The first lame ducks, those extraneous politicians christened as such, waddled into American history nearly 100 years ago, courtesy of the New York Evening Post. They made their appearance at the White House, but in refuge, not residence. It was there that Republican members of Congress who hadn't survived the 1910 midterm elections assembled in a hallway that the Evening Post dubbed "Lame Duck Alley." The defeated lawmakers were hoping for a presidential appointment from William Howard Taft, or, at the least, the fellowship of their fellow has-beens.
Today's pundits feel free to confer lame-duck status on the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue no matter how much time is left in their terms. The Houston Chronicle, the largest paper in Texas, pronounced the state's favorite son a lame duck on the day in 2005 that he took the oath of office for the second time. The Associated Press made that same assertion on the day that he was re-elected in 2004.
"This president is a lame duck," Stuart Rothenberg, author of The Rothenberg Political Report, recently intoned after the latest defeat of the latest version of the immigration-bill-that-wouldn't-die (or pass). "A president who was not a lame duck would have been able to muscle at least some Republicans to support his position on immigration."
Political science professors Samuel Popkin of the University of California (San Diego) and Henry Kim of the University of Arizona went Rothenberg one better: "President Bush is a lame duck and an albatross," they wrote. Given the way that Republicans are seeking to shed their association with this president, albatross may be the better metaphor. Bush might be thankful that while dispensing their avian cliches, Popkin and Kim didn't call him a dodo.
George W. Bush is not extinct, but his troubles are manifest. He is presiding over an unpopular and unsuccessful war of his own making. His job-approval ratings are hovering in Jimmy Carter territory and are perhaps headed even further south toward Nixonville. The opposition party is united against him. The GOP characters seeking to replace him in 2009 are coping with the current political environment by closing their eyes and pretending they are succeeding Ronald Reagan.
Yet, the Marine Band still plays "Hail to the Chief" when Bush walks into a room, well-heeled Republicans pay good money to attend dinners with him, he continues to formulate executive orders in the war on terrorism and a dozen other issue areas, he has started (finally) to wield a veto pen, and even his bitterest political foes prefer dealing with him than with his vice president. More than anything else, Bush continues to be the commander-in-chief of the United States armed forces. He and Dick Cheney are also the point men for America in the fight against terrorism. Although the vice president is even less popular than Bush, it's worth remembering that on September 10, 2001, "America's mayor" was not only a lame duck but also something of a laughingstock in New York City. These days, on the basis of his gutsy response to the attacks of 9/11, Rudy Giuliani is atop the 2008 Republican presidential field.
"President Bush may be a lame duck politically, but he is not a lame duck as chief executive and will lose many of his powers only on January 20, 2009," said James Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University. "He is still head of the executive branch and commander-in-chief, and has many unilateral powers that he can -- and has -- used, including executive orders, pardons, control over many regulations, control of executive branch execution of the law, secrecy, and classification of documents."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., concurs with that assessment. "No president is ever a lame duck," Leahy said. "He's still president. I'm hoping, though, when he sees the reaction of the public that hates his policies, he'll start listening to somebody other than just his inner circle. Most people think Dick Cheney is running the show and it's been a mistake."
Nonetheless, it's indisputable that Bush's influence has waned, both inside and outside his political party. When, exactly, this happened is not easy to pinpoint.
Was July 16, 2007, the date that tolled the beginning of the end? That was the day that three Republican senators, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon, and John Sununu of New Hampshire, hemmed and hawed when asked by The Politico if they would accept fundraising help from the president for their races in 2008. "Oh, jeez," Collins said. "I don't anticipate -- well, who knows? I really haven't focused on that, but my general view is, anyone who legally wants to help raise money ... "
In other words, if Bush doesn't break the law, she can't really stop him.
Or did the president's inability to play a significant legislative role begin on June 28, 2007, after the Senate defeat of the Bush-supported immigration bill -- as Rothenberg and other commentators think? That day, Democratic Leader Harry Reid's ineffectualness was exceeded only by Bush's: After the president stumped the country for the bill, and lobbied the GOP caucus personally, only 12 of 49 Republican senators voted to end debate on the measure that Bush had made his most important legislative priority of the year.
One obvious candidate for Lame Duck Day is November 7, 2006, when voters returned control of both chambers of Congress to the Democratic Party in a nationalized election that was, as much as anything else, a referendum on Bush and his policies.
The tipping point might have come earlier, though, on October 4, 2005, when Bush acknowledged that Congress was not going to follow his lead on Social Security reform. He had spent the better part of six months pitching his plans to put the system on a more solid actuarial footing, while introducing private accounts into the mix. But after Bush's 60-city tour, the White House never produced a bill, Democrats wouldn't meet the administration at the bargaining table, and Congress refused to act, never knowing precisely what it had decided not to act upon.
