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.

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

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

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.

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.”

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.

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

“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.

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

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