When it Comes to Bush, Republican Hopefuls Press the Mute Button
Over the course of 90 minutes, they talked about Social Security and farm subsidies and energy and global warming. They tackled education and trade and budgets. But one topic they studiously avoided - President Bush. In their final televised debate before voters in Iowa cast the first ballots in the 2008 presidential contest, the Republican candidates managed to go the distance without mentioning the name of their own incumbent commander in chief even a single time.
Only twice was he even referred to without being named -- once when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney endorsed his education program and again when former ambassador Alan Keyes trashed him for ignoring illegal immigration. Otherwise, Bush was a non-entity. It's not that the candidates were distancing themselves from the unpopular president as they did more overtly at the beginning of the campaign. It's that he no longer really seemed relevant to their debate. After nearly a year of intense campaigning in a field that has proved as volatile as any in modern times, Bush has become yesterday's news.
It's not as if the president isn't doing things that could be the subject of a good debate. Just hours after the midday forum, for example, Bush vetoed for the second time legislation to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program. He continues to ratchet up pressure on Iran despite the new intelligence finding that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. He is pushing for new authorization for his warrantless surveillance program. He has launched a high-stakes effort to forge peace in the Middle East and create a Palestinian state by the end of next year. And his administration is investigating the CIA decision to destroy videotapes of interrogations of captured terrorism suspects even as the president vows to veto a bill banning waterboarding.
Yet none of that came up in the debate, sponsored by the Des Moines Register, at least not in relation to Bush's actions. This is what happens when you have the first race since 1928 in which the White House has neither an incumbent president nor vice president in the running. For the first time in 80 years, there is no one on stage with a vested interest in promoting and defending the incumbent administration's record. And when the incumbent is stuck at 33 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll, as Bush is, no one else is eager to promote and defend his record either. If House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) is right that when it comes to Bush, America has hit the mute button, then the president's party brethren are playing with the same remote.
But that won't last for long, of course. The Democrats, who meet for their own Register debate today, will no doubt mention Bush's name more than the Republicans. And when the primary season is over, it's a fair bet that the Democratic nominee will try to wrap Bush like a noose around the neck of the Republican nominee. Yet for all that, strategists in both sides are recalculating their expectations now that Bush seems to have bottomed out politically. The war in Iraq is finally going better, the president seems to be rolling Congress in fights over spending and other issues and the White House seems on surer footing than it did a few months ago. That hasn't made a dent in Bush's approval rating in the Post-ABC poll, the latest this week finding him at 33 percent for the fifth month in a row. But Republicans have taken heart from other surveys that have shown the beginning of a modest recovery, the most recent being Gallup, which yesterday put Bush at 37 percent, up from 31 percent last month. Not the stuff of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, but if Iraq continues to stabilize, some strategists think he could nudge back into the 40s by next fall, which would make him a liability for the Republicans but perhaps not as much of one as the Democrats once hoped.
The debate yesterday saw the Republican candidates positioning themselves as agents of change no matter what. In some ways, the most intriguing question was what the candidates would want to accomplish in their first year as president. The second-tier candidates gave the answers you might expect them to give -- Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) said he would end the war in Iraq, Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) would strengthen the military, Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) would pardon the Border Patrol agents whose case has become a cause celebre among illegal immigration foes and Keyes would end any government support for abortion. Romney and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani offered remarkably similar laundry lists, with both of them vowing to fight Islamic terrorism, cut taxes, move toward energy independence and "end illegal immigration."
But the three other leading candidates, while broadly sharing those goals, stressed the need to reestablish trust in government, an implicit repudiation of the Bush years. "I'd go before the American people and tell them the truth and try to establish my credibility," said former senator Fred Thompson (Tenn.). "The first priority is to be a president of all the United States," said former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. "We are right now a polarized country, and that polarized country has led to a paralyzed government. We've got Democrats who fight Republicans, liberals fighting conservatives, the left fights the right. Who's fighting for this country again?" Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) agreed, saying the next president needs to "restore trust and confidence in government. There is none today." He added, "I can lead. I can inspire confidence and restore trust and confidence in their government again."
That will be a test confronting all the candidates in 2008 as they prepare for the post-Bush era. The preliminaries are almost over. In just three weeks, it will be time for voters to start telling us who really does inspire their confidence.
Web Politics Editor
December 13, 2007; 11:47 AM ET
Categories: A_Blog , B_Blog , Candidates , Morning Cheat Sheet , Primaries , Republican Party
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