The Magazine

Bush's Recruits

Gephardt, McCain, and other surprising allies.

Oct 14, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 05 • By FRED BARNES
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JUST AFTER LUNCH ON OCTOBER 1, President Bush telephoned House Democratic Leader Dick Gep-hardt. Bush needed help. He wanted negotiations over a congressional war resolution to wind up quickly, so a vote could be held and pressure put on the United Nations to endorse tougher arms inspections in Iraq. A lopsided pro-war vote would have the greatest impact, the president said. But talks between the White House and Congress had dragged on for a week. What can we do to get agreement on a resolution today? Bush asked. Two things, Gephardt said. Include language saying nothing would be done that detracts from the wider war on terrorism outside Iraq and a passage requiring that diplomatic efforts at the U.N. be fully pursued. By the end of the day, an agreement was reached with both of Gephardt's requests met.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Bush and Gephardt have forged a warm and productive relationship. Gephardt is likely to seek the Democratic presidential nomination against Bush in 2004, but that's had no effect on their friendship. Over the past year, Bush has talked to Gephardt more than any other Democrat in Washington. He likes and trusts him, and the feeling is mutual. At meetings with Democratic and Republican House members--with Gephardt absent--the president has gone out of his way to praise him. Their alliance on combating Iraq shows Bush's effectiveness in developing a powerful Democratic supporter and Gephardt's courage in breaking with Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other Democrats on the war issue.

Gephardt isn't Bush's only unusual bedfellow on Iraq. There's his Republican nemesis, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and an influential Democrat from California, Rep. Howard Berman. Bush has embraced McCain as never before. McCain published an essay in Time over Labor Day weekend, endorsing "the president's sense of urgency about ending the regime of an often irrational aggressor." When Bush saw McCain at a White House session on the homeland security bill the next week, he thanked him profusely. The day after, McCain's office got a late-afternoon call from the White House scheduling office, inviting him to a meeting of congressional leaders and Bush the following morning. McCain's name was presumably added to the list by Bush.

The odd man out is Daschle. He dropped out of the negotiations on a war resolution days before it was worked out. From all accounts, Daschle plays a different game from Gephardt at the bipartisan breakfasts on Wednesday mornings and at other White House meetings. Gephardt often expresses backing for Bush's Iraq policy. At a September 10 breakfast, he was quoted by Mort Kondracke in Roll Call as saying to Bush: "Regime change in Iraq has been the declared policy of the United States and it should be our policy. Saddam Hussein is a bad guy. We've got to get him out of there. You have my full support." Daschle's tack is to raise questions and present problems. He annoys Bush. "Their relationship is totally dysfunctional," says a congressional Democrat. Even attempts to work through intermediaries have failed.

With Gephardt and McCain, Bush has been pushing on an open door. In a speech last June, Gephardt declared his support for regime change in Iraq. The United States should use "military means if we must to eliminate the threat [Hussein] poses to the region and our own security," he said. As for McCain, he's had many disagreements with Bush--tax cuts, health care, guns, campaign finance--but national security isn't one of them. He's an unwavering hawk. And while relations between Bush adviser Karl Rove and the McCain camp are nonexistent--a product of the 2000 GOP presidential primaries--national security adviser Condoleezza Rice has filled the gap. She speaks frequently to McCain and briefs him on foreign and defense issues.

In Berman's case, he had to do the pushing on the White House door. He's long seen Saddam Hussein as an international menace, and grew worried last August when the Bush administration appeared to be in disarray on how to deal with Iraq. He called a friend on Vice President Dick Cheney's staff. "What's the administration doing?" Berman asked. "I know nothing. No one's ever talked to me." A week later he heard from Nick Calio, the president's lobbyist on Capitol Hill. The result: a series of meetings at the White House between Bush and bipartisan groups of 8 or 10 House members. Berman, for one, is persuaded the president is not using the war for political purposes. Bush is seeking a resolution that will generate strong Democratic support, Berman says, not one that allows Republicans to accuse them of opposing the president during a war. And Bush has met with uncommitted Democrats in marginal seats who'll be able to trumpet their consultation with the president.