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Bush, in a Hole, Can Look to Past Second Terms for a Way Out

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' website at latimes.com/brownstein.

With the nomination of federal Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court and the decision by Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald not to indict Karl Rove -- at least for now -- many of President Bush’s supporters believe that last week marked the beginning of his political recovery.

It is possible that Bush has hit bottom in public support. Four national polls released last week put his approval rating below 40%. In an ABC/Washington Post poll, nearly half of all adults said they strongly disapproved of his performance, a level of impassioned discontent greater than Bill Clinton ever provoked in the survey.

Presidents can’t fall too much further unless their own party abandons them, which seems unlikely for Bush.

But that’s like saying it’s hard to fall any more once you’ve landed at the bottom of a well.

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If he stays where he is, Bush could drag Republicans down with him in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The more relevant question is whether Bush can climb out of this hole.

It’s a question the other six presidents reelected since World War II confronted. Each suffered second-term blues. Some recovered sufficiently to reassert their influence and do no harm to their party’s nominee in the next presidential election. Others never reversed their downward spiral and poisoned their party’s prospects in the next campaign.

From the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina to the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq, Bush faces a broader array of problems than most of these predecessors: It sometimes seems as if the White House is at the end of an assembly line whose product is grief.

But the experiences of these past presidents still illuminate the opportunities -- and risks -- he faces.

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Bush’s situation overlaps least with two of the modern two-term presidents.

Richard M. Nixon’s second term was consumed by scandal, and he resigned in the face of impeachment for his role in the Watergate coverup. Despite Fitzgerald’s indictment of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff, no one has yet suggested that the investigation could pose such personal risks for Bush.

Clinton’s experience also doesn’t seem very relevant. Like Nixon, Clinton was battered by scandal and impeached (though not convicted by the Senate). But his job approval ratings and support for his agenda remained high throughout his second term. As with many aspects of his political career, Clinton’s second-term experience belongs to a category of its own.

The positive models for Bush are two Republican presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan tripped in their second term but recovered.

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The Russian launch of Sputnik and an economic slowdown nicked Eisenhower’s popularity and precipitated big GOP losses in the 1958 congressional elections. But Eisenhower regained momentum, partly by confronting the Democratic Congress to reduce federal spending.

Reagan staggered with the disclosure of the Iran-Contra scandal in late 1986. But he installed a new White House staff and energetically pursued better relations with the Soviet Union. Reagan revived his public standing in time to help George H.W. Bush, his vice president and the current president’s father, win the White House in 1988.

Bush could easily draw on both those precedents. He’s embraced budget hawks in the House who are demanding bigger cuts to offset Katrina spending -- a move conservatives consider crucial to reenergizing the party base after the debacle of Bush’s Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers.

Calling for more cuts “was the biggest political adjustment he’s made in months and will pay the biggest dividends if he follows through,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

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North Korea and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute don’t appear to provide opportunities nearly as great as those that Mikhail S. Gorbachev, then the Soviet leader, presented Reagan. But as with Reagan -- and most second-term presidents -- Bush could turn more to foreign policy to regain his footing.

Yet in one fundamental respect, Bush faces a more imposing challenge than Reagan or Eisenhower -- neither was fighting an unpopular war while he tried to rebuild his second term. Bush is.

In that sense, Bush’s situation may be much closer to that of two Democratic presidents during what amounted to their second terms.

Harry S. Truman and Lyndon B. Johnson were elected to full terms after completing the term of a president who died in office. And both suffered catastrophic declines in support after winning those elections, largely because of discontent over wars in Korea and Vietnam.

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“That is closer to what Bush is facing than these analogies to Reagan,” said presidential historian Robert Dallek. With war bleeding their support, neither Truman nor Johnson ever recovered. Both left office amid widespread disenchantment that helped the GOP win the White House when they stepped down.

To Dallek, that experience teaches that it will be “tremendously difficult” for Bush to regain momentum without major progress in Iraq.

It probably won’t help that the Libby indictment points toward a potential trial that may reopen debate about the justification of the Iraq war even as its costs mount.

More Democrats, pressured by their supporters, are challenging Bush to begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq. The shift is most pronounced among Democratic candidates in 2006 races who are not in Congress and don’t have to defend votes for the war, as do many Democratic incumbents. But even some prominent office-holders, such as Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), are moving in that direction.

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Some close to Bush believe an intensified debate over Iraq would help him by providing Democratic alternatives to contrast his ideas against, as he did effectively in 2004. That could be right.

But events in Iraq now drive attitudes about the war more than arguments. And even amid signs of political progress in Iraq, the insurgents’ unrelenting attacks are the events most influencing U.S. public opinion.

Without much greater stability in Iraq, Bush won’t find it easy to restore his own balance at home.


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