Monday, August 01, 2005

The Summer of Our Discontent

[[P O L I T I C S]] * So, let’s see. It’s the beginning of August--time for the U.S. Congress to embark upon its month-long summer recess. And, no doubt, many Republicans are looking forward to this escape from Washington, D.C. Not because the weather there is sweltering again, or because these legislators are looking forward to tossing a few turkey dogs onto the barbecue in their faraway family backyards (though that’s the sound-bite they’ll happily feed to the media); and certainly not because they look forward to “reconnecting” with their constituents (the majority of whom, polls show, are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States these days).

No, the real reason GOP lawmakers want out of town is because they need a break from the avalanche of bad news that’s been dogging their party and their president for months now. Which is also the reason why Capitol Hill Republicans were busy this last week ramming through questionable legislation (on energy consumption, highway construction, protections for the gun industry, reauthorization of portions of the USA PATRIOT Act, and Western Hemisphere trade): They’re hoping to commence their vacations, having given the press something else to talk about, other than the widening CIA leak scandal and questions about U.S. Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.’s advocacy of reversing civil-rights protections and stripping courts of authority over student busing, school prayer, and other conservative interests.

Just as Republicans are heading out the door, though, here comes a new Gallup Poll showing that George W. Bush’s job approval ratings “have hit the lowest point of his tenure,” according to USA Today. Only 44 percent of Americans now support Bush’s performance in the Oval Office (a four-point drop from just a month ago). At the same time, Bush’s unfavorable rating has reached the highest level of his presidency--50 percent. “Forty-eight percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the president,” USA Today explains, “marking the first time in Bush’s tenure that his unfavorable rating is higher than his favorable rating.” This is also a precipitous decline from the 87 percent favorable rating Bush enjoyed right after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Of course, we’re told repeatedly that Bush doesn’t pay a lick of attention to polls; but if you really believe that, I’ve got a bridge overlooking the Golden Gate that I’d very much like to sell you.

There’s no particular mystery as to why Bush has come to such a dismal pass, just seven months into his second term.

Part of the reason, surely, can be traced to his goal of undermining the economic strength and purpose of Social Security by allowing workers younger than 55 to redirect part of their payroll taxes into private accounts invested in the stock market. While this strategy might appeal to a 20-year-old Tallahassee shingle worker or a 25-year-old barista in Seattle, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the largest U.S. seniors’ lobby, has already declared itself “dead set against” withholding tax money from the Social Security System to feed private accounts. “We can fix Social Security without dismantling it, which is what private accounts carved out of Social Security do,” says the organization’s chief executive officer, William Novelli.

As Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) is fond of saying, Social Security is “the best anti-poverty program this country has ever put in place”--and there’s no shortage of Americans who agree with that statement. Current Social Security recipients aren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of their old-age entitlement being placed at risk; neither are the Baby Boomers who can picture themselves retiring over the next couple of decades. Even many Americans who voted for Bush in 2004 dislike his Wall Street-friendly approach to “saving” Social Security (estimates place this particular bloc at 17 percent to 22 percent of the electorate). “In an era of rampant job insecurity, when employer-provided pensions and health coverage can no longer be taken for granted, they want a middle-class security blanket that gives them protection as they build wealth,” BusinessWeek explains. Polls show that the more Bush pushes his partial-privatization scheme for Social Security, the more people oppose it.

But public disillusionment with Bush and congressional Republicans can’t be blamed solely on that ill-conceived Social Security “reform” plan. These folks didn’t do themselves any favors, either, with their truly bizarre attempt this last spring to prevent the demise of Terri Schiavo. You’ll remember Schiavo as the 41-year-old Florida woman who’d spent 15 years in a persistent vegetative state, and whose husband, Michael, wanted her feeding tube removed, so she could finally die. However, D.C. Republicans--pandering once more to religious rightists--intervened, saying that her “right to live” should be protected by any means possible. The result was a circus, covered act to act by the news media. At one point in the drama, Republican Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader and a doctor, made a buffoon of himself by declaring--after watching Schiavo on videotape only--that she wasn’t really vegetative, no matter what neurologists who’d actually examined her had concluded. (I can only imagine how many times that statement will be trotted out against Frist, should the generally ineffectual Tennessean make his anticipated White House run in 2008.) House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, then (and still) under investigation by an Austin, Texas, grand jury for illegal political contributions by his fundraisers and other ethically dubious behavior, tried to capitalize on the sympathy being expressed toward Terri Schiavo to bolster his own political survival. “This is exactly the issue that’s going on in America, the attacks on the conservative movement against me and many others ...,” contended DeLay in his best martyrish tenor. “This is a huge nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in ... and we have to fight back.” (What the Texas congressman failed to acknowledge, of course, was that, in a situation similar to that facing Schiavo’s husband, DeLay in 1988 had elected to withhold life support from his own father.)

