When you see your opportunity, you take it. The death of Abu Musab Zarqawi was such a moment, and the Bush administration made the most of it, putting together the best three weeks politically the president has had since his reelection.
Politics is ebb and flow. He who misunderstands this fact misunderstands all. From time to time, it’s true, the bottom does drop out from under a politician or even the fortunes of one of the parties. But it’s an exceedingly rare phenomenon.
The most recent such occurrence was the resignation of Richard Nixon and the ensuing devastation of the GOP’s congressional position in 1974, when Republicans lost 48 House seats. But even here, following the brief but acrimonious period of Democratic control of Congress and the White House during the Carter administration, Ronald Reagan brought the party roaring back in 1980, with a Republican Senate riding his coattails.
Even the destruction of LBJ by the Vietnam war, leading him not to seek another term in 1968, still left his party in rock-solid control of the House. When the GOP won Congress in 1994, one of the new majority’s main mistakes was thinking that Bill Clinton was washed up, an irrelevance. And even when the Monica Lewinsky story broke in 1998 and it looked to some like the scandal might lead to the second presidential resignation ever, Mr. Clinton was determined to find a way through.
I mention all this because for years now, Democrats have been waiting for the floor to cave in under George W. Bush — well, no, not just waiting for it, but expecting it with a sense of certainty, and interpreting every bit of accumulating bad news for the administration as evidence that the end is nigh. The trouble for them has been, precisely, ebb and flow. After a spell of trouble and doldrums or worse, Mr. Bush suddenly gets something going, regains the momentum, maybe even sees some improvement in his job approval ratings, and Democrats are left scratching their heads wondering what happened.
That’s just what has transpired over the past couple weeks. There is no denying the objectively good news of the death of Zarqawi and the formation at last of a government in Iraq. Mr. Bush’s surprise visit to Baghdad was a bold stroke politically, a kind of physical incarnation of a policy proposition, “we must stay the course,” that is in general distinctly grim and unappealing, even if you think it’s the right thing to do.
The GOP’s hastily engineered resolutions on the war in the Senate and House built on the momentum. True, the resolutions were designed for partisan purposes. The Senate vote was a lopsided and therefore meaningless 96-3 in favor of tabling a withdrawal resolution Sen. John Kerry was working on, which Senate Majority whip Mitch McConnell simply hijacked and offered on the floor under his own name. A serious Senate debate was never engaged, in that the outcome offers no true sense of where Senate opinion actually stands.
But the House resolution vowing “completion of the mission” and opposing “any arbitrary timetable” for “withdrawal or redeployment” of forces posed a real question. The proof of this is that three-quarters of Democrats decided to vote against it. Most congressional Democrats are against this war and want an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq, and they were willing to stand up and say so notwithstanding that the resolution came up precisely because the Republican House leadership wanted to put them on the spot. The final vote of 256-153, with 42 Democrats voting in support of it and three Republicans voting against it, was neither a party-line outcome nor a 430-5 joke. It mattered because it was a true measure of sentiment in the House, which is substantially more supportive of the president’s position than you might have gathered from opinion polls and news reports about “erosion.”
Mr. Bush saw some other developments break his way, too, from an immigration speech in which he finally hit the workmanlike tone he needs at this point in his presidency, to his first good selection for Treasury secretary. That Karl Rove is out from under the shadow of a special prosecutor is also major news, not least because there is nothing a certain segment of the left wing of the Democratic Party wanted and even expected more than his indictment.
So for Democrats, alas, once again the collapse of the Bush administration has eluded them. If only the congressional election had been in April. But the election was never scheduled for April. The political calendar has fixed moments of accountability, for which all sides prepare. On extremely rare occasions an extra-electoral moment of accountability of the kind that consumed LBJ and Nixon arises. The rest is ebb and flow.
Mr. Bush’s presidency has been, in a word, fraught. I doubt he will ever again enjoy high job approval ratings. The trick for him now is to realize that he can govern effectively and be politically effective without them.
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