Can Bush Pull a Clinton?

March 10, 2006 — -- After Bill Clinton's surprisingly strong showing in the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary, he reveled in being tabbed "The Comeback Kid." George W. Bush who likes nicknames -- for other people -- now has the chance to pull off his own comeback.

Of course, he would rather not have to stage a recovery. He would rather be riding high in the polls and in firm command of the Republican troops on Capitol Hill. The reality, though, is that he is in a heap of political trouble. But it's way, way too early to start writing his political obituary, despite the embarrassing, some would say devastating, defeat he suffered on the Dubai ports deal.

Congressional Republicans say he lost that fight because of White House incompetence and arrogance. Republican members had gone back to their districts and taken the pulse of voters. It was obvious that they simply did not want a company based in the Mideast in charge of American ports. National polls showed the same thing. Still, President Bush hung tough with his threat to veto any bill that would kill the takeover by the Dubai-owned company. Only when Republican leaders told him Congress would override his veto did he buckle. The White House and Bush's friends in Congress privately asked the company, DP World, to fold its cards. It did.

The Dubai debacle is only the latest of the president's problems. After his re-election in 2004, he boasted that he had accumulated political capital and intended to use it. He made a valiant try by taking on Social Security, but his plan went nowhere.

On top of that, polls showed Americans were losing confidence in his handling of Iraq. Then came the Katrina disaster and the government's weak response. Now, the big question in Washington is whether Bush has suffered irreparable damage: Has he become irrelevant?

The same question was asked during Clinton's presidency after Republicans took control of Capitol Hill. It was a silly question then. It is a silly question now. In Clinton's case, he used the power of the veto to remind Congress and the nation that any president is very much relevant.

What does Bush need to do to stage his comeback? It is quite possible that he will be tested by an event we cannot predict. That happened early in his presidency. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans viewed Bush with more respect as a commander in chief capable of protecting national security. His response to another terrorist attack could enhance or erode that respect. Still, that is a wild card -- another attack may not come. But there are other areas where we know for certain that the president's relevance and his ability will be measured.

First, the economy must continue perking along. The latest figures released today were encouraging and show that the nation's employers are in a hiring mood. That's important for the president as he takes on other problems. Nothing cripples a president politically like a weak economy, as his father discovered to his dismay in the 1992 election.

Second, when the hurricane season comes, the federal government must respond to any disaster with speed and competence. There can be no more reminders of the Katrina failure.

Third, the president needs to score some kind of political victory on Capitol Hill. It could be on immigration or taxes or another domestic initiative. But he must show some political muscle. That's especially crucial for a president in his second term, when people are all too ready to call him a lame duck.

Finally, and most importantly, there must be some good news from Iraq. Nothing would boost confidence in Bush and improve his poll numbers more than a feeling that maybe Iraq will prove a success story after all.

How will we know if and when Bush has regained his political clout? Obviously, the polls will be the first indication. But, most telling of all, what will Republican congressional candidates facing tough campaigns decide this fall? Will they distance themselves from Bush? Or will they do what they have done before?

Bush has been a masterful and effective campaigner for Republicans in the past. If he is called on again this fall by his party, we will know it is George W. Bush's turn to be called the comeback kid.