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Bush's on-the-ropes strategy

How will Bush get out of this mess? The key, I think, is that he'll fight. By nature and circumstance, he has no choice. By Howard Fineman.

WASHINGTON – Harriet Miers is a good soldier, good friend, and good personal lawyer — and for all of those reasons she did President Bush a favor by taking the strong hints she was getting  (from inside and outside the White House) to to the Supreme Court.

George W. Bush needs a unified conservative base behind him as he girds for the battles that will ensue once Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald announces the results of his investigation. The more conservatives saw of Miers the less they liked — and the angrier they got at the president for choosing her. Now that she is gone, they can prepare to take on Fitzgerald, or so White House strategists hope.

This is just the beginning of Bush's fight for survival. The last time things looked this bleak politically for the president was in early 2000, the night he was blindsided by Sen. John McCain in the New Hampshire primary.

At that moment, Bush came this close to blowing the Republican nomination. But instead of falling apart (as I had seen many another candidacy do in New Hampshire under similar circumstances), Bush and his team found their focus,  unified their message and beat McCain later that spring by stealing his themes and savaging him personally -- especially among Christian conservatives who form the base of the party.

It was tough, disciplined and vicious stuff.

Now, nearly six years later, the president finds himself in another political crisis: his Supreme Court nominee was being laughed off the field; the conservative movement is showing signs of age; GOP candidates aren’t eager to appear with him on the campaign trail; the war in Iraq continues to cost lives and money; and top aides (and even his own vice president) are in the gunsights of a special prosecutor.

How will Bush get out of this mess? The key, I think, is that he'll fight. By nature and circumstance, he has no choice.

But he will have to be shrewd if he is to make the last three years of his second term anything more than a desperate holding action. Here’s what he’s already doing, and what I think he will try to do now. Whether any of this will work remains to be seen, but this is where he is headed:

Where you can, go Establishment
Bush’s pick to head the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, won plaudits from precincts Bush loathes: Ivy League faculties, the editorial page of the New York Times, and the Democratic Party. It was seen as a mature, consensus pick. Look for more of them, in and out of the cabinet. No more Michael Browns.

'I am Reagan, I am Churchill'
Speaking to military wives this week, the president issued an eloquent and urgent defense of his Bush Doctrine: the theory that we have to use force to “take the fight to the enemy,” which he more clearly than ever defined as “radical Islam.” The speech wasn’t so much a defense of the war in Iraq — though it was that — as it was an attempt to portray himself in the embattled mold of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, men who endured withering political fire at home for the sake of fighting totalitarianism in the world.

The message: come after me, take me down, and you cripple the fight for freedom. It’s audacious — Democrats will call it outrageous — but that’s the argument he essentially is making.

And the big-think, crusading speech had another purpose: to inspire the man who made it. The key audience for that speech, in a way, was the president himself. He was amping up for the fight.

Let Miers go
Bush’s instincts were telling him to fight for his embattled Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers. But the political calculus was telling him otherwise. At this moment he desperately needs a unified and outraged conservative movement behind him, ready to turn its fire on those who would regard the work of the special prosecutor as something close to the devil himself. They won’t do that wholeheartedly, or single-mindedly, so long as they remain angry with him for having nominated Miers. Now she's gone.

Take on the prosecutor
This is dangerous but Bush has no choice. The theme: Patrick Fitzgerald may be a smart guy, a choir boy even — son of a New York doorman, no less — but he nevertheless is an example of legalism run amok in lawyer-infested Washington. Javert-like characters (the dogged inspector in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables) are dangerously stiffnecked, Bush allies will say, and they miss the larger picture -- see the Reagan-Churchill strategy above.

Dance with the ones that brung ya
The president may well be forced to keep his distance from the likes of Karl Rove. But he is going to have to summon to his side the core and second rung of the team that has been with him from the beginning.

Rove — not I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby — is the essential character. If he can’t talk directly to him, he will have to do so through the likes of others Rove brought along over the years, including Ken Mehlman (now head of the Republican National Committee), political insider Mark Wallace and OMB Chief Joshua Bolten. Rove’s advice remains indispensable. He is the R2D2 to Bush’s Luke Skywalker.

Blame it on Libby (and, if necessary, the veep)
Libby was never quite Bush’s guy; he belongs to his patron, Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby can and will be cut loose. As for the veep, his avuncular involvement in the Valerie Plame Case makes him a target — a possibly convenient one for Bush. And should things get too hot, there is always the 25th Amendment, which would allow Bush to nominate someone else to the vice presidency (subject to the approval of a majority vote of the House and Senate) should Cheney stand down.

Admittedly, that's an unlikely scenario — and one that would call to mind not Reagan or Churchill, but a less inspiring historical figure, one Richard Milhous Nixon.