Trouble in the Bush leagues

Normally, you have to take a 2 by 4 and smack a Republican up against the side of his or her head to get their attention. Looks like some folks have been to the lumber yard.

After too many months of ignoring the rights-trampling antics of Attorney General John Ashcroft, the chief storm trooper in the kingdom of King George of Bush, Republicans are starting to take off their blinders and say “hold on a minute here.”

Even out in Idaho, where conservatism challenges potatos as the state’s main crop, worried Republicans say their leaders may be out of control back in Washington.

“Ashcroft wants more power,” state Rep. Charles Eberle (R-Post Falls), told reporters recently. “What a lot of us in Idaho are saying is, ‘Let’s not get rid of the checks and balances.’ . . . People out here in the West are used to taking care of themselves. We don’t like the government intruding on our constitutional rights.”

Eberle drafted a resolution calling Ashcroft’s USA Patriot Act dangerous and a threat to the constitution. Usually, when someone dares speak out against Ashcroft’s excesses, the rabid right screams that it is all a leftie commie plot.

But Erberle ain’t a leftie or a commie. His conservative credentials go back a long way, as does those of Idaho Senator Larry Craig, another Republican who thinks all is not well in the Bushes. Craig says Congress needs to take a new look at the Patriot Act and think seriously about scaling back on Ashcroft’s power grab.

More than 150 city, county and state governments have passed resolutions condemning the USA Patriot Act. At least 45 percent of those resultions were passed by governing bodies controlled by Republicans.

But Ashcroft’s excesses aren’t the only problems facing Bush and company.

Congress just got back to town from its month-long August recess and those who spent that time back home got an earful from a public that is increasingly doubtful that the Administration is leading the country down a path of truth, justice and the American way. A lot of the doubt comes from the faltering effort in Iraq.

“There’s a real deep concern now,” says Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-SC). “People are wondering how much this will cost in money and lives and how are we gonna get out of there? I had one teacher say, ‘We’ve got a tar baby on our hands.’ ”

Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois is also worried.

“There’s a sense of drift,” he says.

Down at 1600 Penn, the Bush Brigade faces increasing skepticism not only from Democrats but from Republicans who chair the committees that control the money for wars against Iraq and terrorism. Sen. John Warner, chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee has started to question administration decisions and is demanding more accountability.

What worries both Republicans and Democrats most is the rapidly-eroding public support.

“There’s been an amazing turnaround” says Rep. Shelley Berkley of Las Vegas. “There was tremendous support for military action. Now a lot of people are questioning: Are we stuck there? Is it going to be another Vietnam? Once we passed the threshold, where more people were killed after we declared victory than before, people began to keep a body count.”

However, Iraq isn’t the only thing that worries Americans. Economic woes and high unemployment ranked up there as well.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, says he heard a lot of linkage between the economy and Iraq. Americans, he says, are “very tentative and unsure.”

“The administration is likely to face a lot of tough questions this fall,” Hagel says.

Sounds like some Republicans are pulling wood splinters out of their heads lately.

But keep those 2 by 4s handy. Unlike their elephant symbol, Republicans have short memories. They may need another whack up the side of the head to remind them their first duty is to the country, not their party.