Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Washington has been buzzing recently about the supposed depletion of President Bush’s post-reelection “political capital.” A dip in his approval ratings has even precipitated chatter about his evolving status as a lame duck. This, more than three and a half years before his second term ends.

Given the probability that Mr. Bush will make one Supreme Court nomination this year and the strong possibility that two or three other appointments to the high court could follow before he leaves office, any talk about his becoming a lame duck is premature. Also, in the midst of the global war against terror, no commander in chief ought to be considered a lame duck. If Mr. Bush ever learns to use his veto pen, Washington will quickly learn that he remains the city’s most powerful politician by far.

Obviously cognizant of these realities, Mr. Bush gave a spirited and vigorous performance in his Tuesday morning news conference. Most importantly, he sent a strong signal to congressional Republicans and Democrats alike that he has no intention of walking away from the leadership role he has embraced in pursuit of long-term reform of Social Security. “[T]his is just the beginning of a very difficult debate,” he told White House reporters. “It takes a while. And one thing is for certain: It takes a president willing to push people to do hard things.” Mr. Bush had an implicit message for any members of Congress, including his fellow Republicans, who are in denial about the need to address the issue. Either they will be part of the solution, or they will be identified as part of the problem.

On the foreign-policy front, in response to a question about Amnesty International’s recent report, which described the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay as “the gulag of our time,” Mr. Bush appropriately characterized the charge as “absurd,” doing so no fewer than four times in his terse dismissal.

Meanwhile, with seven Democrats in the Gang of 14 having forsworn judicial filibusters except under “extraordinary circumstances” (while at the same time agreeing to permit up-or-down votes for three appellate nominees bitterly opposed by the Democratic caucus), Mr. Bush slyly seemed to be setting the stage for triggering the nuclear option to ban judicial filibusters altogether. “I guess we’re about to find out [what extraordinary means] when it comes to other appellate judges,” he observed in a manner devoid of any optimism that Democrats would do the right thing. On a much more definitive note, he recalled his solemn commitment spanning two presidential campaigns: “I’ve told the American people I would find people of a certain temperament that would serve on the [Supreme Court], and I intend to do that.”

If Democrats overplay their hand, the nuclear option may yet be successfully detonated. Then, three years from now, following his possible appointment of several Supreme Court justices, Mr. Bush may be viewed as a rather overperforming lame duck.

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