On Sept. 30, the President who has endured a hellish summer of setbacks sounded more like a chronically beleaguered Tony Soprano than a bellicose Dirty Harry. Hours after Attorney General John Ashcroft announced a criminal probe into allegations that White House aides may have blown the cover of a CIA operative in an act of political malice, Bush vowed to track down the leakers, wherever the trail might lead. "If the person has violated the law," the President said, "the person will be taken care of."
With that utterance, an explosive chapter in Bush's five-month slide opened -- this one entitled Spygate. For weeks, the President's political stock has plunged as he has staggered from one reversal of fortune to another: a backlash over Iraq, two speeches that failed to drum up support for the U.S. occupation, mounting concerns over lost jobs, and humiliations large and small at the hands of foreign leaders increasingly resistant to Bush's vision of Pax Americana.
DIMINISHED DISCIPLINE. While Bushies argue that Presidents usually suffer a "third-year slump" -- and that Bush's diminished ratings are still strong -- polls show top Democrats running neck-and-neck with the incumbent. "This is a wounded President," says independent pollster John Zogby.
This isn't the first time Bush has been in a bind, of course. But in a town accustomed to his winning ways, the questions are coming hard and fast: How did a White House team known for its discipline and savvy get off track? And has überstrategist Karl Rove, who carved out an unprecedented role as the top synthesizer of politics, policy, and spin, finally started sinking after a glorious three years of walking on Washington's waters? "We need to acknowledge there are problems and clearly articulate our solutions," says one worried Bush adviser.
That's easier said than done. While Bush's crew is good at planning PR offensives -- such as the carefully calibrated sales plans for the President's tax cuts -- it has been unsteady at improvising. To compound the woes, Bush's bravado may be coming back to haunt him. "He finds himself reaping the harvest of go-it-alone policies," says University of Texas political scientist Bruce Buchanan.
WILL DEMS OVERREACH? Allies say the President is paying a continuing price for the 2002 departure of key aide Karen Hughes, who enforced message discipline, could go toe-to-toe with Rove, and was one of the few people who felt free to criticize Bush frankly. "The President is better with Karen around," says a veteran Bushie.
But while things may look bleak in Bush Country today, the situation could turn around if the recovery gathers steam -- or U.S. troops manage to nail Saddam Hussein. Democrats now clamoring for a special prosecutor to lead the spy probe could overreach and alienate voters who still like Bush personally. At the moment, though, the weary President can't wait for his opponents to stumble. He needs to find out what's wrong with his once-formidable team and fix it -- fast. By Richard S. Dunham in Washington, D.C.