It’s not easy being a second-term president—especially when your party is mired in a sex scandal, voters are worried about the war in Iraq and a sworn enemy of the United States has apparently tested a nuclear weapon. With less than a month to go before Election Day, President Bush is trying his hardest to take control of a political debate that has steamed along without him, overshadowing every theme that he and the Republicans had hoped to use to their advantage this election season. Even the two most basic themes that Bush and his allies have employed to win elections in the past—taxes and terrorism—have simply been overshadowed in recent weeks by what has amounted to a hurricane of bad news for the GOP.
In what could be his final press conference before the highly anticipated midterm elections, Bush on Wednesday went before reporters at the White House where he tried to regain some element of political momentum—or, at the very least, reclaim a little relevancy in a news cycle that has proven beyond his control in recent weeks. More than anything, it was an event that seemed to aim squarely at getting his message to his party base amid worries that Republican voters could be so unhappy with Bush and the GOP that they could boycott the polls next month.
In a session that lasted just over an hour, Bush tried to emphasize the good news—word that his administration has cut the projected federal deficit in half and that the economy under his watch is improving. Yet, in a year in which he has come under fire for not being more frank with the American people, Bush also acknowledged the difficulties ahead, namely in Iraq, while prefacing the bad news with hints that Democrats wouldn’t fare any better.
For anyone wondering why President Bush treats Kim Jong Il so differently from Saddam Hussein, there was one big clue at Wednesday’s press conference. When he talks about North Korea, the president clings to the side of his lectern and sounds like he’s reading from his script. When he talks about Iraq, he raises his voice, leans into his microphone and tears into the Democrats.
Take one answer, in which the president raised the following doomsday scenario: “When you throw into that mix a nuclear weapon in the hands of a sworn enemy of the United States, you begin to see an environment that would cause some later on in history to look back and say, ‘How come they couldn’t see the problem? What happened to them in the year 2006? Why weren’t they able to see the problems now and deal with them before it came too late?’”
You could be forgiven for thinking he was talking about Kim Jong Il, who is, after all, a sworn enemy of the United States with several nuclear weapons in his hands. But no. The president was once again talking about a hypothetical Middle Eastern enemy, perhaps Iran, with its hands on a nuke. For Bush, the prospect that is truly scary is a nuclear-armed mullah.
It’s a strangely fatalistic and passive approach to what is now the very real prospect of a nuclear arms race in Asia. Bush’s approach seems to be that it’s already too late to deal with the problems of North Korea. “Obviously, I’m listening very carefully to this debate,” he explained on Wednesday—as if he was just part of the audience on North Korea. Even when it came to political criticism of his approach to North Korea, the president responded meekly. “This is a serious issue,” he noted. “But I want to remind our fellow citizens that the North Korea issue was serious for years.”
Compare that with his response to his Democratic critics on Iraq and domestic legislation on terrorism. The president accused his opponents of wanting to wait for more terrorist attacks and wanting to run away from Iraq. “When you pull out before the job is done, that’s cut and run as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “And that’s cut and run as far as most Americans are concerned.”
Bush is fully aware of the contrast between his approach to Iraq and North Korea. In a strange sequence, he answered one question about North Korea and Iran by asking himself his own rhetorical follow-up question. “I believe the commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military,” he explained. “I’ll ask myself a follow-up. If that’s the case, why did you use military action in Iraq? And the reason why is because we tried the diplomacy.”
In fact, the president tried the diplomacy but abandoned it well before he used all diplomatic measures, especially weapons inspections in Iraq. While Britain’s Tony Blair pushed for more time for inspections, the president decided those inspections were going nowhere—well before his allies agreed with his analysis. His approach to Iraq has long been shaped by the kind of passion and impatience he rarely shows in the case of North Korea.
If Bush was feeling at all emotional about the Mark Foley scandal, he wasn’t showing it in the Rose Garden. There was only a fleeting mention of the Foley mess, which has sent GOP poll numbers plummeting. Asked if he had faith in House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Bush again came to his ally’s defense, telling reporters that he’s “done a fine job as speaker.”
Yet Bush maintained that when voters go to the polls next month, the elections won’t be determined by the page scandal. “I believe taxes are a big issue in the campaign,” the president said, in an attempt to change the subject. “How best to protect the country is a big issue, a really big issue … I believe those two issues will be the issues that drive the election.”
If that’s the case, the president should be prepared for bad news next month. According to this week’s NEWSWEEK poll , Democrats now enjoy a clear advantage on every issue—the economy, moral values and, yes, the war on terror. No matter what is driving the election, the destination seems clear.