Sunday, October 02, 2005

Behold the Banana Republicans

[[S C A N D A L S]] * Certainly, watching from beyond the Beltway, it appears that the chickens are finally coming home to roost at the White House. During a week when the Bush administration was hungry for some good press, and thought it could find that in the fairly easy confirmation and swearing-in of John G. Roberts Jr. as the 17th chief justice of the United States, all of the news seemed instead to be about six completely different--and, for George W. Bush, explosive--topics:

● Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s unanimous grand jury indictment on a charge of conspiracy to violate campaign-finance laws, ending what Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter calls “the single most corrupt decade in the long and colorful history of the House of Representatives.” DeLay was forced last week to step down from his leadership position, and was replaced by Representative Roy D. Blunt (R-Missouri), a political protégé of former Attorney General John Ashcroft. DeLay is expected to be arraigned in Austin, Texas, on October 21.

● Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s suspicious sale of his stock in HCA Inc., the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain, which his family founded back in 1968. That transaction has prompted charges of insider trading and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and may spell an end to Frist’s chances of running for president in 2008.

● Capitol Hill testimony by Michael D. Brown, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose heavily reported appearance--during which he excused FEMA’s poor performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina by saying that “Louisiana was dysfunctional”--only served to remind Americans of the Bush administration’s arrogant disregard of warnings about natural disasters in New Orleans, and highlighted the prez’s inability to measure up even to the low expectations he has created for himself.

● A determination by investigators from the government’s General Accounting Office that the Bush administration “violated the law by buying favorable news coverage of President Bush’s education policies, by making payments to the conservative commentator Armstrong Williams, and by hiring a public relations company to analyze media perceptions of the Republican Party,” to quote The New York Times. The GAO said the White House had disseminated “covert propaganda” in the United States, in violation of a law that forbids federal money being spent “to produce or distribute a news story unless the government's role is openly acknowledged.”

Worsening violence in Iraq and a New York federal judge’s order that the U.S. government release dozens of new photographs and videotapes showing the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib--guaranteed to spark new denunciations of White House policy regarding the Iraq war.

● And finally, last week’s release of New York Times reporter Judith Miller. She’d been housed for 85 days at a Virginia detention center, following her refusal to appear before a grand jury investigating the 2003 disclosure of CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity. Assured by her “source” that she was no longer bound by pledges of confidentiality, she gave her testimony on Friday to that grand jury, identifying I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, as the person who’d leaked Plame’s identity to her (although she ultimately never wrote any story about Plame). Libby thus became the second acknowledged White House informant regarding Plame, joining Bush political adviser Karl Rove (who’d previously been “outed” by Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper) and strengthening allegations made by the operative’s husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, that his wife’s cover was blown for the purposes of political retribution. In 2003, Wilson wrote a New York Times op-ed column in which he disputed claims by the administration that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was trying to procure uranium yellowcake from Niger that could be used in nuclear weapons.

“To be an honest Republican these days must be to wonder what awful revelation is coming next--and how the Grand Old Party, which once claimed to represent political reform, became a front for sleaze, corruption, and cynical criminality,” opines columnist Joe Conason in Salon. Indeed, the slippery slope of scandal on which Bush and his Republican cohorts perch looks to be longer and slicker with each new news cycle. It was only today, for instance, that George Stephanopoulos, a former communications director in the Clinton White House, who now hosts ABC-TV’s This Week, told his viewers about having learned from “a source close to” the Plame leak probe, that Bush and Cheney “were actually involved in some of these discussions” about leaking the Plame’s name. (See the video here.) If that’s true, reads a post at the left-leaning Think Progress Web site, it would “fundamentally change the dynamics” of the Plamegate scandal. “President Bush could no longer claim he was merely a bystander who wants to ‘get to the bottom of it.’ As Stephanopoulos notes, if Bush played a direct role it could make this scandal completely unmanageable.” (An article in Saturday’s New York Times lends further credence to Cheney’s Plamegate complicity.)

A Washington Post story from last weekend, talking primarily about Bush’s self-conscious efforts to “reclaim his swagger,” observed that the CIA leak investigation has left White House officials with “a general feeling of unease,” with aides “calling reporters to find out what was happening with Rove and the investigation.” (“‘Nobody knows what’s going to happen with the probe,’ one senior aide said.”) The same newspaper follows up today with an article that must be causing epidemic flop-sweats around the Oval Office. The Post says independent prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, who’s charged with making any legal cases against the Plame leakers and is expected to conclude his case later this month, is now “considering whether he can bring charges of a criminal conspiracy perpetrated by a group of senior Bush administration officials. Under this legal tactic, Fitzgerald would attempt to establish that at least two or more officials agreed to take affirmative steps to discredit and retaliate against Wilson and leak sensitive government information about his wife. To prove a criminal conspiracy, the actions need not have been criminal, but conspirators must have had a criminal purpose.”

At least for now, Bush seems to have halted the tumble of his job approval ratings, thanks in part to his appearing more ready and capable in dealing with Hurricane Rita last month than he did in responding to Katrina at the end of August. Newsweek’s latest poll finds that 40 percent of respondents now approve of the prez’s performance in office, as compared with his 38 percent approval in the same poll three weeks ago. However, the magazine reports, “a competence gap may be opening for the president.”
When given a choice, 49 percent of Americans in the new Newsweek Poll say Bush is “a bad manager who doesn’t know enough about what’s going on around him and below him.” Forty-three percent say he’s a “good manager who focuses on what’s important and delegates well.”

