Bush 'gaffe' on Iraq threatens party unity
PRESIDENT George W Bush sent a message to Congressional Republicans last week: get lost. When the President told reporters that the decision to bring the last American troops home from Iraq would "be decided by future Presidents and future governments of Iraq", he widened the already yawning gap between the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The President, with an eye on his legacy and the history books, implicitly made it clear that this year's mid-term elections are trivial compared with the prize of winning final victory in Iraq.
A famous Washington aphorism holds that a politician commits a gaffe when he inadvertently blurts out the truth. By that standard, Bush gaffed last week. He suggested American troops would still be in Iraq in 2009 - a prospect that alarms Republicans already beleaguered by scandal and discontent among the grassroots.
Democrats, by contrast, could scarcely credit their good fortune. Senate majority leader Harry Reid quickly pounced on what he termed the President's declaration of an "open-ended commitment" in Iraq.
The prevailing Democrat view, increasingly shared by some Republicans who take what has been termed a "to hell with them" approach to Iraq's struggles, was expressed by California senator Diane Feinstein, who demanded Bush tell the Iraqis to "get their political house in order" so that the American troops could come home sooner rather than later. Democrats believe this message will resonate as they seek to take the 15 seats they need to regain control of the House of Representatives.
"The question was: 'Will there be zero [troops in Iraq]?'" said Scott McClellan as the White House scrambled to avoid giving the impression that thousands of American GIs would still be in Iraq in three years' time. But Bush's admission encouraged Democrats and dismayed Republicans who are only too aware that much of America expects to see most of the troops home by Christmas 2006.
Aside from pushing his proposals for immigration reform, Bush has all but abandoned his domestic agenda in recent weeks. Asked how he intended to use his remaining political capital, he replied: "I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war."
Congressional Republicans were already distancing themselves from the President; last week Bush reciprocated and the cracks in the Republican Party's unity became a lot harder to cover up.
"I've been astounded by Bush in his relationship with Republicans in Congress," said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "In my lifetime, there has been no Republican president who has spent as much effort electing people of his own party to the Congress, or less time talking to them after they got there."
Republicans on Capitol Hill now routinely refer to the White House as "arrogant", while the administration feels it has been let down by Congress on matters such as the ever-increasing federal budget and the doomed Dubai Ports World deal that would have seen the Dubai company operate terminals at six American ports but for Congressional opposition.
And it is it not just Congressional Republicans who are unhappy. Conservative talk radio host Laura Ingraham warned that "if the base becomes any more wobbly or dispirited, then the President will not be able to escape the lame duck label. And last time I checked, lame ducks didn't have any pockets to hold their political capital".
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