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Saving the second term

October 30, 2005

CAMP DAVID IS WHERE PRESIDENTS often go to lick their wounds. So President Bush's departure Friday for the Maryland retreat was as predictable as it was necessary; within the span of a week, he has seen a high-ranking administration official indicted for obstructing justice in the Valerie Plame inquiry and his White House counsel forced by critics within his own party to withdraw as a nominee to the Supreme Court.

Bush's horrible week came at an already dismal time for his presidency -- even before the indictment of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and the Harriet E. Miers debacle, Bush's approval ratings were sinking. The president's legislative agenda is stalled, the war in Iraq is turning into a quagmire and Hurricane Katrina has raised urgent questions about Bush's competence and priorities.

The White House seems bereft of initiative or momentum -- on any front. Bush still has three more years in office, but they will be interminable and unproductive unless he revises his game plan and makes some needed substitutions on his team.

For starters, it's time to retire "the architect." Karl Rove may have escaped indictment on Friday, but in a larger sense "Rovism" -- the notion of governing from the far right to pander to the party's most active extremists -- has been indicted, tried and convicted. Regardless of whether his top political advisor stays on the payroll, Bush needs to dust off his old claim of being "a uniter, not a divider" if he is to have any chance of regaining his political footing and building a positive legacy.

Vice President Dick Cheney's days as a leading voice in this administration should also be numbered. It would be a considerable favor to Bush if Cheney decided to step down from office now, but don't expect that to happen.

Still, Cheney should spend the bulk of his time at undisclosed locations and funerals for foreign dignitaries, at least when he is not testifying at his former chief of staff's trial, which would be an unseemly spectacle.

Bush would do well to loosen the unprecedented control exerted by the vice president's office across a number of agencies and departments. He needs to bring in seasoned advisors from the more moderate wing of his party to occupy key White House positions, so they can prod him to govern from the center and mend ties with moderate Democrats. Someone also ought to tap Donald Rumsfeld's shoulder and tell him it's time to go.

The last year has been a cautionary tale about post-electoral hubris and the dangers inherent in believing you can govern successfully while shedding even the pretense of trying to work with the opposition or of appealing to the center. Rovism is tribal politics at its worst -- a feeling that the world is divisible by two: those on our side, and those who need to be pummeled at every turn.

Such shrill partisanship, with its accompanying hardball tactics, has hurt the White House. The Miers debacle is partly explained by the bunker mentality and insularity of Bush's inner circle. Did no one on Bush's team dare raise obvious questions about an unqualified crony's chances of getting confirmed?

This page has been critical of the Bush administration, but no one should feel gleeful about the depth of this administration's woes. It is not healthy for the nation to be led by such a hobbled president. That is one reason why change is so imperative. The credibility of the Cheney-Rove-Rumsfeld cabal, particularly when assessing threats to our national security, is dangerously low.

In the coming days and weeks, Bush needs to show signs that he has been chastened by recent events. The president could begin recasting his second term by appointing a superbly qualified Supreme Court nominee who is not a radical judicial activist intent on rolling back the clock.

Bush should apologize to Plame for any actions by his subordinates that politicized national security and denigrated her service to the nation as a CIA analyst. Rather than endorse partisan sniping aimed at minimizing what are serious alleged crimes, Bush should continue to express respect for Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's inquiry.

This would all be a dramatic change for a president fond of stubbornly staying the course. But Bush has to realize -- and independent Republican leaders need to make him realize -- that the present course leads nowhere but disaster, both for his legacy and the party.

In terms of policy, we are not asking that the president expediently abandon all his principles to resurrect his fortunes. But some accommodation to reality is needed. The administration will have to work with Democrats to overhaul the nation's broken immigration laws, and it will need to surrender some of its tax cuts to shore up the nation's fiscal health and pay for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast and the war in Iraq.

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