By the start of the third week of war, Bush was bogged down in Mesopotamia and Washington. The war did not open as well as had been predicted by prominent hawks, including Vice President Cheney. It appeared possible that George W. Bush’s invasion could turn into a long-haul endeavor (good news for North Korea). Then again, a tipping point could be reached, and yesterday’s morass could rapidly transform into military triumph, as happened in Afghanistan. The political implications of either scenario are impossible to predict. A quick win might be forgotten (cf. Bush I) or much appreciated by the voting public. A difficult but lengthy war might lead to political upheaval, or it could strengthen the bond between the President and portions of the public. In any event, the initial stall did not cost Bush much political capital, for in Washington there has been little politicking on the war.
Democrats haven’t said much about its course. Few members of Congress have joined the debate over whether the initial Bush-Rumsfeld-Franks war plan was sufficient. Few have weighed in on important and contentious matters related to the coming occupation (presuming the war is won). Television bookers report that they have difficulty rounding up D guests. Antiwar Democratic presidential candidates–most notably former Vermont Governor Howard Dean and Representative Dennis Kucinich–have decried the invasion. But many Democrats have taken up residence in Cheney’s undisclosed location. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who supports the war, complained that the White House is stonewalling Congressional requests for information on the cost and duration of the war. And Democrats and Republicans have grumbled about Bush’s attempt to spend $75 billion in emergency war funding–aka “the down payment”–as he sees fit. But these are mere skirmishes. “People are waiting to see what happens,” says a Democratic senator. “I think the shit’s going to hit the fan [with the war]. But it’s too early to come out and say that.”
Untroubled on the war by the Democrats, Bush has seen sand clog the gears of his programs closer to home. In recent weeks, with the help of moderate Republicans, Senate Democrats won votes halving Bush’s new round of tax cuts to $350 billion and defeating his attempt to open a stretch of the Alaska wilderness to oil development. The Democrats sustained a filibuster against appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada. Bush’s faith-based initiative has lost steam. His push for legislation limiting jury awards was derailed. Bush has also been drawn into a tussle with Congressional Democrats over how much money to spend on homeland security. Representative David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, introduced a $12.3 billion package, three times the amount Bush requested. While Bush appears ready to go eyeball-to-eyeball with Democrats over protecting the country, Congressional Republicans, who don’t want to be accused of being cheapskates, are worried about being caught in the middle.
At the beginning of the year, Bush went on the offensive, proposing a new round of budget-busting tax cuts, returning defeated conservative judicial nominations to the Senate while all but promising a war in Iraq. “It’s now hard to see much movement with his domestic agenda,” says a senior Senate Republican aide. “All the Administration’s energies are concentrated on war.” And in the midst of war, the White House was unable to convince a handful of moderate Senate Republicans to stick with their President on tax cuts. “His proposal to abolish the dividend tax was a complete miscalculation,” the aide says. “There’s not a lot of stomach politically for tax cuts in a time of war, much less ones skewed toward the wealthy. The $3 trillion deficit is concerning even Republicans. Supply-siders have lost significant traction.”
Bush’s in-your-face initiatives managed to unite Senate Democrats–something their leaders often fail to do. Judicial filibusters tend to be tough to maintain, but Democrats’ anger at the White House refusal to release information related to the Estrada nomination held them together. And though the Dems lost the first vote on Bush’s tax cuts because several Democrats opposed to all cuts wouldn’t vote even for a smaller package of cuts, they were able to regroup to deliver Bush a loss.
But blocking a popular wartime President is not the same as gaining ground. Bush is still poised to add tax cuts to his 2001 bundle. His other resurrected judicial nominees–as conservative, if not more so, as Estrada–are likely to be approved. By being audacious, Bush managed to shift the discourse so in his favor that even a partial win is a substantial policy victory. (In Iraq, he can’t use this strategy.) And there’s no evidence yet that the Democrats can score points against Bush with accusations that he’s underfunding homeland security and engaging in fiscal recklessness. “This country is laying off teachers, while Bush is cutting taxes and fighting wars,” a Democratic House member says. “If we can’t make this message obvious, something’s wrong with Democrats.”
The war will end up shaping, if not completely determining, Bush’s standing and influence as a President. But for now it’s been accompanied by a political paralysis of sorts. Which is not such a bad thing in George Bush’s Washington.