Washington Post columnist David Broder points to President George Bush’s press conference and concludes what yours truly did when he watched it as well:
Bush seems to have regained some of his political footing. The key Broder paragraphs:
Like President Bill Clinton after the Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994, Bush has gone through a period of wrenching adjustment to his reduced status. But just as Clinton did in the winter of 1995, Bush now shows signs of renewed energy and is regaining the initiative on several fronts.
More important, he is demonstrating political smarts that even his critics have to acknowledge.
He then points to several things that were indeed clear when you watched Bush’s press conference:
When Bush faced reporters on Wednesday morning, he knew that virtually all those in the Democratic majority would be joined by a significant minority of Republicans in voting today to decry the “surge” strategy.
He did three things to diminish the impact of that impending defeat.
First, he argued that the House was at odds with the Senate, which had within the past month unanimously confirmed Gen. David H. Petraeus as the new commander in Iraq — the man Bush said was the author of the surge strategy and the man who could make it work. Bush has made Petraeus his blocking back in this debate — replacing Vice President Cheney, whose credibility is much lower.
Second, he minimized the stakes in the House debate by endorsing the good motives of his critics, rejecting the notion that their actions would damage U.S. troops’ morale or embolden the enemy — all by way of saying that the House vote was no big deal.
And third, by contrasting today’s vote on a nonbinding resolution with the pending vote on funding the war in Iraq, he shifted the battleground to a fight he is likely to win — and put the Democrats on the defensive. Much of their own core constituency wants them to go beyond nonbinding resolutions and use the power of the purse to force Bush to reduce the American commitment in Iraq.
This was the most glaring part of Bush’s statement: he brushed off the importance of the nonbinding resolution as meaningful, which might be news to some of the GOPers who see dire consequences if it’s passed and who in roundabout (and not so roundabout ways) suggest that Democrats who seek a nonbinding resolution don’t care about the troops. Bush cut his losses and pooh-poohed the vote’s importance, thus shifting the real fight to binding war-related votes to come.
Broder also notes that Bush has launched a kind of charm offensive with the media, offering many more one-on-one interviews. And Broder notes this:
While forcefully making his points, he has depersonalized the differences with his critics and opponents. He has not only vouched for the good intentions of congressional Democrats, he has visited them on their home ground, given them opportunities to question him face to face, and repeatedly outlined areas — aside from Iraq — where he says they could work together on legislation: immigration, energy, education, health care, the budget.
With the public eager for some bipartisan progress on all these fronts, Bush is signaling that he, at least, is ready to try.
Perhaps. But demonization politics is far from buried yet. It seems to be alive and thriving in many areas of American politics, in media and in normal discourse where going on the offensive is chic. In the 21st-century, when going gets rough some turn instantly to demonization and accusations.
The public may crave bipartisanship but is it realistic in the present political environment? And is this current period of time that at first blush seems so confrontational in reality a honeymoon period for the true political grappling that lies ahead?
But there are serious risks facing the Democrats, as the AP points out:
Democrats face a host of risks as they move toward more substantive steps to tie President George W. Bush’s hands with funding restrictions on the Iraq war.
Leaders are wary of allowing the more intense anti-war activists to define the party’s image.
Simmering divisions within the ranks over how soon to move â€” and how far to go â€” could quickly diminish a tactical victory this week on a resolution criticizing Bush’s conduct of the war.
“There are those in our caucus who would rather we not do anything, and there will be people who want to see us extricate ourselves overnight. We’ll have to balance those interests,” said Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, House Democrats’ chief vote-counter. “We’re not going to sit anybody out, but we will have to decide how to weigh those things.”
Several factors are at play. Bill Clinton was rescued from political shrinkage by Newt Gingrich and Congressional GOPers’ overreaching. Many Republicans long predicted the Democrats would go too far and lose that elusive American center that the Republicans lost in the elections of 2006.
The Democrats’ dilemma is truly how to remain cohesive as a party at a time when it seems like Republican backlash against Bush’s brand of Republicanism was bubbling over. The party’s most adamantly anti-war wing believes the war is an issue on which compromise is, if not possible, not morally desirable.
Privately, some Republicans concede that Democrats have a chance to tie Bush’s hands without paying a political price if they carefully handle an upcoming debate on the president’s request for nearly $100 billion (â‚¬76.1 billion) in additional money for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans would be hard-pressed to reject measures that shift funds or place conditions on spending, such as those envisioned by Murtha, they said.
“As long as (Democrats) can tamp down on the Kuciniches of the world and they are modest in what they try to do, they can hit it out of the park,” said one former senior House Republican aide, referring to peacenik Rep. Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat.
Still, the small but vocal band of lawmakers led by Kucinich who are pushing for an immediate cutoff of war funding and withdrawal of troops could pose a problem. Democrats could suffer politically if the party is perceived by the public as being too quick to pull the plug on the mission.
Indeed, it’s not hard to predict.
Pullling the plug too quickly on funding would alienate a segment of voters who strongly oppose the war but believe defunding is a hideous mistake. Some would be voters the Democrats won back in 2006. And, in 2008, if the war was defunded, the Democrats would likely lose these centrist Democrats, moderate voters and independents again. But, in reality, it’s unlikely the war will be defunded.
Privately, however, some Democrats concede they will have to steer a careful course to avoid being demonized and divided on Iraq.
“There’s tension between those who want to end the war immediately and cut off funding and those who aren’t there,” one senior House official said. As for Murtha’s proposal to use benchmarks to control war spending, lawmakers are “getting there,” the official said. “I’m not sure they’re there yet.”
And into this vacuum of uncertainty moves someone to fill it with certainty….George Bush. Part of his rebound is due to the dilemma facing Democrats — and how they’re responding to it.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.