George W. in trouble

Posted: Sep 29, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Anxiety about the 2004 presidential election that suddenly has grasped Republican hearts, from the White House to the grass roots, can be traced to President Bush's two important speeches on Iraq delivered over 15 days. They were both duds. His Sept. 7 speech to the nation was regarded by Republican politicians as a stylistic and substantive failure. His Sept. 22 address to the United Nations was worse, breeding discontent among his own supporters.

Until now, George W. Bush always had risen to the occasion. But failure marks current efforts of the president and his vaunted political team, headed by Karl Rove. This judgment was made to me by a well-known Republican operative experienced in two presidential campaigns: "For the first time, there doesn't seem to be a plan."

Last week's Gallup Poll putting Bush's approval rating at 50 percent and showing him trailing Wesley Clark and John Kerry in trial heats is dismissed by the president's managers as the dreaded third-year presidential syndrome that was overcome by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan with fourth-year landslides. However, those poll numbers take on new meaning in light of Bush's altered 2004 outlook. Replacing the old mantra that there is no way for Bush to lose, panicky Republicans studying the electoral map wonder whether there is any way that they can win.

Dramatic deterioration in the outlook over the last two weeks is reflected in the experience by a Republican businessman in Milwaukee trying to sell $2,000 tickets for Bush's only appearance this year in Wisconsin Oct. 3. In contrast to money flowing easily into the Bush war chest everywhere until now, he encountered stiff resistance. Well-heeled conservative businessmen offered to write a check for $100 or $200, but not $2,000. They gave one reason: Iraq.

The clamp on their wallets, they said, derived from their feeling that Iraq was "an albatross," and that "there is no end in sight." The performance by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld particularly came under fire. The U.N. speech made matters worse, in the eyes of these non-contributors, with the president going "hat in hand" to the General Assembly.

In fact, Bush was not begging at the U.N., but this mistaken impression reflects a breakdown in the White House propaganda machine. On the network broadcast programs the Tuesday morning after the speech, Wes Clark and Howard Dean were blasting the president, without anybody representing the administration position.

The Wisconsin experience is not unique. Republican members of Congress report that their constituents complain about $87 billion going to Iraq when they cannot get anything for their own states and districts. These lawmakers wonder why the White House was not skillful enough to divide the package between $67 billion for the military and $20 billion for nation building. The latter category amounts to foreign aid, and conservative economist/political activist Steve Moore says it contains "pork."

While a skillful sales job for aid to Iraq would not guarantee success, it has been anything but skillful. In his Sept. 7 speech to the nation, Bush looked uncomfortable standing in the Cabinet Room instead of seated in the Oval Office. The Sept. 22 U.N. speech convinced soft-liners that the president was defiant and convinced hard-liners that he was cringing.

Republican political pros have expected that Bush would pivot and turn the nation's attention to a domestic issue. He did finally pivot last Thursday, but in the wrong direction by demanding action from Senate-House conferees. Such action would mean a new entitlement and more federal spending, undermining support from the conservative base.

Another domestic issue is continuing loss of industrial jobs, and that does not ease Republican anxiety. It causes hard analysis of electoral maps that poses difficult questions. Is it realistic to think about Bush winning big industrial belt states won by Al Gore in 2000 -- Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania? How good are chances for Bush to win West Virginia for a second straight time? Would Missouri slip to the Democrats if Richard Gephardt is on the ticket?

No wonder the arrogance quotient at the White House is diminishing. Reporters regularly on that beat say they have been getting their telephone calls returned the last two weeks.