TCS Daily


A Comeback Kid Makes His Moves

By Michael Rosen - November 2, 2005 12:00 AM

From the ashes doth the Phoenix rise.

Last week was, as repeated ad nauseum, likely the worst week of the Bush presidency. From the 2,000th American death in Iraq, to the withdrawal of Harriet Miers, to the indictment of I. Lewis Libby, to approval ratings hovering in the low-40s, things couldn't have gone much more wrong. There's almost nowhere to go but up.

But there are plenty of positive reasons to be optimistic about the president's chances.

First, as a master of expectations, Bush is generally at his best when he looks his worst. During the last election, through most of July and August 2004, the president trailed John Kerry by several points in most tracking polls. This reflected a Democratic convention featuring Kerry as the most valiant sailor since Lord Nelson, a White House still trying to run a sunny "Rose Garden" campaign in the face of Democrats and 527s trashing Bush with a vengeance, and continually eroding support for the Iraq War. The mainstream media had already written the epitaph of Bush, the soon-to-be-one-termer.

Then a brilliant convention in New York buoyed the president and the GOP. The White House came out swinging, Bush provided a full-throated defense of his first four years in office, and a strong national supporting cast -- featuring Sen. McCain, Governor Schwarzenegger, and Mayor Giuliani -- alternately boosted the president and savaged Kerry. Despite a blip during the debates, President Bush never lost his lead in the polls and cruised to a significant, if not massive, victory in November, largely on the back of his conservative base.

As Bush often appears at his strongest when his back's against the wall, this November -- one year after his re-election -- will prove no exception.

Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, Bush does learn from his mistakes. In this regard, Miers' withdrawal was a blessing in disguise. While conservatives lashed out at the president for nominating his under-qualified counsel to the Supreme Court, they have, as expected, turned on a dime to lavish praise upon his subsequent selection of Judge Samuel Alito. Many pundits believed that Bush, weakened by the Katrina disaster and the "defeat" of his Court choice, would have no choice but to settle on a "consensus candidate" (in Schumer-speak).

No sale. Bush embarked on a bolder tack, appointing a "conservative activist" determined -- perhaps even more so than Chief Justice Roberts -- to restore balance to our constitutional system. Comparisons to Justice Scalia aside, a Justice Alito will undoubtedly tilt the Court to the right. Yet at the same time, he is a well-liked, brilliant judge who first took the federal appellate bench at 39. Even Sen. Kennedy voted to confirm him to the Third Circuit.

Of course, the jockeying began even before the announcement, with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid saying he would oppose the nomination and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) cautioning the Democrats that he would invoke the "constitutional option" if they deploy the filibuster. The battle will be bloody but, barring an unforeseen personal or ethical bombshell, Judge Alito's nomination presents a delightful opportunity to showcase conservative legal theory -- and to highlight inevitable Democratic obstructionism. Throughout, Bush will be bolstered by unwavering support among conservatives.

Third, the Libby indictment appears to be a disappointing denouement to the Fitzgerald investigation, not a lever to expose widespread illegality in the White House. Liberals howling for Karl Rove's head cannot help but feel let down by the counts of perjury and obstruction of justice clinging to Libby alone. Without question, the charges are serious, the investigation continues, and more surprises may lie ahead. In the meantime, though, jubilant Daily Kos readers eagerly anticipating "Fitzmas" have seen their hopes dashed; by contrast, a White House bracing for far worse can breathe a bit easier. Bush benefited yet again from inflated expectations.

Fourth, while Iraqi reconstruction continues to plod along -- seven Americans tragically killed on Monday -- and while, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake, the good news from Baghdad is as plentiful as it is underreported. The historic constitution, planned elections in December, and a hot housing market in Baghdad suggest better times ahead.

Moreover, Bush has taken the rhetorical offensive in recent months. At the National Endowment for Democracy in early October, echoing his famous speech there in 2003, he emphasized the importance of the war on militant Islam and likened the struggle to the Cold War: American ideals of freedom and opportunity battling a totalitarian ideology bent on world domination.

The president's actions speak loudly as well. For instance, the administration's push to hold Syria accountable for its destabilizing influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel is a bold and important move.

In short, Bush is generally most successful when things look bad and expectations are low; when he takes initiative and seizes the headlines on his own terms; and when his allies flock to reinforce his message. All of these ingredients, now on fulsome display, should yield yet another comeback.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributing writer, is an attorney in San Diego.

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