George W. Bush has been running around Europe misting up and emoting about how much he regrets talking and acting like the warmonger he's proven to be. "I think that in retrospect I could have used a different tone, a different rhetoric," he told The Times of London.
Well, yes; he could have. But tone-deafness has been a defining characteristic of this administration from its inception. Remember that Bush campaigned in 2000 on a promise to "change the tone in Washington," only to keep his promise by making the tone worse. Bush has clearly turned his attention to burnishing his legacy, but it seems a little ridiculous to be apologizing at this late stage for the least of his offenses, when the large ones are so monumental.
Just so we're clear, the most regrettable elements of the Bush years have nothing to do with what the president said or how he said it. Rather, it was all the ridiculously ill-considered, foolish, and fundamentally wrong things that he did. For example, starting an unnecessary war that has so far deprived more than 4,000 American families of loved ones and the nation of the confidence of the world.
Bush is now openly begging for help from history to rescue his reputation, insisting that the eventual verdict on Iraq will be that "freedom prevailed." He's entitled to his daydreams.
But to me he seems worried about exactly the wrong things -- words instead of war, his own image rather than the damage he's done to the country and the world. His great regret, he says, is that his bravura may have left the impression that he is "not a man of peace."
There may be little he can do at about Iraq now or the $4-a-gallon gas, or the sense that this administration has been disingenuous, corrupt and incompetent. But I keep looking for some little hint that he has some grasp of the damage's he's done. So far, there is none.
But what is certain, and what will pain Bush until the end of his days, is that he will always be remembered as the president who dismantled and destroyed his own party after it had dominated American politics for more than a generation. Almost single-handedly.
It is possible that John McCain may overcome the Bush drag on the Republican ticket to win in November, but the GOP is certain to lose even more seats in Congress than it did in 2006. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll (PDF) shows Democrats with a 19-point lead in the "generic congressional ballot," meaning that, without regard to specific candidates, 52 percent of Americans would like Democrats to control the Congress while 33 percent would prefer Republicans.
I subscribe to a theory, not entirely my own, that the Senate's partisan composition is a pretty good gauge of the country's political temperature. Voters understand that the Senate is how the country says yes or no, especially no, to the chief executive when he or she is not on the ballot.
2006 was only the third time since the direct election of senators in 1913 that control of Senate changed hands during a president's second term. In all three the country seemed to want to recall a president who it had just re-elected. The first was Woodrow Wilson in 1918, who had been re-elected because he had kept the country out of war, only to change his mind a few months later. News of the Iran Contra affair broke in 1987 after Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election; his popularity tanked and in 1986 midterms the Democrats picked up eight seats to take a 55-45 majority.
After Wilson left office, it took Democrats 12 years to win the White House again. Reagan, on the other hand, recovered enough to be succeeded by another Republican, though Democrats helped by nominating Michael Dukakis.
It's hard to see how Bush recovers enough to save McCain, or how Obama could run a campaign half as bad as Dukakis.
In 2006, Democrats picked up six Senate seats to retake the majority, and it looks like they are headed for even larger gains in November. The GOP seems destined for losses in Alaska, New Hampshire, Virginia, New Mexico and Colorado. And enough others are in play that Democrats are entertaining the possibility that they may be able to get to the all-important 60 seats.
In any case it seems likely that it'll be a long time before the Republicans are in control on either side of the Capitol again. And for that they have George W. Bush to thank. Now that's something he might come to regret, even if most of the country won't.