In mid-2001, Washington's chattering classes were abuzz with talk about which of George W. Bush's cabinet secretaries would be the first to resign. Most of the attention focused on one person: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld wasn't a popular figure around town. Democrats, of course, had never liked him. And the career military people at the Pentagon made clear from the start of the Bush administration that they disagreed with his plans for military transformation. Such animosities weren't really unexpected. More surprising, though, was Rumsfeld's rapidly deteriorating relationship with congressional Republicans, whose ranks he had once belonged to. According to a piece John Bresnahan wrote for Roll Call in October 2001, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) yelled, "I am discouraged, I am frustrated and I am angry," at Rumsfeld during a hearing. Things got bad enough that Rumsfeld, according to the piece, sought advice from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on how to cajole Congress.
Then came September 11, which overnight transformed Rumsfeld into a hero of sorts and, more than likely, saved his job. It also seemed to change his relationship with Republicans on the Hill. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) probably spoke for many of his colleagues when, in October 2001, he told Bresnahan that Rumsfeld was "the ideal person to balance . . . the intellectual challenges of an extremely difficult job."
But in recent weeks, Rumsfeld's relationship with Hill Republicans has apparently soured to pre-9-11 levels. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who heads the Senate Committee on Armed Services, recently sent Rumsfeld a letter expressing his concern about inflammatory remarks made by Lt. Gen. William Boykin regarding Muslims. (Playing hardball and showing his typical diplomatic finesse, Rumsfeld dismissed the letter, saying it hadn't made it to his desk.) Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, voiced regret that Congress had given the president -- and, by implication, the administration -- too much freedom in dealing with Iraq. "We probably have given this president more flexibility, more latitude, more range, unquestioned, than any president since Franklin Roosevelt -- probably too much," Hagel said. "The Congress, in my opinion, really abrogated its responsibility." And, in the wake of the leak of a memo in which the Pentagon chief warned of a "long, hard slog ahead" in Iraq, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) claimed that Rumsfeld and his deputies had not been candid with Congress about the situation on the ground. "The leaked memo, I think, puts things in a better perspective than the briefings that we've had from them," he said, according to an account by Douglas Jehl and David Firestone in The New York Times.
Democrats have been raising these questions for months. But why the change now in GOP attitudes on the Hill toward both the war and the Pentagon's civilian leadership?
One reason is that legislators are tired of being treated as a lesser branch of government by the administration. As one GOP staffer told Jehl and Firestone, "The Pentagon is not exactly Capitol Hill's favorite department anymore. Rumsfeld and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz just give off this sense that they know better than thou, and that they don't have to answer our questions."
For the last two years, many members of Congress have been willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, especially regarding the war on terrorism. Administration officials tended not to share information -- and when lawmakers demonstrated, on a few occasions, that they couldn't be trusted to keep a secret, the administration's reluctance to candidly brief senators and representatives only hardened.
But the more times Bush comes to the Hill to ask for money -- and the closer we get to an election in which many incumbents will face tough questions from constituents about how long our soldiers must stay abroad -- the more nervous lawmakers are getting. Hill Republicans can hope that most voters view the Iraq War as the responsibility of the president, not Congress. But they also know that voters could punish them if they are seen as being in the administration's pocket -- especially if the death toll continues to rise.
A second reason for percolating anti-Rumsfeld sentiment on the Hill is that many lawmakers feel genuinely misled. While they recognize that the war against terrorism could last decades, they envisioned that the war against Iraq would be over quickly and cost few U.S. lives. In short, they expected a repeat of the Gulf War.
Plus, the administration scared members into believing that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to the United States. They were thereby led to believe that supporting the war was their only option, and that it would carry little political risk.
But now much of the administration's evidence has been debunked. On Friday, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence revealed it is working on a report that says much of the prewar intelligence on Iraq was "sloppy," according to committee Chairman Roberts.
While Rumsfeld didn't lead the Iraq intelligence-gathering efforts, he certainly used the "findings" to make the case for war. According to Dana Priest of The Washington Post, Roberts has assured Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) that he'll ask the Pentagon about its intelligence on Iraq.
So the administration is starting to test the collective patience of GOP lawmakers. If Rumsfeld keeps up the hard-line approach that's been a hallmark of his tenure, Republicans may be more willing to seek his political demise. And this time -- unlike in the summer of 2001 -- he may not get a second chance.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.