With off-year elections moments away and 2006's midterm election fast approaching, the curse of the second term seems to have taken hold of the White House, and Democrats are looking poised to pounce.
The Bush-appointed Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown stepped down after dismal reviews of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina (search); violence continues between rival ethnic factions in Iraq, casting a shadow on U.S. democratization efforts there; top White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby (search) resigned after a federal grand jury indictment; Bush's longtime adviser Karl Rove (search) remains a key focus in the ongoing CIA leak investigation; and top Republican figures are involved in an array of legal tussles.
On top of it all, Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's probe into who leaked the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson has revived the weapons of mass destruction debate.
The onslaught provided Senate Democrats last week with the opening they needed to take control of the national discussion on the Iraq war, more than two years after the Bush administration was forced to dial back its claims that Iraq had sought nuclear weapons materials.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (search), D-Nev., combined questions about the Libby indictment with an obscure parliamentary rule that closed the Senate doors for a secret session last Tuesday. The move put Republicans on the defensive, forcing them to talk in specific terms about the Intelligence Committee's probe of pre-Iraq war intelligence.
"We did this out of sincere concern for the future and national security of this country to do our job as Congress is supposed to do in the Constitution of oversight. And the fact that we were being stonewalled led us to do this," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., told "FOX News Sunday."
"There was a very positive reaction. People did call up and say, 'Yes, I support what you're doing' — not just Democrats, [but] Republicans, independents. The reaction has been very good. That's democracy," Schumer said.
Even with the positive reinforcement, Democrats now need to steer the conversation effectively, a task that has previously proven elusive to the minority party.
"Part of the issue is that the Republicans control everything," Democratic strategist Kirsten Powers said, referring to majorities in both chambers of Congress and the White House. "That sort of ties the hands of Democrats in terms of what they're able to do procedurally."
Powers said she believes last week's Senate shutdown may mark the turning point Democrats have longed for.
"They found a procedural mechanism to grab control and turn the conversation back to things most Americans are more concerned about," she said.
The conversation isn't just reflective. Democrats hope to capitalize on the tactic as well as Bush's numerous political problems to pick up seats in the 2006 midterm elections.
According to recent polls, more Americans say they believe their interests and the Bush agenda are on divergent paths. An Oct. 27 FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll showed job approval for Bush at 41 percent, and last week an ABC News/Washington Post poll found only 39 percent of Americans approve of Bush's performance. A CBS News poll last week saw a paltry 35 percent job approval rating for the president; an AP-Ipsos poll on Friday put it at 37 percent, with 42 percent saying they "strongly disapprove" of how Bush is handling his job.
"When you see someone as even-tempered and mild-mannered as Harry Reid that frustrated and upset, that speaks to a lot of Americans," said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. "Regular people care about why the war isn't going better. They want to know how they're going to heat their homes this winter. They want to know the truth about the war."
Some Republicans agreed that an investigation has been long overdue.
"I think with 2,000 soldiers killed and 15,000 wounded, the American people want Congress to meet its constitutional responsibility to find the truth," said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.
But Republicans who were outraged by the move to a closed session said Bush's nomination of Judge Samuel Alito (search) to the U.S. Supreme Court last Monday may have panicked Democrats who had hoped to take advantage of Bush's alienation from his far-right base after the nomination of Harriet Miers.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., added that Democrats pulled this "stunt" because they had been informed the day before that "phase 2" of the panel's investigation into the prewar intelligence was just about complete. If Democrats didn't move quickly, they would not have had a chance, Roberts said.
"Ultimately what the Democrats had hoped for last week was a Watergate and it didn't happen," Republican strategist Michelle Laxalt said. "It made them unhappy and it unnerved them. They're trying to resuscitate that dying patient."
How to Debate Iraq
Polls show that fewer Americans believe the administration was right to invade Iraq. Those numbers give Democrats another chance to hit Republicans on the prewar justification.
"The troubles in Iraq and the leak issue have undermined Bush's image of good leadership," said Democratic strategist Cliff Shechter. "He is not winning the War on Terror, not effectively fighting the War on Terror — these are areas where he used to have strength ... It was [previously] difficult for the Democrats to pound him on national security, and that just won't be as difficult in 2006. Iraq goes to the heart of our national security strategy."
But an ongoing problem for Democrats is the perceived lack of coherent, alternative proposals to the Bush agenda, which may explain why dipping approval for the ruling party has not translated into increased support for the minority.
