March 4, 2004
WASHINGTON -- At 1 p.m. on Feb. 25, some 15 prominent Republicans
invited to be surrogates in the coming presidential campaign gathered at
Bush-Cheney headquarters in suburban Northern Virginia for a private
briefing. Less than two hours earlier that day, Federal Reserve Chairman
Alan Greenspan detonated a political bombshell. To judge from the bland
and uninformative briefing, nobody on the president's campaign team
heard the explosion.
Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, a Washington lawyer-lobbyist who last
year resigned as figurehead chairman of the Republican National
Committee to become figurehead chairman of Bush-Cheney '04, led the
precisely orchestrated, one-hour briefing. He did not mention that
Greenspan had just testified to Congress advocating reduced Social
Security benefits. Racicot might be excused for being silent and unaware
of the central banker's latest political mischief, since it also escaped
the attention that morning of key Bush policymakers.
The invited advocates were handed a thick batch of talking points to
ingest by the campaign's appropriately named chief of surrogates, Julie
Cram. Nowhere in the handout did the forbidden words "Social Security"
appear. "The president's opponents are against personal retirement
accounts" is the closest the briefing material came to the dreaded
subject. Many prospective surrogates left campaign headquarters
profoundly depressed by the mediocre briefing and the material given
This fits the deepening malaise among Republicans in the capital. They
are neither surprised nor terribly worried by polls that temporarily
show George W. Bush trailing John Kerry. What worries the GOP faithful
is the absence of firm leadership in their party either at the White
House or on Capitol Hill.
The lack of a ready response to Greenspan, while Democrats quickly
turned his comments into an indictment of President Bush's tax cuts, was
not an isolated failing. Today, Republicans on either end of
Pennsylvania Avenue seem to be going in opposite directions.
-- Disagreement between congressional Republicans and Bush over the size
of the highway bill reflects mutual recriminations over runaway federal
spending in general. While the president's aides are angered by the
lawmakers' addiction to concrete, conservative lawmakers are furious
that Bush's budget has preserved and actually increased federal funding
for the arts.
-- Bush's call to make his tax cuts permanent and to repeal the estate
tax for all time leaves Republicans in Congress perplexed about how they
will be able to write a budget without a massive increase in the huge
deficit that never will command a majority vote.
-- House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and his allies are bitter that they
received no backing from the president and administration in their
efforts to keep the independent 9-11 investigation from extending into
the campaign season.
-- The president came out for a constitutional amendment to bar gay
marriage without consulting congressional Republican leaders, which
helps explain the unenthusiastic reception from his own party on Capitol
-- Congressional Republicans still have not recovered from the shock of
the President's Economic Report extolling the outsourcing of industrial
jobs -- good economics perhaps, bad politics definitely.
The disaffection is such that over the last two weeks, normally loyal
Republicans -- actually including more than a few members of Congress --
are privately talking about political merits in the election of Sen.
Kerry. Their reasoning goes like this: There is no way Democrats can win
the House or Senate even if Bush loses. If Bush is re-elected, Democrats
are likely to win both the House and Senate in a 2006 midterm rebound.
If Kerry wins, Republicans will be able to bounce back with
congressional gains in 2006.<--- HA HA! Yeah. Riiiiiiiiight!
To voice such heretical thoughts suggests that Republicans on Capitol
Hill are more interested in maintaining the fruits of majority status
first won in 1994 rather than in governing the country. A few thoughtful
GOP lawmakers ponder the record of the first time in 40 years that the
party has controlled both the executive and legislative branches, and
conclude that record is deeply disappointing.
But incipient heresy also reflects shortcomings of the Bush political
operation. Its emphasis has been on fund-raising and organization, with
deficiencies in communicating and leadership. The president is in
political trouble, and his disaffected supporters who should be backing
him aggressively provide the evidence.