In his office onboard Air Force One, President Bush's spirits were high. He had just pulled off the coup of a secret trip to Baghdad, and was feeling buoyed by his talks with the new Iraqi government. After a year of criticism from his own party, Bush brushed off hopes that he might lower troop levels to help the GOP in November's congressional elections. "I believe in supporting a strategy that will work," he told reporters while sitting on his airplane office sofa. "Not work for some immediate political situation, but work for the good of the Iraqi people, and for ourselves and, equally important, [to] help us win this war on terror."
Bush's firm tone was part of a fresh strategy to build bipartisan support for the new Iraqi cabinet. He held what his aides called a "respectful" meeting with congressional leaders of both parties at the White House the day he returned from Iraq, as he tried to stay above the political fray. "I do have a keen sense that the president thinks it's enormously more important that public support be sustained than that Republicans get some political advantage in an election," says White House chief of staff Josh Bolten.
But while the president made nice, his strategist Karl Rove made war. On the day he discovered he no longer faced indictment in the CIA leak case, Rove suggested that Democrats (including decorated veterans Sen. John Kerry and Rep. John Murtha) couldn't be relied on. "They may be with you for the first shots," he said in Manchester, N.H., "but they're not going to be there for the last tough battles."
Rove's red-meat attacks set the tone for last week's congressional debates on Iraq. A White House "prep book" for the GOP included sections on "the costs of cut and run" and ready-made rebuttals of Democratic proposals that U.S. troops should withdraw soon to force Iraqis to fight for themselves. Against a Democratic Party that is far from unified on Iraq, the GOP won a symbolic House vote that rejected a deadline for troop withdrawals and tied Iraq to the wider war on terror.
The upbeat mood in the White House was not reflected in the polls: most showed only small shifts in Bush's approval. Still, lawmakers were struck by the change in atmosphere when they joined Bush for a Texas-themed picnic at the White House. "It was like they'd gotten a second wind, the president especially," said one congressional aide, who declined to be named when talking about a private event. "I haven't seen them that relaxed in a long, long time."