The Republicans, regardless of the presidential nominee they select, face a formidable challenge in 2008. With President Bush garnering a disapproval rating of over 60 percent, an even higher number of voters saying the country is on the “wrong track” and the Iraq war a constant source of angst, many Americans will be determined to throw the rascals out—and in this case, that means the Republicans, from the White House.
What, if anything, can the Bush administration do to improve the chances that a Republican will succeed Bush into the White House?
First, Mr. Bush should take the political version of the Hippocratic oath: Do no harm. He made the plight of the Republicans worse by championing a muddled immigration bill that raised the specter of “amnesty” without the promise of secure borders. Aside from John McCain, who gamely tried to forge a compromise and convince voters this was the best chance for a comprehensive deal, most Republican leaders, urged on by talk show hosts and pundits, responded to the enraged Republican base. When the bill failed, Republican candidates breathed a sigh of relief.
What about the continuing embarrassment of Alberto Gonzales and the ongoing Justice Department investigations? At first glance, it might be helpful for the G.O.P. contenders if Bush were to toss his friend overboard and try to eliminate the word “cronyism” from the editorial pages. But Mr. Gonzales may yet serve as a useful foil for Republicans, particularly those with executive experience, to firmly distance themselves from the Bush administration and assure voters that their judgment with regard to personnel is sound. If the Republicans must all run against the Bush administration to one degree or another, Mr. Gonzales is a living, breathing argument that they will have better administrative skills than the current incumbent.
The president might better help the Republican cause by finding his little-used veto pen and working on spending restraint. Nothing, aside from the Iraq war and corruption scandals, so enraged Republican voters in 2006 as the utter lack of spending restraint and the infamous earmarks enacted by Congressional Republicans and unopposed by a Republican president.
Some vetoes and clearly enforced budget priorities would remind voters that fiscal restraint may require a Republican president to offset the excesses of a Democratic Congress, and that there is a real difference between the parties on fiscal responsibility.
Of course, the most important thing President Bush could do for the G.O.P. candidates would be to produce some improvement in the situation in Iraq. Here, the task is much more difficult and the course uncertain.
If the administration somehow were prevailed upon to yield to the Democrats and begin troop withdrawals immediately, would that help the Republicans running for president? Certainly not, if, as is happening currently with the withdrawal of British forces in Basra, the deserted areas sank into chaos or became engulfed in genocidal civil war.
The best the G.O.P. contenders could hope for is a more stable Iraq and the beginning of a gradual withdrawal of American troops. The serious G.O.P. hopefuls—none of whom have broken with Bush on Iraq—don’t need the birth of Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq, but they do need voters to see that stability is possible and that some hope remains for a transition of responsibility to the Iraqi government for its country’s security.
Given the Bush administration’s record on everything from Iraq to the Justice Department to Katrina to Walter Reed, whomever the Republicans select next year will have to deal with a considerable disadvantage.
In the meantime, the president might make his potential successor’s task just a bit easier by not embarking on any more unpopular legislative initiatives, by imposing some of the fiscal discipline that’s been lacking and by wringing some demonstrable measure of success out of Iraq. If you think that’s a tall order, you understand what the G.O.P. contenders are up against in 2008.
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