The Oval: What Bush Needs to Do Now

The last time George W. Bush lost an election was three decades ago, when he ran for Congress in west Texas in the middle of the oil boom of the 1970s. Bush likes to tell the story of how he asked one voter how come he failed to win his support in that race. The apocryphal answer goes like this: “Because you didn’t ask for my vote.”

Well this time around, in the middle of another oil boom, President Bush asked many states and districts for their vote—and they still didn’t deliver. To add insult to injury, the commander in chief was forced to hand another triumph to the Democrats on Wednesday: the removal of controversial Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from office.

President Bush’s personal performance will be one of many difficult questions posed for him and Republicans in post-election analyses in the days and weeks ahead. Speaking after his 2004 victory, two short years ago, the president claimed he had earned a large store of political capital from the election—and intended to spend it. This time around, he spent his small store of capital in a handful of races, but has little to show for it.

Just last week, the president traveled to Sugar Land, Texas, to campaign in Tom DeLay’s old seat. He campaigned in Iowa for Jim Nussle (for governor) and, the week before, for Jeff Lamberti for the House. He did the same for the GOP candidates in the Michigan and Ohio Senate races, in a Kansas House race and the Arkansas governor’s office.

Whether he asked for the vote or not, the campaigner in chief made no difference: his candidates lost all the same.

In fact, a review of Bush’s campaigning is deeply unimpressive. Of 14 Senate candidates that he backed, eight lost and just four won. Another two races—Montana and Virginia—are still too close to call. Among the 13 governors Bush stumped for, the numbers were just as bad: eight defeats and four victories. And in the House, it was worst of all: of 40 Bush-backed candidates, at least 17 had lost by Wednesday morning.

Of course, he didn’t lose them all. Rick Perry, who never faced a serious challenge, won re-election as Texas governor. And Charlie Crist, who failed to show up for Bush’s rally in Pensacola on Monday, stormed to victory as Florida governor. Crist chose instead to campaign with the GOP front runner for the 2008 nomination: Sen. John McCain. While his decision may have been impolite, it may also have been smart.

The first challenge for the White House will be to adapt its language, and its attitude, to the new political realities. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh this week that he was relishing the prospect of Tuesday night. “What’s not to love, Rush,” he said. “We got a lot of I-told-you-so moments right now because polls are tightening and people are thinking about issues and saying, ‘Wait a minute. The president’s got an idea about how to proceed and the Democrats got empty saddlebags and all they’re doing is throwing mud at him.’”

Never mind the I-told-you-so. Humility might be a better strategy now that the House Democrats earned the right to measure the drapes in some of the best offices on Capitol Hill—no matter how much the president lampooned them before the election.

In fact, humility was once a cornerstone of Bush’s approach to Washington—at least it was before he moved into the White House. During his 2000 campaign, he promised a strong but humble approach to foreign affairs. He also promised to usher in what he called a responsibility era, something his own party failed to live up to.

That’s not the only Texas-tinged nostalgia that the White House is ready to indulge. For several weeks, some of Bush’s oldest advisers have suggested that the president is ready to return to the bipartisan government of his days in Austin. Back then, Bush relied on the conservative Democrats who led the legislature, especially the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock.

Nancy Pelosi, the new House Speaker, is no Bob Bullock, in style or politics. Bush liked the man he called Bully for many reasons: not least because he was, as he described him in his 2000 book, “frequently outrageous, sometimes crass, often funny, always cunning.” He was also a strong power in the legislature, while Bush was a relatively weak and inexperienced governor. Bush treated Bullock as a kind of mentor: The balance of power rested with Bully, not Bush. It’s highly unlikely that Bush will see Pelosi the same way.

The White House has long said it wanted to govern in a bipartisan way. And Pelosi herself pledged to do just that Tuesday night. But the reality is that the White House often framed legislation—on taxes or terrorism—in ways that would skewer its Democratic critics. And Democrats responded by frustrating the White House whenever and wherever possible. Bipartisan government will need to rely on a more honest form of compromise if both parties really want to work together.

How can they work together after all the bitterness? Some of the answers lie in Tuesday’s results.

Take immigration: an issue on which the president suffered a searing defeat at the hands of his own House Republicans earlier this year. In Arizona’s Eighth District, along the Mexican border, the GOP lost with an aggressively anti-immigration candidate, Randy Graf. It was the same story along the boarder in Arizona’s Fifth District, where J. D. Hayworth lost in spite—or because—of his position as an implacable foe of anything close to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Before the election, Bush’s aides suggested they would lose seats in the House because of the many scandals that plagued the GOP this year. Sure enough, the exit polls showed ethics and corruption as the top concern of voters.

But the party’s losses extend well beyond the scandal-hit candidates into the ranks of candidates who were simply out of step with their own voters. In some races, the voters might have agreed more with the White House on issues like immigration. But in many other races, the key issue was Iraq, where voters overwhelmingly disapproved of Bush’s approach.

The task for the White House is to figure out how to move ahead on Iraq by doing something it has rarely done so far: bringing Democrats along with them. Having campaigned against Democrats as defeatist weaklings, President Bush must now apply his formidable political skills to turning those "Defeatocrats" into his new friends. With or without a Bully, Bush needs to remember that once upon a time, he wanted to change the tone in Washington.

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