. "It may not be popular with the public. It doesn't matter."

As for Social Security, in an interview with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo two weeks ago, Bush first offered up this ode to bipartisanship.

"[W]hat hadn't worked is that Democrats and Republicans put aside all their partisanship and come together and say, 'Let's work together to make this program solvent.' And I know [Treasury] Secretary [Henry] Paulson is anxious to be a part of getting Democrats and Republicans to the table, as am I. Hopefully in my last two years of office people will say, you know, all this kind of politics that has dominated so much of Washington, DC, as a waste of time and effort, let's work with the president and get some things done."

But then he made it clear that he is not dropping the element of the plan that was so offensive to congressional Democrats that they managed to stalemate it even when they were in a minority.

"I also happen to believe that a worker, at his or her option, ought to be allowed to put some of their own money in a, you know, in a private savings account, an account that they call their own," he said.

So is that the kind of bipartisanship the White House is talking about today? The kind that's just lip service? Or are they really willing to reconsider their positions?

Lunch Date

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, waking up on Wednesday to a new balance of power in Washington, picked up the phone and called House speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi. . . .

"Bush invited Pelosi and Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the second-ranking Democratic leader in the House, to have lunch on Thursday at the White House. Bush also called a handful of other lawmakers and invited House Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, to the White House on Friday for a meeting over coffee."

Said spokeswoman Dana Perino: "In all of those calls, I would say there was a strong spirit of good will."

CNN reports this morning: "The president wants to work with the new House leaders, said [press secretary Tony] Snow, and was encouraged by several Democrats' calls 'to get rid of partisanship.'

"'Bush wants to go back to the Texas model. He's always reached out. He's been trying over the last couple of years with limited success,' Snow said."

See? He's been trying for years.

And Snow was already hard at work on some new White House spin. "[D]espite the new House leaders, White House officials are not writing off the chamber as a bastion of liberalism, Snow said, adding that Bush believes the chamber will actually mirror his thinking on issues -- and perhaps even reject Pelosi's on occasion."

But here's a tantalizing hint: "The new congressional balance of power may prompt some changes in the Bush administration. Though Snow said 'some people who'd been with the administration for a long time might be ready to step down,' he would not elaborate on whom that might include."

Reuters' Steve Holland quotes White House counselor Dan Bartlett: "The president has experience working with parties who have majorities in the legislature. This is not foreign to him. He will make all the appropriate outreach to make clear to the public and to the Democrat Party that he is generally eager to work with them and hopes that they will meet him halfway."

Note to Bartlett: Calling them the "Democratic" party, which is their actual name, might be a good start.

The Verdict Is In

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "The political pendulum in American politics swung away from the right yesterday, putting an end to the 12-year Republican Revolution on Capitol Hill and delivering a sharp rebuke of President Bush and the Iraq war. . . .

"The collapse of one-party rule in Washington will transform Bush's final two years in office and challenge Democrats to make the leap from angry opposition to partners in power. . . .

"Overall, 59 percent of voters surveyed in a news media consortium series of exit polls yesterday expressed dissatisfaction or anger with the Bush administration; 36 percent said they cast their vote to express opposition to Bush, compared with 22 percent who were voting to support him. Fifty-six percent of voters support withdrawing some or all U.S. troops from Iraq, which will embolden Democrats pushing for a pullout."

Robin Toner writes in the New York Times: "Everything is different now for President Bush. The era of one-party Republican rule in Washington ended with a crash in yesterday's midterm elections, putting a proudly unyielding president on notice that the voters want change, especially on the war in Iraq. . . .

"For six years, Mr. Bush has often governed, and almost always campaigned, with his attention focused on his conservative base. But yesterday's voting showed the limits of those politics, as practiced -- and many thought perfected -- by Mr. Bush and his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. . . .

"After a campaign that only escalated the tension between Mr. Bush and Congressional Democrats, the president will now face overwhelming pressure to take a more conciliatory approach."

Toner writes that to accomplish almost any major initiative, Bush will now "have to abandon the political worldview that he drew, by many accounts, from his father's defeat -- to never cross his base."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For six tumultuous years President Bush has provoked intense opposition while mobilizing passionate support for an ambitious conservative agenda.

"On Tuesday, that perilous strategy crumbled -- and triggered his party's abrupt fall from power. . . .

