WASHINGTON -- Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, the only senator in the Baseball Hall of Fame, is as tough and aggressive a politician as he was a pitcher. He showed it last week during a closed-door session of Republican senators with Pentagon officials. "What the hell is going on with this supplemental (appropriations bill)?" Bunning demanded. The normally articulate Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz had no reply.
Bunning was joined by Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, James Inhofe of Oklahoma and Jon Kyl of Arizona in complaining about lack of information on how much Iraq is going to cost. The senatorial attitude was not improved Sunday night when President Bush requested an additional $87 billion, well above what had been hinted. What's politically significant is that these four Republicans are hard-core conservatives and Bush loyalists who believe they have been misled by the Pentagon.
Amid such complaints, Republicans on Capitol Hill were stunned last Saturday when the Zogby Poll reported that Bush's national approve-disapprove ratio has slipped into negative territory for the first time (with only 45 percent saying he is doing a good job). That couples with continued job losses across the country and the rising cost of Iraq, in blood and treasure. On top of that, GOP senators are depressed that Democrats are winning the judicial confirmation war. A worried freshman Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina puts all this together and calls it "the perfect storm" (adding that Republicans should handle each issue "quickly and decisively, and hope that Democrats overplay their hand").
In nearly half a century of Congress-watching, I frequently have observed senators of a president's own party head for the lifeboats when any storm -- perfect or not -- approaches. Today's Senate Republicans have not reached that point, but fear and anxiety among them is palpable.
Most of the danger is directed at the Defense Department's management of the Iraqi reconstruction. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, who has an excellent relationship with the president, is described by friends as feeling the Pentagon misled him. The committee's second ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel, feels even more strongly about it. So does Sen. John McCain, who had buried the hatchet with George W. Bush to vigorously support the Iraqi intervention.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has become the scapegoat for all that has gone wrong in Iraq and is paying the price for disdaining from establishing good relations with U.S. senators for more than two and one-half years. Those senators get an earful about Rumsfeld from the uniformed military, whose criticism in private echoes what retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni has declared publicly. The unconfirmed rumor mill from the Pentagon to the Senate has Rumsfeld leaving early next year.
The jobless recovery has bothered the Republican senators much more since getting home and talking to their constituents last month. That was shown at their first luncheon last week, when Chief Deputy Whip Robert Bennett gave one of his regular reports on the economy. He was optimistic about revival of the stock market.
That did not please Sen. George Voinovich, who has been elected statewide in Ohio four times and is up for re-election there next year. Characteristically blunt, Voinovich told Bennett: "I don't give a damn about the stock market. But I do care about jobs." Voinovich's reluctance to support the president's tax cuts may make suspect his negativism, but the same concern about jobs is shared by the big majority of GOP senators who were enthusiastic about the Bush tax program.
Nobody is suggesting that George W. Bush is duplicating his father's nonchalance after the Gulf War in sliding to defeat against Bill Clinton. Nor do they have specific policy advice beyond playing straight with Congress on how much the war against terrorism will cost (though they blame Rumsfeld for the lack of transparency).
Bush political adviser Karl Rove always has predicted a close presidential election for 2004, just as he did for 2000. Republican senators now realize Rove was not kidding, and they no longer laugh at Howard Dean challenging Bush for the presidency. Pollster John Zogby calls this a 50-50 country and Bush a 50-50 presidency. Given those odds, arrogance and deception are too great a burden at either the White House or Pentagon.