From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby
President Bush's bombshell about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's departure and his own openness to considering the forthcoming recommendations of the Iraq Study Group wound up getting sandwiched between his party's loss of one chamber of Congress on Tuesday night and their loss of the other chamber last night. NBC News declared Democrat Jim Webb the apparent winner of the Virginia Senate race shortly at 8:38 pm. Republican Sen. George Allen's campaign plans to offer a statement once state election officials complete their re-canvass. At last count, Webb had 49.6% to Allen's 49.3%.
While you wait on Allen's statement, we suggest comparing Bush's playbook from when he was governor of Texas to his words from his press conference yesterday. A lot of his rhetoric in talking about bipartisanship and topics like education and immigration harked back to his days in Austin, when the "uniter, not a divider" image he built up by working with a powerful Democratic lieutenant governor on some of those very issues helped get him elected President. His schedule for today may produce more of the same: breakfast with the GOP Hill leadership, lunch with incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and a meeting with the President-elect of Mexico. He also meets with his Cabinet, including his outgoing Defense Secretary.
Bush insisted yesterday that Rumsfeld's exit was not in reaction to Tuesday's "thumping" and that it had been in the works for awhile (putting him in a jam over his statement of confidence in Rumsfeld just one week before). His choice to replace Rumsfeld, former CIA chief Robert Gates, is a member of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. You can't help but wonder if Republican losses on Tuesday might not have been as severe had Bush sent such dramatic signals earlier in the election cycle. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from September showed voters split, 44%-46%, over whether Rumsfeld should resign. Sixty-eight percent said at the time that it would be a symbolic gesture that would not make much difference in the war. But the poll was taken before the release of the April National Intelligence Estimate and before the October violence in Iraq.
A Democrat-run Congress is likely to force some real changes to the Administration's Iraq policy. The Democrats' shared "Six for '06" priorities include calling for US forces to begin being redeployed from Iraq by the end of this year. The new makeup of the Senate means that Democrats would have at least five more votes for any amendment similar to the Reed-Levin proposal from June to begin withdrawing forces from Iraq this year went down to defeat, 39-60. That's not counting any possible new support from Senate Republicans in the wake of Tuesday's outcome. But as the Cook Political Report's Jennifer Duffy points out, some of these new Senate Democrats may have a hard time delivering on what they've told voters they'll do on Iraq.
Beyond the Rummy bombshell, the other striking aspect of Bush's news conference was his tone. "I understand when campaigns end and I know when governing begins," he said. He was responding to a question about how he and Pelosi will work together after exchanging barbs during the campaign. But his statement was a reminder that Bush and his advisors, including chief political strategist turned domestic policy advisor Karl Rove, have approached the last six years as more of a campaign than as a government. Policy initiatives have been crafted and nominees selected with an eye toward either drawing new voters into the party or appeasing the base. War rooms and attack ads by third-party groups have become a staple part of the legislative process. As has political polarization, as Bush's team has relied more on drawing contrasts with Democrats than on finding ways to work with them.
Now, faced with a relatively short list of major accomplishments to show for six years in office under one-party rule, and with his final two years now subject to a Democratic majority, a legacy-conscious Bush may reject campaigning in favor of governing.
And confirming that the 2008 presidential campaign is underway, retiring Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) if Iowa plans to file the necessary paperwork with the FEC today, per the AP. Vilsack could use the PR boost in being the first to take such a formal step to help raise his profile to the level of a national candidate.