Published April 03, 2006
WASHINGTON – From Iraq to deficits, from immigration to port security, some of the most pointed criticism leveled at President Bush is coming from within his own party. Republicans these days are almost sounding like perennially divided Democrats.
The rising GOP angst stems from Bush's deep slump in the polls and the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war.
But it also reflects a political reawakening as Republicans follow their own political interests in this midterm election year and as would-be 2008 presidential contenders seek ways to set themselves apart — from each other and from Bush.
"It's open season on him. George Bush has lost trust on too many issues," said presidential historian Thomas E. Cronin of Colorado College. "We saw it happen with Johnson, we saw it with Nixon. And now, sadly, we're seeing it with Bush."
The only solace to frustrated Republicans could be that Democrats seem to be struggling themselves to come up with unified positions on Iraq and many other major issues.
"They say Democrats don't stand for anything. That's patently untrue. We do stand for anything," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., joked at a recent press dinner.
Listening to some of the recent GOP criticism, Bush has moved to reach out to Republicans in Congress. Last week, he accepted the resignation of Andrew Card as his chief of staff and gave the job to his budget director, Josh Bolten, who is popular on Capitol Hill.
Other staff changes were expected, including a possible reorganization of the White House congressional liaison office.
Bush also is doing more to keep GOP lawmakers informed, after they were blind-sided in February by the administration's support of a deal — since abandoned — to hand over management of six major U.S. ports to a company owned by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates.
The Senate resumes work this week on a contentious immigration bill that pits Republican against Republican.
The bill would offer an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants an opportunity for citizenship and expand guest-worker programs for an estimated 400,000 immigrants each year. The president has said such a guest worker program is central.
But many conservatives favor a more restrictive measure passed by the House last December that would make it a federal felony to live in this country illegally and calling for a wall to be built along the border with Mexico. It does not contain a guest-worker provision.
While acknowledging the difficulty faced by lawmakers, Bush told reporters in Mexico on Friday: "I expect the debate to bring dignity to America, in recognition that America is a land of immigrants."
Some conservatives contend he really isn't really one of them.
They point to Bush's immigration stance, mushrooming government spending and soaring deficits on his watch and his failed attempt to put White House lawyer Harriet Miers on the Supreme Court. Some complain about the growing cost and attempted "nation building" of wartime Iraq.
"A lot of conservatives have had reservations about him for a long time, but have been afraid to speak out for fear that it would help liberals and the Democrats," said Bruce Bartlett, a Treasury official in the Reagan administration. Such concerns are no longer very relevant, he said.
"I think there are growing misgivings about the conduct of the Iraq operation, and how that relates to a general incompetence his administration seems to have about doing basic things," said Bartlett, author of a scathing book titled, "Impostor: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy."
Recent polls suggest the Republicans are losing their long-held lead over Democrats on national security.
Sectarian violence continues unabated in Iraq. The victory of Hamas militants in Palestinian elections raises questions about Bush's goal to spread democracy in the Middle East. And the administration seems short on options for keeping Iran from building nuclear weapons.
Republican leaders are still openly supportive, but they recognize there are limitations in such an overcharged political environment.
"Like any relationship, it's not going to be a honeymoon every day," says House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Some Bush supporters try to put the best face on the recent discontent.
"There have been some mistakes, but every administration makes mistakes," said veteran GOP consultant Charles Black. "The biggest problem the White House has, 90 percent of their problem, is Iraq.
"People don't see the war going well. And the president's got to keep going out virtually every day, talking about it and putting it in context. Personnel changes won't affect that. He's got to do that himself," Black said.