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In 200 years no President has ever had his legal powers taken from him. But, in addition to his legal powers, a President must also have a political mandate to govern, and a case can be made that three of the last seven Presidents lost that mandate before they left office. And George Bush may be about to make it four of eight.

The definition of a President’s political mandate is ephemeral. It is never clearly defined. A President does not have to be popular, or successful, or a moral paragon to maintain his mandate. Instead, it seems, after giving (by election) a President the legal power to govern the public continues to respect that right – despite his mistakes – as long as he does not egregiously violate the public trust. However, it is clear at times Presidents have lost that mandate. Richard Nixon is the clearest example. His betrayal of the public trust was so complete he could not continue to govern so he had to resign.

Lyndon Johnston lost his mandate (because of his ‘credibility gap’) during the Vietnam War, served to the end of his one term and went home to Texas without seeking reelection. No one questioned Jimmy Carter’s honesty, but, after the Ayatollah Khomeni humiliated his government during the Iran Hostage Crisis, issues of competence lead to his defeat by Reagan after one term.

President Bush has entered the same gray era as President Carter. If the surge fails his government faces being humiliated by a third world power. An article in The News and Observer a week ago – “US Out of Fresh Troops for Iraq” – quoting Army Chief-of-Staff General George Casey goes right to the heart of the Bush Administration’s dilemma. A government that starts a war, then runs out of troops has failed a pretty fundamental test of competency.

President Bush has staked his Administration’s future on the surge. If it fails there are no more options. There are no more troops. His failure in Iraq will echo President Carter’s in Iran.

President Reagan picked up the pieces after Carter and went on to win the Cold War. If the surge fails who can pick up the pieces after Bush?

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