So far, GOP squandering Bush's capital

April 20, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In the first days after his re-election, President Bush boasted of the political "capital" he had earned in his victory over Sen. John Kerry and declared he intended to spend it in pursuit of his second-term agenda.

Since then, much of that capital has been shelled out in time, energy and taxpayer-supported travel around the country trying to persuade the American people to support his brand of Social Security reform.

The centerpiece of his otherwise vague reform plans, diverting a portion of Social Security payroll taxes to individual stock market investment, so far has generated little return for him in terms of public backing. Polls indicate prospective Social Security beneficiaries are not buying.

Last week's stock market nosedive did nothing to help convince them that putting part of their intended safety net for retirement into Wall Street is a smart way to go. Yet the president was off on another Air Force One voyage to South Carolina and other points this week, selling the same package.

At the same time, the Republican majority in Congress that grew along with his re-election victory has hit very turbulent weather, notably in its failed effort to save the life of Terri Schiavo with legislation intruding on the judiciary branch. Despite the undeniable tug on America's emotions over the woman's tragic fate, polls showed overwhelming opposition to that action.

The Republican grandstanding brought to the fore as never before two GOP congressional leaders, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, in ways that have complicated Mr. Bush's second-term agenda.

Dr. Frist, a heart surgeon, made a mockery of his professional standing by contending he could diagnose Mrs. Schiavo's condition by watching a videotape, in the face of a host of neurological experts saying her vegetative state was irreversible.

When the federal courts refused again to intervene in the case, Mr. DeLay, who has a record of swatting flies with a baseball bat, intimated possible impeachment of judges involved, saying, "The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior." He later backed off, but the threat lingered.

Dr. Frist further ignited partisan passions in the Senate by raising the bar in his fight with the Democrats over federal judicial appointments, moving closer to invoking what is called the "nuclear option" of asking for a rule change that would end filibustering of such nominations.

Senate Democrats have balked over confirming about 10 conservative judges.

Dr. Frist added to the controversy last week by agreeing to appear on a nationwide telecast sponsored by a Christian conservative group. Its president told supporters in a letter that they "must stop this unprecedented filibuster on people of faith." The nominees, he said, "are being blocked because they are people of faith and moral conviction."

At the same time, Mr. DeLay, thrice admonished by the House for unethical behavior, is again embroiled in similar charges of dealing with foreign travel financed by questionable sources. Two fellow Republican members, Reps. Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Tom Tancredo of Colorado, have called on him to step down from his leadership post.

True to form, Mr. DeLay has responded that he has done nothing illegal.

In a letter to Texas constituents, he has added a scathing counterattack on congressional Democrats, outside liberal groups and a "legion of Democrat-friendly press."

They are motivated, he said, by "the success we have had in electing other Republicans and passing legislation that is anathema to the 40 years Democrats controlled Congress."

Showing no sign of backing away, Mr. DeLay last weekend in Houston told the annual convention of the National Rifle Association, a strong supporter: "When a man is in trouble or in a good fight, you want to have your friends around - preferably armed."

Through all this, President Bush has offered general support of both Dr. Frist and Mr. DeLay. But together they have stirred a pot of partisanship, making it tougher for Mr. Bush to realize much of a political return on the re-election capital he professes to be spending in his second term.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

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