Adversity Reaction

This column was written by Terence Samuel.
These are tough days for the president of the United States. When you consider the speech on Iraq that had the feel of a force play with two outs, the slumping poll numbers that provoked the speech, the ugly reality of the facts on the ground, and the lack of good options to respond in Iraq, you know there are not a lot of high fives being exchanged around the White House.

And then there is the friction on the Hill. The Central American Free Trade Agreement is in trouble, while the Social Security reform effort is ricocheting between sad and tragic. Then, of course, there is the saga of John Bolton, whose nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has become a kind of Rorschach test for the administration. Since it was first announced in March, the Bolton confirmation effort has proved to be a study in how this administration handles adversity. And in the short term, adversity seems all the rage. The bottom-line conclusion is that this White House hardly even acknowledges adversity. Look at Bolton; look at Iraq.

How do you explain the head wind the Bolton nomination has faced? The argument that Democrats are being partisan falls short, because partisanship seems to be the norm in today's Washington. And that has not prevented a long, sometimes improbable, list of GOP triumphs on legislation, nominations, and general agenda setting. So it may be that the trouble with Bolton is Bolton.

But the problem with the nomination may be with a White House that can't find a way to pull it down. President Bush keeps insisting on an up-or-down vote on Bolton. He seems assured that such a vote would secure approval for him. Yet we know Bolton could not get 60 votes. Does this raise a question about whether he is the right person for the job? Not at 1600 Pennsylvania, where the strategy is to plow ahead regardless of how much things change. No UN ambassador in the last 30 years has been confirmed with fewer than 80 votes in the Senate. Both Jeane Kirkpatrick and the embattled Richard Holbrooke got 81 votes. But no one voted against Kirkpatrick in 1981 (she served as Reagan's first-term UN envoy), so it amounted to unanimous approval. Holbrooke, when he was finally confirmed in August of 1999, had only 16 dissenters.

With support for Bolton mixed, it would not be implausible for the administration to concede a miscalculation and to send the Senate another nominee. But it's not that kind of party.