Bush wrestles with a new reality

Rumsfeld is out, and the dream of a permanent Republican majority is over.

Call it political pragmatism, if you wish, but President Bush was simply breathtaking in his ability to discard a position he took as recently as last week – that he would retain Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was doing a "fantastic job." Asked about that statement at a news conference this past Wednesday, Mr. Bush explained that he didn't want to "inject a major decision about this war in the final days of the campaign."

After sig- nificant Democratic gains in Congress, the president acted like a candidate who had lost his own election and was now trying to come to terms gracefully with his defeat. In a sense, he was publicly abandoning hope that his presidency would fulfill conservative hopes of ushering in a permanent Republican majority.

He may also have been trying to head off a Democratic move in Congress to conduct searching investigations of issues such as military contracting. It is generally expected that there will be subpoenas flying when Democrats take over committee chairmanships.

What the election may have also brought home to Bush is how little support he enjoys from American voters. In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 56 percent of respondents said that America is on the wrong track and 57 percent disapprove of the way Bush is doing his job.

The president said today he was aware that many Americans had voted to express their displeasure.

What remains to be seen is whether Bush's conciliatory move will extend to heeding his generals and changing his policy on Iraq. The Iraq Study Group report is due to be presented to him next week, providing him with an opportunity to review the course of the war. Two great unknowns are the effect of Democratic gains in the election and Rumsfeld's resignation. In Iraq, they could look like a display of weakness that could embolden the insurgents.

At his news conference, Bush said, "To our enemies, do not be joyful." But the president, having had to jettison Mr. Rumsfeld to keep the ship afloat, is not very joyful either.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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