Snub­bing the com­man­der in chief

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - Robert No­vak

When Pres­i­dent Bush in his State of the Union ad­dress on Jan. 23 called for a bi­par­ti­san “spe­cial ad­vi­sory coun­cil” of con­gres­sional lead­ers on the war against ter­ror­ism, he had in his pocket a rude re­jec­tion from Demo­cratic lead­ers. Thank you very much, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Harry Reid, but no thank you.

Three days ear­lier, Mr. Reid and Mrs. Pelosi wrote a let­ter to the pres­i­dent, turn­ing down his of­fer (con­tained in his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq) to es­tab­lish a coun­cil con­sist­ing of Demo­cratic chair­men and Repub­li­can rank­ing mem­bers of the rel­e­vant com­mit­tees. “We be­lieve that Congress al­ready has bi­par­ti­san struc­tures in place,” they said, adding: “We look for­ward to work­ing with you within ex­ist­ing struc­tures.”

That could be the most overt snub of a pres­i­den­tial over­ture since Abra­ham Lin­coln was told that Gen. Ge­orge B. McClel­lan had re­tired for the night and could not see the pres­i­dent. Cour­tesy aside, it shows that the self­con­fi­dent Demo­cratic lead­er­ship is un­in­ter­ested in be­ing cut into po­ten­tially dis­as­trous out­comes in Iraq. It wants to func­tion as a co­or­di­nate branch of gov­ern­ment, not as friendly col­leagues in the spirit of bi­par­ti­san­ship. Mrs. Pelosi and sev­eral Demo­cratic chair­men left for Iraq on Jan. 26.

In his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq, Mr. Bush called for a “new, bi­par­ti­san work­ing group that will help us come to­gether across party lines to win the war on ter­ror.” That prompted the Pelosi-Reid let­ter of Jan. 19, re­ject­ing the of­fer.

Mr. Bush made a mis­take on Jan. 10 in at­tribut­ing the idea to Sen. Joe Lieber­man, who as the Se­nate’s only self-iden­ti­fied “In­de­pen­dent Demo­crat” is es­tranged from his col­leagues who are un­mod­i­fied Democrats. Th­ese for­mer com­rades are not charmed by the prospect of Lieber­man pon­tif­i­cat­ing as a mem­ber of the “work­ing group” by virtue of be­ing chair­man of the Se­nate Home­land Se­cu­rity Com­mit­tee.

But Mr. Lieber­man was not the rea­son for the speaker and ma­jor­ity leader’s re­buff. The Demo­cratic lead­er­ship is be­yond con­sul­ta­tion on Iraq, as demon­strated by the se­lec­tion of Sen. Jim Webb to de­liver the party’s re­sponse to the pres­i­dent on Jan. 23. Mr. Webb, whose un­ex­pected elec­tion from Vir­ginia last year gave Democrats a Se­nate ma­jor­ity, is a hard-edged critic of the war not in­ter­ested in bi­par­ti­san­ship. Dis­card­ing staffwrit­ten talk­ing points, pro­fes­sional writer Mr. Webb de­clared: “The pres­i­dent took us into this war reck­lessly.”

Mr. Webb’s as­trin­gent com­ments con­trasted sharply with Mr. Bush’s tone, which in­di­cated he still has not shed il­lu­sions that he car­ried from Austin to Wash­ing­ton in 2001. Con­gres­sional Democrats are noth­ing like the tame Democrats in the Texas Leg­is­la­ture with whom Bush dealt as gov­er­nor. On Jan. 23, Mr. Bush ig- nored the is­sues dear to the con­ser­va­tive base such as em­bry­onic stem cell re­search, abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage. De­liv­er­ing his State of the Union on the day af­ter the an­nual March for Life on the an­niver­sary of Roe v. Wade, Mr. Bush did not see fit to men­tion the abor­tion is­sue im­por­tant to so many of his sup­port­ers.

In­stead, the pres­i­dent talked about goals, though not meth­ods, dear to Demo­cratic hearts: ex­panded health in­sur­ance, en­ergy in­de­pen­dence and fed­eral aid to lo­cal ed­u­ca­tion. Mr. Bush was rem­i­nis­cent of Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton in sprin­kling his speech with small pro­pos­als that might be pop­u­lar. Yet, Democrats im­me­di­ately in­di­cated all such Bush plans have no chance of pas­sage.

Rep. Pete Stark, chair­man of the rel­e­vant Ways and Means sub­com­mit­tee, im­me­di­ately de­clared that Mr. Bush’s se­ri­ous ef­fort to im­prove health in­sur­ance cov­er­age was dead on ar­rival, with­out the ben­e­fit of hear­ings. Mr. Stark has been no­to­ri­ously can­tan­ker­ous, whether in the ma­jor­ity or mi­nor­ity, dur­ing 17 terms in the House. But his at­ti­tude dom­i­nates to­day’s Demo­cratic side of the aisle.

On both sides the pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude is that Mr. Bush looks like a pres­i­dent at bay. State­ments made to me last week by two prom­i­nent po­lit­i­cal fig­ures, one from each party, were so can­did that th­ese sources did not want to be quoted by name.

The Repub­li­can, a rank­ing House com­mit­tee mem­ber, said: “The pres­i­dent and his aides are ir­rel­e­vant and out of touch, re­moved from re­al­iz­ing what hap­pened in the [2006] elec­tion.” A Demo­cratic state party leader said that Mr. “Bush is in such bad shape that the re­sult of the 2008 elec­tion is al­ready de­cided.” In that at­mos­phere, pleas for con­sul­ta­tion go nowhere.

Robert No­vak is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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