Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Strategy Shift Likely for Bush

Bush listens to a reporter's question during his Wednesday press conference

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 8, 2006; 11:44 AM

For weeks, President Bush has waved off questions about how he would cope with a Democratic House. He and his aides said they simply did not expect to be dealing with a Speaker Pelosi, and Bush regularly mocked the Democrats for "measuring the drapes" on Capitol Hill in anticipation of victory.

But the dramatic election results yesterday left Bush facing not only a House but also, possibly, a Senate in the hands of the opposition party -- should the narrow Democratic leads in Virginia and Montana hold up. And later today, at a White House news conference scheduled for just after 1 p.m., the nation will begin hearing just how Bush plans to cope with a completely different Capitol Hill environment than he has faced in his first six years in Washington.

The White House sent the strong signal this morning that Bush intends to offer a conciliatory message, indicating he will express the desire to work closely with Democrats during the next two years on Iraq and domestic issues such as education and energy. Press secretary Tony Snow said in an interview that Bush made a round of congratulatory calls to senior Democrats, describing the tone as "very cordial."

Asked how Bush interprets the election results, Snow said he will leave it to the president to describe that this afternoon but added: "There are a whole lot of ways to cut this, but the clearest thing is Republicans got whupped."

The hard reality is that if Bush hopes to accomplish any significant initiative in the last two years of his term, he will almost certainly have to rethink a legislative and political strategy that for the past five years depended almost entirely on Republican votes for success.

With Democrats evidently anxious to show that they have matured as a governing party, the opportunity may be there for the president to reach accommodation with the opposition before he leaves the White House in two years. William A. Galston, a top Democratic strategist from the centrist wing of the party, said in an interview this morning that prospects for the kind of broad immigration reform the president wants -- tough enforcement coupled with some kind of pathway to citizenship for long-time illegal immigrants -- may have improved with more Democrats elected to Congress.

"Is he prepared to deal with a Democratic majority that may push him farther than he wants to go -- that's his decision," said Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "To a remarkable degree, this election puts the ball in the president's court."

Perhaps most significant will be how Bush handles the rapidly evolving politics surrounding the war in Iraq. While the president has more latitude to chart his own course on foreign policy, a big question for today's news conference is whether the president will signal any kind of reassessment of his basic Iraq strategy in light of the clear repudiation by a broad swath of the electorate. The White House has said it is awaiting advice from a bipartisan study group co-chaired by former Republican secretary of state James A. Baker III, and many in the foreign policy community expect the panel's report will present Bush a vehicle to try to gain more international support for trying to resolve the conflict there.

Some close Bush allies say Americans should not hold their breath. "What's going to happen in Iraq is not going to be judged by or dictated by American elections," said Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, on Fox News last night. "It's going to be dictated about what's on the ground there and what's necessary."

But with control of at least one chamber of Congress -- and its powerful committee structure -- Democrats will for the first time be positioned to challenge Bush's conduct of the war while promoting their own idea of a phased withdrawal of 140,000 U.S. troops from Iraq. Bush also will likely face enormous pressure from major figures in his own party to trim his ambitions of establishing a stable, functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) , a leading Democratic critic of the war and a candidate to be the new House majority leader, told National Public Radio that the change of power in the House "is going to change politics" on the war. "You get the committee system working in a bipartisan manner -- and that's the only way this problem can be solved -- and then we confront the president on the issue," he said.

While the president may say "we're not going to change the policy," Murtha added, Democrats will begin holding the administration accountable for its decisions on Iraq.

One question Bush may face today is whether he interprets the election results as a referendum on his administration's handling of Iraq -- and cause him to reassess his strong support for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. Asked after the 2004 campaign why he had not held anyone in his administration to account for mistakes in the war, Bush told The Washington Post: "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections."

Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former GOP lawmaker with close ties in the White House, said Iraq may have actually become more complicated for the Democrats with the election results. "The Democrats have had it easy so far -- they have just been able to criticize and identify with the voters' frustration," he said. "Now they are going to have to become partners in governing."

Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bush has governed largely from the right, challenging the Democrats to support his proposals on terrorism and other matters -- or risk retribution at the polls. Until yesterday, he has thrived politically, defying predictions that the GOP would lose seats in the 2002 midterms and securing his own reelection two years later by a tremendous drive to galvanize grassroots Republican voters.

The strategy came up short for the first time yesterday, as Democrats picked up more than two dozen House seats, gaining the majority for the first time in 12 years, and seemed close to securing control of the Senate. Voters seemed to ignore the president's explicit warning that they would risk the country's safety and economic prosperity by giving power to the Democrats.

Now Bush must govern without his base in the House, which has been the driving force for much of his agenda on Medicare, energy, terrorism and taxes: GOP leaders had muscled through one Bush proposal after another, often with only a handful of votes to spare.

As former Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan demonstrated, split government can be an opportunity for a clever president: Clinton successfully used then-GOP speaker Newt Gingrich as a foil to present himself as a centrist, while he also secured a major overhaul of the welfare system and a balanced-budget agreement that was seen as keeping the economic prosperity of the 1990s going. Reagan achieved the last major overhaul of the tax code working with a Democratic House in 1986.

And while Democrats don't necessarily like to admit it, Bush does have a pre-9/11 track record -- both as Texas governor and in his first year as president -- of reaching across the aisle for agreements on education and taxes. He has spoken of his desire to launch a new bi-partisan effort to rein in the costs of Social Security and Medicare, and he has deputized his new Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., to sound out Hill Democrats about this possibility.

But as of this morning, it remained uncertain whether Bush would fully embrace this model -- and whether he could even be successful were he to try. White House aides have been privately frank in their frustration over what they see as relentless obstructionism by congressional Democrats, who in turn see the president as not sincere in his overtures.

The mid-term election campaigns may have only exacerbated this divide. In the last days of the campaign, Bush repeatedly cast sharp aspersions on the very proposition that the opposition can govern responsibly -- suggesting at one point that terrorists would "win" if Democratic policies were put in place -- and Democrats have used their own harsh rhetoric to characterize the president. Bush may ultimately decide that the best course would be to govern aggressively from the right, as some in his party advocate, accept that little would get done legislatively -- and set up contrasts for the party's presidential nominee to exploit in 2008.

Democrats will have their own internal debates to resolve. The party's liberal base is hungry to extract retribution from a president many believe has governed lawlessly and incompetently, yet the Democrats' electoral success yesterday hinged at least partly on the ability to make some inroads with more moderate, even conservative, candidates. Many Democratic lawmakers have signed on to a vague plan for a phased withdrawal from Iraq, but the party remains divided between a base eager to get out soon and a foreign policy establishment that sees a precipitous withdrawal as potentially damaging to both the country's and the party's interests.

One thing that seems certain is that the leadership of the Democratic Party sees value in trying to present a moderate image to voters, at least for now. In their comments last night and this morning, party leaders made clear that they have studied and learned from what they see as the bitter lessons that flowed from Republican over-reaching following the GOP's smashing victories in the 1994 mid-term elections.

Virtually every comment from party leaders suggested a belief that Americans are tired of partisan bickering. "We extend our hand of friendship, fellowship and partnership to the Republicans," Senate Democratic leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) told a victory rally last night. "The only way we can accomplish anything in the Congress is by working in a bipartisan basis."

Whether he and other leading Democrats truly believe in this approach after years of partisan warfare -- and whether President Bush grasps an extended hand -- will be the story of Washington for the next several months.