By DAVID WESTPHAL
February 28, 2006
On issue after issue, prominent Republicans are breaking ranks, cracking open the bonds of solidarity Bush maintained with his GOP allies throughout most of his first term.
Last fall, supporters vowed that a couple of conservative insurrections - one against Harriet Miers, the president's ill-fated nominee for the Supreme Court, the other against Bush's big spending increases - would be short-lived anomalies. But the defections keep coming.
The revolt by Senate GOP leader Bill Frist of Tennessee against the takeover of U.S. port operations by a Middle Eastern company is only the latest in a string.
In recent weeks, the White House has been grilled by key Republicans on its domestic eavesdropping program, on the rollout of its Medicare drug plan and even on a mild Bush proposal to study Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
It's hardly the fresh start White House aides had hoped for in 2006.
"I'm not sure the problems we saw spring up with the Miers nomination have gone away," said Andrew Busch, government professor at California's Claremont McKenna College. "There are some lingering credibility problems for the president."
These problems, which could have implications for Bush's agenda and next fall's midterm elections, aren't emerging only in the halls of Congress. They have a corollary in opinion polls, which suggest a presidency in distress.
According to a Gallup Poll taken earlier this month, Bush's 39 percent approval rating approaches his all-time low of 37 percent. The same poll pointed to continuing pessimism among Americans about the war in Iraq, with a record-low 31 percent saying they thought the United States was winning there.
An early-February Zogby poll, meanwhile, noted that the president's approval ratings on terror (43 percent) were a striking contrast to the 67 percent approval he received just before his 2004 re-election.
"I think a big chunk of the electorate has written off George W. Bush," said James McCann, a political-science professor at Purdue University.
The early 2006 developments have been disheartening to a White House that endured an unexpectedly rocky 2005 and hoped the State of the Union message in late January would set the stage for a comeback year. Instead, Bush has encountered stiff headwinds, and the list of dissenting Republicans is getting longer.
A handful of prominent conservatives, including Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have raised questions about Bush's decision to intercept, without court approval, communications between domestic and international participants.
Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the newly elected House majority leader, had barely finished accepting congratulations when he went to the White House to cast doubt on Bush's plan for a study commission on entitlements. Boehner's rebuff was an especially humbling how-do-you-do; the commission idea itself was a fallback position on the Social Security plan Bush failed to sell last year.
But those were mild snubs compared to the widespread defections Bush endured last week over the planned takeover of American port operations by a company from the United Arab Emirates. Frist, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and former House GOP leader Tom DeLay of Texas all raised questions about the deal, which would leave six American ports under operation of the Middle East company DP World.
The frequency of defections raises questions about Bush's legislative goals for the year, which include contentious issues like immigration and tax cuts that are certain to test election-year loyalties to the president.
While acknowledging Bush has his work cut out on those issues, McCann said it's possible to read too much into Republicans' dissing of Bush.
"The Democrats want to nationalize the 2006 election as a referendum on Bush," he said. "This is one way for the Republicans to say it's not really about the president."
White House officials argue that the intra-party squabbles don't reflect a serious breach in the Republican Party and suggest that continued strong demand by Republicans for the president's appearance at fund-raisers is a better political indicator.
Busch, the Claremont McKenna professor, says it's far too soon to extrapolate a ruined second term from Bush's continuing difficulties.
"He's a tough guy, and tough presidents have a way of bouncing back from adversity," he said. "Look at Clinton. Look at Reagan. Both came back from severe second-term problems ... Almost every second-term president has them."
Busch said the key to the president's fortunes continues to be Iraq.
"Clearly he's staked a lot on Iraq," said Busch, "and right now he has a big credibility problem."
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