George Bush was back in flight suit mode over the weekend, exuding the macho, Protector-in-Chief swagger that got him re-elected. While passing out Purple Hearts at an Army hospital in Texas, the president strongly defended the NSA spy program as a key tool in fending off another terrorist attack.
"On September the 11th, 2001, our nation was attacked," he reminded us for the 1,365,729th time. "And after that day, I vowed to use all the resources at my disposal, within the law, to protect the American people, which is what I have been doing, and will continue to do."
"We're at war with a bunch of cold blooded killers, who will kill on a moment's notice" he said. "If somebody from al Qaeda is calling you, we'd like to know why."
So far, the public seems to be buying this Colonel Jessep Defense ("You need me on that wall!"), with half of the country saying the warrantless domestic wiretapping had made America safer.
Nevertheless, I feel confident predicting that Bush's bluster will soon give way to a far less full-throated stance.
Why? Because we've seen this pattern before. It's the Bush administration's political spin on those five stages of grief, which move from denial to anger, through bargaining and depression to, finally, acceptance.
The president's current posturing is a Kubler-Ross twofer, combining both denial and anger in one handy stage-straddling step. It allows him to deny that what he did was wrong and illegal while simultaneously venting his anger on the enemy. No, not al Qaeda -- but the spy program whistleblower.
It's Classic Bush: challenge him and find yourself targeted for aiding and abetting the enemy. "The fact that somebody leaked this program causes great harm to the United States," he told reporters ominously. "There's an enemy out there. They read newspapers, they listen to what you write, they listen to what you put on the air, and they react."
Which is really the underlying strategy of the president's aggressive defense: the hope that by replaying his effective use of the Fear Factor, he can undercut the planned congressional investigations into the legality of his actions and shift the focus to identifying who let the spy cat out of the black bag. In Bushlandia, you see, undermining the Constitution isn't what "causes great harm to the United States"; it's the public finding out that you are undermining the Constitution that does.
But coming on strong only to eventually retreat in the face of insistent pushback is also Classic Bush. But only if the pushback is really insistent -- and especially if it's coming from members of his own party.
We saw it with the furor over the administration's stand on torture - Cheney's two-fisted intransigence ultimately giving way to the president"s signature on the McCain amendment. And we saw it with Bush's acquiesce on Harriet Miers, where what he knew was in her heart didn't stand a chance against what he heard from outraged Republicans -- and his denial of her shortcomings quickly gave way to his acceptance of her withdrawal.
And we're seeing this same kind of pushback on the spy story, with GOP stalwarts Arlen Specter, Dick Lugar, John McCain, and Lindsey Graham all making it clear that Bush's claim that his actions were "within the law" is not going to go unquestioned - or uninvestigated.
"There is no doubt that this is inappropriate," said Specter. "We can't become an outcome-based democracy," said Graham. "Even in a time of war, you have to follow the process, because that's what a democracy is all about: a process."
And a Democratic Senator tells me that more Senate Republicans than have already gone public are, in increasingly loud whispers in the Senate cloakroom, expressing their unease about the president's actions.
That's why it's only a matter of time before Bush's swaggering denial and anger are replaced by a flurry of bargaining, a brief bout of depression, and the inevitable acceptance - however reluctant (he is still George Bush, after all).
The president has only just begun to feel the political grief on this one.