The Blog

Barnes: The Big Mo'

3:30 PM, Oct 17, 2007 • By FRED BARNES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The political direction in Washington is shifting. The White House, in a defensive crouch for much of 2007, is beginning to go on offense. The Democratic Congress is increasingly on defense. If this trend continues, the dreary prospects for Republicans in the 2008 election may improve.

Look what's happened this fall. Democrats have abandoned their bid to end the war in Iraq or even to put limits on President Bush's policy of adding troops and pursuing a counterinsurgency strategy there. Meanwhile, the surge policy is unquestionably working.

And while the White House is on the defensive in opposing the expansion of the S-chip program of health insurance for poor kids, the president now has an agenda of his own to pursue. This puts him on offense, tentatively anyway. The agenda consists of trade bills, fresh authorization of electronic surveillance of terrorists, confirmation of a new attorney general, and a serious effort to curb spending.

Democrats, in contrast, have some defending to do. They must justify tax increases on energy production and tobacco, plus whatever tax hikes they propose to replace the alternative minimum tax (AMT). Democrats will also be forced to defend restrictions on surveillance of terrorists in foreign countries whose calls are routed through the United States, and explain their grounds for reneging on a pledge to support trade bills that impose labor and environmental standards.

The change in the power equation in Washington is barely detectable at the moment. But White House aides are touting it nonetheless. "All of us feel increasingly we're getting on offense here," a senior aide says. And there's a plausible case that he's right.

For one thing, Bush's political weakness during the time since Democrats captured both houses of Congress in last year's election has been overstated. The president, with his approval rating in the 30s, lacks influence. But he has plenty of power as commander-in-chief, architect of America's foreign policy, wielder of the veto, author of executive orders, and possessor of the biggest megaphone in Washington.

Bush's position has been strengthened further by a spate of good news, particularly from Iraq. Both civilian and U.S. military deaths have declined precipitously, fighting between Sunnis and Shiites has waned, political reconciliation at the provincial level has grown, al Qaeda has been dealt defeat after defeat, and additional regions of Iraq, including sections of Baghdad, have been pacified.

On top of success in Iraq, the economy has continued to grow despite the housing slump, and the budget deficit has shrunk to a level lower than when the Bush tax cuts were enacted in 2003. And the Medicare prescription drug program came in $4 billion under budget.

The big test of Bush's momentum is the looming struggle over spending. Congressional Democrats most likely will soon send Bush a single spending bill to fund the entire government, a bill he has vowed to veto as too costly. The result: a possible (but unlikely) government shutdown. The president's advisers are confident that Bush, as the champion of spending restraint, would emerge the political winner from such a fight. But if they're wrong, Bush's days on offense would come to an abrupt halt.

Back on defense, Bush surely would be a drag on Republicans in 2008. Never has a president with an approval rating as low as Bush's been followed in office by a member of his party. So it's important for Bush to get (and stay) on offense. Then, his approval may shoot up, perhaps into the 40s, and make him less of a liability for Republicans - or, better yet, no liability at all.