Battling for Bush’s heart and mind

“Winning hearts and minds” is an ancient cliche in Washington. During the Cold War, it meant convincing folks in places like Vietnam and Nicaragua to reject communism. Today, it means combating the spread of radical Islam from Iran to Indonesia.

But the real fight in the capital today is for the heart and mind of only one person: George W. Bush. Fellow Republicans are desperately trying to force a change in his Iraq policy before two things happen.

First, Congress imposes changes on him. And second, Republicans have to run for re-election with an exceedingly unpopular war chained around their necks.

At times, this battle has emerged in public. After months of mounting frustration, a string of Republican senators – led by Richard Lugar of Indiana – has broken ranks with the White House. Lugar is one of the most seasoned and sensible voices in Congress and knows that Capitol Hill is a lousy place to make foreign policy.

But he also knows that the American people have lost patience with the president and share the conclusion that “the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved” by doing so. Only by shifting strategy, he warns, can the president ward off a congressional drive to set firm deadlines for troop withdrawals.

“The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for military operations in Iraq,” says Lugar. “A course change should happen now, while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy in Iraq.”

In Washington, the most important signals are often sent indirectly. Officials who lack Lugar’s courage (and fear White House retribution) leak their views to influential writers, hoping to crack through the hard shell of denial and unreality encasing the president.

So conservative columnist Robert Novak reports that national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley was dispatched to Capitol Hill to “extinguish fires” ignited by Lugar’s bombshell. The mission “failed,” Novak writes, quoting a Republican senator: “They just do not recognize the depth of the difficulty they are in.”

Even more important was the lead story in The New York Times written by David Sanger, a reporter well known for his connections inside Bush’s inner circle. “White House officials,” he disclosed, “fear that the last pillars of political support among Senate Republicans for President Bush’s Iraq strategy are collapsing around them.”

“When you count up the votes that we’ve lost and the votes we’re likely to lose over the next few weeks, it looks pretty grim,” Sanger quoted one “senior official” as saying.

Those quotations are aimed at exactly one reader, who lives in a big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. That “senior official” might not have ready access to the president, or he might not be brave enough to speak so directly to Bush’s face. The Oval Office can be a very intimidating place. So that “senior official,” like the senators quoted by Novak, is using the press to pass a message to the president that they are reluctant to deliver in person.

This leaves two questions, and the first is this: Will the campaign work? The odds are against it. The president tries to convey flexibility, telling an audience in Cleveland this week that American troops “could be in a different position in awhile.” But that sounds like a half-hearted public relations gesture.

When he’s being candid, Bush continues to radiate a fierce, and almost messianic faith in his own policy. “I strongly believe,” he said in Cleveland, that the Iraq mission is “necessary for the security of the United States and the peace of the world.” No wonder The New York Times editorial board recently threw up its hands and concluded: “It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush’s plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor.”

The second question is this: If the campaign fails, what do Bush’s Republican critics do then? Are they willing to support measures that force the president to alter his course in Iraq?

That’s exactly the choice these Republicans are frantically trying to avoid, and this summer, most will continue to swallow their doubts and back the president. But come fall, if they lose the battle for Bush’s heart and mind, they will have to face some very painful decisions. And the voters will be watching.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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