"In the long run, the reversals raise fundamental questions about the viability of the strategy Bush and his chief political advisor, Karl Rove, have pursued to build a lasting Republican political majority.

"Bush and Rove placed their main emphasis on unifying and energizing Republicans and right-leaning independents with an agenda that focused squarely on the goals of conservatives.

"But Tuesday's broad Democratic advance underscored the risks in that approach: In many races, Republicans were overwhelmed by an energized Democratic base and a sharp turn toward the Democrats by moderate swing voters unhappy with the president's performance."

Ron Hutcheson writes for McClatchey Newspapers: "After crisscrossing the country on behalf of Republicans, Bush suffered a rebuke from voters that left him politically weaker than he's ever been. . . .

"Two years ago, Bush claimed to have gained political capital from elections that returned him to office and increased Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The question now is whether he has enough left in his account to function effectively."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "With his party's loss of the House, experts say Bush must fundamentally alter the way he approaches Congress for any hope of salvaging his own 'aggressive' agenda for the remaining two years of his presidency. . . .

"On the war front and home front, Bush's ability to make any headway during the rest of his term could depend on a willingness to work with Democrats whom he has spent years marginalizing."

The one silver lining: "Some say Bush could find quick common ground on immigration reform with a new Democratic House majority."

Here's the New York Daily News cover today: A picture of a slouching Bush, with a huge headline, "Ouch, This Hurts."

Don't Believe the Hype

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With increasing fervor, President Bush spent the final weeks of the 2006 campaign castigating Democrats as unacceptable leaders, charging that they would hand victory to terrorists and raise taxes.

"But Bush returned to the White House on Tuesday and, sitting with his longtime political guru Karl Rove and other aides, watched as those same Democrats won a majority in the House for the first time in 12 years. A president who just two years ago trumpeted his cache of post-reelection political capital faces an uncomfortable choice: Will he fulfill his old pledge to be a uniter by cooperating with Democratic leaders who could help him secure a legacy for his dwindling time in office? Or will he continue to resist compromise and seek to please the business interests and social conservatives who make up the GOP base, and who might fuel a comeback for the party in 2008?

"Bush will begin to answer that question today. But after six years of intense partisanship and a bruising campaign in which he charged that the Democrats' approach to Iraq would mean that 'terrorists win and America loses,' it appears Bush is unlikely to change his ways. . . .

"White House allies suggest there is little reason to think Bush and the Democrats will work together. Bush has tied himself closely to conservative movement leaders who bitterly disagree with Democrats for their opposition to tax cuts and to privatizing Social Security -- two of the administration's top goals. . . .

"Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, a close advisor to the White House . . . . predicted that Bush would now govern largely through executive orders rather than working with Congress on legislation. The president could, for example, use orders to lighten the load of capital gains taxes by changing how they are calculated, Norquist said. One other possible executive order, he said, could excite conservative voters in time for the 2008 election: putting the late President Reagan on the $50 or $100 bill."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "[W]ill the president show any actual bi-partisanship -- will he sacrifice something or show that he accepts the judgment of the voters that he was so anxious to embrace when it went his way?

"Advisers have been saying that Bush will rely on the bi-partisanship of his Texas days when as Governor he worked with Democratic Lt. Governor Bob Bullock. But they have sold that line before -- repeatedly. Those Bullock days were a long time ago. As a president, Bush has only shown brief spasms of bi-partisanship."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "The first challenge for the White House will be to adapt its language, and its attitude, to the new political realities. . . .

"Humility might be a better strategy now that the House Democrats earned the right to measure the drapes in some of the best offices on Capitol Hill -- no matter how much the president lampooned them before the election. . . .

"The White House has long said it wanted to govern in a bipartisan way. And Pelosi herself pledged to do just that on Tuesday night. But the reality is that the White House often framed legislation -- on taxes or terrorism -- in ways that would skewer its Democratic critics....

"Having campaigned against Democrats as defeatist weaklings, President Bush must now apply his formidable political skills to turning those Defeatocrats into his new friends."

How It Went Down

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The president watched the results in the White House residence, where Snow described the mood as 'businesslike.'

"Asked if the president was surprised that the House was shifting to the Democrats, Snow said it wasn't 'a slap-on-the-forehead kind of shock.' . . .

"He was joined for dinner by political strategist Karl Rove, GOP chairman Ken Mehlman, White House chief of staff Josh Bolten, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans and Brad Freeman, a California venture capitalist and top Bush fundraiser."

