Bush aides quit amid little sense of purpose


By Edward Luce and Andrew Ward
Updated: 4:42 a.m. ET June 21, 2007

When asked whether he was quitting the Bush administration because it would be good for his political future, Rob Portman, the outgoing budget director, replied: "It would be good for my mental health." Although Mr Portman was joking, a growing list of officials have already acted on that impulse.

At least 20 senior aides have left important posts in the White House, Pentagon or State Department over the past six months, as chaos has deepened in Iraq. "There's a real sense of fatigue and very little sense of purpose," said a senior official, who asked not to be named. "My guess is you're going to see a lot more departures."

Mr Portman, who had been Mr Bush's budget director for little more than a year, could hardly have quit at a less convenient time for the administration. His resignation was particularly symbolic because he had taken the job as part of last year's White House shake-up designed to breathe fresh life into Mr Bush's second-term policy agenda.

As the Bush official with the most experience on Capitol Hill – having served six terms as a lawmaker in the 1990s – Mr Portman's role has been critical to what little chances there are for the White House to push through its remaining domestic priorities.

These include the foundering bipartisan immigration bill for which Mr Portman has been lobbying sceptical Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill. It also includes this year's $933bn (€695bn, £468bn) discretionary budget, which Mr Bush says is excessively spendthrift and portions of which he has threatened to veto.

On Wednesday Mr Bush exercised his veto for only the third time to strike down a bill that would have enabled state funding of human embryonic stem cells. Of Mr Bush's previous two vetoes, the first also struck down a stem cell bill in September and the second axed a bill in May that would have imposed deadlines for US troops to start withdrawing from Iraq.

Few believe that Bill Nussle, the former lawmaker who will be the next White House budget director, can match Mr Portman's ability to reach out to political rivals in Congress. Mr Nussle was viewed by opponents as an uncompromising ideologue in the 1990s when the Republicans took control of Capitol Hill.

"My immediate reaction is not one that I'm wise to articulate," says Steny Hoyer, the normally mild-mannered Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives, when told of Mr Nussle's appointment.

Others say that Mr Portman, who plans to run as governor of Ohio in 2010, would not have quit if he believed the White House was capable of serious domestic reforms – particularly of the increasingly expensive Social Security and healthcare systems.

Following the "thumping" – in the words of Mr Bush – that was dealt to the Republicans in last November's mid-term elections, the president highlighted entitlement reform as a priority for bipartisan co-operation.

But the administration's efforts have been lacklustre. It has spent much of its dwindling political capital lobbying for an immigration bill that may never reach the statute books.

"What is the point of sticking around in an administration that isn't going to accomplish anything significant?" said a former official. Meanwhile, the administration faces a growing cacophony of congressional hearings into its handling of the Iraq war, into its alleged politicisation of the Justice department and into its handling of military tribunals to try alleged terrorist detainees.

Mr Bush may also have to step in again to defend Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general facing an internal inquiry into whether he improperly coached a Justice department employee to give misleading testimony to Congress over the firing of eight federal attorneys.

Many believe that Mr Bush's backing for Mr Gonzales is motivated by loyalty, since their relationship stretches back to before the president's days as governor of Texas. Others believe Mr Bush is sticking by Mr Gonzales in order to stave off the appointment of an independent prosecutor, which Democratic leaders have hinted they would do as a price to confirm whomever Mr Bush nominated to become the new attorney-general.