The Magazine

The Bush Bounce

He's only part way back.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THERE'S JOY at the White House again and less anxiety among Republicans in Congress. The excesses of the press and Supreme Court are bringing Bush and rebellious conservatives closer together. Iraq is better off. The American economy is humming. The White House has made no harmful missteps. And the president's job approval rating is rising.

Yet the Bush recovery is not complete. "We're in a better place than we were two or three months ago," says Republican national chairman Ken Mehlman. "But [the midterm election] remains fundamentally a difficult election." Far more Republican House and Senate seats and governor's offices are at risk than Democratic ones.

A Bush rebound--at least a weak one--was probably inevitable. For more than a year, the president was beset by bad luck (Katrina, the Dubai ports deal), failed initiatives (Social Security reform, the Harriet Miers nomination), and persistent trouble in Iraq. His approval rating dropped to an artificially low 31 percent in the Gallup Poll, far below its natural zone between 40 percent and 50 percent.

There's no doubt, however, that a proactive White House bolstered Bush's recovery. In fact, Bush aides have pinpointed the date when they believe the turnaround began: May 15, the day the president delivered a nationally televised address from the Oval Office on immigration.

The speech emphasized beefed up se curity along the border with Mex ico. But Bush didn't back away from his long-held view that illegal immigrants already in the United States should be offered a path to citizenship and that a program for bringing foreign workers here temporarily--"TWP" in White House argot--should be established. Bush's insistence on this "comprehensive" approach didn't please anti-immigration conservatives, but his aides think it eased the worries of soft Republicans and moderates and suburbanites about immigration. Besides, an aide insisted, "standing for something helps you."

So does a crisper White House operation under chief of staff Josh Bolten. "I don't know if we're seeing a Bolten bounce, but we are seeing a Bolten effect," says a Bush aide. "We haven't committed any significant errors. That's important, since we don't have much margin for error."

Especially not on Iraq. The war is unpopular, but it has nonetheless helped the Bush recovery in three ways. First, the killing of the terrorist Zarqawi and the formation of a permanent Iraqi government were encouraging developments. Second, the president punctuated his support for the new government with a surprise visit to Iraq, and he's gone on the offensive again in speeches defending his policy. On July 4, he told soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, he won't allow the death of 2,527 troops in Iraq "to be in vain by pulling out before the job is done." Third, Democrats have fumbled the Iraq issue.

A major Democratic blunder was the elevation of Representative John Murtha of Pennsylvania to the status of chief party spokesman on Iraq. On Meet the Press last month, he cited the humiliating American retreats from Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993 as models of what the United States should do in Iraq. Another blunder was forcing--and losing--a congressional debate on Iraq. "It helped Republicans and hurt Democrats, something that many pundits didn't believe was possible," a White House aide claims.

For the moment, the issue agenda has turned favorable for Bush and thus for Republicans. His best issue is national security and the war on terror, and the Supreme Court pushed that issue front and center. While striking down the administration's plan for prosecuting terrorists held in Guantánamo, the court said Congress could authorize and set the rules for prosecutions. And that's what Congress will try to do this month, no doubt with extended debate on how to deal with terrorists.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has legitimized White House press bashing by disclosing a secret program for tracking al Qaeda money transfers. When your enemies are liberals on the Supreme Court and in the media, even disgruntled conservatives tend to rally to your side.

At worst, Bush has bottomed out. At best, he's on his way to renewed popularity. "We've stopped our fall and begun to gain back ground," a White House official says. "But we need to make more progress between now and November 1." For one thing, Bush needs to pick up another 5 percentage points or more in approval from likely voters and perhaps as many as 10 points among adults, the group normally sampled by media pollsters. Either way, that would put him in the high 40s, a lofty enough level to assure Republicans he won't be a drag in the election.

Getting there won't be easy. Bush (and Republicans) could use fresh accomplishments. Winning passage of an immigration reform bill, for example, would be a legislative vic tory of the magnitude Bush hasn't achieved since the Medicare prescription drug benefit was passed in December 2003. A successful fight to cut spending would chip away at Bush's image as a profligate spender. A battle to fill a Supreme Court vacancy with a conservative nominee would cause the center-right coalition that prevailed in the 2002 and 2004 elections to coalesce again.

If all goes well--which it often doesn't in politics--even the media might be forced to give Bush a measure of respect. At his press conference in Chicago last week, the press seemed oblivious to his partial recovery. A local reporter asked if a quote by an aide to Republican gubernatorial candidate Judy Baar Topinka had offended the president. The reporter paraphrased the quote this way: "Given your low approval ratings in the polls, they prefer you to come here in the middle of the night." One reason the president had traveled to Illinois was to raise money for Topinka. Bush said he wasn't offended. He should have been.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.