Baker’s Game

Is he hurting Bush now to help him later?

James Baker. Click image to expand.
James Baker with Lee Hamilton

Former Secretary of State James Baker appeared on This Week With George Stephanopoulos on Sunday to talk about his new book, Work Hard, Study … And Keep Out of Politics. On Meet the Press, Bob Woodward talked about State of Denial. It’s hard to say which of them did more damage to the president.

Woodward we know about. The Bush team has aggressively worked to punch holes in his reporting and has all but turned him into a one-man White House enemies list. Baker, on the other hand, is supposed to be a family friend and loyalist. He was present on Saturday at the formal christening of a new aircraft carrier named for the first President Bush and the president, along with Congress, put him in charge of the Iraq Study Group, a collection of wise men tasked with taking a fresh look at the problems in Iraq. But Baker wasn’t sounding like a family loyalist on ABC. First, he basked in quotes in the book explaining the chaos that might have resulted from an American occupation of Iraq during the first Gulf War. “It’s exactly what’s happened now, isn’t it?” asked the host. “Yes, it did,” said Baker. Then, Baker shifted from Wise Man who foresaw the disaster to pragmatic Wise Man who will solve it, by hinting at the coming findings of the Study Group.

One imagines considerable squirming at this performance in the White House residence. Over the years, President Bush has alternately hugged his Jim Baker doll and stuck pins into it. He reportedly thought Baker didn’t do enough to help his father get re-elected in 1992, and he shut him out of his 2000 campaign. But then Bush called in his dad’s old consigliere during the Florida recount, and Baker handled the assignment masterfully. Now Baker appears to be presenting himself as the adult who can rescue his old friend’s lost boy.

What, exactly, was Baker’s game? He may have just been shilling for his book and reminding everyone how smart he is. Or, he may have been laying the groundwork for the release of the Study Group’s recommendations after the election. Baker is nothing if not a strategic thinker and a forward planner. He understands that two months from now, when the Study Group’s plans are unveiled, he wants to look independent of the administration. Creating some distance from Bush now makes that more plausible. To sell the Study Group plan, he needs to be Jim Baker, truth-teller, not Jim Baker, political hack who helped Bush grab the election in Florida.

Coming so close to the election, Baker’s comments were not politically helpful. But they may help Bush in the long run if the president is serious about staying in Iraq through the long, ugly slog ahead. If the core of the president’s policies is going to survive after Election Day, he’s going to need a new salesman. Bush has lost the country on Iraq, and he has lost his ability to convince the country that he’s got a plan for victory. Baker may be just the man for the job of helping him win people over.

Utilizing Baker as an insider with the appearance of independence also presents Bush with an opportunity to change course. The president doesn’t have to say he’s following the Study Group’s recommendations. He can claim the ideas were already under consideration—his approach when he yielded to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security after members of both parties had been calling for such a thing, In this case, the leader of the thoughtful and sober Study Group would serve to sprinkle legitimacy on a redirection of policy that Bush will inevitably take credit for.

Baker may also give some cover to Republicans running for re-election who are too timid to speak up. I’m not criticizing the president, but the Baker plan sounds intriguing, said the congressman as he backpedaled out of the room. This is essentially what John Warner did last week as he worried aloud about chaos in Iraq and pointed to the Baker plan as a possible solution if the situation doesn’t change in two or three months. The Study Group plan, as Baker sketched it, would keep troops in Iraq for at least a year and might encourage administration officials to enter direct talks with countries like Iran and Syria. Baker has also talked about other options like increasing U.S. troop levels after the election, according to one source.

If Baker is offering showy independence to help Bush later, the Democratic members of the Study Group may not remain so cooperative about observing a cease-fire until after the election. Watch the papers in the coming days for anonymous quotes. On the other hand, the Democrats on the commission are Wise Men, too, which means that they spend most of their time feigning superiority to party politics. Like the 9/11 Commission members, they love being looked to as the possible saviors who can speak the nonpartisan truth and deliver us from the Iraq mess.

There’s a final benefit for Bush in Baker’s plan. Woodward’s title State of Denial renews the critique that the president is isolated from reality and criticism. If Bush ultimately accepts the findings of a Study Group led by James Baker, he won’t be the boy in the bubble anymore.