WASHINGTON – Normally, President Bush and the Republican majority in Congress set the agenda. Lately, they’re spending a lot of time trying to change the subject.
At the White House, that means appointing the new chairman of the Federal Reserve three months before the current one departs. It means opening the Capitol Rotunda for the casket of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, the first woman so honored.
“I’ve got a job to do,” Bush said 10 days ago after he was asked about the difficulties confronting him. “Part of my job is to work with others to fashion a world that’ll be peaceful for future generations. And I’ve got a job to do to make sure this economy continues to grow.”
As the White House anticipated, his problems soon multiplied amid the worst polls of his tenure in office.
Harriet Miers, battered by criticism from conservatives, withdrew as a Supreme Court nominee. Vice President Dick Cheney’s top aide was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in the CIA leak investigation; top presidential aide Karl Rove remained in legal limbo; the same probe shone an unwelcome spotlight on the vice president and his role in the push to war in Iraq.
Bush adhered to a schedule that scarcely took notice of the unfolding events.
Instead, he stood in the White House and named Ben S. Bernanke to succeed Alan Greenspan at the head of the Fed; traveled to Florida to review relief efforts after Hurricane Wilma; flew to Virginia to rally support for a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. troops; and looked ahead to a speech Monday detailing his plans for countering the threat of worldwide pandemics.
The president’s message as he boarded his helicopter Friday afternoon for a trip to Camp David was remarkably similar to the words uttered more than a week ago. “I’ve got a job to do, and so do the people who work in the White House,” he said. “We got a job to protect the American people, and that’s what we’ll continue working hard to do.”
Sixteen blocks away, congressional Republicans bob in the wake of Bush’s problems. To which they add their own.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., faces an insider trading investigation. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas is under state indictment for violating campaign finance laws. Both men deny any wrongdoing.
But DeLay’s case in particular is spreading concern among the rank and file, as evidenced by the open talk of early leadership elections next January and the decision of a few Republicans to return campaign donations they received from the Texan.
“In principle, we are all in this together,” Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., wrote fellow GOP senators recently, referring to the White House and GOP majorities in the House and Senate. “We are the party in governance.”
But, citing the latest survey by GOP pollster David Winston, Santorum wrote that Democrats hold a nine-point advantage over Republicans on government spending, “one of our historic advantages.”
“I encourage Congress to push the envelope when it comes to cutting spending,” Bush said as GOP leaders in Congress sought support for fresh restraints on programs such as Medicaid and student loan subsidies.
On another topic, Santorum said the public “believes overwhelmingly” that the recent large run-up in energy costs is the result of oil company price gouging, rather than rising demand and hurricane damage.
Concerned that the big oil companies were about to announce eye-catching profit increases, congressional Republicans tried to blunt any political damage pre-emptively.
The House leadership – which two weeks ago had twisted every last arm to pass energy legislation on a party-line vote – jawboned the oil industry.
“These companies need to invest in America’s energy infrastructure and resources. … The oil companies need to do their part,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, noting the increased prices paid by consumers.
Frist, a potential presidential contender in 2008, announced he had requested hearings and an inquiry into high prices. “And ultimately, if the facts warrant it, I will support a federal anti-price gouging law,” he said.
Some conservatives found the rhetoric unsettling.
The Republican leadership is “trying to salvage its flagging fortunes by making the energy industry its scapegoat,” said Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He said Hastert’s attempt to tell oil companies how to spend their money was “nothing less than central planning of our economy.”
Ironically, it was the death of Rosa Parks that offered Republicans a respite of sorts. Congress swiftly passed legislation allowing the use of the Capitol for a public viewing of her casket, an honor historically reserved for presidents, senators or war heroes, and only for men.
Bush arranged to fly back from Camp David to join congressional leaders at a wreath-laying ceremony.