Yet Bush was left to deliver the pièce de résistance in this spectacle of pseudo-moralistic overreaching. After a Florida state judge ordered Schiavo’s feeding tube extracted in March, Hill Republicans cobbled together “emergency” legislation to remove this dispute from the control of Michael Schiavo and the U.S court system (which had repeatedly ruled in favor of Terri Schiavo being allowed to die) and place the unfortunate woman under federal government protection. Bush, who had not stopped reading My Pet Goat to a schoolroom full of children after he was told of the September 11 attacks, and who took three days to make a statement of compassion regarding the Indian Ocean tsunami last December, sped from his Crawford, Texas, show ranch back to the White House to endorse the Schiavo legislation. This hullabaloo (which ended only after Schiavo’s death) was enough to upset at least one national Republican figure, former Missouri senator and ex-United Nations ambassador John Danforth, an Episcopalian minister, who conceded that GOP intervention in the Schiavo case proves that his party has become the “political arm of conservative Christians.” Voters were no less repulsed by the intrusion of Big Republican Government into such an obviously painful family matter.

The greatest drain on George W. Bush’s popularity, though, has been the Iraq war. Since he launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom” on March 30, 2003, almost 1,800 Americans (and nearly 2,000 “coalition” troops in all) have died fighting in Iraq. The Iraq Body Count, a London-based group of academic and human-rights activists, reports that another 24,865 Iraqi civilians perished there between March 20, 2003, and March 19, 2005. As violence by insurgents in Saddam Hussein’s homeland has escalated, and as Bush has come under mounting criticism for failing to adequately prepare for the “protracted and costly” postwar occupation of that country, public faith in Bush has plummeted. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found 57 percent of respondents convinced that the U.S. government had “intentionally exaggerated its evidence that pre-war Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.” The same poll showed 56 percent of respondents disapproving of Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, with 44 disapproving “strongly.” Meanwhile, a Zogby International poll found more than two-in-five (42 percent) American voters saying that, if Bush lied about why he took the United States into a war against Iraq, he should be impeached. (By comparison, only 26 percent of voters thought President Bill Clinton deserved to be impeached for dissembling over his private affair with a White House intern.) Even some Capitol Hill Republicans (among them Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina, who--in protest against France’s refusal to endorse Bush’s bellicose policies--once championed the inane renaming of French fries as “freedom fries” in the House cafeteria) have called on the Bush administration to submit to Congress, by the end of 2005, a plan for exiting Iraq, and to start implementing that plan no later than October 2006.

To silence these protests, at least in the short term, U.S. Army General George W. Casey, the head of Multinational Force Iraq, last week suggested that the United States could begin bringing home a “fairly substantial” number of the 135,000 American troops currently stationed in Iraq as early as next spring. Of course, politicians are past masters at wiggling out of commitments such as this. (As a previous Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, once observed, “Voters quickly forget what a man says.” Which is why Bush probably isn’t losing any sleep over his still-unfulfilled pledge to bring Osama bin Laden in “dead or alive.”) But Bush is surely hoping for some change in conditions on the ground that will either make it easier for him to keep his promise of “nothing less than victory in Iraq,” or else allow him to defy, with impunity, the wishes of Congress and the American public by maintaining a troop presence in the area.