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "Karl Rove, the president's top political strategist, informed the president that the House was lost at around 11 p.m., the White House said."

About Iraq

Michael Grunwald writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats worried for months about the last-minute political bombshells Karl Rove might drop, but the October surprise of 2006 may have come from Iraq.

"October was the U.S. military's deadliest month in Iraq in nearly two years, and as Democrats cruised to victory in the House last night, early returns and exit polls suggested that the unpopularity of the war -- along with the president who started it -- was a major factor. The election was much more than a referendum on the war, but bad news from Baghdad gave Democrats a powerful argument for change, and a metaphor for a 'rubber-stamp Congress' that wants to 'stay the course' in America as well as Iraq. . . .

"[A]nalysts said that most Republicans overplayed their Iraq hand when things seemed to be going well, and took too long to recognize that the situation was deteriorating badly.

"'For way too long, we believed our own talking points,' one Republican operative said. 'We actually believed that things were getting better.'"

The Vote Heard Round the World

Joseph Coleman writes for the Associated Press: "Democratic gains in Congress were seen around the world Wednesday as a rejection of the U.S. war in Iraq that led some observers to expect a reassessment of the American course there.

"The shift in power also was seen as a signal in some capitals that the United States would put a greater emphasis on trade policy and human rights."

The Democratic House

Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray write in The Washington Post: "Victories from New Hampshire to Arizona marked a rebuke to Bush and a House Republican majority that has served as a firewall for the White House's agenda. . . .

"'The message is clear: This is a referendum on the Bush administration's failed policies and the inability of the Republican Congress to hold them accountable,' said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) . . .

"Early Democratic priorities will include raising the minimum wage, boosting homeland security spending, shifting the nation's energy policy away from oil and gas exploration toward alternative fuel sources, and reversing cuts to education spending.

"Meanwhile in the committee chambers, aggressive new chairmen, such as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) and Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), promise a series of investigations and hearings into matters that have largely gone unexplored under GOP control, such as allegations of waste in Iraq and mismanagement of the war.

"That alone could dramatically change the political atmosphere during Bush's final two years in office."

Let the Oversight Begin

Andrew Rudalevige , author of 'The New Imperial Presidency,' proposes a to-do list for the 110th Congress, over on

Poor Speechwriters

Pity the White House speechwriters. Yochi J. Dreazen writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Emerging from a tough election season for Republicans, the men who shape the Bush administration's message -- the White House speechwriters -- are struggling with a new reality. The bully pulpit, and their ability to shape public debate, has decreased as polls show voters less trusting of President Bush and his policies."

Karen Hughes Sighting

Richard Wolffe blogs for Newsweek about a sighting of "Karen Hughes, President Bush's most trusted message-maker. Hughes joined Bush on Marine One as the president flew back to the White House after a campaign tour that ended in Crawford, Texas."

Wolffe speculates that Hughes may be helping Bush start to craft a new message. "Hughes is seen inside Bush's inner circle as the polar opposite of Karl Rove--she tries to stake a claim in the middle ground of American politics rather than stoke up the partisan base. . . .

"[L]ook for Hughes to be close nearby in the coming months, reminding him how to speak to the other side."

The Lieberman Factor

Is newly re-elected Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman the White House's secret weapon? If Democrats are able to prevail in the Virginia and Montana races, they would have a narrow, 51-49 majority in the Senate.

Jennifer Medina writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Lieberman has promised to caucus with the Democrats, to protect his seniority: 'That's important to my state,' he said in [a] Fox interview on Tuesday."

But, as Medina points out: "Republicans are likely to court Mr. Lieberman's vote heavily as well, and could bestow their own rewards.

"Vice President Dick Cheney frequently chided Democrats in recent months for 'purging' Mr. Lieberman from the party, prompting some of the senator's liberal critics to wonder anew how frequently he was communicating with the White House."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online this afternoon, but -- on account of Bush's press conference at 1 p.m. -- at the special time of 2 p.m. ET.

We can talk about the election and the press conference. And maybe you can help me come up with a new nickname for Karl Rove.

Blogger Humor

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports that Cheney arrived in South Dakota yesterday for several days of hunting, his first such trip since shooting a fellow hunter in the face in February.

Atrios blogs : "Attention Montana Election Officials:

"Cheney is nearby and he's armed."

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