Some things are hard to predict and other things are not. It is not hard to predict that the Executive Branch is going to come into conflict with the Legislative Branch over the next two years. One reason is the President and Vice-President’s belief in the Unitary Executive theory. That theory is legally complex but it will be used to resist Congressional oversight, especially oversight that bears on the President’s role as commander-in-chief. And when that happens, there will be a public debate about whether the President, as the chief executive in the ‘war on terror’ is above the law. Can he refuse to allow his subordinates to testify, can he immunize them against the withholding of evidence? In this light, it is interesting to see with what low regard the public already holds the President in this debate.

A new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows Americans have grown more pessimistic after the Iraq Study Group report that the situation there has become “dire.” That contributed to Mr. Bush’s lowest-ever approval rating in the Journal/NBC poll — 34% — and turned Americans toward his Democratic adversaries. By 59% to 21%, Americans say Congress rather than Mr. Bush should take the lead in setting policy for the nation. Nearly a year ago, when Republicans controlled Congress, Americans wanted Capitol Hill to take the lead, 49% to 25% over Mr. Bush.

So, his position has deteriorated, but it was already fairly pathetic before the midterm elections. I interpret this as evidence that the public has no confidence in the President’s abilities to carry out foreign policy. It’s especially illuminating, when we consider the infintesimally low polling numbers of Congress. If 60% consistently disapprove of the job Congress is doing but they nonetheless prefer Congress to set policy over the President, then what does that say for the country’s likely mood in a showdown over the Unitary Executive Theory?

Let’s just use a little example. For shits and giggles, let’s suppose that Dick Durbin, acting as chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights, asks Donald Rumsfeld to testify under oath and he subpoenas all paperwork related to setting interrogation practices and the delegation of that work to the CIA and/or the Armed Forces. And then let us suppose that the administration refuses to allow the Pentagon to turn over that paperwork or for Rumsfeld to testify materially on those subjects. What side will the public take?

And when we consider this potential showdown (and several others like it) we need to keep in mind the following backdrop.

Just 19% of Americans now describe themselves as “more confident” the war will end successfully, and only 16% favor continued use of U.S. troops in all aspects of the war. Just one in four Americans believe there is anything more the U.S. can do to quell violence among Iraq’s ethnic and religious groups; 65% say the U.S. is already doing all it can.

Americans express ambivalence about the Iraq Study Group’s report itself, as 49% say they don’t know enough about it. But they evince considerable support for its substantive recommendations; eight in 10 want U.S. troops either redeployed to secure bases to focus on training Iraqis, or removed from Iraq in a phased withdrawal beginning immediately.

Those findings reflect pressure on Mr. Bush to begin winding down the war as he enters the final two years of his presidency. By 3-to-1, Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the war. Similar pessimism among Americans on the subject was reported in a Washington Post-ABC News poll and a CBS News survey.

If the President is pursuing a substantively stay-the-course policy in Iraq, while refusing to take guidance from Congress, and then starts stonewalling Congress over their attempts at oversight, it looks like he will be the loser in any battle for public sympathy.

The big question is, how much shit the Congressional Republicans are willing to eat in order to carry the President’s water in the face of these abysmal polling numbers. This question is especially acute, because the President is going to be asking Senators and Congresspeople to back a theory of government that has the effect of diminishing the power of the legislative branch.

This is somewhat akin to asking France, Russia, and China to support a U.N. Resolution authorizing force in Iraq that has the effect of taking away their contracts to develop Iraq’s oil fields and handing those contracts to Anglo corporations. In other words, Congress’s incentive to go along with this hare-brained scheme is pretty limited and would only make sense if there were some overriding political benefit.

Such benefits would be: if it benefited the Republican front-runner’s prospects of winning the nomination and/or the Presidency. Or, if it made it more likely that the GOP would retake one or both houses of Congress in 2008. It’s very hard to see how assisting an Executive cover-up and power grab (in light of these polling numbers) would have those benefits for the Republican party.

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