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.
Most disturbing to the president's supporters was his reaction to whether young Lt. Bush skipped Alabama National Guard duty in 1972. This chestnut from the 2000 campaign dropped when leftist agitator Michael Moore called Bush a military "deserter" and Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe labeled him AWOL. Kerry linked Bush's National Guard service with "going to Canada, going to jail, being a conscientious objector" as forms of draft avoidance he would not criticize.
"The political season's here," Bush told Russert, launching a tepid defense of his service record. The president did not lash back by exposing Kerry's unsavory record in the antiwar movement's extreme wing following his heroic service in Vietnam. That reluctance might have been prudent, but it maintained the protective shell around Bush's probable challenger.
The president would not deign to even touch the senator. Nearly a year ago in March, Vogue magazine reported Kerry as denigrating Bush's "lack of knowledge," adding: "He was two years behind me at Yale, and I knew him, and he's still the same guy." I reported the president telling aides he did not know Kerry at Yale. On Sunday, Russert cited the Vogue quotations and asked: "Did you know him at Yale?" "No," Bush replied. "How do you respond to that?" Russert persisted. The president answered with one word: "Politics."
That's not nearly an adequate retort to John Kerry. Republican heavy thinkers regard him as second only to Howard Dean as a vulnerable nominee. But Kerry, merciless in slashing at the president, remains untouched. It seems difficult for an incumbent president to lose amid economic recovery, but George W. Bush is showing it might be possible.