Can Bush forget the past and play nice?

President Bush was left weakened and more isolated than at any time in his presidency by Tuesday’s Democratic thumping of Republicans. He offered Democrats gestures of reconciliation — and capitulated to demands for Donald H. Rumsfeld’s removal — but history suggests his last two years will be filled with more confrontation and challenges.

Except for rare instances, Bush has ignored Democrats in Congress during his first six years in the White House and has relied on Republican might to ram through legislation. Although he came to Washington promising to be a uniter rather than a divider, the partisan bitterness and acrimony only got worse.

Suddenly, that’s supposed to change on a dime. Bush is supposed to forget that Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, called him dangerous, incompetent and an emperor with no clothes. Democrats are supposed to forget that a combative Bush said “terrorists win and America loses” if the Democrats won on Tuesday.

Bush invited Pelosi to a makeup luncheon Thursday. “She’s not going to abandon her principles and I’m not going to abandon mine,” the president said. “But I do believe we have an opportunity to find some common ground to move forward on.”

The president’s turnabout was dictated by Washington’s seismic shake-up of power. Democrats suddenly hold the whiphand in Congress, controlling both the House and the Senate for the first time in 12 years.

Demanding a voice in setting the nation’s agenda, Democrats want to move ahead with proposals Bush has resisted: raising the minimum wage, cutting student loan interest rates, funding stem cell research and authorizing the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices for Medicare patients, to name just a few.

If Bush isn’t willing to compromise, he’ll have to pull out his veto pen — used only once in his presidency because a friendly Republican Congress sent him bills they knew he would sign.

Bush signaled his readiness to consider some of the Democrats’ ideas, such as minimum wage, and to seek compromise on his own agenda, such as renewing the No Child Left Behind education law. But he also said he wanted to move ahead with strengthening presidential powers, an area where Democrats think Bush already has stretched too far.

The president suggested that an overhaul of immigration laws — blocked so far by House Republicans seeking a tougher bill — stands a better chance in a Democratic Congress. Alternative energy sources also may provide grounds for compromise.

However, Republican strategists who have worked with the White House doubt there will be much progress.

“You’ll have a bare minimum of legislation,” said Ed Rogers, who worked in the White House under Bush’s father. “You’ll have aggressive — bordering on hostile — oversight. The Democrats — they’re not going to be able to do much legislatively that he’s going to sign.”

“He probably won’t get much on entitlement reform (Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) if one house is Democratic,” said Charles Black, another Republican consultant with ties to the White House. Ron Kaufman, a GOP strategist who worked in the first Bush White House, predicted “an ugly couple of years with not a ton being accomplished.”

Bush hardly wore his election disappointment on his sleeve. “Why all the glum faces,” he beamed at a post-mortem news conference. He smiled and joked with reporters. It was if announcing Rumsfeld’s resignation after six stormy years and declaring himself open to new thinking on Iraq was a relief for the embattled commander in chief.

Bush had little to cheer about from his campaign travels. Of the 58 candidates he campaigned for, either by raising money or doing rallies in the race’s closing days, 29 lost and 22 won. Seven others were in races so tight that the results were not yet known.

A solid majority of voters said in exit polling that the United States should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq. Bush drew bright lines limiting how far he would go toward compromise with Democrats on the war.

“If the goal is success,” the president said, “then we can work together. If the goal is get out now regardless, then that’s going to be hard to work together.” He repeated his vow that “we’re not going to leave before the job is done.”

For their part, the Democratic leaders buried calls from some of their colleagues for Bush’s impeachment. “It will not happen. It’s off the table,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, leader of the Democrats’ successful election strategy. “The American people elected us to be the party of reform.” The impeachment strategy blew up against Republicans when they tried it against Bill Clinton in 1998.

Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied Bush’s political career, said he doubts the president has the patience and accommodation to work with Democrats. He predicted Americans would see gridlock, finger-pointing and a focus on the 2008 presidential race.

“He has governed with what in the military they call a forward lean,” Jillson said. “He’ll have to cure himself of that. He’ll actually have to sit down at the table and listen to people who he doesn’t agree with.

“I’m not sure this bipartisan cooperation is going to prevail,” he said. “I’m relatively sure that it’s not.”


Terence Hunt has covered the White House for The Associated Press since the Reagan presidency.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press