WASHINGTON – With a new Supreme Court ruling that reins in the wartime powers President Bush has asserted since the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House may have a new issue for mustering support among the Republican base: the handling of hundreds of detainees imprisoned in the war on terror.
With immigration reform that Bush spotlighted in a nationally televised address mired in Congress, the president and congressional Republicans, worried about their party’s election prospects this year, have already turned to symbolic votes on marriage and the American flag.
The Bush administration maintains that the president, who finished his first term with a broad array of accomplishments – from tax cuts to education reform to a Medicare drug program – is committed to pursuing an ambitious second-term agenda. And aides say Bush is sincere about winning immigration reform, though he has retreated in the face of daunting opposition from members of his own party.
And now the challenge from the Supreme Court could overwhelm any other substantive issues facing Congress this year. With the court denying the president unrestricted authority to try Guantanamo Bay detainees before military commissions, a new debate could rally conservatives, even if nothing ultimately passes.
“What a time to do any legislative remedy,” said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “They don’t have the time; they don’t have the agenda space. And are the Republicans going to do this at the same time they are trying to do the immigration bill? It’s going to be, by any standard, a bitter and divisive debate.”
Still, the cause of trying terrorists could inspire conservative voters, Ornstein suggested.
“They may like to take it on, because they’ve got a losing hand on domestic issues and they want to talk about national security – ‘The president wants to take on the evil people,’ ” Ornstein said. “They might decide that this issue fits along those lines.”
Bush, who turns 60 on Thursday, could hardly be in better shape physically. But politically, the president is creeping back slowly from an all-term low in public esteem reached earlier this year. Public approval for his overall performance reached a low of 31 percent in the Gallup Poll in early May.
The latest Gallup survey, June 23-25, placed Bush’s job-approval at 37 percent. The Los Angeles Times has gauged a stronger rebound: 41 percent.
Yet the president’s party is heading into midterm elections with voters voicing more support for the Democratic Party in many surveys. If the Democrats retake either chamber, that could instantly end any chance of enacting the rest of his agenda.
Bush is “a pivotal figure” in this midterm election, Pew reports, with 38 percent of those surveyed calling their congressional vote this fall a vote against Bush. “That’s pretty dramatic,” said Andrew Kohut, Pew Research Center president. “This is what’s behind the very big lead that the Democrats have.”
There is, however, “solid” public support for the president’s immigration reforms, Pew has found, with 56 percent supporting increasing border protection and a means for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States to become citizens. The opposition comes mostly from within Bush’s own party.
But there is less support for some of the initiatives that Republicans have recently promoted in Congress, including constitutional amendments to ban gay marriage and flag burning.
Opposition to the Iraq war is largely responsible for Bush’s poor ratings, experts agree. The president has attempted to confront this directly, citing the importance of maintaining the mission in Iraq.