Bush’s long-shot effort to regain credibility

Earlier this month President Bush joked that the vice president demanded to know the president’s secret for keeping his job approval rating as high as 38 percent.

That was after Richard B. (for “Bull’s-eye”) Cheney accidentally shot the only trial lawyer in America who supports this White House, said Bush.

But Bush’s popularity has now sunk to 33 percent, and nobody at the White House is laughing.

Will Bush be able to restore his credibility eroded by the war in Iraq, the sectarian violence and the rising death toll?

Nervous Republican politicians _ desperate to keep control of the House and the Senate in the upcoming November elections _ are worried that if they don’t distance themselves from Bush, their own careers will be hurt. On the other hand, if they cut and run from a president in trouble, they face alienating their base.

Democrats are beginning to get their voice back, criticizing the conduct of the war, demanding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld be fired, and arguing not that the administration was wrong to topple Saddam Hussein, but that the war has been mishandled.

But the byplay among Republicans and Democrats is a sideshow. The truth is that this is Bush’s war and it is his policy to keep American troops there through his term in office at about the same strength levels. The White House is gambling that there is no credible evidence Republicans will lose control of the Senate and perhaps not even the House.

Thus, Bush is determined not to give an inch. He is convinced he is right, that Iraq will become a firm U.S. ally in the Middle East and that history will vindicate him.

As for getting rid of Rumsfeld to send a signal that mistakes have been made, he told reporters, “I don’t believe he (Rumsfeld) should resign. I think he’s done a fine job of not only conducting two battles, Afghanistan and Iraq, but also transforming our military, which has been a very difficult job inside the Pentagon. Listen, every war plan looks good on paper until you meet the enemy, not just the war plan we executed in Iraq but the war plans that have been executed throughout the history of warfare.”

(We all know what happened the last time Bush assured the nation that a beleaguered aide was doing a great job _ disaster relief chief Michael Brown’s “heckuva job” quickly ended).

But the trouble Bush is in with the American people has little to do with Rumsfeld or Cheney or Karl Rove or anyone else pushing buttons behind the curtain. Just as voters considered Lyndon Johnson responsible for continuing the war in Vietnam, they consider Iraq to be Bush’s issue. Americans began to think that there was no way to win in Vietnam; they are beginning to think there is no way to win in Iraq.

Bush’s intense verbal offensive to win back American hearts and minds will not work as long as the news from Iraq is bad and as long as young Americans keep dying there and as long as he keeps wrapping his determination not to change course in Iraq in patriotic cliches. His speeches are embarrassingly embroidered strings of repetitious non-sequiturs _ Saddam Hussein was bad, Iraq must not be a base for terrorists, democracy is good, American soldiers are heroes, to give Iraq back to the Iraqis is to lose the war on terror, and that the media is a major reason why Americans are restive.

Bush seems to believe that Iraq will not collapse into a religious civil war because he’s thrust upon it the gift of democracy, whether or not the new Iraqi government can handle it, whether or not there are enough U.S. troops there.

Bush has a chance to get his credibility back if he convinces Americans that there is an end in sight to their sons and daughters dying in Iraq (and suggesting this war will still be going on in 2009 won’t do it). He also has to persuade his fellow citizens that Iraq is ready to become a stable, non-threatening nation, not a corrupt cauldron of teeming rivalries.

Thus far in his effort to win back his constituents, Bush is coming across as earnest but self-deluded, determined but clueless, unshakable but increasingly isolated. He has yet to give Americans a more credible rationale for staying the course.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)