Republican malaise

Robert Novak
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Posted: Mar 04, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- At 1 p.m. on Feb. 25, some 15 prominent Republicans invited to be surrogates in the coming presidential campaign gathered at Bush-Cheney headquarters in suburban Northern Virginia for a private briefing. Less than two hours earlier that day, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan detonated a political bombshell. To judge from the bland and uninformative briefing, nobody on the president's campaign team heard the explosion.

Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Washington lawyer-lobbyist who last year resigned as figurehead chairman of the Republican National Committee to become figurehead chairman of Bush-Cheney '04, led the precisely orchestrated, one-hour briefing. He did not mention that Greenspan had just testified to Congress advocating reduced Social Security benefits. Racicot might be excused for being silent and unaware of the central banker's latest political mischief, since it also escaped the attention that morning of key Bush policymakers.

The invited advocates were handed a thick batch of talking points to ingest by the campaign's appropriately named chief of surrogates, Julie Cram. Nowhere in the handout did the forbidden words "Social Security" appear. "The president's opponents are against personal retirement accounts" is the closest the briefing material came to the dreaded subject. Many prospective surrogates left campaign headquarters profoundly depressed by the mediocre briefing and the material given them.

This fits the deepening malaise among Republicans in the capital. They are neither surprised nor terribly worried by polls that temporarily show George W. Bush trailing John Kerry. What worries the GOP faithful is the absence of firm leadership in their party either at the White House or on Capitol Hill.

The lack of a ready response to Greenspan, while Democrats quickly turned his comments into an indictment of President Bush's tax cuts, was not an isolated failing. Today, Republicans on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue seem to be going in opposite directions.

-- Disagreement between congressional Republicans and Bush over the size of the highway bill reflects mutual recriminations over runaway federal spending in general. While the president's aides are angered by the lawmakers' addiction to concrete, conservative lawmakers are furious that Bush's budget has preserved and actually increased federal funding for the arts.

-- Bush's call to make his tax cuts permanent and to repeal the estate tax for all time leaves Republicans in Congress perplexed about how they will be able to write a budget without a massive increase in the huge deficit that never will command a majority vote.

-- House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and his allies are bitter that they received no backing from the president and administration in their efforts to keep the independent 9-11 investigation from extending into the campaign season.

-- The president came out for a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage without consulting congressional Republican leaders, which helps explain the unenthusiastic reception from his own party on Capitol Hill.

-- Congressional Republicans still have not recovered from the shock of the President's Economic Report extolling the outsourcing of industrial jobs -- good economics perhaps, bad politics definitely.

The disaffection is such that over the last two weeks, normally loyal Republicans -- actually including more than a few members of Congress -- are privately talking about political merits in the election of Sen. Kerry. Their reasoning goes like this: There is no way Democrats can win the House or Senate even if Bush loses. If Bush is re-elected, Democrats are likely to win both the House and Senate in a 2006 midterm rebound. If Kerry wins, Republicans will be able to bounce back with congressional gains in 2006.

To voice such heretical thoughts suggests that Republicans on Capitol Hill are more interested in maintaining the fruits of majority status first won in 1994 rather than in governing the country. A few thoughtful GOP lawmakers ponder the record of the first time in 40 years that the party has controlled both the executive and legislative branches, and conclude that record is deeply disappointing.

But incipient heresy also reflects shortcomings of the Bush political operation. Its emphasis has been on fund-raising and organization, with deficiencies in communicating and leadership. The president is in political trouble, and his disaffected supporters who should be backing him aggressively provide the evidence.