The Bush administration may be getting a bad case of the second-term blues. There are three major symptoms.
The first is scandals. President Nixon's second term brought Watergate. President Reagan's had Iran-Contra. President Clinton's had Monica Lewinsky.
The second symptom is the "six-year itch," voter restiveness that produces serious losses for the president's party in the midterm elections of the president's second term. Democrats experienced serious losses in 1938 and 1966. Republicans had setbacks in 1958, 1974, and 1986.
The third symptom is "lame-duck-itis." As he loses popularity and his party fractures, a second-term president has less and less clout. That condition usually sets in after the midterm elections.
Like most models, this one works—except when it doesn't. Clinton got his six-year itch after just two years, in 1994. Democrats ended up gaining House seats in the 1998 midterm because of public anger over Clinton's impending impeachment. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., resigned after Clinton's six-year itch failed to materialize that year.
President Bush is exhibiting the classic second-term blues symptoms. His popularity is between 40 and 45 percent, unusually low for a president less than a year after winning re-election. Bush has kept his base, however. Eighty-five percent of Republicans continue to support him, according to Gallup polls taken for USA Today and CNN. His strength among the GOP rank and file makes it risky for congressional Republicans to distance themselves too far from him.
But Republicans in Congress are beginning to sense trouble ahead. Two recent polls—one by Newsweek, the other by the Pew Research Center—show Democrats with a 12-point lead in the national vote for Congress. That's an unusually wide margin, comparable to the one Republicans enjoyed going into the 1994 midterm elections.
Last month saw an unusual uprising by conservative Republicans who are unhappy with their leaders' free-spending response to the recent hurricanes. "We are here because last week the president of the United States and the leadership of the Republican majority in Congress challenged our membership to come up with ... recommended cuts in government spending to ensure that we would not have to force a tax increase on the American people or [create] greater debt," announced Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, chairman of the Republican Study Committee. "There is more than enough room for cuts in the federal budget to pay for Katrina," Pence added.
One by one, conservative Republicans came forward to propose cuts. Among them: "NASA's new moon and Mars initiative," "Amtrak subsidies," "virtually all of the [U.S. contribution to the] United Nations budget," "the money that we give Egypt each year," "$10 million on the citrus-canker compensation program," and "the Corporation for Public Broadcasting." Conservatives also targeted another big-ticket item they have never embraced. "The big dollars are in the prescription drug bill," declared Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, spoke with greater defiance. "Our seniors have gone 220 years without a prescription drug benefit," he said. "I don't think that they will begrudge us for having them wait one more year."
The prescription drug benefit is one of Bush's signature commitments. There is no chance he will drop or delay it. Another nonstarter is the $24 billion earmarked for local projects in the new highway bill. That spending helps protect incumbents. The conservative budget-cutters have run smack into opposition from Republican leaders whose job it is to protect the GOP majorities.
In another sign of trouble, abuse of power is becoming an issue. In the 1980s and 1990s, several Democratic congressional leaders got into hot water over legal and ethical violations. Republicans, in their 1994 Contract With America, attacked what they called the "cycle of scandal and disgrace," and they won.
Now, Republicans are inundated by legal problems. Ronnie Earle, the district attorney of Travis County, Texas, made big news by indicting House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, for alleged conspiracy to violate state campaign finance laws.
In August, federal prosecutors indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had close ties to DeLay, on fraud charges. Last month, federal prosecutors arrested Abramoff's former business partner, David Safavian, who had to resign from the White House budget office. The Bush aide was charged with lying and obstruction of justice in connection with the Abramoff investigation.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is under investigation for his stock dealings. "I will cooperate with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. attorney," Frist pledged, adding that he had done nothing wrong.
Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has been looking into whether a White House official illegally disclosed the name of a CIA agent. Fitzgerald succeeded in compelling New York Times reporter Judith Miller to testify about her conversations with the vice president's chief of staff concerning the matter. The grand jury could hand up indictments at any time.
Prosecutors can cause immense political problems for the party in power. That was true when the Democrats were in control. And now Republicans are in the hot seat.
Power is said to corrupt. It certainly seems to keep prosecutors very busy.