Bush at Bay

When President Bush in his State of the Union address Tuesday night called for a bipartisan "special advisory council" of congressional leaders on the war against terrorism, he had in his pocket a rude rejection from Democratic leaders. Thank you very much, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but no thank you.

Three days earlier, Reid and Pelosi wrote a letter to the president, turning down his offer (contained in his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq) to establish a council consisting of Democratic chairmen and Republican ranking members of the relevant committees. "We believe that Congress already has bipartisan structures in place," they said, adding: "We look forward to working with you within existing structures."

That could be the most overt snub of a presidential overture since Abraham Lincoln was told that Gen. George B. McClellan had retired for the night and could not see the president. Courtesy aside, it shows that the self-confident Democratic leadership is uninterested in being cut into potentially disastrous outcomes in Iraq. It wants to function as a coordinate branch of government, not as friendly colleagues in the spirit of bipartisanship. Pelosi and several Democratic chairmen are leaving for Iraq on Friday.

In his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq, Bush called for a "new, bipartisan working group that will help us come together across party lines to win the war on terror." That prompted the Pelosi-Reid letter of Jan. 19, rejecting the offer.

Bush made a mistake on Jan. 10 in attributing the idea to Sen. Joe Lieberman, who as the Senate’s only self-identified "Independent Democrat" is estranged from his colleagues who are unmodified Democrats. These former comrades are not charmed by the prospect of Lieberman pontificating as a member of the "working group" by virtue of being chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

But Lieberman was not the reason for the speaker and majority leader’s rebuff. The Democratic leadership is beyond consultation on Iraq, as demonstrated by the selection of Sen. Jim Webb to deliver the party’s response to the president Tuesday night. Webb, whose unexpected election from Virginia last year gave Democrats a Senate majority, is a hard-edged critic of the war not interested in bipartisanship. Discarding staff-written talking points, professional writer Webb declared: "The president took us into this war recklessly."

Webb’s astringent comments contrasted sharply with Bush’s tone, which indicated he still has not shed illusions that he carried from Austin to Washington in 2001. Congressional Democrats are nothing like the tame Democrats in the Texas Legislature with whom Bush dealt as governor. On Tuesday night, Bush ignored the issues dear to the conservative base such as embryonic stem cell research, abortion and same-sex marriage. Delivering his State of the Union on the day after the annual March for Life on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Bush did not see fit to mention the abortion issue important to so many of his supporters.

Instead, the president talked about goals, though not methods, dear to Democratic hearts: expanded health insurance, energy independence and federal aid to local education. Bush was reminiscent of President Bill Clinton in sprinkling his speech with small proposals that might be popular. Yet, Democrats immediately indicated all such Bush plans have no chance of passage.

Rep. Pete Stark, chairman of the relevant Ways and Means subcommittee, immediately declared that Bush’s serious effort to improve health insurance coverage was dead on arrival, without the benefit of hearings. Stark has been notoriously cantankerous, whether in the majority or minority, during 17 terms in the House. But his attitude dominates today’s Democratic side of the aisle.

On both sides the prevailing attitude is that Bush looks like a president at bay. Statements made to me this week by two prominent political figures, one from each party, were so candid that these sources did not want to be quoted by name.

The Republican, a ranking House committee member, said: "The president and his aides are irrelevant and out of touch, removed from realizing what happened in the [2006] election." A Democratic state party leader said that "Bush is in such bad shape that the result of the 2008 election is already decided." In that atmosphere, pleas for consultation go nowhere.