By Dick Morris - 06/29/05 12:00 AM EDT
One of the fortunate ways in which this Bush is better than his father is his commitment to winning the presidency and then to getting reelected. While the father seemed to regard politics as an unpleasant duty and saw campaigning as something one had to do every four years, like it or not, the son appeared to revel in meeting the voters and making his case to the people.
His determination in holding fast to his policies while aggressively persuading the nation that they were the right ones was a welcome surprise after his father’s ambivalence about taking to the stump.
But now that he his reelected, he seems to have abandoned politics and retreated into government. Where is he? Where is the vaunted machine he assembled that humbled the best the Democrats had to offer? Where is Rove? Where is Hughes? Where are yesterday’s gods?
The latest Zogby poll highlights the disrepair into which the Bush image has fallen. With his job approval down to 44 percent (and in the 40s in all other polls) and his ratings on Iraq, Social Security, the economy et al. down as well, Bush is in big trouble.
It would be OK if he had just failed to make his case, but one senses that he isn’t really trying. After two months of vigorous stumping to sell his Social Security ideas, which proved to be a nonstarter, he looks as though he has withdrawn into the comfortable quarters of the Oval Office to man his desk rather than win the public.
In modern American democracy, every day is Election Day. Every week, every day, a new poll comes out judging the president’s performance and popularity. Our polling obsession makes our presidential system much more akin to a parliamentary one. When an incumbent president’s job-approval ratings sink below 50 percent, he becomes like a British prime minister who has just lost a vote of confidence in parliament. Unlike his Anglo equivalent, he needn’t resign, but if his ratings don’t improve he might as well leave for all the good he can do.
An incumbent who is bleeding with ratings under 50 attracts the sharks, who impose their own agenda on his administration, and invites defections from his own party, compromising even his control of Congress. As his low ratings breed even lower ones, he comes to embody two metaphors that come from the Nixon administration: He twists slowly in the wind — a helpless, pitiful giant.
It was thus with Bill Clinton in the aftermath of his 1994 defeat, when he had to tell the media that he was still relevant, so obvious was his powerlessness. And it threatens to become this way with George Bush unless the president wakes up and realizes that the American presidency is a job you have to win each and every day to govern with power.
Now, with Rehnquist’s health at such risk, Bush may have to make a Supreme Court appointment when he does not have the political clout to make it stick. He can’t get his Social Security program unstuck except by surrendering the initiative to Republicans bent on compromise and Democrats scenting vulnerability.
He still has a rubber-stamp majority in the House, but for how long? And in the Senate, the McCain-Snowe-Collins-Chafee axis, occasionally joined by GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham (S,C.), George Voinovich (Ohio), Arlen Specter (Pa.), John Warner (Va.) or Mike DeWine (Ohio), may make Bush’s hold on that body precarious at best.
All this harm and hurt could be avoided if Bush began to show up for work again. He needs to resume his one-a-day policy announcements he used in the spring of 2004 to bolster his ratings as Iraq burned. He has to take strong public positions and use them to make his ratings rise again.
Bush has all the tools of incumbency, control of Congress and an excellent staff well versed in such things. What seems to be lacking is a sense that he still holds elective, not appointive, office and that he will lose power, although keep the position, if he doesn’t pay more attention to polls and popularity.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.