More Americans still disapprove of the president’s handling of problems caused by Rita than approve (49 percent vs. 42 percent). And, across the board, most of his most visible policies only pull the support of a third of the country: on the economy, 35 percent approve; on Iraq, 33 percent; on energy policy, 28 percent.

More worrisome still, the base that provides the floor to the president’s support are
critical of their own party these days. For instance, a 49-percent plurality of Republicans says their party is “too close to oil companies” and a 53-percent majority says it’s “too close to big business.”
Furthermore, poll ratings are fragile. Bush’s best hope may be to stay at arm’s length from the DeLay and Frist fiascos, and to hope that Michael Brown will shut up. But with Fitzgerald breathing down his neck, the prez may find himself dodging one cesspool, only to fall up to his neck in another. He’ll endeavor to regain some stature by naming a second Supreme Court nominee, this time to fill the seat of the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor; but with his base of right-wing extremists even more important in keeping his approval ratings from sinking into the toilet, Bush will feel obliged to kowtow to that constituency’s wishes--which means he’ll choose a significanty more conservative nominee than John Roberts. This will only reignite the debate over the Senate’s “nuclear option” on filibustering and, amidst the ensuing congressional scrum, leave voters with the perception that the Republican Party has tacked far to the right, less than a year before the 2006 midterm elections, when every office-seeker will want to be plumping his or her centrist, get-along credentials. And if indictments come down against White House rainmakers like Rove and Libby; or if the Iraq war gets bloodier still (there have already been 1,935 U.S. military casualties there since 2003); or if the economy goes south, or gas prices head into the stratosphere ... well, let’s just say that Bush’s near future is about as predictable as the impact of hurricanes. That’s even before you consider, as Newsweek’s Howard Fineman explains, that if DeLay is put on trial for conspiracy in Texas, that “could take place next summer, just before the midterm elections.”

“Thank God it’s not September 2006,” GOP consultant Scott W. Reed remarked recently to Business Week, adding that the ethics quicksand currently enveloping Republicans “has the potential for longer-term damage.” This may bode well for opposition Democrats, who are already crowing over surveys that find their stock climbing amid the GOP woes. For instance, a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found 52 percent of Americans saying that, if elections were held today, they’d vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress in their district, while only 40 percent say they’d mark their ballots for a Republican. Much of this increase in Democratic fortunes can be traced to self-described independents, who, Pew says, “decidedly favor the Democratic Party’s leadership across nearly all issues.”

But, as Slate’s chief political correspondent, John Dickerson, points out, “just because people are dissatisfied with Republicans doesn’t mean that they’re rushing into the warm arms of Democratic candidates. Yes, Democrats are seeing visions of 1994, but Newt Gingrich did more than just tear the face off of Democrats in leadership, he nurtured a farm team and presented a set of ideas that dovetailed with his political instinct for the jugular. Democrats have no Contract with America and have to find a Gingrich or some central figure to pitch their message.”

Any takers?

ADDENDUM: The London Observer weighs in on the DeLay scandal by assessing its impact upon British politics. Because of the Texas congressman’s indictment and resignation, writes Will Hutton, “American conservatism that has shaped American and British politics for 20 years has been holed below the waterline. It will take a lot more to sink it, but DeLay’s indictment is symptomatic of a conservative over-reach and endemic corruption that will trigger, at the very least, a retreat and maybe even more. One-Nation Tories and honest-to-God Labour politicians can take some succour; the right-wing wind that has blown across the Atlantic for nearly a generation is about to ease. Hypocrisies have been exposed. The discourse in British politics is set to change. ... U.S. politics moves in cycles. Once it was Republicans who were going to clean up corrupt Democrat Washington; now Democrats can champion the same cause. Nor can the media afford to be on the side of the Old Corruption; it’s bad for business. The wheel is turning, an important moment both sides of the Atlantic.”

READ MORE:Just a Really Bad Stretch?,” by Todd S. Purdum (The New York Times); “Bush’s Presidency Is Exposed and Crumbling,” by Margaret Carlson (Bloomberg News); “Taking Sleaze to a New Level,” by Jonathan Chait (Los Angeles Times); “To the Cronies Go the Spoils,” by Gene Lyons (Arkansas Democrat Gazette); “GOP’s United Front Is Reduced to Veneer,” by Janet Hook (Los Angeles Times); “Troubled Year Gets Worse for the GOP,” by Dan Balz (The Washington Post); “Immoral Majority,” by Eugene Robinson (The Washington Post); “In the Beginning, There Was Abramoff,” by Frank Rich (The New York Times); “DeLay Indictment May Slow Donations” (AP); “The Hammer Falls,” by Michael Scherer (Salon); “The Exterminator,” by Evan Thomas, Holly Bailey and Michael Isikoff (Newsweek); “Defiant DeLay Sees Quick Return to U.S. Party Power” (Reuters); “Tom DeLay Is a Sideshow,” by Ryan Lizza (The New Republic); “Will DeLay Be Defeated Like Capone?” by Rick Casey (The Houston Chronicle); “The ‘American Street’ Speaks: Will the Democratic Party Listen?,” by Juan Cole (Salon); “Rally Round Rahm--Hooray for Ideas!,” by Jamal Simmons (The Huffington Post); “Bush Is Cooking Up Two More Wars,” by Paul Craig Roberts (

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