Bush focus: Keep Congress Republican

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The continuing shake-up at the White House is the clearest acknowledgment yet that President Bush has scaled back his once-lofty priorities in favor of what strategists call a less visionary - but just as crucial - goal: helping Republicans keep control of Congress.

It is a familiar theme for a president who, along with longtime strategist Karl Rove, has viewed a lasting Republican majority as a key part of his legacy. Bush's decision to relieve Rove of an official policy post was interpreted by many party strategists not as a downgrading of his influential aide's role but as a public statement that Republican victories in the 2006 elections now top his wish list. "The elections are important. In order to pass the president's agenda, it's important to maintain a Republican majority," said Mark McKinnon, a Bush media adviser.


But it is a striking turn for Bush, whose party benefited in the past from his aggressive pursuit of sweeping policy changes - including tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind education law and the new Medicare prescription drug benefit. Recent efforts to stoke Republican popularity through audacious proposals, such as a plan to privatize Social Security, have fallen flat.

That's an indication, party strategists say, that Bush overreached. It is also an acknowledgment that the president, buffeted by public anxieties about the war in Iraq and other issues he can't do much to control, is not in a position to pursue big plans.


"Pushing large domestic initiatives right now for this president would be like pushing hot soup on the Fourth of July," said John J. Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College political scientist and former Republican strategist. "This is why it made sense to move Karl."

Bush is unlikely to regain momentum for any major domestic accomplishment during his remaining time in office, Pitney added.

Some Republicans believe instead that Bush's priorities, such as creating a guest worker program for immigrants, might have to wait until after the November election, when lawmakers - now reluctant to follow Bush - would be less concerned about their own survival.

"You've got to hold things together until after the election and then tell [Republican lawmakers], 'OK, you've gotten through your silly time - let's get to work,'" said Dick Armey, the former House Republican leader from Texas.

In the interim, Bush and the Republican Congress will push mainly for votes that will help solidify their standing with the conservative party base, such as measures to restrain spending and enact more tax cuts, and a ban on gay marriage, say Republican officials. The president will also prod for action on issues that have made voters anxious and undermined his popularity: health care and energy costs. And he will continue working to exact a price from Democrats for blocking his initiatives, such as the immigration measure.

Bush will try to "assert a new start after the elections," Armey predicted, adding, "It wouldn't be the first time" that a president put his agenda on hold in an election year.

So far, what Bush has called the "game of musical chairs" at his White House suggests the president is working to craft a new agenda that can boost his standing in the last two years of his term, solidify his legacy and put Republicans on firmer ground in the 2008 presidential election, analysts said.

Bush's new chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, is regarded as one of the administration's sharpest policy minds, as is Joel D. Kaplan, whom Bolten chose as a deputy. Both hail from the budget office, where they forged strong ties with Republican lawmakers and practiced working within the confines of tight budgets. Former Rep. Rob Portman, the new budget chief, also is well versed in marshaling support for Bush's agenda under challenging circumstances.


Together, the team is seen by many Republicans as one that can fix Bush's failure to get tough on excessive government spending, which has conservative supporters disillusioned.

"Republicans have kind of put themselves on thin ice with their own base largely over spending and budget issues," Armey said. Salvaging Bush's agenda, though, might be a tall order, given the president's waning influence and his party's focus on elections - both this year's and the one in 2008.

"One of the patterns for Bush, both as [Texas] governor and as president, is that his electoral agenda very strongly drives his policy agenda once in office," said John P. Burke, a University of Vermont political scientist.

Bush's new proposals to boost America's competitiveness and reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil largely involve expanding existing programs or making incremental changes. They have bipartisan support but little potential, analysts say, to capture the interest of the Republican Party faithful.

The president's "task is going to be to try to come up with some sort of domestic and economic agenda that can be done in the time left," Burke said.

Many see the White House changes more as a public relations move to show Bush responding to concerns about his leadership than as an actual transformation.


The replacement of Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary whose televised sparring with reporters came to exemplify Bush's problems, could earn the administration a new chance to discredit critics who call Bush isolated and immune to criticism.

However, the turnover on Bush's team has not signaled that the president intends to change his style or his policies.

"If [Rove] wanted in on some issue, he'd be in on that issue - he has the president's trust," said Grover G. Norquist, a conservative activist who is close to the White House.

The reshuffling "keeps the essential character of the administration intact," he added. "They didn't hire anybody who is so associated with a specific world view that it would tell you they're going in a different direction."

Bush allies say that he wasn't forced into the changes by his low standing but that the shake-up might help him recover from it.

"When there are changes and different faces, voters and citizens and the press take a new look," McKinnon said. But Bush, he added, is "not going to change his vision just because there are new faces in the West Wing."