Rock bottom

Michael Barone
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Posted: Oct 31, 2005 12:05 AM

George W. Bush's administration has come through what many have been saying would be its worst week, and it has turned out to be -- well, if not one of the best, then one that is far more encouraging than most of the mainstream media expected.

 Four events, or non-events, have put the administration in a position to make progress and advance the standing of the president and his party in public policy and in the public opinion polls.

 The first of these events, at least in world importance, was the announcement on Oct. 25 of the approval of the Iraqi constitution in the election held 10 days before. Mainstream media, unsurprisingly, were able to restrain their enthusiasm. The Washington Post ran a front-page story on the 2,000th American death in Iraq and ran a story on the approval of the constitution on page A13.

 The successful election must not be allowed to get in the way of the media meme of quagmire and unending death and destruction. But in fact, the news about Iraq is encouraging. The Sunnis have now been brought into the political process. Voter turnout was up from the January elections, and the number of attacks way down. The targeting of Iraqis by the terrorists is surely not increasing their popularity. The number of competent Iraqi military and security units has been rapidly increasing. And the desire for democracy continues to increase in the Middle East.

 The second event was Bush's appointment on Oct. 24 of Ben Bernanke to be Federal Reserve chairman. Federal Reserve chairmen don't come and go very often: Alan Greenspan lasted 18 years, and there have been only five Fed chairmen over the last 54 years. Bernanke is a widely respected monetary economist, and his appointment was greeted favorably by the stock market and just about all observers. Another bull's-eye, like John Roberts.

 Unfortunately, Bush's Supreme Court appointment of Harriet Miers was not another bull's-eye. But at least the mistake was rectified in the third big event of the week, Miers' withdrawal on Oct. 27. Leading the opposition to Miers were many conservatives, who argued that she wasn't reliably conservative and lacked the qualifications for the job.

 Senators found her underwhelming in interviews, and after reports by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Bush wisely chose the way out pointed to by columnist Charles Krauthammer: The senators wanted White House documents, Bush refused to hand them over, and Miers withdrew. Now, Bush has a chance to make a nomination that will evoke the same positive response, at least among Republicans, that Roberts did.

 The fourth big event of the week was a non-event, the non-indictment of Karl Rove by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald on Oct. 28. Fitzgerald did indict Dick Cheney's chief of staff, Scooter Libby -- a real loss for the administration -- but he quite properly refused to comment on persons not indicted. He held out the possibility that there might be further indictments, but in words that left me convinced that they are very unlikely indeed.

 Rove holds a position in this administration that is unique in American history: He is both the president's chief political operative and his foremost domestic policy adviser. He knows his history and has the creative imagination to put together policies, and packages of policies, that will work politically and will work in practice. This administration, after five years, has need of a new policy package, and Rove can do more than anyone else to provide it.

 So on the whole, it was a successful week -- successful in that it gives Bush' administration the opportunity to rise above the low point that it has hit since Katrina's waters smashed through the levees in New Orleans two months ago.

 But people must still perform. Conditions in Iraq need to continue to improve. Bernanke may be tested in a financial crisis in his first months, as Greenspan was when the stock market crashed in October 1987. Bush must pick a Supreme Court nominee who seems to fulfill his campaign promises and who can be confirmed by the Senate. And Bush, Rove and others in the administration need to come up with some fresh domestic policies by State of the Union time next year.

 Much is made of Bush's current low standing in the polls -- though he rates much higher than did Presidents Truman, Nixon and Carter at their low points. But poll results count for less in a re-elected president than performance. Last week's four events turned some things around. Now Bush and his people must act.