Trust Me? Yeah, Right
So it has finally come to this: Congressional Republicans, once a compliant bunch, are now openly defiant. In some ways, it's not surprising: The president is a lame duck, leading an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, and his personal popularity is at an all-time low. After all, members of Congress are most loyal to themselves when it comes to saving their jobs. And Republicans are worried that they could actually lose control of the House in the upcoming midterm elections. "It's not that we feel we now can [criticize the White House]," says one nervous House Republican. "It's that we feel we must." Survival is a basic instinct.
But something else is happening: Republicans are truly miffed at a White House that they consider too secretive, too arrogant, and too interested in extending its own power. When the president threatened to veto legislation to block a Dubai company from operating six American ports, that was too much--even for some conservatives. "I think the administration has looked at the legitimate power of the executive during a time of war and taken it to extremes," Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told me. "[It's] to the point that we'd lose constitutional balance. Under their theory, there would be almost no role for the Congress or the courts." Mississippi's Sen. Trent Lott put it more succinctly: "Don't put your fist in my face."
The port controversy is the tipping point, but it may well have started with the nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court last fall. The more conservatives questioned her credentials, the more the president got his dander up. "I know her heart," he said. "I'm interested in finding somebody who shares my philosophy today and will have that same philosophy 20 years from now." All well and good, conservatives said--but not good enough. Bush relented only after it became clear, with conservatives vowing to join Democrats in opposing her nomination, that Miers simply couldn't prevail.
The president's "trust me" argument wore thin again with libertarian Republicans objecting to the warrantless wiretaps conducted by the National Security Agency. While it was Democrats who led the charge, some Republicans joined in--and others were just miffed that they had been kept in the dark about the eavesdropping program. Not to worry, the president said, I'm only doing what I have to do to protect the American people. Indeed, he told CBS News, "Perhaps because I was a sitting president when 9/11 occurred ... I remember my words going to Congress, just saying, 'I'm not going to ever forget what took place,' and I will use all the power and my authority within the Constitution to protect the American people." In other words, don't question my motives or my decisions.
Robots? So then comes the Dubai ports deal--a huge surprise, even to senior staff within the administration, who had no idea that senior-level bureaucrats had OK'd the plan. And once again, the president seemed to take the controversy personally--annoyed that anyone might raise red flags about a move that could call into question his determination to fight an all-out war on terror. "If there was any doubt in my mind or people in my administration's mind that our ports deal would be less secure and the American people endangered," he said, "this deal wouldn't go forward." That didn't work with Congress or, apparently, with 70 percent of Americans who believe that a company from the United Arab Emirates should not operate American ports, according to a recent poll. So the secrecy--and the deal itself--boomeranged. "I think the administration could save themselves a lot of trouble," the Homeland Security Committee chair, Sen. Susan Collins, told me, "if they consulted more fully and more frequently with Congress." Now that's an understatement.
Don't get me wrong: Congress isn't exactly held in the highest esteem, either. But the president's problem is that the American people no longer trust him as much as they used to. A recent poll showed that 53 percent of Americans now believe that President Bush is not trustworthy; a majority considered him honest just a year ago. So it's no longer enough to assume that the public will be on your side when you tell them you're doing the right thing. The same goes for congressional Republicans. They're not robots anymore. After all, it was none other than Ronald Reagan who said, "Trust, but verify." Always a good idea.
This story appears in the March 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.