By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/27/2005 2:01:55 PM ET 2005-04-27T18:01:55

You’ve got to hand it to the PR geniuses at the White House. There’s nothing like back-to-back Texas photo ops with Crown Prince Abdullah and Rep. Tom DeLay to give Americans a visceral sense that the Boss is on top of the gas-price situation and desperate to save working folks cash at the pump.

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Just kidding, of course.

Actually, it’s hard to imagine two political events LESS likely to win the president points. George Bush held hands and pecked cheeks with Abdullah in traditional desert fashion – but the prince gave him the back of his hand on the issue of the moment: oil supply and prices, which the Saudis essentially control. Then the president welcomed the embattled DeLay into his photo space in Galveston. That was no energy-issue coup, either. Until lobbyist Jack Abramoff came into the picture, DeLay’s best-known corporate ties were to corporate titans such as Kenneth Lay of Enron in his home town of Houston.

That Midas touch?
Across a range of issues, and in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the Bush Administration seems to have lost its touch. Is it losing momentum in a serious and permanent way?

Yes, Bush has been down politically before, and recovered smartly. He’s a fighter, and has the ability to ignore the gloom and doom around him. Yes, the Democrats don’t have much of an answer to him other than to shout “no” on a host of issues. Still, despite Republican control of virtually every lever of power in Washington – in a way because of that very fact – Bush finds himself playing defense.

Consider:

  • After months of sales trips, the president's Social Security proposal officially has hit Congress, where it is being greeted about as warmly as, say, the Saudi prince.
  • John Bolton’s nomination to become U.N. ambassador isn’t dead, and Karl Rove insists that Battlin’ Bolton will be confirmed. But the Senate committee is going to interview a whole bunch of folks who don’t like the guy.
  • Senate GOP Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has no choice but to press ahead with a vote to try to end the use of filibusters on judicial nominees. His chief vote counter, the shrewd Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, insists that they have the votes to change the rule – and give the president the conservatives he wants. But if McConnell really was sure he had the votes, he wouldn’t be out there declaring victory in advance.
  • Bush’s House allies have been forced to backpedal on DeLay, and allow a new ethics investigation of the majority leader to go forward under rules the Democrats prefer.
  • As for oil prices, the House passed  a version of an energy bill with billions of dollars of tax incentives that Bush decries as wasteful, but the presence of which might give Democrats an excuse to try to block any new legislation at all.
  • In Iraq – remember Iraq? – the post-election euphoria of purple-inked fingers has faded, and the deadly forces of terror are reasserting themselves.

So, what happened?
Some of the erosion was inevitable. America remains two political realities locked in one country. It’s clear with a few months distance that, while Bush’s re-election victory was historic in some ways, it was underwhelming in others, based in good measure on the voters’ reluctance to boot out an incumbent in wartime. Having somewhat grudgingly rehired him, the American people don’t want to think about him a whole lot – and out of sight is not a good place for a president to be if he wants to dominate politics.

But there are other factors at work. One of them is the set of decisions he’s made on where to spend his political capital. In Austin in 1999, he told me and my NEWSWEEK colleagues over lunch one day that he had learned from his father’s experience: if you accumulate “political capital” –as his dad did as Liberator of Kuwait in 1991 – you have to “spend it” on bold action.

Well, this Bush chose Social Security – a brave, fundamental and far-sighted choice in many ways. Maybe Karl Rove is right that sweeping reform is the route to a permanent majority of a GOP-led “ownership society” of shareholders. But, in the short run, Bush’s Social Security crusade has bought him nothing but trouble, and diverted his attention from other problems.

To this Monday morning quarterback, it’s obvious that energy would have been a better play – and a bold, sweeping plan to cut American dependence on foreign oil is the kind of Nixon-goes-to-China move that Bush could have pulled off.

Bush’s other problem is his Blue-Red approach to politics. The Dems are only too happy these days to embrace it, willingly locked in a sense of victimhood and minority status. The Dems self-isolation would work for Bush – but only if he could keep all of his Republican colleagues in line. But he can’t. Bush remains very popular among Republican voters – Reagan-like in that respect – but GOP members of Congress grow less worried by the day about crossing him. They have their own reelections to worry about – and they are worried.

One other factor. Privately, many members of Congress think the White House has long acted in an imperious and dismissive way towards them. They like to be stroked, and the president has limited patience for that kind of thing. Like most CEOs, he prefers to give orders to loyal subordinates in a clear chain of command. He distrusts independent power, even in his own party.

This doesn’t sit well in Congress. Lots of Republican senators resent the White House. In the House, the Stockholm Syndrome applies – they’re more likely to love their captors – but you still can hear some grumbling, and not just from Chris Shays.

It may be payback time inside the Republican Party. And that’s not good news for the president.

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