The Oval: The Race Never Ends

It was the classic picture of a politician seeking votes: a gray-haired man in a dark suit holding and kissing a baby. Yet the man surrounded by gurgling babies (21 in all) wasn't running for office. It's been little more than six months since George W. Bush won re-election by what turned out to be a relatively comfortable margin. But whether he's staging rallies about Social Security or kissing babies for photo ops about stem-cell research, he still looks and sounds like a man on the campaign trail.

Bush's overt campaigning is a sign of the tough--and unpopular--positions he has staked out early in his second term. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 63 percent of voters support stem-cell research, including 58 percent of Roman Catholics. A recent Gallup poll showed that 53 percent want to see either no restrictions or fewer restrictions on government funding of stem-cell research. Those numbers are not so different from Bush's polling on Social Security (64 percent disapprove of his handling of the issue, according to the ABC News/Washington Post survey).

For a White House that claims to be unconcerned by opinion polls, those numbers might not matter. President Bush cast his own position on Tuesday as a question of principle, as he pledged to exercise the first veto of his presidency if Congress moves ahead to spend public money on stem-cell research into unwanted test-tube embryos. "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life," he said over the random baby cries. "Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

Even if they claim to be unconcerned about their own poll numbers, Bush's aides are troubled by the plunging poll numbers on Capitol Hill. The GOP-controlled Congress is running on disapproval ratings well above 50 percent (according to a recent CBS News poll, the disapproval number is 55 percent, including 51 percent of Republican voters)--a level that many observers have compared to the Democratic-controlled Congress of a decade ago, just before the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich.

One senior Bush aide, who declined to be named so he could speak freely, suggested the dismal numbers were directly related to the lengthy and arcane debate over the use of the filibuster in the Senate. "People don't want to follow this issue in such mind-numbing detail, so what you are seeing are the poll numbers that people feel Congress doesn't care about the issues they care about," he said. The aide also cautioned that the heated rhetoric about the so-called nuclear option and a possible shutdown of the Senate was alienating voters. "People will tune in and say: 'Did the Apocalypse happen?' Then they'll find out nothing has changed," the aide said. "The rhetoric doesn't match reality."

It may be convenient for the White House to blame the poor poll numbers on overheated debates about parliamentary procedures. Many members of Congress--Republicans and Democrats alike--point the finger of blame in the other direction down Pennsylvania Avenue, saying it's Bush's agenda (especially Iraq and Social Security) that is the root cause of their troubles. That may explain why so many GOP members in the House have bucked their own leadership and the White House to vote for public funding of embryonic stem-cell research. (Another reason may well be their own disastrous polling on the Terry Schiavo case, when more than 60 percent of voters disapproved of the intervention by Congress and the White House in the family drama over her feeding tube.)

Whoever is to blame, the campaigning is unlikely to stop any time soon. Inside the White House, the filibuster battle was being treated as a critical test of the leadership powers of Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader and likely candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2008. Before the compromise deal was struck, Bush's advisers were unsure about two key questions: "If Frist is followed by his own party, and what the make-up of the vote is," the aide said. "Is it the Warners, the old Republican stalwarts, or the people who have been frustrating for the leadership in the past?" As it turned out, it was both John Warner and the old mavericks (like John McCain) who combined forces to frustrate Frist and Bush. Six months ago, some pundits were talking about a realignment to the right across the nation. Today the true realignment looks like it took place inside the Beltway, as power shifted slowly but steadily away from those leading the White House and Congress.

Danish Roll

Pity the poor prime minister of Denmark. Anders Fogh Rasmussen should be happy that Bush has just agreed to visit Denmark en route to Scotland this summer. But Rasmussen has an unfortunate record of awkward exchanges with world leaders, especially those who like to study his physique.

Last week inside the Oval Office, Bush and Rasmussen swapped the usual compliments and described their relationship as one of friends. But Bush couldn't resist a swipe at the fact that Rasmussen was far too good at running for his liking. "Fortunately, he's not that good a friend that I would go running with him," Bush said in a backhanded compliment. "He's one of the best runners in the world, amongst the world leaders."

That exchange brought back bad memories of Rasmussen's visit to Rome in 2003 to see Silvio Berlusconi. The Italian prime minister welcomed Rasmussen as "the most handsome prime minister in Europe"--which would normally be enough for most leaders. But Berlusconi went on to suggest that Rasmussen was so good-looking he would be a fine lover for his wife--much better than her rumored lover of the time, Massimo Cacciari, a former mayor of Venice. "I think I will introduce him to my wife, because he is even more handsome than Cacciari," Berlusconi told reporters in front of a frozen Rasmussen.

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