To shore up political capital, Bush reaches out to Democrats

But critics insist that recent bipartisan consultations on the Iraq war are for show.

The prospect of President Bush as a "uniter, not a divider" - his 2000 campaign mantra - seems long ago to have gone the way of the dodo bird.

But, as Mr. Bush heads into his sixth year in office, with his store of political capital running low and next fall's midterm elections looming large, the White House is again promoting the concept of a president who wants more dialogue and consultation.

The president's critics remain highly skeptical. After Bush invited 13 former secretaries of State and Defense - many of them Democrats - to the White House for 45 minutes earlier this month to talk about Iraq, most Democrats cast doubt on the exercise, calling it "for show" and not a real search for new perspectives.

That get-together came amid bipartisan meetings on Iraq with members of Congress - outreach by the president that began last month in the run-up to the Iraqi elections and continues today, say administration officials. He also changed his tune somewhat on Iraq last month: He showed more willingness to acknowledge missteps and discuss American and Iraqi casualties, while maintaining his core commitment to the enterprise.

The Bush White House has long been accused of being insular in policy discussions and excessively critical of vocal dissenters, such as when Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania turned against the Iraq war last fall. But as the president prepares for the Jan. 31 State of the Union address, there are reports that top aide Karl Rove has invited outside experts and authors to brainstorm ideas on domestic policy, a technique President Clinton used.

In short, can the White House and Democrats find real common ground this year, on Iraq or much else?

"It's not entirely clear ... whether these collaborations [on Iraq] are an attempt to elevate the president's approval ratings, so that he can again try to drive an agenda with his majorities in Congress or whether they're a legitimate second-term effort to be more collaborative," says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Professor Jillson points to other policy matters - such as deficit reduction and the antiterror Patriot Act - that faced tough sledding before the holiday recess as a sign that seeking broad consensus is still not the norm.

Some Democratic participants in the Jan. 5 "former secretaries" meeting with Bush were grateful to be invited at all, and put forth a "glass-is-half-full" message afterward. "...The president did hear some things that were important for him to hear," Clinton-era Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on PBS's "NewsHour."

On Capitol Hill, the Democratic leadership is less charitable. Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate minority leader Harry Reid of Nevada, calls the bipartisan meetings on Iraq "PR efforts only."

"It's Orwellian to suggest that they've been reaching out to Democrats," says Mr. Manley. "I can't tell you the last time [Senator Reid] has had meaningful consultation with the White House."

On the issue of trade, at least, the White House has learned that bipartisanship helps. Last summer, the Central American Free Trade Agreement nearly collapsed in Congress, in part because the White House didn't reach out to Democrats and vice versa. Later, when a free-trade agreement with Bahrain came up for approval, US Trade Representative Rob Portman worked with the senior House Democrat on trade, Ben Cardin of Maryland, to address Democratic concerns about international labor standards, and the agreement passed.

"This bill would not have been brought up for vote but for the fact that we signed off on it," says Representative Cardin.

On Iraq, the White House is frustrated with members of Congress who attend war briefings, yet insist there's no strategy. Some members skip the briefings and go right to the complaining, says White House spokesman Trent Duffy.

"The generals were in town recently and every member of Congress is invited to briefings and nobody shows up," he says. "Then they go out on TV and suggest there's no strategy, or they're never briefed."

When the president has bipartisan meetings with members, he adds, that's an opportunity to speak directly with generals and officials in Baghdad on a secure video-teleconference; then there's time for discussion.

Manley has a different take. When the president has breakfast with congressional leadership, he says, it lasts an hour - from 7 to 8 a.m. - and the president spends the first 50 minutes talking. "Only then does he turn to the leaders, Republicans and Democrats, to see if they have anything on their mind," he says.

Cardin, the 10-term congressman from Maryland, describes the same style in the few policy meetings he's had with the president.

"With Bush, you want to talk earlier rather than later, because the meeting will end at a prescribed time, and you may not have a chance to speak later if you don't jump in earlier," he says.

Is the president genuinely soliciting other points of view or just trying to sell the group on his position? Cardin leans toward the latter. "I get the feeling he might be open to some modifications around the edges, but he's not looking for a serious debate on policy," he says.

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