The White House is trying to soothe Republicans who say the party might have fared better in last week's congressional elections if US President George W. Bush had not waited until after the vote to oust Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
"You could argue that either way, of what political effect an earlier decision on Secretary Rumsfeld would have had. But it doesn't matter," White House chief of staff Josh Bolten said on Sunday.
"The president correctly decided that this decision does not belong in the political realm. And a decision as important as your secretary of defense should not be made based on some partisan political advantage. It would send a terrible signal to our troops, to our allies, even to our enemies," Bolten said.
Former house speaker Newt Gingrich has suggested that if Bush replaced Rumsfeld two weeks before the election, voters would not have been as angry about the unpopular Iraq war. Republicans would have gained the boost they needed, according to Gingrich, to retain their majority in the Senate and hold onto 10 to 15 more House seats.
Republican Senator Arlen Specter, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, agreed.
Bush should have removed Rumsfeld "as soon as he had made up his mind. And that's a hard thing to calculate. But it's highly doubtful that he made up his mind between the time the election returns came in on Tuesday and Wednesday when Rumsfeld was out."
"And if Rumsfeld had been out, you bet it would have made a difference. I'd still be chairman of the Judiciary Committee," Specter said.
The same thought occurred to veteran Republican Congressman Clay Shaw, who was on the verge of becoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. After the election, Shaw said that if Rumsfeld had stepped down before last Tuesday, Shaw and other Republicans might have won. "It could have made a difference in who is running the Congress," Shaw said.
Bush said in an Oval Office interview with reporters on Nov. 1 that he expected Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney to stay in his administration until the end. A day after the Democrats triumphed, Bush acknowledged he misled the reporters because he "didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign."
Bolten said that when Bush spoke to the reporters, the president had begun seeking a replacement for Rumsfeld -- but had yet to decide on a successor.
"The president was not going to replace Secretary Rumsfeld unless he was confident that he had a very strong replacement available to him to put in place," Bolten said.
More important, Bolten said, was that Bush's misdirection to the press was justified by military need.
"If he had said something other than what he said, if he had been equivocal about his support for Secretary Rumsfeld, that would have started an outbreak of ... speculation about Secretary Rumsfeld's tenure," Bolten said. "It would have undermined Secretary Rumsfeld's ability to lead the military in a time of war."
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