George Voinovich is not your typical Bush loyalist. A self-styled deficit hawk, the former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor is so frugal that he once fished a penny out of a urinal in the Statehouse. To the White House, his independent spirit should have come as no surprise: he split with his party over the estate tax in 2000 and he opposed the size of Bush's tax cuts three years later. Yet when it came to the prickly question of John Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador, the president's team assumed Voinovich would fall into line.
The warning signs were there if anyone had looked for them. About two weeks before senators were set to vote on Bolton's nomination, Voinovich "grilled" Bolton for an hour in private, according to officials familiar with the session, asking "tough questions" about allegations that Bolton sought to force out an intelligence analyst who disagreed with him. Yet in subsequent days, nobody at the White House asked the senator directly about Bolton. Others got the full-court press: Lincoln Chafee, the wavering Rhode Island Republican, took phone calls from Bush's chief of staff Andy Card and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. But the administration didn't contact Voinovich directly until he announced to the world that he wasn't comfortable voting for Bolton. As the explosive Senate meeting ended, Matthew Kirk, the president's Senate liaison, ran up to Voinovich to tell him, "We'll get you whatever you need."
White House aides insist they were "in constant contact" with Voinovich's office before and after the Bolton grilling, and say that even the senator's staff was surprised that he got cold feet. Whoever is to blame, the president's relationship with his own party has faltered on the high-profile nomination, as well as other priorities like Social Security. Members of Congress have long complained about the Bushies' imperial attitude. Now, some suggest the White House team--headed by a former Dick Cheney aide Candi Wolff--may be too far outside the loop of power. It takes a call from the Committee That Runs the World--Karl Rove and Cheney--to lobby Congress effectively. Last week, both were working the phones on Bolton's behalf.
Whatever happens to Bolton's nomination, his public mauling underscores how the president has struggled in the first 100 days of his second term. On the single issue that seems to trouble voters most--the high price of gasoline--Bush found himself in the uncomfortable position of asking for help, first from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. On Social Security, Republicans find themselves divided. Then there's the problem of a runaway Congress, diverted by the fate of Tom DeLay, the ethically challenged House Republican leader. Bush tried to regain the initiative with his Thursday-night prime-time news conference. But Republicans hardly cheered at the prospect of selling benefit cuts in Social Security, and Bush himself conceded that he had "no quick fix" for high gas prices. With his approval ratings slipping, Bush looks like he's running low on his precious supply of political capital.
To some in Congress, those problems are a sign that politics are simply getting more costly for the president--a development that some inside his party think is long overdue. One Republican Senate aide said there had been "a lot of frustration for a lot of people" over the postwar management of Iraq, leading to "more assertiveness on Congress's role" on a range of issues. Others say the party has been surprised by Democratic discipline after their defeat in November, denying Bush any time for a victory lap. "The Democrats, in a lot of ways, haven't ended the campaign," says Ed Gillespie, the former Republican Party chairman. "That's new. Nobody anticipated it."
Bush's senior aides and supporters insist they are making good progress--whether on Social Security or more technical legislation like bankruptcy and class-action reform. "We're exactly where we thought we would be," said one senior administration official. "We're three months into the second term, and we've already gotten some major legislation signed and out the door." GOP leaders agree, saying it's way too early to predict how Bush's second-term agenda will fare. "It's like judging who will win the Derby when they are just around the first turn," says the Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell. After all, for a political thoroughbred like George W. Bush, there's always a chance he'll come up on the rails.