Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bush Age: The Meltdown

[[P O L I T I C S]] * Republicans used to make a big deal out of every sag and sway in President Bill Clinton’s job-approval ratings, though they had to end that practice when, after their botched impeachment coup in 1998, they realized that their own poll standings were tumbling instead of Clinton’s. Nowadays, the GOP is noticeably less adamant about the significance of presidential surveys, mostly because George W. Bush is hemorrhaging support, even among Republicans. For those who missed it, the latest CNN poll finds that a measly 32 percent of Americans now approve of the prez’s performance in office, while 60 percent disapprove--a new low for Bush. CNN adds that, just a year ago, not long after Dubya’s second pricey inaugural bash, its polling found 48 percent of respondents saying they approved of the prez, and 49 percent disapproving.

While Bush’s public approval stats are still treading water above the historic lows recorded for his father, George H.W. Bush (29 percent in 1992), Jimmy Carter (28 percent in 1979), Richard Nixon (23 percent in 1974, only months before his resignation), and Harry Truman (22 percent in the final year of his presidency, 1952), it’s obvious that whatever air of formidableness Bush once exuded has long since dissipated. There have recently been open calls for his censuring by the Senate, prominent endorsements of his impeachment (and even proposals by the Illinois, Vermont, and California state legislatures to initiate impeachment proceedings), newspaper editorials calling on him to fire Dick Cheney (though that would probably force Bush to acknowledge the error of his ways in Iraq, which he’s unlikely to do), and reported efforts by GOP candidates--incumbents and newcomers alike--to avoid being seen with the prez, lest his widespread unpopularity help doom them to the unemployment line after November’s midterm elections. (Republican office-seekers in New Jersey might be especially wary of looking overly cozy with Bush.) Nobody takes the prez seriously any longer when he threatens to veto legislation (something he hasn’t done in five-plus years), and no less than The American Conservative magazine opines that his foreign-policy efforts to spread democracy have “tainted democracy itself.” Rocker Mick Jagger feels free to elbow Bush out of a luxury hotel suite in Vienna, the prez’s huffy insistence that he’s still in charge in the White House (“I’m the decider and I decide what’s best”) has been broadly lampooned by musical satirists and others, and singer Neil Young includes a call in one of his latest songs to “impeach the president for lying/And leading our country into war/Abusing all the power that we gave him/And shipping all our money out the door.” (Singer-songwriter Pink takes a rather more gentle, but no less powerful approach to criticizing Bush for his actions. See the video here.)

To quote the new White House press secretary, Tony Snow (in a more honest than normal moment), Bush has become “something of an embarrassment”--a convenient and consistently fertile source of humor for late-night TV comedians.

Steve Benen of The Carpetbagger Report suggests that Bush’s approval ratings may finally have bottomed out in the CNN survey. “The president has lost just about everyone he’s going to lose; these 32 percent would probably back Bush if he personally came to their home and punched them in the face,” Benen predicts. However, the numbers alone tell only part of the story of Bush’s precipitous decline, writes Bob Geiger at “What’s more instructive,” he argues, “is to look at where he started and how far he has fallen in just 18 months since the 2004 presidential election. On November 2, 2004, Bush received a 50 percent or more vote of confidence in 31 of 50 states--30 states if you believe he did not legitimately win Ohio. How many states give him that same vote just a year and a half later, based on April 2006 approval polls? Four”--Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming. Unlike Benen, Geiger contends that “it’s just a matter of time before Bush goes below 30 percent [popularity] nationally.”

In hopes of turning things around, and regaining his insolent swagger, Bush has hired a new chief of staff and press spinner ... er, spokesman. He’s recruiting his father’s “janitor,” former Secretary of State James Baker, to find some way out of the disastrous Iraq war. He is spending billions of taxpayer dollars “on advertising and public relations contracts to counter a hostile media environment.” And he’s got a five-point plan for overcoming his early lame-duck status, which includes emphasizing “an extremely visible enforcement crackdown at the Mexican border” and pressuring Iran as a way to “rehabilitate himself on national security.” (As a “government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon” told New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh earlier this year, Bush believes that “saving Iran” will be “his legacy”--no matter that a nuclear confrontation there might also provoke World War III.) Oh, and Bush--“a son of the Oil Patch,” as the New York Daily News phrased it--is even trying to convince Americans that he’s some sort of petro populist. With U.S. gas prices skyrocketing (while Bush-backing Exxon Mobil rakes in obscene profits), the prez suddenly preaches about “the need for this country to get off our dependency of oil” and has called on Congress to eliminate about $2 billion in tax breaks to oil and gas companies it passed as part of last year’s boondoggle energy bill. (As a “close Bush confidant” told the Daily News, “He has got to be seen as a president who won’t put up with oil companies screwing the public.”) And, of course, the prez’s defenders both inside D.C. and on the airwaves are attacking retired military generals and others who’ve called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s prompt ouster, recognizing that Rummy’s dismissal would be a repudiation of Bush’s bellicose policies.

