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Bush's second term blues

With every unfolding crisis, President Bush is finding fewer allies in his corner. Republicans are ever more nervous about the Iraq war, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' problems, FBI abuses of the Patriot Act and the botched treatment of war wounded at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
Bush Fired Prosecutors
President Bush pauses while speaking in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 20, 2007.Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With every unfolding crisis, President Bush is finding fewer allies in his corner. Republicans are ever more nervous about the Iraq war, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' problems, FBI abuses of the Patriot Act and the botched treatment of war wounded at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

As Bush and congressional Democrats clashed on Tuesday over the Gonzales matter, even the Republicans still standing with the president on Iraq were having a hard time supporting him on domestic measures, reluctant to take stands that could be used against them politically. In fact, supporting the president on Iraq may be making it easier for them to oppose him on other measures unpopular with their constituents.

"I think Republicans are in a very awkward position of having to defend a number of indefensible acts," said GOP strategist Scott Reed. "It's causing them to move into the every-man-for-himself mode."

Support falls as elections near
These have not been good days for the administration. The Senate voted 94-2 on Tuesday to end Gonzales' authority to fill U.S. attorney vacancies without Senate confirmation. The House is to vote this week on a war spending bill that would effectively withdraw U.S. combat troops by fall 2008. Competing threats of presidential vetoes and congressional subpoenas fill the air.

More and more, there's less Bush can do to reward Republicans for backing him - or punish those who don't.

"Support for President Bush becomes less important the closer we get to the election," said Republican consultant Rich Galen. "I'm not sure he'll be totally irrelevant, but certainly there will be more time, attention and money spent on propping up and/or defending the emerging front-runner, and then the party nominee, than the outgoing president."

Gonzales has a constituency of one - Bush himself - and never built a base of support in the Senate. So now there are few lawmakers ready to ride to his rescue. Bush suggested it didn't matter and voiced strong backing on Tuesday for his longtime friend. "He's got support with me," the president said in a late-afternoon session with reporters at the White House.

The start of things to come?
The fact that Gonzales' role in last December's firing of eight U.S. attorneys has become such a political firestorm is evidence itself of Bush's waning influence, growing GOP unease and the eagerness of now-majority Democrats to flex their subpoena-issuing muscle. It's doubtful the affair would have gotten so much attention when Republicans controlled both chambers.

"This is just a taste of what it's going to be like for the next two years," said former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. He told NBC's "Today" show the White House "ought to be fighting back" harder.

Bush and congressional Democrats sparred after the Justice Department released more than 3,000 pages of internal e-mail in defense of the firings and the White House on Tuesday offered to make political strategist Karl Rove and former counsel Harriet Miers available for congressional interviews - but not testimony under oath.

Democratic leaders quickly rejected the offer and insisted testimony be on the record and under oath. That brought a warning from Bush to Congress to not "head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas." He said he was not about to "go along with a partisan fishing expedition."

Iraq factor
Even popular presidents go through the second-term blues as they see their influence and power begin to ebb. But Bush's woes are magnified by his own low approval ratings - at 35 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll this month and lower in several other national polls - and the unpopularity of the Iraq war.

Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College in New York, said the intense unpopularity of the war - which this week entered its fifth year - is making it harder for Bush to mobilize national majorities on other issues such as Gonzales, immigration overhaul and extending the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Republicans who are running for re-election don't want to be brought down by their association with this administration," Sherrill said.

The war, despite its unpopularity, "is a harder issue to defect on. Ideological Republican voters tend to still be supporters of the war," Sherrill added.

This latest new distraction for the White House comes on top of the Walter Reed scandal, revelations that the FBI improperly collected personal and financial records of Americans, and the perjury and obstruction conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff.

"Problems beget problems. Failures beget failures," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. He acknowledged that Democrats were capitalizing on opportunities as they arise to try to ratchet up pressure on the GOP administration and its congressional allies.

Part of this reflects a recognition that, rhetoric aside, Democrats lack the votes to block the president from pursuing the war until the end of his term, Mellman said. Bush announced in January that he was sending in 21,500 more troops, and has since increased the number to nearly 30,000, including support troops.

Though sometimes grumbling, Republicans for the most part have supported the troop buildup.

"There is only one way to do the right thing for our troops and for the safety and security of future generations of Americans, and that is to fully fund those fighting for victory ... with no strings attached," said House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio.

But that doesn't mean Republicans are happy about it.