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The abandonment of George W. Bush

While it is not unprecedented for a president to be ostracized by Congress, abandoned by even most of his own party's members, it's still pretty rare.    By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

While it is not unprecedented for a president to be ostracized by Congress, abandoned by even most of his own party's members, it's still pretty rare.

It was a delegation of congressional Republicans who convinced Richard Nixon that his days were numbered and that it was time to step down.

Certainly Gerald Ford was not in a comparable situation after his pardon of Nixon, but many Republicans on Capitol Hill were still dismayed by the move, although Ford's decision to grant clemency to Nixon has been vindicated by history, and he was given his due at his recent funeral services.

Jimmy Carter's relationship with Congress, and even with his own party members, was uneven at best and often frosty.

Ronald Reagan never had such a moment, even during the Iran-Contra affair, though his successor, George H.W. Bush, incurred the wrath of more than a few conservatives as a result of his decision to go along with a tax increase after closed-door negotiating sessions with Democrats at Andrews Air Force Base.

And certainly during the Monica Lewinsky affair, Bill Clinton was given up for dead among some Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Much can happen between now and a vote on George W. Bush's proposal to increase troop levels in Iraq. Congressional Republicans might come up with competing resolutions that express some broad support for the president's plan without explicitly endorsing higher troop levels, or perhaps a resolution opposing any move by Congress that might not reflect support for the troops, or something to that effect.

But there is a very distinct possibility that the president might find himself on the wrong end of a resolution opposing any additional troops, with as much as a majority of his own party's lawmakers expressing opposition to his plan.

It is not far-fetched to see upwards of 60 or 65 senators and 250 House members voting for such a resolution. Under such a scenario, Bush would suffer a stunning repudiation on what has become his signature policy and, for better or worse, the legacy for his presidency.

A significant defeat on this issue would codify the president's loss in public standing and the willingness of Republicans to part company with him, even on the issue most closely identified with Bush. And having defied the president on Iraq, it will not be hard to do it again on other issues less closely identified with him. It's not hard to see a cascading effect take hold.

Two consecutive elections -- 2002 and 2004 -- of Republican gains in both the House and Senate had caused some GOP members to think of themselves as almost bulletproof. With a perception that they didn't need to look over their shoulders at their districts on tough votes, last fall's loss of six Senate seats and 30 House seats, and the majorities they supported, changed all of that.

Now, the unrelenting bad news from Iraq has left the president in less-than-stellar standing with many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Add to that the feeling among many Republicans that had Bush dumped Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld before the election, they would have been able to hold on to the majority -- albeit diminished by scandals -- and the commander-in-chief is left in low regard within the GOP cloakrooms.

The 2006 election will cause many Republicans to strongly consider how they will vote on an Iraq resolution. Even among Republicans who won their contests, many who previously never had a competitive race found themselves in very close races. For example, in the House of Representatives, only 34 incumbents (19 Republicans), received 55 percent of the vote or less in the 2004 elections. But in this last election, 76 incumbents (41 Republicans) received 55 percent or less.

Of course, not all of these seats will be competitive in 2008, but with more incumbents winning with closer margins, they will be more aware of how this vote will affect their political futures.

Simply put, we might be entering into a two-year period in which only the president's veto pen keeps him relevant on domestic issues, and his foreign policy effectively begins and ends with Iraq.

Many months ago, this column asked if the American people were about to hit the mute button on Bush, or if they had simply stopped listening to him entirely. My hunch is that we have reached that point and that most Republican members of Congress realize it, and their own survival instincts will be the more dominant factor in their voting behavior, rather than fealty to their party leader.

With 21 Republican senators up for re-election in 2008, compared with 12 for the Democrats, and with far more GOP House members winning by narrow margins or greatly diminished margins in 2006, there will be a far greater likelihood that they will see the president's new "in for a penny, in for a pound" Iraq strategy as an individual risk for them and a collective risk for their party that is simply not worth taking.