WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chief strategist of George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign said he had lost faith in the U.S. president over Iraq and other issues, in a high-level rupture of Bush’s famously loyal inner circle.
Matthew Dowd, a polling expert who switched parties to become a Republican and also served as a senior strategist in Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, told The New York Times in an interview on Sunday that Bush must face up to Americans’ growing disillusionment with the war.
Dowd said he had found himself agreeing with calls by Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bush’s opponent in 2004, for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“If the American public says they’re done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want,” Dowd said. “They’re saying, ‘Get out of Iraq.’”
He also cited the administration’s bungled handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Bush’s refusal to meet Cindy Sheehan, who had lost a son in Iraq, while she was leading a protest outside Bush’s Texas ranch.
“I had finally come to the conclusion that maybe all these things along do add up,” Dowd said. “That it’s not the same, it’s not the person I thought.”
Although some other administration officials have expressed similar views over the years, the Times said Dowd is the first member of Bush’s inner circle to break so publicly with him.
Dowd said he had been attracted to Bush by his ability as Texas governor to work across party lines but Bush had failed to do the same as president and had become isolated with his views hardening. The Times said Dowd was speaking out partly in an effort to get through to Bush.
“I really like him, which is why I’m so disappointed in things,” Dowd said. “I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in.”
He said Bush had failed to call for a shared sacrifice among Americans after the September 11 attacks and followed a divisive political strategy.
Dowd helped develop Bush’s successful re-election strategy of rallying his Republican “base” but sounded a different note in the Times interview.
“I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people,” he said, “but to bring the country together as a whole.”
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Dowd’s criticism reflects the U.S. debate over the war.
“This war is a complicated and difficult one and it brings out emotions in people from both sides of the aisle, even those who work closely for the president, and the president respects his position,” Bartlett said on CBS television’s “Face the Nation.”
“Obviously, we disagree with him as far as him (Bush) being too insular or him bringing the troops home,” Bartlett said. “What troubles me is that there is a perception that this president doesn’t understand the difficulties of this war ... there’s nothing that weighs more heavily on his mind.”
The Times said Dowd acknowledged that the expected deployment to Iraq of his oldest son, Daniel, an Army intelligence specialist, was a factor in his changed view of Bush.
Dowd said he now wanted to “do my part in fixing fissures that I may have been a part of.”
The Times said Dowd cited Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as the only 2008 presidential candidate who appeals to him but said the idea of mission work also was attractive as a way to “re-establish a level of gentleness in the world.”