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Agent Jack Bauer in the White House

If you want to get ratings with the action drama that is the American presidency, you need a compelling plot and a hero with a stirring image. By Howard Fineman.
The commander-in-chief on the global battlements.
The commander-in-chief on the global battlements.Jim Young / Reuters, Hector Mata

WASHINGTON - If you want to get ratings with the action drama that is the American presidency, you need a compelling plot and a hero with a stirring image.

Since 9/11, George W. Bush has topped the charts with GWOT (bureaucratese for the “global war on terror’), in which producer-director Karl Rove features his leading man as commander-in-chief on the global battlements. It's a mix of Ike at Normandy, Ronald Reagan in Berlin and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun.”

But ratings for “Bush, the War President” have collapsed (something to do with the loss of blood and treasure in Iraq). And Americans don’t like overseas stories in any case.

Politically, the war in Iraq is a loser; Bush has said as much. So for the new season — the fall congressional elections and beyond — there will be a new shooting script and a reshaped presidential character.

I saw the rushes the other day, when the Republican National Committee released the text of a radio ad and Bush held a hastily-called press conference. The revamped story line is WATITH (the “war against terrorists inside the homeland”) and it will feature Bush not as Top Gun, but as Top Gumshoe: a mix of Eliot Ness, J. Edgar Hoover and Agent Jack Bauer.

And Bush/Bauer’s enemies will be different: not just the terrorists themselves, but also wussie lovers of legalistic niceties that get in the way of investigations, and MSM news organizations that focus obsessively on explosions and mayhem in Iraq, even as they print or broadcast classified information and ask nasty, argumentative questions at hastily-called press conferences.

It takes some chutzpah to do this rewrite, given the latest run of stories about the pre-9/11 terrorism signals that were missed by the then-new Bush Administration. But the White House's strategic bet -- and it's a pretty good one -- is that Bush has a better chance of playing Tough Cop than any prominent figure in the Democratic Party, in or out of Congress.

All of this is supposed to reassure Republican congressional candidates who are worried about the concrete blocks now fastened to their ankles in the form of the president’s job-approval and national right direction/wrong track numbers.

The rewritten role has another potential advantage: leveling the playing field of the Republican presidential race in 2008, and giving the next GOP standard bearer something to run on other than Iraq.

If Bush/Rove define the office as a military command, there is only one logical successor available in 2008: Sen. John McCain. And while relations are cordial these days between the White House and the senator, they’re not running the place for his benefit.

It’s no accident that the release of the RNC radio spot and the convening of the Bush press conference were simultaneous. The political  message of both was the same: that the Democrats are weak in the WATITH because they balked at renewing the PATRIOT Act and raised questions about the National Security Administration’s practice, on the president’s secret order, of eavesdropping on some calls and emails without a warrant. In the meantime, says the ad, “President Bush is working to keep American families safe.”

Matching the ad, and expanding on its themes, the president took a question about Sen. Russ Feingold’s censure proposal and — from Rove’s point of view — hit it out of the park. For a man who doesn’t always pay close attention to the details, the president was quite up to speed on what the Democrats had done, or not done, said or not said, on the topic of domestic surveillance of terror suspects. “I did notice that nobody from the Democratic Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program,” Bush said.

His legislative analysis didn’t end there. “I did notice that, you know, at one point in time, they didn’t think the Patriot Act ought to be reauthorized,” he said, carefully qualifying that sweeping statement by saying he was referring to something he had been told Democratic Sen. Harry Reid had said. (Reid supported the bill in the end, but that doesn’t matter in the world of  attack ads….)

As for the media, they were called to the presser not only to ask questions, but to serve as an audience before which Bush/Bauer could muse aloud about the way images from Iraq undercut morale at home. “I’m certainly not being – please don’t take this as criticism. But it also is a realistic assessment of the enemy’s capability to affect the debate, and they know that,” he said. “They’re capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.”

Who’s “TV show” is it anyway? That’s what the new season will be all about.