President Bush is quietly providing back-channel advice to Hillary Rodham Clinton, urging her to modulate her rhetoric so she can effectively prosecute the war in Iraq if elected president.
In an interview for the new book "The Evangelical President," White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten said Bush has "been urging candidates: 'Don't get yourself too locked in where you stand right now. If you end up sitting where I sit, things could change dramatically.' "
Bolten said Bush wants enough continuity in his Iraq policy that "even a Democratic president would be in a position to sustain a legitimate presence there."
"Especially if it's a Democrat," the chief of staff told The Examiner in his West Wing office. "He wants to create the conditions where a Democrat not only will have the leeway, but the obligation to see it out."
To that end, the president has been sending advice, mostly through aides, aimed at preventing an abrupt withdrawal from Iraq in the event of a Democratic victory in November 2008.
"It's different being a candidate and being the president," Bush said in an Oval Office interview. "No matter who the president is, no matter what party, when they sit here in the Oval Office and seriously consider the effect of a vacuum being created in the Middle East, particularly one trying to be created by al Qaeda, they will then begin to understand the need to continue to support the young democracy."
To that end, Bush is institutionalizing controversial anti-terror programs so they can be used by the next president.
"Look, I'd like to make as many hard decisions as I can make, and do a lot of the heavy lifting prior to whoever my successor is," Bush said. "And then that person is going to have to come and look at the same data I've been looking at, and come to their own conclusion."
As an example, Bush cited his detainee program, which allows him to keep enemy combatants imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay while they await adjudication. Bush is unmoved by endless criticism of the program because he says his successor will need it.
"I specifically talked about it so that a candidate and/or president wouldn't have to deal with the issue," he said. "The next person has got the opportunity to analyze the utility of the program and make his or her decision about whether or not it is necessary to protect the homeland. I suspect they'll find that it is necessary. But my only point to you is that it was important for me to lay it out there, so that the politics wouldn't enter into whether or not the program ought to survive beyond my period."
The Examiner asked Bush why Democratic candidates such as Clinton and Barack Obama, who routinely lambaste his handling of Iraq, should take his advice.
"First of all, I expect them to criticize me. That's one way you get elected in the Democratic primary, is to criticize the president," Bush replied. "I don't expect them to necessarily take advice from me. I would expect their insiders to at least get a perspective about how we see things."
He added: "We have an obligation to make sure that whoever is interested, they get our point of view, because you want somebody running for president to at least understand all perspectives, apart from the politics."
Besides, Bush suggested that Clinton and Obama just might benefit from his advice.
"If I were a candidate running for president in a complex world that we're in, I would be asking my national security team to touch base with the White House just to at least listen about plans, thoughts," he said.
So far, Bush has been encouraged by the fact that Democratic candidates are preserving enough wiggle room in their anti-war rhetoric to enable them to keep at least some troops in Iraq.
"If you listen carefully, there are Democrats that say, 'Well, there needs to be some kind of presence,'" Bush said.
A senior White House official said the administration did not put much stock in pledges by Democratic presidential candidates to swiftly end the Iraq war if elected.
"Well, first of all, if you're a presidential candidate," the official said, "you're able to [finesse] the public posturing that you may be required to do, or that you fall into doing.
"The other thing is, they are being advised by smart people," the official said. "We've got colleagues here on the staff who have good communications with some of the thinkers on that side.
"And there is a recognition by most of them that there has to be a long-term presence by the United States if we hope to avoid America being brought back into the region in a very precarious way, at a point where all-out resources are required."
One topic discussed by the White House and Democratic presidential campaigns is whether such a long-term presence should be inside Iraq, as Clinton prefers, or just outside, as Democratic candidate John Edwards has suggested.
Asked by The Examiner whether the Democrats were reluctant to have private contacts with the administration, the White House official replied: "No, I think they sort of welcome conversation."
Besides, he said, Democrats understand the negative consequences of moving too quickly to reverse Bush's Iraq policy. The official noted that in the wake of Vietnam, anti-war Democrats "suffered for 20-some-odd years because they were identified as the party, when it came to national security, of being weak."
"If I were a Democrat, I would not want to be in a place where I was forcing us to withdraw in '08," he said. "It's an election year and any bad consequences would immediately be on their head.
"One of two things will happen if a Democrat gets elected president," he said. "They will either have to withdraw U.S. troops in order to remain true to the rhetoric — in which case, any consequences in the aftermath fall on their heads. Or they have to break their word, in which case they encourage fratricide on the left of their party. Now that's a thorny issue to work through."
Vice President Dick Cheney was philosophical about the possibility of a Democratic president fundamentally reversing the policies that he and Bush have worked so hard to implement in Iraq.
"It's the nature of the business, in a sense," he shrugged during an interview in his West Wing office. "I mean, you get two terms. We were fortunate to get two terms. And I think we'll increasingly see a lot of emphasis on deciding who the next occupant of the Oval Office is going to be."