"While the Republican Party might be polling on a down basis because of various national difficulties, voters tend to like their own member of Congress, and thus it's very difficult to dislodge an incumbent," Laxalt said. "The burden would be higher on Democrats to take out incumbent Republicans."
One 2006 Democratic candidate said he wants his party to seek solutions in Iraq, rather than replay the debate over what happened before the war.
"Why not call on the president to explain what the mission is in Iraq? What the strategy is? Everyone who's been paying attention knows the administration wasn't forthright with politicians and the American people," said Paul Hackett, a veteran of the war who narrowly lost a special election last summer in a heavily Republican Ohio district. He now seeks the Senate seat currently being warmed by two-term moderate Republican Sen. Mike DeWine.
Hackett said he has noticed an increase in pessimism in his state about the war since his last campaign, and believes Americans are more preoccupied with the future of Iraq than with the run-up to the war.
"The leaders in this country are a couple steps behind the people. I would just like to see them demonstrate that courage on issues and topics on hand today," he said.
Democrats, who have been accused time and again of bitterness about the past and myopia in the present, would be wise not to invest all their political capital in the prewar intelligence debate, according to other war veterans.
"I can understand trying to vindicate that service and to respect the lives lost by trying to see if the intelligence before going in was correct, but to me it just seems so political," said Sgt. Chris Missick, a 25-year-old Army reservist who served in the war and runs the Line in the Sand blog.
"If I was over there right now reading the news, I'd say let's get the job done, get our guys home, and then let's figure it out," Missick said.
Matt, who runs the BlackFive blog and did not want his last name published, said he also did not see how the Senate shutdown might benefit the military in Iraq.
"It was more of a political hit to get some gain in the midterm elections than it was something that would help the troops. Of course we owe it to the families and the troops, but this is the third or fourth round," the Operation Desert Storm veteran said. "They should be making sure they have the weapons and equipment to fight the [expletive] war."
Both he and Missick also said they were skeptical of the Senate Democrats' motives.
"When there was all this yelling about body armor, where were they? Instead, you've got civilians like myself figuring out how we can help the troops. The posturing is a little ridiculous," Matt said.
Like Herding Cats?
The Republican National Committee reportedly has had trouble recruiting candidates for 2006, and some of the concern is said to be over whether the president will help or hurt their chances.
But in the end, the dynamics of each race will more likely determine the degree to which the party's woes hobble incumbent Republicans' campaigns.
Even a high-profile Republican like Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is trailing presumed challenger Bob Casey Jr. by double digits, polls show. But in blue state New Jersey's gubernatorial contest, Republican challenger Doug Forrester's narrowing the race to a 7-point gap last month startled Sen. Jon Corzine's campaign. The Democrat's lead has since widened to 12 points, according to last week's Quinnipiac poll.
Strategist Schecter said that while a Bush endorsement was powerful for Republicans in 2004, in 2006 the party "will have trouble finding places outside of Utah" where his support doesn't hurt.
Powers said Democrats should not assume moderate Republicans will stray far from the party's base.
"If you're a Republican, you don't want to get on the wrong side of the Bush administration. If they're in a conservative state, that could be dangerous," she said.
Democrats must also go beyond slamming Bush and his policies if they are to prove to voters they can be trusted on national security and economic matters, Marsh advised.
"The Republicans no longer get the benefit of the doubt. The American people knew Bush better [than Kerry] and liked him more at the time, but he's now squandered their faith in him," she said. "Democrats need to get out there and define themselves first positively, and go after the Republicans at the same time."
Few signs so far show that Democrats are planning anything similar to the "Contract with America," which helped Republicans gain the majority in Congress in 1994. Schecter said Democratic leaders plan to nationalize the midterms, because the out-manned, outgunned party will be forced to take their appeal directly to voters.
While national security is believed to have won Bush a second term, the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated national security flaws, has given Democrats a chance to take the reigns on that issue.
"Where voters won't have a short memory is where the issues start to go to the underlying ability to be a leader or do the job," Powers said. "Katrina showed the emperor has no clothes. Voters saw that he was not good at protecting us and had not put together an infrastructure to protect us."
According to Hackett, however, the Democrats are as much the herd of cats that they were in 2004. Though the Democratic National Committee urged him to run, he said he had not heard anything from them about a national strategy in 2006.
"The Democrats are confused and timid and they generally don't get the war in Iraq. They're afraid to say anything bad about it because most of them voted for it," the former Marine said. "What they should say instead of they were duped — how could they be duped? Were you not reading the intelligence briefs? — is: We made a mistake."