"Our investigation revealed that Katrina was a national failure, an abdication of the most solemn obligation to provide for the common welfare."
If that acidic assessment came from Democrats, it could easily be dismissed as partisan sniping. But in fact, the investigation was conducted by 11 House Republicans, headed by Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. As one well-placed Democrat told us, Davis was saying similar things about the president in private two years ago, but now feels free to say them publicly.
The decision by GOP lawmakers to publish a scathing report about a Republican administration reflects the core problem facing President Bush for the rest of his term. Two years ago, when he was running for re-election, all 11 Republicans on that panel had one clear, common goal: get the president a second term.
But the moment Bush won, that dynamic changed. He will never run again, but House members must face the voters in less than nine months. In criticizing the president, they are simply following their own self-interest.
This changing political calculation helps explain why second-term presidents always have such a hard time. But there are many other reasons, and this president seems to be suffering from all of them at once.
Both national parties join together many divergent ideas, and effective leaders manage to keep them all in line, but in a second term, ideological fissures start to widen. One example: libertarians like John Sununu of New Hampshire and Larry Craig of Idaho have long been leery of Bush's vast expansion of federal power. But only now have the two senators protested openly, delaying renewal of the Patriotic Act until changes were adopted bolstering the rights of individuals.
Other Republicans distance themselves from the president because they want to succeed him. Sen. John McCain strongly backed the invasion of Iraq, but after the last election split with the president by opposing the use of torture by U.S. troops.
A former POW in Vietnam, McCain is preparing another bid for the GOP nomination by stressing his record in combat and his reputation for "straight talk." Standing up to the president on the torture issue enhances his two strongest political assets.
Other possible candidates are following a similar strategy. Sen. Bill Frist highlighted his record as a successful heart surgeon by supporting more federal funding for stem cell research. Sen. Sam Brownback boosted his conservative credentials by opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, the president's close confidant.
As staffers leave an administration during a second term the bonds of loyalty begin to loosen. Former FEMA director Michael Brown feels free to lambaste his one-time colleagues for mismanaging the response to Katrina. Paul Pillar retired from the CIA and recently published an article in Foreign Affairs alleging that in Iraq, "intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made."
Lawrence Wilkerson, a key aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, wrote a resignation letter, but hid it in a desk drawer until after the last election. Once he left, he described Bush as "a president who is not versed in international relations and not too much interested in them, either."
Second-term White Houses start feeling arrogant, even bulletproof, and that leads to mistakes. A doozy: Vice President Cheney's decision to wait 18 hours before disclosing that he had shot a fellow hunter.
When mistakes lead to legal problems, the results can be doubly devastating, because former loyalists facing criminal charges acquire a new incentive: saving their own skin.
Court documents show that Lewis Libby, once a key Cheney adviser, told prosecutors that his "superiors" had authorized him to leak classified information.
Disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who raised more than $100,000 for Bush's re-election, is now the administration's worst nightmare, as he contemplates trading secrets about his old pals for reduced jail time.
Finally, there is the question of accountability. Voters are suspicious of concentrated power and often prefer to hedge their bets. During the 1986 campaign, President Reagan went around the country, pleading with audiences to "vote for the Gipper one last time" by supporting Republican candidates for Congress.
During one presidential visit to Springfield, Mo., Steve interviewed a loyal Republican who said she was, in fact, voting Democratic in that fall's Senate race. Asked why she replied, "Because I want Ronald Reagan to have a lot of explaining to do."
Like all second-term presidents, George W. Bush has a lot of explaining to do. And many of his harshest critics are within his own party.