WASHINGTON -- All week long in the capital, worried Republicans buzzed about George W. Bush's Sunday interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." Supporters of the president were surprised that he would ask to be questioned by Tim Russert. What flabbergasted them was the absence of any plan to use this event to stop being the target as the 2004 campaign began.
This failure was Strike Two for President Bush. Strike One was his humdrum State of the Union address. Fortunately for the president, this is not baseball where three strikes are out. During more than eight months before Election Day, Bush will have many opportunities for recuperation. For now, however, the president is in political retreat, with Democrats unimpeded in challenging his competency and credibility.
The "Meet the Press" performance raised disturbing questions for Republicans. How could Bush be put out to confront the most feared questioner in Washington without a careful scenario? How could he face Russert without precise answers on the decision to go to war in Iraq and on his National Guard service? The suspicion is that his 2004 campaign organization, a fund-raising juggernaut, is otherwise inadequate.
The Bush White House is cloistered, where even Bush aides seem restrained from debating strategy even behind closed doors. The belief in Republican circles is that Bush, tired of battering by Democrats and alarmed by his descent in the polls, asked for an hour on television. This questions how it could be possible for a president who claims to neither read newspapers nor watch television. In any event, no aide dissuaded Bush from embarking on this course or devised a plan to make the most of it.
Democratic operatives, including Sen. John Kerry's advisers, groused that Russert permitted Bush to escape -- reflecting presidential bloodlust by Democrats in the sight of Bush's wounds. Actually, no president ever before had been subjected to such tough questioning in the Oval Office.
The private Republican complaint is not with Russert but with Bush. It was thought the president would have sat down with carefully structured language to defend himself or even produce news. Yet, the newsiest tidbit contained in excerpts of the taped interview distributed last Saturday was the unsurprising declaration he would not fire CIA Director George Tenet.
While gay marriage embarrasses Democrats because of their homosexual constituency, Bush did not try to capitalize on this Sunday. He was informed in advance that Russert had no plans to bring it up but that the president, of course, could raise this important social issue. He did not.