Monday, February 19, 2007

For Republicans, Bush Bashing Is Not an Appealing Option

By Stuart Rothenberg

For months now, President Bush’s poll ratings have been in the toilet. His performance is the single most important reason why Republicans lost the House and Senate, and the president’s standing shows no sign of turning around between now and Election Day 2008.

So shouldn’t Republican officeholders simply do whatever they have to in order to distance themselves from the president? And shouldn’t they go even further in establishing their independence by piling on Bush to show how much they disagree with him, as much as Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) has been doing for months on Iraq?

Well, as the November elections demonstrated, it isn’t that simple.

Bush defines what his party stands for as long as he is in office, and efforts by individual Republican Members of Congress to separate themselves from their party weren’t very effective in 2006.

I still remember something that a Democratic consultant told me more than a half-dozen years ago, during then-President Bill Clinton’s problems: The lower the president’s poll numbers fall, the worse things are for Democrats, including those Democrats who were intent on distancing themselves from the occupant of the Oval Office.

In beating up on Clinton, the astute student of politics said back then, Democrats only would be adding to their own headaches by highlighting his problems, conveying a sense of chaos within the Democratic Party and diminishing the leader of their party. The same holds true for Republicans who would like to criticize Bush now.

Bush remains in office for another two years, and unfortunately for him and his party, the public appears to have permanently soured on him.

A mid-January CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey found that a mere 32 percent of those polled said policies proposed by Bush would move the country in the right direction, while 61 percent said those policies would move the country in the “wrong direction.”

Those numbers mirrored the president’s job performance numbers, which will need to improve if he is going to help his party and his party’s candidates in 2008. But if the Republicans beat up on Bush to distance themselves from him, they guarantee that his ratings will remain low. (They may remain low in any case, of course.)

The problem for Republicans is that, while they would like to act as if the president is now largely irrelevant, there simply is no way that they can move past him. He is still the president, and he’s still making policy. And that means that he’s still an easy target for Democrats.

The Iraq War remains the top issue of the day, and it is inextricably linked to Bush. It is almost impossible for GOP Members of Congress to talk about Iraq — about what is happening on the ground and about what to do about it — without being drawn into a discussion of the president and his policies.

Even more than that, Republicans will have to figure out what they’ll do about — and with — the president when their national convention rolls around 18 months from now.

Does anybody really believe that Republicans will be able to put together a convention that ignores the president of the United States? And no matter what kind of role Bush gets at the 2008 GOP convention in Minnesota, unless the public’s perception of the president changes between now and August 2008, can his presence do anything but aid a Democratic argument for change?

Clinton, who had his share of problems during his second term in the White House, but who had much better job approval numbers than Bush now does, spoke to the 2000 Democratic convention on Monday night, Aug. 14, the first day of the convention. Bush likely will do the same thing, but he won’t be able to avoid the elephant in the room.

“Mr. Clinton made no allusions to the personal scandals he has weathered,” wrote Rick Berke of The New York Times about the president’s 3,888-word speech on that opening night. Can anyone imagine Bush not mentioning his albatross, the Iraq War, during his speech to the GOP convention?

Obviously, a lot can happen over the next year and a half. But unless things change dramatically, Republicans will find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they criticize their president, they add to their own party’s woes. And if they try to defend him, they also add to their party’s woes.

No wonder many Democrats think they’ll have an edge in the 2008 race, even against a Republican nominee who tries to separate himself from Bush and the current administration’s policies. “Time for a change” may not work as well in 2008 as it did in 2006, but it still figures to be an effective message for the next Democratic presidential nominee.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on February 15, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.