Democratic congressional leaders, who hope to seize control of the Senate and House of Representatives in November elections from Bush's fellow Republicans, are using the political frenzy surrounding the president's support for an Arab company taking over some U.S. port operations as a metaphor for broader deficiencies.
"Forget the compassionate conservative," said Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, in a reference to Bush's 2000 campaign slogan. "Some of us would settle for just a competent conservative at this point."
From the conduct of the Iraq war to the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, to warrantless eavesdropping, the chaotic rollout of a new prescription drug benefit for seniors and the handling of the ports deal, Democrats believe Americans are seeing Bush differently and cite the lowest job performance ratings of his presidency as evidence.
"They're saying he's really not up to the job in terms of capability," said Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York. "There's no chief operating officer in the White House. There's not anyone there making sure the government works day to day and they're finally learning that it catches up."
Schumer accused Republicans in Congress of simply rubber-stamping Bush's failures. "It's been utterly amazing to us that an administration that we've seen has been incompetent for so long got away with it," he said.
Other Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid of Nevada have also tried out the incompetence tag. Kerry called the port situation a "case study in the administration's incompetence."
Bush's backing of the Dubai Ports World deal to assume management of six U.S. ports played into Americans' fear of terrorism after the September 11 attacks and left the president and his Republican allies vulnerable on their strongest political issue -- national security.
Democrats were gleeful at the spectacle of congressional Republicans turning on Bush and looking for political cover on a deal that was overwhelmingly opposed by the American public.
"The inclination of the Republican Congress when the president says jump is to say how high," Schumer said. "There is never a scintilla of opposition, that's what was so surprising ... but this one was so big and so deep that even they couldn't go along."
The White House rejected the notion that the Bush administration was short on accomplishments or that Republicans were abandoning the president.
"I think that there's a tendency in this town to try to selectively pick snapshots when the broader reality is that we have a record of results and that we're getting things done for the American people," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
He cited a strong economy, a determined war on terror, renewal of the Patriot Act and an innovative energy plan to wean Americans off foreign oil.
"We are a party that is moving forward on a record of accomplishment, a record of results," McClellan said.
The Republican National Committee fought back with a new Web ad entitled "Find the Leader," featuring clips from Reid and Kerry as well as other Democrats, including Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Joseph Biden of Delaware and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
"So who is the leader of the Democrat Party?" the spot asks. "No one seems to know."
With Dubai Ports World's pledge to transfer operation of U.S. terminals to an American entity, the White House hopes the controversy is dead. But even some Republicans think it has a shelf life.
"A lot can happen between now and November," said a congressional Republican leadership aide, "but I won't be surprised that on the issue of security a lot of Republicans run on their opposition to the port deal."
© Reuters 2006.
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