WASHINGTON -- The defeat on Iraq aid that the Senate handed President Bush Thursday night, when normally dependable supporters defected, was presaged four days earlier when the respected Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on George W. Bush to act more like a president. Sen. Richard Lugar's comments, unexpected in their bluntness, conveyed a major political message. Members of the president's party are really worried about the war.
Lugar's stance on NBC's "Meet the Press" was the exception among Republicans in openly implying President Bush is not in control. Nevertheless, GOP senators returned from the weeklong Columbus Day recess reporting discontent by constituents. Defections by congressional Republicans in supporting loans to Iraq reflected deep unease.
That unease goes to the difficulty of waging a global war against terror. While reconstructing a democratic Iraq is laudable, not only Democrats question whether investment of blood and treasure in Iraq is directly related to that war. Hints by a prominent Pentagon adviser that Syria could be the next target for an overextended military seems even further removed from directly assaulting terror.
Dick Lugar, an elder Republican statesman who usually minds his words, was the talk of Washington after his performance on "Meet the Press" Oct. 12. As his Democratic counterpart on Foreign Relations, Sen. Joseph Biden, delivered partisan slashes, Lugar offered no criticism. When Biden commanded Bush to "take charge," moderator Tim Russert asked whether that was good and necessary advice. "Yes it is," said Lugar. "It's very necessary."
Republican insiders have been talking all week about what came next from Lugar: "I concur with my colleague. The president has to be president. That means the president over the vice president and over these secretaries (of State and Defense)." Lugar had just had enough of the administration's divided voices, especially Dick Cheney's, which he called "very, very tough and strident."
Other senior senators share Lugar's concern. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is reported by colleagues to be unhappy (though it is unlikely he ever would go public). Many GOP lawmakers who do not share Lugar's opinions have their own concerns.