HIS APPROVAL rating has cratered. His legislative agenda, after the collapse of immigration reform, is in ruins. So many longtime aides have departed that he may need name tags for Oval Office meetings.The discourse of power -- that's the Bush way of communication. It certainly has its virtues. Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke out last week in favor of an immediate drawdown. But he's not about to confront the president -- he'll continue to support the war in Congress, while hoping to persuade the White House that a shift in strategy is required by the current circumstances. Good luck! Bush's discourse of power doesn't work that way. Thank goodness for the mission that it doesn't. The surge is just now showing its efficacy, and American military policy can't be set by some fretful politicians checking the electoral calendar.
And yet with his decision to spare I. Lewis Libby from prison, President Bush sent his critics a clear signal that he will not concede an inch of ground that they lack the strength and determination to take from him.Commuting Libby's sentence fits within a flurry of recent administration decisions that directly confront the president's opponents. Bush is defying subpoenas for documents and testimony from the House and Senate Judiciary committees. He's drawn a line in the sand (box) against Democratic proposals to provide health insurance for millions more children in working-poor families. His vice president recently claimed to have discovered, Atlantis-like, a previously uncharted fourth branch of government with himself as the sole known resident.
Immigration, on which Bush worked across party lines, was the exception to this pattern. But the dominant message of his recent maneuvers is that even at low ebb, Bush hasn't abandoned his pugnacious approach to governing. If he can implement his ideas, he does, whether or not he's built consensus for them. Bush rarely changes course — on issues from taxes to torture — unless his critics prove they can block his initial preference. That was the case again with his decision to erase Libby's prison sentence. Bush could not have doubted the uproar he would provoke from Democrats by protecting from prison a convicted felon who undoubtedly possessed the ability to embarrass (if not worse) the administration. Yet because his opponents could not stop him, Bush stood in the jailhouse door.
That example has the most relevance for the congressional debate about Iraq, which will resume next week with new Democratic challenges to Bush's policy. The Libby decision's clear implication is that unless opponents can make it politically unsustainable for Bush to maintain his current direction in Iraq, he's likely to resist anything beyond cosmetic change — no matter how much his support in Congress and the country erodes.
Breaking news reports indicate that GOP Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico has also joined the chorus of Republicans calling for a policy shift in Iraq. Let's hope the good senator reads the Brownstein piece. The president is digging in on Iraq. Bush's resolve is one of the most important elements working toward the success of the surge.