Bush’s arguments fall on deaf Republican ears


    Beginning the sixth year of his administration, President Bush is
    finding it harder and harder to rally support from within his own party
    for major initiatives.

    When he goes to Capitol Hill to deliver
    his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, Bush will recite the
    usual litany of new proposals and pledges.

    But with Social
    Security restructuring and many other ideas from his speech a year ago
    still bogged down, a raft of new programs may be the last thing the GOP
    troops want to hear.

    Getting Republicans to leap to their feet in
    bursts of applause will not be enough this time. Bush also will have to
    keep Republicans from walking away from his agenda afterward.

    Edgy
    about a burgeoning ethics scandal and other setbacks, Republicans are
    focusing on midterm elections in November that could return control of
    Congress to Democrats.

    Republican budget hawks are troubled by a
    deficit that has increased in each of Bush’s five years. Social
    conservatives dislike his immigration proposals.

    Some Republicans
    are joining Democrats in questioning his use of the National Security
    Agency for spying, as part of the terrorism fight, within the United
    States.

    “Running away from the president makes the situation worse,” said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster and strategist.

    “In
    a nonpresidential year, many independents don’t vote. And when you have
    both parties basically at parity, it’s a matter of intensity on who
    comes out on top in those elections,” he said.

    “From the
    Republican standpoint, we need the president to continue using the
    bully pulpit _ in terms of defining the economy, defining the war,
    defining the war on terrorism,” Goeas said. “As opposed to that vacuum
    that was created last year where the Democrats defined the war and oil
    prices defined the economy.”

    There no doubt will be a lot of
    “bully pulpit” assertions and soaring rhetoric in the president’s
    speech. After all, Bush’s eye increasingly is on his legacy.

    Bush
    and his top aides are working to turn controversy over the NSA’s
    warrantless electronic eavesdropping into a campaign asset for
    Republicans _ and a liability for Democrats _ by portraying it as part
    of Bush’s efforts to protect the country against terrorists.

    “The program is legal,” Bush told reporters Thursday. “And it’s necessary.”

    It
    worked in the 2002 midterm and 2004 presidential elections, portraying
    Bush as stronger on fighting terrorism than Democrats. GOP strategists
    hope it will again as well.

    Previewing his speech, Bush said he
    will talk about the recovering economy, the need for fiscal discipline
    and health care. Polls show that the rising cost of health care is a
    chief concern among the public.

    Bush’s expected proposals include
    expanding existing health savings accounts and additional tax breaks to
    help people without employer-provided insurance coverage buy their own.

    But
    the president must overcome the rocky start to his Medicare
    prescription drug program, where tens of thousands of older people and
    the disabled have been unable to get medicines promised by the
    government.

    “Clearly members of Congress’ eyes are on the 2006
    elections, and getting there with the least difficulty possible. But
    that’s not necessarily what’s on the top of Bush’s radar screen, at
    least for the speech,” said Sarah Binder, a political scientist at
    George Washington University.

    “My sense of the president in his
    approaches to Congress in his State of the Union addresses is that he
    doesn’t ever seem to be worried about the ‘state of Congress,’ or the
    ‘state of his party’ in Congress,” Binder said.

    Republicans have
    been buoyed by the expected Senate confirmation of conservative jurist
    Samuel Alito for the Supreme Court. And, as a party, they still retain
    a high degree of loyalty to the president. Clearly, however, there
    appears to be a growing discomfort level as elections approach.

    The
    war in Iraq remains a continuing concern. Also, Republicans are
    battered daily by Democrats accusing them of mismanagement and
    wallowing in a “culture of corruption.”

    Wayne Fields, a professor
    at Washington University in St. Louis who specializes on presidential
    rhetoric, said Bush is most effective as a public speaker in major
    addresses “when he’s got a speech that’s clearly written out and
    practiced.”

    Even in formal addresses like the State of the Union,
    he said, Bush “too often relies on the idea that ‘you should just trust
    me, you should just trust us.'”

    That may have worked for him
    earlier in his administration, Fields said, “but I think, over time,
    that becomes increasingly difficult to sustain.”

    ___

    Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

    © 2006 The Associated Press