WHY, all of a sudden, are things going so wrong for the White House?
Conservatives up in arms about Harriet Miers and about the president’s plans for the Gulf Coast; an anti-war mother camped outside the Crawford ranch dominating the news for a month; Bush’s approval ratings lower than they’ve ever been: This is the price of surrendering control of the agenda.
The white flag went up – and Bush’s troubles began – unnoticed, months ago.
Shortly after his re-election, the president announced he was prepared to spend political capital winning approval for top priorities like Social Security reform and making the 2003 tax cuts permanent.
For months, he looked as good as his word. In a burst of public activity rarely seen in a chief executive except in election years, he hit the campaign trail, telling the American people that Social Security was broken and had to be fixed. Ignoring the problem, he argued, was not an option.
Despite conventional wisdom in our what-have-you-won-for-me-lately national capital, this campaign scored a complete success. From utter complacency at the new year, before long the public was telling pollsters that, yes, indeed, Social Security was a hospital case and the doctor had better be called in quickly.
But, having won the debate on the need for reform, what did the administration do next? Nothing. To date, not one bill or detailed proposal has gone from the White House to Congress.
It is not hard to imagine superficially shrewd reasons for this silence. Some polls showed that reform wasn’t selling well among key GOP groups, in particular red-state men over 50. So it was better for members of Congress to take the first step ‹ let them put proposals on the table and take fire from the liberal media and congressional Democrats, who are seemingly bent on opposing any change in Social Security right up until the money runs out.
But this hang-back-and-let-things-develop approach proved politically obtuse. It hacked away at one of the principal pillars of the president’s popularity especially among Republicans: admiration for his strength.
Time and again in his first term, particularly in his first year, when his political hand was as weak as any president’s in the past three decades, this guy had pushed for his agenda ‹ and in general won more than he gave up.
Yet, on Social Security reform, having teed up a street fight and holding the strongest legislative hand of his presidency , the street fighter went home.
Social Security wasn’t the only battle at which the administration seemed to go AWOL. Even before Katrina, Bush was presiding over the largest spending rise since Lyndon Johnson and had never exercised his veto. With Katrina outlays added in, the coming deficits looked beyond heart stopping.
By not standing up to the spenders (indeed, by seeming to lead with his charge card), the president appeared again to surrender the conservative agenda.
And not only the spending-control agenda. Conservatives saw the administration’s passive acceptance of and participation in soaring spending as making it increasingly unlikely that the tax cuts would become permanent.
Pollster Kellyanne Conway noted at a recent American Spectator dinner that the president’s decline in popularity isn’t mainly among Democrats (how much more disillusioned could they be?) or independents (although he has problems there, too). It is his Republican support that’s dropped from over 90 percent last November to the mid 70s today.
Since mid-year, with no agenda for which he was fighting, the president has given his core supporters little reason to stand by him – and numerous reasons to drift. Around the nation, one hears his backers say they doubt his resolve and even his good faith.
So, with frustration growing ever larger, when he put forward Harriet Miers, many were ready to see, not the shrewd choice of a brilliant woman who had signaled her idea of a first-class justice when she championed John Roberts, but Bush passing on another fight.
Is it too late for the president? Not if he decides to mix it up and return to the battle, to reaffirm his agenda and to wade into the fray. Once the Miers nomination is out of the way – everyone will be too distracted until then anyway – get a Social Security plan in play. Veto some spending. Push for making the tax cuts permanent. Take some chances.
Most of all, remember: To control the agenda in Washington, a president must have an agenda, and he must fight for it.