Putting It Back Together Again





GEORGE W. BUSH and Karl Rove came to Washington with the boldest of ambitions: to overhaul the nation's political architecture, establishing Republicans as the indisputable majority party for a generation or more. It was a meticulously conceived plan: broaden the Republican base, strip moderates away from the Democrats, even make incursions with such solidly Democratic constituencies as African-Americans. But a White House that has prided itself in thinking in broad historical strokes found itself struggling to keep afloat through the news cycle, as it confronted the indictment of a senior White House aide and a failed Supreme Court nomination.

The attempt by Mr. Bush and Mr. Rove to make enduring changes in the political landscape has, for Democrats, been one of the most threatening aspects of his presidency, particularly after the elections of 2002 and 2004 suggested the strategy was working. Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, said that over the past four years, there had been a steady increase in voters who said they were Republican, as well as in the number of unaligned voters who said they leaned Republican.

"The Republicans were making gains through the first four years of the administration - and they could have consolidated those gains and made further gains," Mr. Kohut said. "I don't want to preclude anything, but with 38 percent approval ratings, Republicans gains are going to be hard to come by. More likely they will experience reversals."

Mr. Bush is facing a crush of problems, from high gas prices to growing casualty counts in Iraq. And President Reagan, even during the depths of the Iran-contra scandal, never suffered from approval ratings as low as Mr. Bush's. Polls today suggest that Americans seem despondent about the state of the country, typically a bad sign for a party in power.

"The thing that is the most disturbing to me now - this wasn't true then - is this sort of hopelessness that the American people are feeling," said Michael K. Deaver, who was a senior Reagan adviser. "When you have 70 percent of the people saying they don't think are things are going to get better - that to me is the most disturbing thing."

Clinton advisor John Podesta noted that Mr. Bush was apparently echoing the strategy that Mr. Clinton adopted in warding off questions about problems during his own troubled second term, saying that he would focus on the problems of the country instead.

The difference, Mr. Podesta noted, was that "the public liked the job Clinton was doing."

And Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, noted that most presidents who recovered from second-term slumps did so because of the way they responded to events that took place overseas, like Mr. Reagan's strong challenge to the Soviet Union. "If you look statistically at presidents that have gone into real decline, I'd say more often than not they haven't pulled it out," he said.




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