All of these moves are designed to make Bush relevant again, and to “reboot” his second term, as Time magazine put it recently. But, along with moving Karl Rove out of a White House policymaking role and back into his previous position as a GOP campaign strategist, they’re also intended to shore up the chances that Republicans will maintain their hold over both houses of Congress after November. A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, showing that only 22 percent of Americans approve of what the Republican-dominated Congress has been doing--an 11-point drop in just the last month--won’t do anything to ease GOP fears of a Democratic takeover. And there’s cause for additional concern in the latest Rasmussen Reports survey, which shows (1) that Democrats hold “a 12-point advantage over Republicans on a generic 2008 presidential ballot,” and (2) that a third-party candidate “focusing on immigration enforcement issues” could actually relegate the 2008 GOP nominee to third-place status, well behind Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, or whoever else nabs the Democratic nomination.

So much for Rove and Bush’s dreams of a “permanent Republican majority” in the United States. Thanks to a combination of arrogance, ignorance, and incompetence on the part of the prez and his partisan minions (add “malfeasance” to that list, and you can drag Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and Randy “Duke” Cunningham under the big tent), GOPers have gone from being masters of the universe to being scorned failures, the butts of jokes. Conservative voters, disappointed by the administration’s rampant overspending and increases in the size and scope of government, aren’t motivated to storm the polling booths in November. However, Democrats--shut out by Dubya and Company over the last five-plus years--certainly are. “If Republicans manage to hold on to their majorities,” opines John Dickerson in Slate, “it will be because they have perfected the ability to use gerrymandering, pork-barreling, and other toll-keeping powers to maintain themselves in office, much like the Democrats they turned out of office in 1994.”

As hard as it is to believe, Bush--with his inner circle of sycophants--might be impervious to most of the criticism fired in his direction, whether the complaint is about his stumble-footed response to Hurricane Katrina last fall, his deliberate deceptions regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, his domestic spying activities, the cost of his Iraq adventuring (“$320 billion after the expected passage next month of an emergency spending bill currently before the Senate,” The Washington Post reports “and that total is likely to more than double before the war ends”), his despotic campaign to suppress public criticism of his administration by former CIA employees, or his hypocritical leaking of classified Iraq intelligence to a New York Times reporter in 2003. As Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon,
The greater the stress the more Bush denies its cause. In his end time he has risen above his policy and is transcending politics. In his life as president he has decided his scourging is his sanctification. Bush will be a martyr resurrected. The future will unfold properly for all the wisdom of his decisions, based on fervent faith, upheld by his holy devotion. Criticism and unpopularity only confirm to him his bravery and his critics’ weakness. Being reviled is proof of his righteousness. Inevitably, decades hence, people will grasp his radiant truth and glory. Such is the passion of George W. Bush.
Even if Republicans lose control of one or perhaps both chambers of Congress in November’s elections (which, Tom Raum of the Associates Press writes, “could be a political nightmare for Bush and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill,” as Democrats investigate abuses by the administration), the prez, who’s convinced that God put him in the White House and told him to make war on Saddam Hussein, is confident history will recognize his greatness.

Or, maybe not. If you haven’t seen it already, there’s a terrific piece in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, written by Sean Wilentz, a renowned historian, author (The Rise of American Democracy, 2005), and the director of the American Studies program at Princeton University. Wilentz writes that, “Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.”

This isn’t the first time Bush has been derided as one of the sorriest members of an exclusive club, the 42 (so far) men who’ve held the title of U.S. president. (The same has been said here and here, for instance.) And a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found last October that 41 percent of respondents were already convinced that Bush will be considered a failure “in the long run.” However, the Wilentz article offers a particularly comprehensive and readable assessment of how Bush fits into the panoply of his predecessors. Remarking on Dubya’s precipitious decline in performance ratings since 9/11, Wilentz writes:
How does any president’s reputation sink so low? The reasons are best understood as the reverse of those that produce presidential greatness. In almost every survey of historians dating back to the 1940s, three presidents have emerged as supreme successes: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. These were the men who guided the nation through what historians consider its greatest crises: the founding era after the ratification of the Constitution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression and Second World War. Presented with arduous, at times seemingly impossible circumstances, they rallied the nation, governed brilliantly and left the republic more secure than when they entered office.

