Photo Gallery: The day after
A contrite President Bush said yesterday that he shares “a large part” of the responsibility for the “thumping” suffered by Republicans on Election Day, but called on his party’s lawmakers to work with the new Democratic leadership in Congress to advance his agenda.
In a press conference just hours after Democrats took control of the House for the first time in 12 years — and appeared poised to seize the Senate as well — the president seemed at times glum, at other times pugnacious, as he said the American people had spoken.
“Yesterday, the people went to the polls, and they cast their vote for a new direction in the House of Representatives. And while the ballots are still being counted in the Senate, it is clear the Democrat Party had a good night last night,” he said in the White House’s East Room.
“I’m obviously disappointed with the outcome of the election, and as the head of the Republican Party, I share a large part of the responsibility. I told my party’s leaders that it is now our duty to put the elections behind us and work together with the Democrats and independents on the great issues facing this country,” he said.
Although he spent the past few weeks traveling across the country to excoriate Democrats as weak on national security and bent on raising taxes, Mr. Bush said it is time to move past partisan politics and work hard for the American people.
“I believe that the leaders of both political parties must try to work through our differences, and I believe we will be able to work through differences. I’ve reassured the House and Senate leaders that I intend to work with the new Congress in a bipartisan way to address issues confronting this country. I invited them to come to the White House in the coming days to discuss the important work remaining this year and to begin conversations about the agenda for next year,” he said.
Asked about his ability to work with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat expected to become House speaker in the next Congress, Mr. Bush said, “If you hold grudges in this line of work, you’re never going to get anything done.” And he acknowledged that the victory by Mrs. Pelosi’s party would have policy consequences.
“Look, this was a close election. If you look at it race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping,” Mr. Bush said. “But, nevertheless, the people expect us to work together. That’s what they expect.”
The president immediately granted a key demand of Democrats by announcing the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Mr. Bush praised Democrats for a “disciplined campaign” and a “superb job of turning out their votes,” but he lobbed a barb at his chief White House political strategist, Karl Rove, who failed for the first time in three elections to deliver a win for the president.
For months, Mr. Bush has publicly joked about an informal contest between himself and Mr. Rove as to who could read the most books. When asked yesterday about who was winning the contest, Mr. Bush said: “I’m losing. I obviously was working harder on the campaign than he was.”
The remark drew a tight smile from Mr. Rove at the press conference — and a collective “oooh” from the White House press corps.
Mr. Rove, who orchestrated a historic Republican gain of congressional seats during the 2002 midterm elections, had told The Washington Times late last month that he was “confident we’re going to keep the Senate; I’m confident we’re going to keep the House.” Instead, Democrats gained at least 29 House seats and at least four Senate seats, pending delayed results, recounts and any court challenges.
Mr. Bush also had made optimistic predictions during the campaign’s final weeks. He said yesterday that those mistaken forecasts did not show that he was “out of touch.”
“I’m an optimistic person, is what I am. I knew we were going to lose seats, I just didn’t know how many,” he said. “But the people have spoken, and now it’s time for us to move on.”
Still, although Mr. Bush said he realized that the American people “voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made” in Iraq, he asserted that his strategy — and his responsibility — will not change.
“The election has changed many things in Washington, but it has not changed my fundamental responsibility, and that is to protect the American people from attack. As the commander in chief, I take these responsibilities seriously,” he said.
Mr. Bush acknowledged that the Iraq policy was “not working well enough, fast enough,” but he also sought to warn U.S. enemies, while making assurances to Iraqis and U.S. troops.
“To our enemies: Do not be joyful. Do not confuse the workings of our democracies with a lack of will,” he said. “To the people of Iraq: Do not be fearful. As you take the difficult steps toward democracy and peace, America’s going to stand with you. We know you want a better way of life, and now is the time to seize it.”
And to U.S. troops, he said: “Don’t be doubtful. America will always support you.”
The president also said that Democrats, who he said on the campaign trail lacked a cohesive plan for Iraq, must now “make up their minds.”
“I can understand Americans saying, ‘Come home.’ But I don’t know if they said: ‘Come home and leave behind an Iraq that could end up being a safe haven for al Qaeda,’ ” he said. “I don’t believe they said that.”