It may have been serendipitous that soon after The Associated Press released a poll indicating President Bush's approval rating had dropped to 33 percent and 45 percent of self-described conservatives now disapprove of Bush's performance, the news leaked that Bush intended to nominate Gen. Michael Hayden to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency, is best known for his forceful defense of the NSA program ordered by President Bush that -- without first seeking warrants -- intercepts communications in and out of the United States by people with suspected links to al-Qaida.
Bush did not name the highly qualified Hayden to badger liberals into a renewed debate over this program, but renewing that debate is a happy political byproduct of a meritorious nomination.
There are four reasons that defending the NSA program turned out to be good politics as well as good policy: 1) The program addresses a serious issue. 2) It comports with commonsense. 3) Liberals, nonetheless, feel compelled to oppose it. 4) It demonstrates decisive presidential leadership.
The president can begin a political comeback -- and help his party retain control of Congress -- if he takes other actions that share these characteristics. Here are three suggestions:
1) Deploy troops to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bush says he wants to secure the border, which is the aim of the tough immigration bill approved by the House. But at the same time he also wants a guest-worker plan like the one being considered in the Senate, which many House conservatives correctly call an amnesty.
Were Bush to win an amnesty, there would be a backlash in November against Republicans who supported it. But he could begin securing the border immediately, using the same authority he used to order the NSA intercepts: the president's constitutional power to defend the country. The House has already approved an amendment sponsored by Rep. Virgil Goode, R.-Va., authorizing the Defense Department to deploy troops on the border. The Senate has not done so. Bush should just do it. Then he can challenge complaining liberals to explain where U.S. troops ought to be deployed if not along the U.S. border.
2) Offer "supplemental spending cuts" and enforce them with a veto.
Bush asked Congress this year for a $92.2 billion "emergency" supplemental spending bill to help pay for the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina relief. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a leader of the conservative House Republican Study Committee, tried to offer an amendment to offset every penny of that new spending with spending cuts. The House leadership thwarted him and secured passage of a $91.9 billion bill with no offsetting cuts. The Senate upped that to $109 billion.
Bush has threatened to veto the final bill if it includes more than his $92.2 billion request plus $2.3 billion for bird-flu preparedness. He should go further, proposing to Congress a $94.5 billion "emergency supplemental spending cuts bill" to offset his "emergency" spending. It should list specific items Bush wants to cut from appropriations proposed in his own $2.7 trillion fiscal 2007 budget. He should then veto any appropriation that fails to include these cuts. If Democrats want to vote to override the president's vetoes in the weeks before the election, Republicans should let them try.
3) Lift the moratoria on offshore drilling and enforce it with a veto.
Many Americans now pay more than $3.00 per gallon for gasoline even though the United States sits atop massive pools of untapped oil. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States imported 3.67 billion barrels of oil in 2005. But a report delivered to Congress in February by the Interior Department's Minerals Management Service estimates there are 85.88 billion barrels of undiscovered oil off U.S. shores on the Outer Continental Shelf.
At 2005 consumption levels, that oil could replace all our imported crude for about 23 years. Two things block broad development of these oil resources: a moratorium originally ordered by President George H.W. Bush (later extended by President Clinton) and language enforcing a moratorium placed in each year's Interior appropriation.
President Bush should reverse his father's order and veto any Interior bill that enforces a moratorium. Then he should order Interior to start selling offshore oil drilling leases. Democrats can explain to voters why they want to turn off this supply and keep gas prices high.
As long as the situation remains uncertain in Iraq, the war there will be drag on Bush's approval ratings. But if Bush takes bold actions like these to secure our border, cut runaway spending and open our domestic oil supplies, he could start rebuilding his conservative base and reclaim support where he has lost it.