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Bush is a hard sell in the heartland



Published: Fri, October 20, 2006 @ 12:00 a.m.



INDIANAPOLIS -- As the crucial midterm elections approach, there is a political malaise among Midwestern Republicans brought on by a president who no longer has their confidence. It remains to be seen whether this will translate into the GOP's loss of control of Congress or, as White House political strategist Karl Rove predicts, merely a narrowing of the majority that is traditional for a president's party in his second term.

Rove may be sanguine, but Republican moderates and even some conservatives don't share his confidence that Republicans will lose only between eight and 10 seats in the House instead of the 15 needed for a shift to the Democrats. Those predictions are being met with open skepticism by longtime observers who believe it is another example of President Bush's denial of realities in Iraq and on the home front. Increasingly, they are concerned about the failures in Iraq and aggravated by what they see as a lack of honesty by the president and his advisers.

On the domestic side, they are reeling from an obvious lack of forthrightness by congressional leaders in dealing with scandal from Jack Abramoff to former Rep. Mark Foley, whose indiscretions are particularly galling to evangelicals who have been among the most loyal supporters of Bush and the Republicans. At least one prominent Baptist minister believes that many of his congregation will stay home from the polls as a show of protest. He said that if Rove thinks that the party is not being held responsible for the Foley mess, "he is dreaming."

"It is clear that congressional leaders knew early on that this person was violating the trust of the parents of pages who sent their youngsters for what they believed would be a wonderful educational experience. The leaders tried to smooth over the situation in the name of political expediency and now they don't want their party held responsible? You have to be kidding."

Lack of flexibility

But the real problem for Republicans is the president himself. There is an almost palpable weariness with his lack of flexibility and his refusal to admit mistakes. They are, as one veteran strategist put it, just plain tired of not only him but also those around him who, many believe, led him like a lamb into Iraq. High on their list of culprits is Vice President Cheney and a team of neo-conservatives in and out of the Pentagon, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. But rather than forgive him for their excesses, there is a perception that in the long run he has not been up to the job, and his reliance on Cheney et al. is more than a little indication of that.

That feeling has been exacerbated by the president's stubborn refusal to ease Rumsfeld out of the job and to take steps that would reveal his own anger at being misled. The situation is not unlike President Lyndon Johnson's refusal to remove Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and other architects of the failed Vietnam policy. He maintained until the bitter end that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" when there clearly wasn't. The consequence was a presidency not treated kindly by history despite a record of domestic achievement that includes great strides in civil rights.

There is nothing to say that Rove is incorrect in his assessment, that Republicans will retain their grip on both houses of Congress -- nothing, that is, except polls showing a general dismay over the majority's inability to temper the president's excesses in the war on terror and in foreign policy generally. This dissolution is obvious in example after example of the party's candidates shying from any connection to him or his policies. If those traditional signs have any validity, then Nov. 7 could be a very long day for GOP candidates.

Maybe the party's vaunted get-out-the-vote machinery can once again overwhelm all the liabilities. But it will have to be a massive effort to overcome the fact that a whole lot of folks are now saying they have had about enough of the Bushes. This isn't terribly unusual in the electronic age when two-term presidents become so overexposed that Americans ultimately find them tiring and flawed. A lot of voters out here believe Rove and the president are just whistling past the graveyard this time and that being in denial is almost a permanent state in this administration. We will see.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.




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