For a White House that has been disciplined about avoiding political flip-flops, there is only one way to sum up Tuesday’s announcement that the Bush administration has shifted policy on its treatment of terrorism detainees: they were against the Geneva Conventions before they were for them.
After months of arguing that Geneva rules did not apply to enemy combatants and other terrorism suspects, the Bush administration announced Tuesday that all military detainees were entitled to protections under the conventions' standards of conduct. Administration officials say the policy will apply not only to Al Qaeda detainees held at Guantánamo Bay but all suspected terrorism detainees held throughout the world. The policy, outlined in a memo written by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, appears to reverse the administration’s long-standing position that terror detainees were not prisoners of war and were therefore not subject to international standards of treatment.
But that’s not what they’re saying at the White House. Press Secretary Tony Snow insists there was no forced flip-flop, no significant “reversal of policy” because prisoners had always been treated with respect. “Humane treatment has always been the standard,” he says. Instead, Snow argues, the policy was more of a reflection of last month’s Supreme Court ruling that blocked the administration’s plans to try detainees before special military tribunals. The court objected to the tribunals, arguing they violated international law and were not authorized by Congress. “We just want to get it right,” Snow says. At the same time, he and other Bush officials renewed calls for Congress to pass legislation enabling the administration to move forward with the tribunal plan.
What’s interesting about Tuesday’s announcement was the timing. It wasn’t just the Supreme Court decision or pending hearings in Congress on the issue of military detainees. On Wednesday morning, Bush left the White House for a five-day visit to Germany and Russia, where he will attend the G8 summit. The trip is partly aimed at shoring up the United States’ relationship with its international allies, many of whom have expressed reservations about America’s treatment of terror suspects.
One of the president’s newest allies is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is scheduled to meet with Bush in Germany on Thursday. Narrowly elected last fall, Merkel has visited the White House twice this year, in part because she and the president “really hit it off” in the words of one Bush adviser. While Merkel has worked to strengthen what has been a strained relationship between Germany and the United States in the wake of the Iraq war, she has also made no secret of her desire to see Guantánamo Bay closed and has pressed Bush repeatedly on the issue.
While the administration hasn’t signaled any plans to immediately bow to Merkel or other critics of Guantánamo, the decision to formally apply the Geneva rules is certain to calm some nerves during what is already expected to be a touchy diplomatic tour for Bush. On Friday, Bush heads to Russia, where he will confer with President Vladimir Putin over such vexing issues as Iran and North Korea.
Republicans and the Polls
Two months ago, George W. Bush’s approval rating was in the dumps, hitting the low 30s and prompting anxious Republicans to question how low he could go and whether his dismal poll numbers would hurt their party’s election prospects this fall. Today, Bush enjoys a slight bump in the polls and enough of a perceived rebound for some Republicans to tout a “Bush bounce” and talk up party unity.
What a difference a few percentage points make. And it is just a few percentage points. According to the latest Gallup poll, Bush’s job approval rating has edged up slightly to 40 percent—his highest rating since mid-February, when the poll recorded 43 percent job approval. Amid continuing debate on the Iraq war and high-profile party squabbles over immigration and the Dubai Ports World controversy, Bush’s numbers steadily dropped after that, hitting a low of 31 percent in early May.
The nine-point jump in the poll doesn’t have Bush or his advisers leaping for joy. The president does, after all, still boast a 55 percent disapproval rating, according to Gallup. But they are cautiously optimistic. “We don’t follow polls,” joked one Bush aide, citing the president’s oft-mentioned mantra. “[But] we aren’t complaining.”
Yet congressional Republicans were far less muted about Bush’s bump. Visibly less nervous about the president and his prospects in recent weeks, some lawmakers could barely contain themselves when word of the Gallup poll hit. In a breakfast with reporters on Tuesday, Rep. Tom Reynolds, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, called Bush’s 40 percent rating “tremendous news” for the GOP.
As campaign chief for the House Republicans, the NRCC chair has for months talked up a mantra that “all politics is local” and that races this fall will be determined on a “district-by-district basis.” Reynolds has long insisted that the president’s approval ratings wouldn’t matter. But now it’s a different story—sort of.
“I’d love to have him in the 40s [at election time],” Reynolds told reporters Tuesday. “I call it putting oxygen in the room.” Likening it to the momentum of a basketball game, the NRCC chief called it a “psychological” aid to GOP candidates. “If the president is at 31 points, it pushes down on you,” Reynolds said. When Bush is in the 40s, he’s “not a [negative] factor.”
Whether Bush is viewed as an asset or not, one thing is clear: Republicans are far less nervous about being seen with the president these days, especially on the campaign trail. Over the past month, Bush has posed on the steps of Air Force One with at least three vulnerable Republicans who are seeking re-election this fall, including Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri and Reps. Dave Reichert of Washington and Heather Wilson of New Mexico. Last week, Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine , who famously avoided being photographed with Bush at a fund-raiser last spring, stood over the president’s shoulder at a White House bill signing.
On Friday, Bush shared a Chicago stage with Judy Baar Topinka, an Illinois gubernatorial hopeful. The appearance came after an unnamed Topinka aide told columnist George F. Will that the candidate wanted Bush to raise money for the campaign but only “late at night” and “in an undisclosed location.” Asked about the comments at a press conference in Chicago last week, Bush brushed off the criticism. “Didn’t work. I’m going to have lunch,” the president said of his afternoon appearance.
Indeed, Bush doesn’t seem to take the GOP wavering on his political viability too seriously. In Chicago, he brushed off a question from a local reporter about whether he’s a liability to Republican candidates and insisted that the GOP will make gains this fall. “We will hold the House and Senate,” Bush firmly insisted.
New Communications Chief
The White House announced Tuesday it is hiring a former Dallas Mavericks spokesman to be the administration’s new communications guru. Kevin Sullivan, currently the chief spokesman for the Department of Education, will replace Nicolle Wallace, who resigned as Bush’s communications director two weeks ago.
According to the White House, Sullivan was the Mavericks’ spokesman for 18 years before resigning in 2000 when he left to oversee communications for NBC Sports. There, he handled PR for three Olympic Games and other events including NASCAR, the PGA Tour and the U.S. Open—but not, alas, Major League Baseball, where Bush owned the Texas Rangers for many years. Sullivan joined the Department of Education in April 2005.