Rough road ahead for Bush, whoever wins

Republicans looking at own futures rather than president's legacy as term ends.

Running out of time and influence, President George Bush faces a rough road in the twilight of his presidency regardless of which party wins control of Congress in Tuesday's elections. The once-unshakable loyalty of congressional Republicans is weakening. After marching in lockstep with the White House for six years, Republican lawmakers are looking at the political calendar and thinking about their futures rather than Bush's legacy in his last two years in office. Republicans are in a sour mood, scarred by corruption scandals, held in low esteem by voters and divided over issues from budget deficits to immigration policy. Many of the party's candidates shunned Bush in their campaigns for Tuesday's elections, fearing the association would hurt rather than help them. Prohibited by the Constitution from serving more than two terms, Bush is what is called in American politics a "lame duck." He is timeserving under term limits that will remove him from real political power at a definite time. With the end of the congressional elections and the opening of the 2008 presidential race, Republicans as well as Democrats will be telling the country how they would do things differently from Bush. Already a huge headache, the Iraq war hangs over Bush as the dominant issue for the remainder of his presidency. Even before this year's elections, big-name Republican senators such as Virginia's John Warner to Texas' Kay Bailey Hutchison were questioning Bush's approach to Iraq, which this month will eclipse World War II in the length of US involvement. If Democrats should take the House of Representatives or the Senate, Bush's problems would get worse. Shut out of power for a dozen years and bitter at Bush for ignoring them, Democrats would demand a role in setting the nation's agenda and throw up roadblocks to the president's plans. Pressuring Bush on Iraq, Democrats would have subpoena powers to investigate the president's conduct of the war and to demand accountability. The White House also could get snarled in Democrats-run investigations of issues ranging from Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy policy deliberations to White House links with Republican corruption scandals. "It won't be a happy place to work in the next couple of years," said John Podesta, who has firsthand knowledge about running a White House in troubled times. He was former president Bill Clinton's chief of staff during the tumultuous days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Clinton's impeachment. "Whereas you had a kind of lapdog Congress in the past, you're going to have a significant challenge," Podesta said, speaking of Bush. "Even if the Republicans retain control, you'll see even more questioning on the Senate side." With Democrats in charge, there would be little chance that Bush's prized tax cuts would be renewed. His drive to expand his executive authority and national security powers would be blocked. Even with Republicans in control, Bush's agenda has been stalled, his blueprints for overhauling Social Security and immigration law collecting dust. Time and history are not on his side. "It seems like most presidents get less done in the last two years than they did in the earlier part of their term," said Charles Black, a Republican strategist with close ties to the White House. "Some of it is you don't have as much influence. People are paying attention to who might come next instead of who is there now." Before they leave, presidents sometimes try to shape their legacies with foreign policy victories. Clinton desperately sought a Middle East peace agreement in the closing days of his presidency but failed. The Middle East offers scant hope for Bush, too. Trouble spots like North Korea and Iran look bleak. Bush insists he has a lot to do and isn't slowing down. After the election, he plans to send Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to Capitol Hill to see what is possible in terms of overhauling the financially troubled Social Security and Medicare, the government's main pension and medical programs for the elderly. However, even if Democrats should win, Bush still would have clout. As commander in chief, he is responsible for American forces. There is little talk about Congress cutting off money to finance the war.