Others believe that the era of this president's impotence announced itself with a roar: Hurricane Katrina. But at what moment? Was it Monday, August 29, 2005, when Bush cut short a California trip as New Orleans filled with water, only to return to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for two nights and a day as the magnitude of the calamity overwhelmed the capacity of local, state, and federal authorities? Was it Wednesday, August 31, when Bush directed Air Force One to fly over the flooded Gulf Coast on his way to Andrews Air Force Base? Or can the expiration date of Bush's influence be traced to a specific point in space and time -- 10:38 a.m. on Friday, September 2, 2005, in Mobile, Ala. -- when Bush tried to buck up his beleaguered (and soon to be cashiered) FEMA director, Michael Brown, by blurting out, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job!"
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas spoke for many Republicans that week when he observed, "When it rains, it pours -- figuratively and literally."
Or it could simply be that Bush's ability to drive great events was compromised many months before the storm, at noon on January 20, 2005, to be precise, when he swore the oath of office for the second time. From then on, Bush was term-limited. The 22nd Amendment, which took effect in 1951, was pushed by Republicans as a reaction to Franklin Roosevelt's decision to break George Washington's two-term precedent, though it likely cost Republican Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan a third term. The same cannot be said of George W. Bush, but it is fair to say that the 22nd Amendment introduced a systemic weakness to the highest office in the land.
"It makes a president a lame duck on the first day of his second term," said Stanley Kutler, a retired history professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. "A president in his first term is able by sheer dint of will, personality, and power to push things through Congress that some congressmen may not particularly like. But it all ends in the second term because he's no longer a threat to them in the same way. He can't run again. There is a built-in factor weakening the president."
This circumstance is all the more acute in 2007 because Cheney never had any intention of succeeding Bush. So even before the president's free fall in the public opinion polls, there was no possibility of this administration succeeding itself, as opposed to what happened in 1988 when Bush's father was elected to a "third Reagan term." Still, a second-term decline in influence would have come anyway, the way it has for most of Bush's predecessors as evidenced by the following exchange -- it took place 50 years ago this summer -- between ABC White House correspondent Edward Morgan and Dwight Eisenhower not even a full year into his second term.
Q: Mr. President, as things stand, you have got very little indeed from the present session of Congress. The situation could conceivably improve, but the prospects are not too bright. Are you inclined to any self-criticism for this state of affairs? Could the administration have pushed more consistently, say, its budget, the school bill, its civil rights, and as a corollary to that, do you find that your leadership is impaired by the fact of your being a so-called lame-duck president?
A: Well, I will answer your last thing first. I have not noticed any effect of the so-called lame duck. Maybe later in the term that might be noticeable. To me, it is not now.
A computer search of the National Archives shows this as the first time that a president was asked if he was a lame duck. It was not the last. The phrase arose once in President Johnson's presence, uttered by President-elect Nixon, who mentioned it only to say that Lyndon Johnson was no such thing -- and this was after the 1968 election. In the summer of 1987, Reagan, irritated by some of what he was reading, raised the issue pre-emptively twice in six days. "Our critics have their own agenda, and they're pursuing it in every possible way," Reagan said. "Let's be clear about one thing. All those who talk about lame ducks and the post-Reagan era are dead wrong."
President Clinton was asked about being a lame duck on three occasions, the first time not quite 11 months into his second term. The reporter was the irrepressible Helen Thomas, then with UPI, who raised the foul fowl question at a press conference on December 16, 1997. Clinton tended, uncharacteristically, to provide terse answers to this query. On March 15, 1999, Michael Jackson of radio station KRLA in Southern California asked: "Isn't that expression 'lame duck' a painful one? A quarter of your time still remains."
"Yes," Clinton replied.
After he battled, and then weathered, impeachment, Clinton began employing the Reagan gambit, bringing up his supposed lame-duckness on his own, as a kind of taunt, on 10 occasions. Bush is doing no such crowing these days. Those inside the White House say that neither he nor his advisers are moping around, either.
"The way it works out on a day-to-day basis is that we deal with specific issues instead of abstract concepts; by that I mean matters like energy, education, immigration, trade, and the war," said Peter Wehner, the outgoing director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives. "We hear the talk, of course, but bear in mind that this has been a very eventful presidency -- attacks on our homeland, wars, a recession, natural disasters, a close and intense campaign for re-election, and much more -- so talk of being a lame duck doesn't register very high on the hierarchy of concerns."
Echoing the points made by George Mason's Pfiffner, Wehner pointed out that a commander-in-chief's duties are not superseded by public opinion polls -- and that a great deal of authority resides in the job regardless of the chief executive's popularity. "Most of the power and authority to conduct war rests with the president, and we're reminded of that every week," Wehner said. "At some point you understand that life in the White House is a life of vicissitudes, and you adapt to it. Some times you're stronger, and other times you're weaker. But the power of the office remains -- and the power of the office is remarkable."
