Video: Unlucky President

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updated 3/20/2006 12:37:52 PM ET 2006-03-20T17:37:52

The front page of the Washington Post on Friday might have had the president and his senior staff hoping for a little luck of the Irish, as bad polls for the president, his Republican Congress, and the Iraq war continue to weigh down their agenda. 

Tension has been growing among Republicans, and the failed Dubai ports deal brought it to a head.  Will the tension be worse by November? 

Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post and Chris Matthews took a hard look at the president‘s problems.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, 'HARDBALL': Jim, what is it that‘s causing the Republicans on Capitol Hill to dislike this president and his administration? 

JIM VANDEHEI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  I think it‘s a lot of pent-up frustration from the last five years.  Members felt, even in the good times, that the president and the White House never really listened to Congress, never took their concerns into consideration, and didn‘t provide them sort of that backup firepower when it came to casting tough votes like a No Child Left Behind and the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, both of which a lot of members now regret ever making even those votes.

So I think all of those combined with the politics of the moment have really created problems for Bush. 

MATTHEWS:  You mean, the Republicans on Capitol Hill who have constituencies at home think that the prescription drug bill has hurt them? 

VANDEHEI:  A lot of the them do.  I‘m surprised by how many members I‘m talking to that actually voted for both Medicare prescription drug and for the No Child Left Behind education law and regret it, wish—said if they could do it over again today they definitely would not vote for it. 

MATTHEWS:  What is it that the president can do?  Can he change policy and go for tougher immigration, begin to bring the troops home from Iraq?  Cut some of the spending by veto?  What are the things he could do to fix things up? 

VANDEHEI:  He doesn‘t have a lot of options.  I think one thing a lot of members are telling him is, listen, you know, hire some former members, bring them into the White House, maybe in the domestic policy shop or into the Congressional liaison office.  And have people who understand us, communicating with us, and then work on an agenda that we like, that helps us politically. 

And I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about immigration.  If he came out for just tougher immigration bill that didn‘t have some of the guest worker programs stuff that he supports, they feel like that could help them because that‘s really important to the base, particularly in those border states. 

MATTHEWS:  But hasn‘t the president done a couple of good things for Congress politically?  He has dumped his unsavory Social Security plan that nobody seems to want to buy, or eat, I should say.  He hasn‘t vetoed a single spending bill.  Hasn‘t he been accommodating to Congress on politics? 

VANDEHEI:  Oh, he certainly has, and I think a lot of this is just bellyaching because they‘re Video: Bush Strikes Back frustrated about their own political situation.  I mean, if you think about those members that are upset about voting for these bills, they voted for them.  I mean, they‘re big boys, they make these choices and they have to live with those decisions, and you can‘t really blame Bush.

But even if you talk about Social Security, yes, the president dropped it, but he brought it up and talked about it relentlessly for five months and members didn‘t want to talk about it, and they had sent that signal to him loud and clear, that they felt there isn‘t enough time to educate the electorate.  And if you look at those Congressional elections where older voters vote in high percentages, they just didn‘t want to get into that issue. 

MATTHEWS:  You know, when I was down in Memphis, watching this relatively—well, let‘s call them that—conservative Republicans down there, for the Republican Leadership Conference in the South, they were mad at the president for spending too much money. 

Now the Congress tried to spend every nickel it could and got away with it, so it sounds like the president is stuck between the base that doesn‘t want all this government spending, because it‘s not fiscally conservative at all, and the Republican members of Congress who like to spend money. 

VANDEHEI:  Yes.  I mean, this is one of the biggest sort of hypocritical areas you‘ll find in Washington where members talk about not wanting to spend money and then when they get a chance, they spend all they possibly can. 

The government is basically getting 25 percent or more larger now than when Bush took office and members, in this vote-a-rama they had yesterday, every opportunity they get they continue to push for more spending.  And you had Arlen Specter actually come out yesterday and say listen, we‘re now a moderate or liberal party if you look at how much money we‘re trying to spend. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, that will go over well out West.  Let me ask you about this idea of somebody coming in—this man on horseback as we used to say, arriving at the White House, male or female, eminence grise, coming in and fixing up things so that things work with a tightness and sharpness and a political sensitivity that has been lacking.  Who is this person? 

VANDEHEI:  I don‘t know.

MATTHEWS:  I mean, I can‘t think of anybody that would meet that standard.  In other words, somebody smarter than Karl Rove, more on the ball than Andy Card, just a sharper political individual.  Who is out there like that? 

VANDEHEI:  You know, one person that does comes to mind is the guy that heads the USTR, Rob Portman, former Congressman who‘s really popular with House Republicans and pretty smart politically and I think a lot members would like someone who understands them, like the port deal. 

They feel like if you had somebody who came from Congress, understood Congress, they would have known right away that this just wasn‘t going to fly and that you had to have some kind of input, at least early on, you don‘t come out and make a veto threat after you‘ve had the leader of the Senate, the leader of the House from your own party say that they want to fight this deal and then come out and say you‘re going to veto it. 

I think they just want anybody in there that understands them.  The problem you‘re going to have is that this is such a tight circle.  I don‘t care who you put in there, it‘s still going to be a tight circle, it‘s still going to be a White House run by Bush, Cheney, Rove, Andy Card, Dan Bartlett and just a few others, so you might be able to bring in new blood.  I don‘t know how that changes things all that dramatically. 

MATTHEWS:  Thanks a lot for that report.  Jim VandeHei, of “The Washington Post.”

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