Facing The Music
It started with the New Orleans blues. Now it's sounding like a real dirge
Admits Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican: "Because it's a Republican [administration] we just kind of say, 'It's OK, big government is OK as long as it's our government. . . . A lot of us in the House have opposed some of the spending but have basically, for the sake of unity, gone along with it. I think many of us now see that there is no virtue in unity. . . . Lemmings have unity right over the cliff. I think that's where we see ourselves going, right over a fiscal cliff."
Republican House members are especially concerned, because they all face re-election next fall. "The president is going to have more trouble because some members question the judgment of some of his people," says Rep. Christopher Shays, a centrist Connecticut Republican. "They are going to take a second, third, and fourth look at issues."
Small ball. The blame game extends to senior advisers at the White House, including Rove, Chief of Staff Andy Card, and counselor Dan Bartlett. Prominent Republicans say Rove has been distracted by the Plame inquiry; others say he's at odds with Card. Whatever the case, White House decision-making seems less sure-footed than ever. "[Bush's senior advisers] are like a dying cellphone battery," says a GOP strategist. Bush aides, however, reject the possibility of a big housecleaning.
For his part, the president isn't discouraged, according to aides. "He realizes that his whole presidency since 9/11 has been faced with critical issues," says a senior White House official. "It's not his instinct to play small ball, and no small balls have been tossed his way. They've all been big and important."
Bush is hoping to restart his presidency with his State of the Union address in January. He plans to resume his calls for a Social Security overhaul, more tax cuts, increases in domestic energy production, aggressive pursuit of the war in Iraq, and the slashing of domestic spending. There may also be some surprise initiatives. "The State of the Union will reset the clock," argues a Bush adviser. "Until then, what else can we do but focus on what's in front of us?" The next few months, he says, will be "a hard slog."
PRESIDENT BUSH'S APPROVAL RATING
71 pct. Apr. '03 23 pct.
52 pct. Dec. '03 41 pct.
47 pct. Sept. '04 48 pct.
39 pct. Oct. '05 54 pct.
Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal
With Liz Halloran, Bret Schulte and Silla Brush