All that is true enough, yet the point about war cuts both ways. The manner in which Bush chose to use his war-making authority is the primary reason his standing with the public has fallen so far. In this way, Bush's winding-down period in office is reminiscent of the pained last months endured by Presidents Truman and Johnson, both of whom had started or escalated wars in Asia that they could not control, could not win, and could not figure out how to make go away.
By the end of their presidencies, both men became political pariahs -- and a drag on their own party's nominee. Truman opened 1952 by registering the lowest Gallup presidential approval rating ever recorded (22 percent). Republican nominee Eisenhower campaigned on the dual themes of Democratic "corruption" and "Truman's war." Although Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson didn't mention the Korean War at the Democrats' 1952 convention, Americans hadn't forgotten it. When the ballots were counted, Ike carried all but nine states and won 55 percent of the popular vote.
In March 1968, after Sen. Eugene McCarthy gave Johnson a scare in the New Hampshire primary, the president announced he wouldn't seek re-election. (Later, it was revealed that Johnson had seen polls showing McCarthy poised to defeat the president outright in Wisconsin.) In any event, Robert Kennedy entered the race, setting up a showdown with Johnson's vice president, Hubert Humphrey. It was a contest that ended amid the tragedy of assassination and the ugliness of riots. As the violent Democratic National Convention in Chicago raged on, the Soviet Union sent 200,000 troops to quell a rebellion in Czechoslovakia, an event that Johnson felt powerless to stop -- although he canceled a planned summit trip to Moscow. That year, Johnson also suffered the indignity of having his choice for chief justice of the United States rejected by the Senate, for the first time since 1795. "The president seemed trapped in a maze without an exit," wrote historian Henry J. Graff of Columbia University.
Things are not yet that bad for Bush. Although GOP fundraising is lagging far behind the Democrats', the party faithful are restive, and 2008 looks -- at this point -- to be shaping up as a Democratic year, there are still swaths of the country where he is popular.
"He came to Kansas, and we set a record for a fundraiser," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. "There were some protesters, but they were far outnumbered by people waving flags. We raised $650,000, which is a record for Kansas. That's not much for anybody else, but for Kansas it's pretty high. He gave some good remarks. I don't know where he is in the polls in Kansas, but this president doesn't worry much about the polls. I wouldn't write him off yet."
Bush has also retained his hold on the faithful in the GOP stronghold of the Deep South. "It's not just that the president doesn't have as much power, but we had 55 senators before -- now we've got 49," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "So a bill that might be possible had Republicans still had the majority in the House and Senate might not be possible now, not because of his leadership or lack of it but just because the votes aren't there. A different party has the majority."
Sessions is a bit selective in his observations: The unpopularity of the president and his Iraq war was a major factor in the Democratic takeover of the Senate (and the House) in 2006. Moreover, those 49 Republicans didn't exactly help the White House on the signature legislative attempt of Bush's second term. Sessions says that Republicans didn't abandon Bush on immigration because they were mad at him. They abandoned him because they didn't like the bill. That's also true, as far as it goes, and is a reminder that in Bush's second term, Republicans aren't willing, as they were on Iraq, to swallow their misgivings in the interests of party unity.
Nonetheless, Republican allies remain, particularly in the House, where many are still hoping that Bush will assert himself no matter what the public opinion polls say. "People are looking for leadership -- even from a lame duck," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Select Intelligence Committee. "Bush retains considerable influence because he can veto," added Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee. "We will sustain his vetoes in the House. His handling of these issues speaks to the core of who we are as a party, the mantle of fiscal discipline which we lost in the 2006 election, and we welcome his help on that."
Unless he plays only defense from here on out, however, Bush will need some Democrats. The trick is finding an issue that is palatable to some of them but doesn't upset conservatives. Heaven knows, Democrats aren't in a mood to help Bush for his sake alone. Aside from the myriad congressional oversight investigations, Democrats are also exploring ways to roll back some of Bush's first-term legislative successes. Democrats want to pump more federal money into No Child Left Behind, which doesn't particularly trouble the president; they are also looking into letting his tax cuts lapse, something that Bush won't allow without a fight. In the wake of the immigration bill fiasco, it has dawned on White House officials and congressional Democrats alike that for Bush, protecting turf previously won is a more realistic goal than launching any grand new endeavors.
"It's hard for presidents who have 70 percent approval ratings to get significant legacy pieces through Congress. So for a president hovering in the low 40s, or whatever, high 30s at the end of a term where he's considered, and is, a lame duck, it makes it even more difficult," said Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of red-state Louisiana. "Having said that, there are things at the center I'd like to see done, and I'd most certainly be willing to work with him on those things and others. I would like to see health care insurance, a new approach to covering the uninsured, but at this point, the time quotient is so high that something like that would be a Hail Mary pass."