For President Bush, the Reservoir of Goodwill Is Bone-Dry

by Stuart Rothenberg October 1, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

About six weeks ago, an influential Capitol Hill Democrat told me he suspected that both Democrats in Congress and the White House were itching for a fight and, he said, if there was one in the fall, he certainly wanted it to be about the “kids’ health,” not about appropriations bills.

It now looks as if that Democrat will get his wish, as the White House digs in and President Bush readies his veto of Congress’ expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Most observers, including practically all Democrats and most in the national media, figure that there is never any political benefit in voting against or vetoing legislation and additional spending on “kids’ health.”

That’s not entirely true. Any issue can be redefined to make it less appealing to voters at large.

When, during his first term, President Bill Clinton initially proposed a major health care overhaul, some wondered how Republicans could oppose it without looking as if they were against lower health care costs for consumers. But opponents of the Clinton proposal won by defining it as bureaucratic, unwieldy and interfering with patients’ choice.

The defeat of the Clinton plan was a stunning political victory for Republicans — a victory they would use to help build a Republican electoral wave in less than two years.

The problem now for opponents of SCHIP legislation is that the single most visible and identifiable person standing in the way of the House-Senate conference compromise is Bush.

The current Bush is very different from the one who, during a Nov. 4, 2004, news conference, responded to a question about his agenda for a second term by saying: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”

Less than three years after that news conference, the president has no political capital left, no reservoir of goodwill either on Capitol Hill or in the country at large with which to rally opposition to the measure. His political capital has morphed into political baggage.

The president’s job-approval ratings have been abysmal for months, and Americans are critical of his job performance across the board, not just when it comes to Iraq.

Democrats have no reason whatsoever to be deferential to him, and voters are not likely to give him the benefit of the doubt during a political debate filled with charges and countercharges, particularly when he is on one side and a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress is on the other.

Conservative Peter Ferrara wrote recently in National Review Online that the SCHIP program, “supposedly to help poor children,” would in fact “finance subsidies to families earning as much as $82,000 a year.” He then echoed the Bush message that the “massive SCHIP expansion mostly involves a takeover of private insurance coverage.”

Other Republicans, including Texas Rep. Joe Barton and Georgia Rep. Nathan Deal, have complained that the proposal will mean higher taxes and a new burden for taxpayers. Whether they are correct almost doesn’t matter right now.

The bill’s GOP co-sponsor, Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, has debunked the assertion that states could unilaterally set their income limits as high as $82,000, and 18 Republicans supported the bill that passed the Senate in early August, including Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), Kit Bond (Mo.) and Dick Lugar (Ind.).

Individuals can decide for themselves whether the final bill deserves passage, but one thing is crystal clear: The combination of considerable Republican support for the proposal combined with the president’s and the Republican Party’s weak standing means that opponents of reauthorization of SCHIP are shooting themselves in the foot.

Republicans, of course, are correct to want to get back to criticizing Democrats for too much spending and too many new or expanded government programs, and they already have started that drumbeat. But they won’t be very effective in doing so until more time passes since they did their own spending, and until they have regained some of their credibility as a party. It’s quite likely that Republicans won’t make much headway with their argument until a new president is elected.

So the GOP is stuck on SCHIP where it has been on so many issues over the past few years — divided, with a politically crippled president and, now, defending a position of political weakness. No wonder Democrats are gloating.