WASHINGTON - President Bush had many explanations for what he called the "thumping" his party took Tuesday, but the most creative was the notion that his chief strategist, Karl Rove, had spent too much time reading books.
"I obviously was working harder on the campaign than he was," the president said at Wednesday's East Room news conference. The reporters laughed. Rove wore a sheepish grin and stared at his lap.
True, Rove will have to surrender his "genius" credentials after the GOP lost the House and apparently the Senate. But the recriminations weren't stopping at Rove's door. The president, who started his appearance with an admission that "I share a large part of the responsibility," went on to blame everybody else.
He blamed corruption: "People want their congressmen to be honest and ethical, so in some races that was the primary factor."
He blamed Mark Foley, whose name remained on the Florida ballot: "People couldn't vote directly for the Republican candidate."
He blamed ballot rules: "You could have the greatest positions in the world ... but to try to get to win on a write-in is really hard to do."
He blamed Democratic organization: "I'm sure Iraq had something to do with the voters' mind, but so did a very strong turnout mechanism."
He blamed bad luck: "If you look at race by race, it was close."
Implicitly, of course, he blamed Donald Rumsfeld, by firing him as Defense secretary in favor of the "fresh perspective" of Robert Gates.
And, not least, he blamed the uncomprehending voters: "I thought when it was all said and done, the American people would understand the importance of taxes and the importance of security. But the people have spoken, and now it's time for us to move on."
The president's performance fit neatly into Wednesday's version of the post-election ritual in Washington: The winning side gloated, and the losing side pointed fingers every which way.
Other Republicans were determined to show their disunity. Conservative leaders held dueling news conferences in other rooms at the press club. Their theme: Blame the party, not us. "This was not a repudiation of conservatives," said Pat Toomey, a former GOP congressman. "It was a rejection of the Republican Party." At the rival conservative event across the hall, Richard Viguerie was condemning "the failed big-government policies of President Bush."
GOP officials pointed the finger elsewhere. On Fox News, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said the party's vaunted turnout operation works only "in the very close races." Rep. Tom Reynolds of New York, who led House Republicans' campaign efforts, said more Republicans could have won - if they had acted more like him. "Just take a look at my race," he suggested. He blamed his colleagues for "self-inflicted wounds" and being "caught unprepared" and he blamed the "stiff wind" blowing in Republicans' faces.