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Shuttle Tragedy Could Strengthen Bush's Hand

The focus on Columbia may enhance his stature and reduce tolerance for partisan debate when conflicts at home and abroad are peaking.

February 02, 2003|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The failure of the space shuttle Columbia adds a new measure of uncertainty and drama to an agenda already crowded with political and diplomatic challenges for President Bush.

The shuttle tragedy is bound to consume enormous attention from the media and the public at a time when Bush will be releasing a federal budget on Monday brimming with controversial proposals and dispatching Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the United Nations on Wednesday to try to solidify support for an attack on Iraq.

"Anytime you have a national tragedy like this, virtually everything else takes a back seat, as it should," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic political consultant.

In subtle ways, the focus on Columbia could strengthen Bush's hand in policy maneuvering over the next few days -- though it is unlikely the disaster would significantly change the political environment over the longer term.

The accident could have political fallout in two respects: enhancing Bush's stature and reducing, at least over the short term, public tolerance for partisan conflict. Both of those dynamics could help Bush now when conflicts at home and abroad are peaking.

The tragedy immediately thrust Bush back into a role in which he and other presidents have excelled: functioning as a father figure to comfort the nation at a moment of shock.

"At a time like this, where we are sitting here with enormous uncertainty and unease, you really do look to the president to give you a sense of reassurance," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster.

Ronald Reagan's eloquent speech after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986 was perhaps the most memorable of his two terms. Bill Clinton began to turn around his presidency, after an emphatic repudiation in the 1994 congressional election, with his speeches after the bombing in 1995 of the federal office building in Oklahoma City.

Likewise, the turning point in Bush's presidency was the alternately reassuring and inspiring role he played in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, particularly the impromptu speech he delivered with a bullhorn a few days later at ground zero in New York.

Bush's spare four-minute address Saturday afternoon isn't likely to be remembered as long as Reagan's Challenger speech -- highlighted when, paraphrasing a poem, Reagan said the astronauts had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God" -- or even Bush's own remarks after Sept. 11.

But Saturday, Bush once again projected what many of his supporters consider among his finest attributes: conviction, caring and religious faith. "The same Creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today," Bush said in what might become the speech's most memorable line.

Before the accident, Bush and congressional Democrats were building toward a crescendo of conflict this week, first over the budget he'll release Monday and then over his continuing push toward a military confrontation with Iraq.

But observers in both parties believe the tragedy will significantly change the tenor of Washington debate for at least the next few days. Many expect that critics will be more reluctant to attack Bush in harsh terms while he's playing the less partisan role of expressing the nation's grief over the deaths. And respect for that sense of loss, both among the affected families and the nation at large, also may discourage intense conflict.

"There's a way in which some of the acrimony and the normal divisions of public life are drained away at a moment like this of national tragedy," said one senior White House official.

That impact, if it comes, will be first apparent Monday when Bush releases his budget. Democrats have been mobilizing in opposition to the document's sweeping proposals to cut taxes, fundamentally restructure both Medicare and Medicaid and squeeze spending on a long list of domestic priorities. "People are going to be somewhat more muted out of respect for the astronauts," predicted John Podesta, a former chief of staff for Clinton.

In the long run, that immediate change in tone may not matter much, because there still will be plenty of time for critics to register loudly their objections as the budget moves through the legislative process for months.

On Iraq, though, decisions are impending. And some critics worry that the fallout from the tragedy may slow down only one side in the debate.

All indications are that Bush will continue with his accelerated schedule for moving toward a final decision on war; a senior White House official said Saturday that there's been no indication that Powell will delay his speech Wednesday to the U.N. Some opponents, though, fear that they will have a tougher time attracting attention for their arguments in the long shadow of the shuttle disaster. "It is going to be tough to drive the message," said one.

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