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The Nation

Teetering at the Top to Win Bush's Ear

November 13, 2005|Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With President Bush's popularity sagging, the White House is getting plenty of advice from Republicans who want to help pull him out of his slump.

There's only one problem: They often disagree with each other.

The challenge of fixing the Bush presidency has heightened long-standing tensions among Bush aides and supporters, between moderate conservatives and hard-liners.

The moderates worry that the president has fallen under the spell of Vice President Dick Cheney and political advisor Karl Rove, and has moved so far to the right that he has alienated many voters. The hard-liners think Bush has erred by not being conservative enough; some of them even accuse White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. of plotting to water down the president's program.

The debate, behind closed doors, is a classic struggle for the president's ear. Outside the White House, members of each camp -- in Congress, think tanks and interest groups -- gossip over whether any of Bush's top aides will lose their jobs. Inside the White House, no one will talk openly about possible staff changes, but aides acknowledge that a debate over strategy is underway.

"Certainly there's a recognition that at 38% or 39% job approval [for Bush] in polls, no one is satisfied with the status quo," one presidential aide said. "We need to be communicating more effectively with the American people."

"All people have competing ideas," the aide added, speaking anonymously because comments were unauthorized. "Do you go with Strategy A or Strategy B? There's always been that dynamic at work at the White House." But "the narrative ... that there are fault lines, that there's depression, that people are distracted -- it's just not realistic. It's just not the reality at the place where I work every day."

Other aides and outside advisors agreed that the differences among Bush's staff were mostly matters of style, nuance and tactical advice -- not yawning ideological conflicts.

"Overblown, overblown, overblown," thundered longtime Bush strategist Mark McKinnon about reports of West Wing intrigue such as an effort to oust Rove.

"We're all compassionate conservatives," another aide said, invoking Bush's inclusive campaign slogan from 2000.

The divisions may be worse than ideological; they may be partly personal.

The key questions, Bush advisors said, boil down to one: To recover political momentum, does Bush need to replace some of his top aides, including Rove, who is under investigation by a special prosecutor for talking with reporters about the identity of a CIA officer?

There is no sign that the president plans significant changes in his inner circle. Rove, who on Thursday gave his first public speech in several weeks, appears to be back in full power "with a spring in his step," one aide said. Like nearly everyone who serves at the pleasure of the president, this person spoke on condition of anonymity because of Bush's abhorrence of leaks.

The consensus inside the White House, aides said, is that Rove, deputy chief of staff to Bush, will leave if he is indicted but stay if he is not. Bush still values the political advice of the man he publicly lauded as "the architect" of his 2004 reelection. As long as Rove is not under criminal charges, one senior official said, "Karl's not a liability to the president."

Reports persist that Card, for his part, is tired after five years in a notoriously tough job, so there is plenty of private jockeying over who might succeed him as chief of staff. (Names most often mentioned: White House Budget Director Joshua B. Bolten, former Commerce Secretary Don Evans and -- a dark horse -- U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.) Treasury Secretary John W. Snow may also leave, several officials said.

Meanwhile, aides say they are hard at work on proposals for Bush's State of the Union address, which -- although it is a long two months away -- is the official answer to questions about when and how the president will begin rebuilding his popularity.

Outside the White House, several senior Republicans have said publicly that the president's staff needs a shake-up, and they have said privately that some Bush aides agree. None of the senior Republicans are in Bush's inner circle, but they include a growing number of Republicans in Congress, a caucus that is increasingly nervous as the 2006 congressional election nears.

"I do think they need to look at bringing in some more people -- you know, old graybeards that have been around this town for a while -- to help them out a little bit at the White House," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the former Senate GOP leader, said on MSNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews."

Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) expressed a similar view in a separate interview: "It is important that they bring in someone [who can] show a new dynamism, a new drive, a new focus."

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