Fineman: GOP Runs Far From President Bush

Knowing Newt Gingrich, I was a little alarmed when his secretary told me where he was. "He's in Hawaii, doing Pearl Harbor," she said. I envisioned him in Snoopy goggles and scarf, strafing the islands in a biplane, shouting slogans at liberals below. Turns out "Pearl Harbor" is his latest historical novel; our hero had deployed himself to the Pacific theater for book promotion and a vacation.

As for bombs, he'd dropped them back in Washington—on the White House. The former Republican Speaker denounced his own party's sitting president as a hopeless incompetent, a Jimmy Carter clone. "You hire presidents, at a minimum, to run the country well enough that you don't have to think about it ..." he told The New Yorker (clearly thinking about it). The news wasn't what Newt said, but the silence that followed.

Karl Rove not only didn't call Gingrich on the carpet, he did not call at all—not because he agreed with him, of course, but because what was there to say? None of the GOP's innumerable 2008 candidates defended George W. Bush, whose name they rarely utter in any context, anywhere. In Congress, Republicans privately called to thank Gingrich, claims his press aide, Rick Tyler. "The general view was that it was long past time for someone to speak up," he says.

Coming from someone always on the cutting edge of cutting people down, Gingrich's bombing run signals a new twist in the GOP's every-man-for-himself '08 survival strategy: it may not be enough to ignore Bush; you may need to attack him to prove your bona fides to the public at large. "It's not so much that he is an embarrassment, it's that there is an exhaustion," says Rich Galen, a GOP analyst who has worked for both of the Bushes and Gingrich. "People are tired of defending him."

As an ongoing political enterprise—a machine with genuine admirers, loyal supporters and a legacy to build on—the Bush presidency is perilously close to flatlining. At this point in their tenures, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had job-approval ratings in the mid-50 percent range; in the most recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Bush's hit an all-time low of 28. Established GOP figures in Blue States shun him, even when he comes to raise money in closed-press events. The invites aren't piling up from Red States, either. Since Bush never cultivated real allies in Congress, no one there feels guilty that he has none now. With his vice president not running, there is no '08 contender trapped in the role of shameless Bush promoter. Even the longtime paid cheerleaders are putting down their megaphones. Dan Bartlett, the senior spinmaster who joined the team years ago fresh out of college in Austin, announced last week that he was leaving.

If you want to win GOP primaries, it's still dangerous to "be foursquare opposite the president," says Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster. Bush remains personally popular at the party grass roots. But those same voters prefer to identify themselves as Reagan Republicans, not Bush Republicans, by a 75-15 percent margin. "You'll see some distancing now, but it will really start the moment we have a nominee," he says. That campaign will "open the cracks and fissures."

That's what the story line will be at the next GOP convention. Here's a startling question people are already posing: will Bush be asked to speak there? "There will be angst-ridden discussion, but yes, you have to do it," says Galen. Fabrizio disagrees: "If they're smart, no. Especially if things don't change in Iraq, we'll have the problem the Democrats had in 1968 with Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. The question becomes: where do we hide the president?" In 1968 that meant the LBJ Ranch in Texas. For Bush, Crawford would be a possibility, but perhaps Newt has found a nice spot in Hawaii.