Calamitous presidents, faced with enormous difficulties--
[James] Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, [Herbert] Hoover and now Bush-- have divided the nation, governed erratically and left the nation worse off. In each case, different factors contributed to the failure: disastrous domestic policies, foreign-policy blunders and military setbacks, executive misconduct, crises of credibility and public trust. Bush, however, is one of the rarities in presidential history: He has not only stumbled badly in every one of these key areas, he has also displayed a weakness common among the greatest presidential failures--an unswerving adherence to a simplistic ideology that abjures deviation from dogma as heresy, thus preventing any pragmatic adjustment to changing realities. Repeatedly, Bush has undone himself, a failing revealed in each major area of presidential performance.
Wilentz says Bush has found his place on the bottom rung of presidents for a variety of reasons: He’s squandered public trust by making “what even the conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr. calls his ‘high-flown pronouncements’ about failed policies,” and offering up the “publicly expressed view that he has made no major mistakes”; he “stampeded the Congress and a traumatized citizenry into the Iraq invasion on the basis of what has now been demonstrated to be tendentious and perhaps fabricated evidence of an imminent Iraqi threat to American security,” and was openly contemptuous of Democratic help and public sacrifice in waging “a truly national struggle”; with tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and a lack of fiscal prudence, he’s replaced the economic surpluses Clinton left behind with onerous economic deficits (“According to the Treasury Department, the forty-two presidents who held office between 1789 and 2000 borrowed a combined total of $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions. But between 2001 and 2005 alone, the Bush White House borrowed $1.05 trillion, more than all of the previous presidencies combined.”); he has “blazed a radical new path as the first American president in history who is outwardly hostile to science--dedicated, as a distinguished, bipartisan panel of educators and scientists ... has declared, to ‘the distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends.’”); and, finally, Dubya has expanded “the powers of the presidency beyond the limits laid down by the U.S. Constitution,” asserting “that the president is perfectly free to violate federal laws on such matters as domestic surveillance and the torture of detainees” (“In those instances when Bush’s violations of federal law have come to light,” Wilentz adds, “as over domestic surveillance, the White House has devised a novel solution: Stonewall any investigation into the violations and bid a compliant Congress simply to rewrite the laws.”).

It’s a pretty devastating account of a presidency out of control--and with the potential to make even more mischief than Bush already has, especially if he succeeds in propagandizing the country into a war with Iran. A thousand days from the end of his time in the Oval Office, George W. Bush seems finally to be paying the costs of the divisiveness, fear, lies, and extremism (religious and otherwise) that he has so successfully spread during the last five-plus years. Whether among those costs will be his neutering by a Democratic Congress, his censuring, or simply his early, defeated retreat to that estate-cum-ranch he’s always visiting in Crawford, Texas, will be the subject of some historian’s future book. Are you up for the job, Professor Wilentz?

CRISPY DUCK: In forecasting what’s to come from Bush’s now firmly lame-duck presidency, editors of The New Republic opine:
Often, it is difficult to know when a president has entered the state of political purgatory known as “lame duck” status. For this president, the question is no longer whether, but how lame. …

After this November’s midterm elections, the Bushies will be one of the most pathetic species in the popular imagination: a collection of political sharpies with no more campaigns to scheme over. It’s the political equivalent of an aging Hollywood starlet ... with bad skin ... and a weakness for Ho Hos. Maybe they’ll still trot out some of their favorite tricks for old time’s sake--say, a constitutional amendment counting a gay voter as three-fifths of a straight voter, or a campaign accusing Democrats of operating a secret terrorist cell from the House cafeteria. But their hearts won’t be in it. It’s all the more depressing when you realize this is the
best-case scenario. Should the Democrats retake Congress, the end of the Bush era will consist of little more than fending off subpoenas and inventing new ways to say, “I don’t recall.”

“We have a thousand days to get the job done,” incoming White House honcho Josh Bolten recently told his staff, apparently hoping to instill a sense of urgency. To which we can only respond: Have a thousand days ever looked longer?

READ MORE: “If Past Is Prologue, George Bush Is Becoming An Increasingly Dangerous President,” by John W. Dean (FindLaw); “Bush’s Thousand Days,” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (The Washington Post); “Stuck with Bush,” by Bob Herbert (The New York Times); “It’s Official: I Now Pity George Bush,” by Trey Ellis (The Huffington Post); “Oilman in Chief,” by Frank O’Donnell (; “No Longer Sitting Pretty” (The Nation); “Crisis of Leadership” (The [Liberal] Girl Next Door); “A Prius in Every Pot,” by Maureen Dowd (The New York Times); “The Death of a Presidency,” by John K. White (History News Network); “The Long War Posture,” by Gregory D. Foster (The Baltimore Sun).

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