Now, if those were all the problems Bush and his fellow Republicans had to worry about, they might feel more secure in their ability to (once more) brazen past the “reality-based” U.S. news media and convince voters that everything is much rosier than has been reported. However, one must also take into account the aforementioned scandal surrounding the roles of presidential political advisor Karl Rove and vice-presidential chief of staff Lewis Libby in the potentially criminal leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity--an outrage that now threatens to engulf Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice as well. In addition, there’s ever-rising uneasiness over the U.S. federal debt, which continues to break records under Bush. According to the U.S. National Debt Clock, the country is in fiscal arrears to the tune of $7.78 trillion. (And that debt has been growing at an average of $1.64 billion per day since September 30, 2004.) Bush often chides lawmakers for not “holding the line on spending”; yet his ill-conceived tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans contributed substantially to this governmental red ink (at the same time as they shifted more tax burden onto the shoulders of average citizens.) And still, Bush has not found the courage to veto even one spending bill delivered to him by Congress. Instead, he wants to make his tax cuts permanent and tries to conceal swelling military costs in “off budget” appropriations. So much for the oft-repeated myth about Republican fiscal conservatism.

Further complicating the lives of GOP pols who’d like smooth, uncontroversial rides to re-election in 2006 is Bush’s arrogant determination to do whatever the hell he wants, regardless of public disapproval and despite the requirement for congressional oversight. That attitude was clearly evidenced in this morning’s “recess appointment” of John Bolton, previously the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, to the position of U.N. ambassador. This inadequately justified end-run around the Senate concludes five months of bruising back-and-forth between the White House and Democrats over Bolton’s temperamental fitness for the ambassadorship. But it’s a provisional victory, at best; the Constitution allows recess appointees to serve only until the opening of the next Congress, which in this case will be January 2007. And, as the first U.N. ambassador to be installed in the post without Senate ratification, Bolton’s influence might be seriously compromised. (As Bloomberg reported last week, in 1999 President Clinton considered a similar recess appointment to the U.N. for Richard Holbrooke, but “Holbrooke refused, saying it would diminish his credibility at [the] U.N.”) In any event, the Bolton is likely to be received at the United Nations with more than a bit of resentment. He, after all, is the dubious diplomat who, in 1994, told a panel of the World Federalist Association, “There is no such thing as the United Nations” and “If the U.N. Secretariat building in New York lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” If Bush really wanted to make friends internationally again, he wouldn’t have chosen Bolton for this job.

Republicans are probably hoping that average Americans are too occupied right now with summer camps for the kids, exposed tan lines at the beach, and overhyped blockbuster reads to pay attention to Bolton’s appointment ... or Bill Frist’s recent break with Bush and anti-abortion religious conservatives on the subject of government-funded stem-cell research ... or the administration’s efforts to kill a congressional mandate against “cruel, abusive treatment of prisoners of war and detainees.” They’re likely praying that last week’s GOP legislative wins will cause folks to forget about the Schiavo fiasco, the nation’s economic woes, proliferating suicide bombers in Iraq, increasing gas prices (which were not reduced at all by the newly passed Big Oil energy bill), and the incredible amount of “pork” stuffed into the new highway bill. (Again, where is Bush with his veto pen?) Republicans have their fingers crossed that this summer passes with a minimum of new scandal revelations; that Rove resigns quietly and DeLay is at least partially exonerated of corrupt acts; that White House reporters lose the backbones they grew in the wake of recent Watergate remembrances and assiduous stonewalling by Bush spokesman Scott McClellan; and that come fall, attention can be turned to the more magisterial business of approving Judge Roberts to the Supreme Court.

But U.S. voters aren’t as stupid or forgetful as Nixon believed, and the fall--with its much-anticipated showdown between the White House and Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor in the CIA leak investigation--is likely to exacerbate Bush’s woes and cause further rifts between he and congressional Republicans, who need to protect their own asses, going into the 2006 campaign.

ADDENDUM: Don’t miss reading “Look in the Mirror, Mr. President,” an essay in Salon by Doug Bandow, a Cato Institute senior fellow and former special assistant to President Reagan, who contends that Bush owes the American public an apology for his grievous failures on Iraq. “The result of the administration’s war of choice has been to make America far less secure,” Bandow writes: It has turned Iraq “into the central front of terrorism, preparing killers who may eventually find targets elsewhere around the world, including in America.”

UPDATE: Sixty-three percent of Americans say the United States has been too quick to go to war, according to a new poll conducted by the non-profit organization Public Agenda. In addition, 64 percent of respondents said the U.S. government should emphasize diplomacy and economic strategies to combat terrorism, and an ever greater majority (72 percent) believe that the United States can enhance its security by demonstrating more respect for the views and needs of other nations.

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