Commentary: Can Team Bush Regain Momentum?

By Richard S. Dunham and Lee Walczak

For a while this searing summer, it looked like a Bush Administration known for its icy efficiency was melting down. While the President vacationed in Texas, Vice-President Dick Cheney and Pentagon hawks dueled over an Iraq invasion with Secretary of State Colin Powell and his more cautious State Dept. colleagues. Spooked by corporate scandals and sagging stocks, the White House staged a forgettable economic forum in Waco, Tex. Bush embraced some dubious "investor protection" ideas at the event--and immediately set his economic advisers arguing over their merits.

With the approach of autumn and a belated Presidential move to chart a steadier course on Iraq, a semblance of order has returned to Bush & Co., even though underlying fissures remain. "August was ugly," says GOP strategist Scott W. Reed, who sees signs the Bush crew is getting its act together. Republicans are also heartened by surveys that show the President has stemmed a decline in the polls.

Still, what the heck happened this summer--and what's to keep it from happening again? Political experts cite several reasons for the Administration's wobbles: slow reflexes in the face of a budding investor revolt, fear that Democrats could turn corporate crime and the economy into issues in November, and some genuine and strongly felt differences over what to do about such thorny problems as invading Iraq and bolstering a sickly U.S. economy.

Most of all, the turmoil marked a breakdown of a White House management system that had until now been known for keeping its internal debates to itself. Fingers are being pointed at Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice for failing to keep discipline. "I still don't get what happened," says one Bush friend. "Clearly, what we saw on Iraq wasn't clever and wasn't orchestrated."

Republican insiders say Bush is paying the price for the July departure of top aide Karen P. Hughes. A no-nonsense adviser, she was adept at ensuring that Bush officials sang the same tune. Without Hughes, says Texas A&M University political scientist George C. Edwards III, "the Administration has been in a reactive mode."

Whereas Hughes deftly kept tensions within the Administration under control, Card has had less success. One long-running problem: ongoing differences between chief economic adviser Lawrence B. Lindsey and gaffe-prone Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill. Spurred by Bush's interest in the Waco summit, Lindsey was open to a new round of tax cuts. But O'Neill, staring at a $157 billion deficit this year and concerned about the lack of a short-term stimulative kick from the tax breaks, was cool to Stimulus III. "All the economic advisers, all the political advisers have different views," says a senior Bush official. "There's no consensus on whether something is actually needed or not."

Administration defenders, while admitting that the policy brawls haven't instilled confidence, contend the public flaps will die down. For instance, they cite Bush's unambiguous decision to side with Powell in seeking U.N. Security Council-sanctioned arms inspections of Iraq before launching a military strike.

It's a start. But the task for Team Bush now is to keep its internal debates in-house, where they won't unsettle Americans and scare U.S. allies witless.

Senior Correspondent Dunham and Washington Bureau Chief Walczak track political trends in the capital.

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