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Why Bush Can't 'Change Course'

By Tom Bevan

After weeks of grumbling and fretting over administration mistakes and ominously low Presidential approval ratings, Republicans had made it clear they wanted to see some change at the White House. From the looks of things, however, they were less than satisfied by the surprising news this week that Josh Bolten would replace Andy Card as President Bush's Chief of Staff.

I certainly understand the impulse for change. When a team isn't playing well the first thing that usually happens is the fans start calling for the coach to rotate the lineup or to start making trades. But such moves don't always make things better, and often times they make things worse.

Pundits have suggested a number of things to try and explain the uncharacteristically poor showing of late by the White House political operation: the group had become too insular, the thinking too stale and predictable, the energy and enthusiasm sapped by years of incredibly hard and stressful work.

There is probably some merit to all of these criticisms. Bush might be well served by advice coming from a fresh perspective, or a new face in the administration to try and help mend a few fences with Congress, etc.

At best, however, personnel changes are only going to help Bush on the margin because they aren't going to change the political and policy realities that continue to dog his administration. Bush could swap out his entire White House staff to placate the beltway chattering class, but it isn't going to help the public feel any differently about his policy in Iraq.

And Iraq is, in a nutshell, the entire problem. As Charlie Cook noted recently, the war is hanging like a wet blanket over the Bush administration, dragging down the President's numbers across the board from his handling of the economy (which continues to do well) to his ratings on fighting the war on terrorism and also the public's perception of him as a strong and decisive leader.

Given that the war has now become the center of Bush's political universe and is exerting a negative centrifugal force on all other aspects of his administration, there is really only one personnel change Bush could make that might have any real effect on turning things around: replacing Don Rumsfeld.

But President Bush isn't about to fire Rumsfeld, nor does the Secretary of Defense give any indication that he's about to resign. Either would be seen as a tacit admission of failure in Iraq - something that would give the Democrats a neatly-wrapped gift for the elections this November and, more importantly, would be interpreted as a sign of weakness by our enemies overseas and cast further doubt on our commitment and resolve to hang tough in Iraq.

In other words, it won't happen. Calls by Republicans for the White House to "change course" may have been sincere and well-intentioned, but as a purely practical matter they amount to little more than window dressing. President Bush charted his course with the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and he's now living with the political consequences of that decision, as is his party. At this point the only correction to be had is for the administration to devote all its time and energy to getting things under control in Iraq. Nothing else matters.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Email:

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