VISALIA — The White House hurt Republicans in Congress by waiting until after the election to announce that controversial Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would resign, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, said Thursday.
"We would have kept the Senate, and maybe the House," Nunes said, if only Rumsfeld — a lightning rod for critics of the Iraq war — had been ousted before the election. "They could have done it even a month ago. It would have had a huge impact. Look at all the races that are a few thousand votes apart."
Democrats seem headed for a 232-203 seat majority in the House and 51-49 in the Senate.
Nunes, a supporter of the Iraq war as a front in the overall war on terror, complained that Republicans like him campaigning for re-election were "being held accountable" for the war, but had no idea the president was getting ready to dump Rumsfeld, and by implication, change war strategy.
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"I can't believe the administration premeditated a change of course in Iraq," Nunes said. "They led us down the path that we're going to stay the course and stay with the leadership. I will never understand why they waited until after the election to make a change in strategy."
And to think that President Bush vowed only days earlier to keep Rumsfeld, Nunes said.
"I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign," Bush told reporters when asked why he said in the final days of the campaign that Rumsfeld would be with him for two more years.
"That's what the campaign was all about for the most part," Nunes said with a hint of exasperation. "I've had a hundred conversations with constituents on the war in Iraq and Rumsfeld this past month."
Nunes said "I don't have a problem with getting rid of Rumsfeld," but he said he never called for Rumsfeld's resignation publicly or privately sought it.
"I'm behind the president," Nunes said, but added, "I'm really disappointed" because Rumsfeld's departure was being worked on while Republicans were fighting to keep the Congress.
Nunes, whose district is lopsided with strong Republican registration, will be in the minority party in Congress for the first time in his career.
But he saw it coming.
At his victory party in Visalia on election night, Nunes unfolded a handwritten list of 25 House races he figured could go to Democrats. He hoped the "X" marks next to the losers would stop at 22. But 28 turnovers occurred.
"A lot of Republicans imploded," Nunes said.
Some losses were not on his radar screen, including two districts in New Hampshire.
"That shocked me," Nunes said. The seats were held by "moderate" Republicans who "got wiped out" because of the Iraq war issue, he said.
But an election that was bad for Republicans was good for Nunes: His seniority on the Ways and Means Committee got an unplanned boost.
"I jumped up nine spots today," Nunes said on election night. "If we ever get back in the majority, I'd be in a really good spot."