The banner hanging over President George W. Bush read united to victory. But as Republicans listened to Bush slog through his familiar pep talk at a $2,500-a-head fund-raiser last Thursday night, the party faithful knew they were anything but united. Over the last year, they ejected a majority leader, squabbled over ethics and spending, and openly criticized the president on Iraq, port security and a Supreme Court pick. If the Republican guests were hoping for a spiritual revival, they left disappointed. Bush's speech met with tepid applause, and GOP officials shuffled to the cash bar feeling deflated. "It just wasn't as celebratory as it has been," said one House aide who declined to be named when talking about a private event.
For five years nobody needed to blare the word "united" at Republicans; it was their biggest strength. The president handed his agenda to Congress and the party leaders delivered the votes. They twisted the arms of small-government conservatives to pass education reforms and Medicare drug benefits. They held their ranks together even as the Iraq occupation spiraled downward in 2004. And they picked up seats in two election cycles. But now that strategy has fallen apart. Members of Congress, tired of being taken for granted by an overbearing White House, have lost faith in the president's political touch. Social Security, Katrina, Harriet Miers, ports and, of course, Iraq have destroyed the aura of invincibility that once gave Team Bush its swagger.
The stress is starting to show. Republicans are beginning to look and sound like their own caricature of the Democrats: disorganized, off message and unsure of their identity. Fearful of defeat in November, GOP candidates are uncertain how to pull themselves together in the eight months left before the elections. The toughest question: whether to run, as they have in the past, as W Republicans, or to airbrush the president out of their campaigns. "What I've tried to tell people is that a political tsunami is gathering, and if we don't do something to stop it, we'll be in the minority a year from now," says Rep. Ray LaHood from Illinois. "But some people still don't get it."
The president won't have an easy time persuading wobbly Republicans to stick with him. Bush recorded his lowest approval rating in the NEWSWEEK Poll, with 36 percent; congressional Republicans trailed Democrats by 11 points (39 to 50 percent). Second-term presidents often suffer a six-year slump, losing seats for their party at this point in their tenure. But Reagan, Johnson and Eisenhower--who all watched their parties crater in their sixth year--enjoyed approval ratings in the high 50s or low 60s, according to Gallup. Bush has actually been lucky in one respect. He held his party together longer than most two-term presidents. Johnson kept control for just eight months until he suffered defeat on the parochial issue of home rule for the District of Columbia in 1965, when Democrats took him on--and won. "They saw they could vote against the president and wake up alive the next day," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Republicans in Congress had the same revelation when they slapped Bush down on the Dubai ports deal. Even so, the White House and its party operatives still believe they can muscle Capitol Hill back in line. Bush's aides say that it would be suicidal for members to run away from the president. In strategy memos circulated on the Hill, Republican National Committee pollsters argue that disunity will only discourage the base from turning out to vote. But even the party's analysts concede that standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush may not always be the best way to win. In one RNC memo, pollster Dave Sackett argues that incumbents need to demonstrate their "independence" and disagreements with party leaders, but still present "an overall unified front." (The easiest way to project unity: defend Bush against attacks from the other side. That's why the GOP seized on Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold's futile attempt to censure the president over the National Security Agency eavesdropping program.)
In one way, Bush has succeeded in uniting his own party: almost everyone is together in sniping at him. Some are pressing for staff changes at the White House. Sen. Norm Coleman told the Associated Press last week that he wanted to see a new White House team with "fresh political antenna." Others are telling Bush's aides to keep the current team away from the cameras. "You are losing the message," LaHood told one White House session on Iraq last week. "We don't need Don Rumsfeld or the generals or anybody in the military out trying to explain this to the American people." The White House responded tartly that there is no staff shake-up in the works.
Some candidates are happy to stand beside Bush, as long as nobody actually sees them together. Locked in a tight race for re-election, Sen. Mike DeWine chose not to accompany Bush on one trip to his home state of Ohio last month. A week later he attended a private fund-raiser with the president in Cincinnati--out of sight of photographers and reporters.
Even Hill leaders are substituting their own agendas for the president's. In the Senate, Bill Frist announced his own immigration bill last week that focuses on border security, not the temporary-worker program favored by the president. In the House, new Majority Leader John Boehner is also striking out independently. Boehner has drawn up an eight-week strategy, without White House input, that includes a Higher Education week and Protecting the Homeland week. "This is our plan and our message," says one GOP leadership aide, who spoke anonymously about strategy. "It is our a-- on the line."
Republicans once happily attacked Democrats for second-guessing the commander in chief on Iraq and the war on terror. Now they are daring to do the same. Last week House and Senate leaders backed a new bipartisan panel to study Iraq policy and draw up alternatives to Bush's current war plan. A year ago GOP members would have saluted Bush and accused his critics of "undermining the troops." But now they are ready to march in a different direction. The only question is where they'll end up.