Let's be clear: this is a White House that prides itself on its strong organization and political savvy. It came into Washington like a steamroller in 2000 and didn't even mind rolling over its own Republicans to get what it wanted. As for Democrats, they were nonpersons. As the minority party in Congress, their votes literally didn't count. Then came the mismanaged war in Iraq, which stoked public discontent, which translated into huge midterm election losses-and, finally, Democratic control of the Congress.
The White House that was once seen as muscular-even invincible-is being tagged as something else: incompetent. How else to explain the ham-handed Justice Department management of the dismissal of U.S. attorneys? Or the lack of oversight of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center? Or an FBI that abused intelligence-gathering powers provided for in the Patriot Act? "The whole thing just isn't competent," a Republican senator close to the White House tells me. "It looks like the wheels are coming off."
And soon it's probably going to look even worse: Democrats have subcommittees and subpoena power. When they get incriminating documents and E-mails, they release them. And when they do that, they force the administration to fess up. And explain, for instance, those E-mails that spell out the roles of key administration officials in the decision to dismiss prosecutors for political reasons-all the while publicly saying it was about performance. It's tough, but somehow the Justice Department managed to do the impossible: complicate a very simple matter and then turn it into a losing battle.
The West Wing is not a comfortable place these days. "The White House used to be like an iron wall," says David Frum, a former speechwriter for this president. "They maintained a united front against the whole outside world . ... Well, now events have burst their wall, and ... suddenly, no one inside the White House knows what the rules are anymore." It is disorienting, to be sure-particularly for a White House known more for its arrogance than for its skills at reaching out and making nice. "When you are in trouble," Frum adds, "every little pebble becomes a giant rock." Then, a boulder, heading downhill.
The White House is even alienating its friends. The scandal about the conditions at Walter Reed makes enemies of veterans. The incompetence at the Justice Department regarding the firings of U.S. attorneys angers prosecutors. "It's hard to imagine two more core Republican groups than veterans and prosecutors," says Frum, smiling. "I mean, at this point, they have to start going after evangelicals, so, at some point, there is absolutely nobody left." He's only half kidding.
Spreading damage. The problem for this White House now is that Iraq is the overlay for everything. The president's approval ratings are at 34 percent, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll. And when asked whether George W. Bush is a strong leader, just 43 percent said yes; that's about half of where he was post 9/11. The White House staff is exhausted; Republicans in Congress are anxious about their own political futures and mad the president isn't helping any. From the looks of it, the president and his own party have separated on a whole host of issues; a divorce is inevitable. Particularly when a stalwart Republican like John Sununu of New Hampshire-up for re-election in 2008-calls for the resignation of the attorney general, who happens to be the president's very good friend. "The Justice Department has lost the confidence of the Senate and Congress," he says. "And the attorney general can't continue to be an effective advocate for the president." Ouch.
The collateral damage may be spreading into the presidential race, as well. Fifty-seven percent of Republicans want more choices for president, according to the same CBS poll-and they've already got 10 candidates running. Sixty-four ercent say that the candidates have lost their allegiance to the principles of Ronald Reagan. All in all, not a good sign.
As for the White House, it has muddled through rough patches before-the CIA leak scandal, the uncovering of warrantless wiretaps on Americans, the abuse at Abu Ghraib. But there's a new world order now: The Democrats are in charge on Capitol Hill, leaving the White House in a defensive crouch. And unable to stand tall.
By Gloria Borger