Bush longs for James Lee Witt, the Clinton man he should have kept.
Groundhog Day Off: George Bush desperately wants history to remember him as the Sept. 11 President. In speeches, he sounds like a wartime Bill Murray, who wakes up every morning only to find that it is still 9/11.
That's more or less what the country wanted: a commander in chief who'd worry about the war on terror so we didn't have to. These days, however, Bush doesn't look like a Sept. 11 President at all. With each passing day, he acts more like the last thing the country wanted: an August President, who leaves all the worrying to us.
August is the siesta month, when we shut down our brains, head on holiday, and spend money while doing nothing to earn it. We go back and forth between a deep desire to squeeze in every last moment of idle repose, and a vague sense of dread about what lies in store.
In other words, we spend August the way George Bush has spent his presidency.
Bush's August fetish is most visible now, when he's wrapping up another record-breaking vacation. Yet in many respects, the entire Bush term has been a kind of record-breaking vacation. First president to cut taxes in wartime. First president to go five years without a single veto. Largest surplus squandered; largest deficits left behind.
After all that work, you can see why a guy might want some time off.
Easy Rider: As Lance Armstrong would say, it's not about the mountain bike. My problem isn't what Bush does on vacation; it's that he runs the country like it's on holiday.
Bush's approach to most problems—from economic competitiveness to political reform to health care—is the same as his answer to Cindy Sheehan: We're at war, I don't have time to see you now. Yet the narrowness and lack of inspiration of his approach to the broader struggle against terror suggest that he is giving the war the same answer.
Politicians should take vacations now and then, if only to give the electorate a breather. When Congress and the president leave Washington for the August recess, it usually has the same effect as a summer thunderstorm, lowering the temperature by breaking tensions that have built up too long. Voters breathe the same sigh of relief as my father-in-law, who greeted this August by noting that the government couldn't cost the taxpayers more with no one left in Washington.
The best proof of the August recess's effect as a political tonic—or maybe gin-and-tonic—is what happened in 1994, the year Washington didn't have one. A decade of post-mortems on the 1994 elections has overlooked one simple theory: By canceling the recess that year in a last-ditch attempt to pass health care, Democratic congressional leaders failed to break the storm clouds building on the horizon. A year later, Republicans made the same mistake by shutting down the federal government during the holidays, which went over about as well as the Grinch's plan to cancel Christmas in Who-ville. In both 1994 and 1995, voters concluded that the party in charge wasn't getting the job done and wouldn't go away.
The Boy of Summer: That last part is one mistake Bush will never make: canceling a vacation. He promised to work hard, play hard, and has kept half that promise. The danger for Bush is that his rush to leave his post in August 2005 may have the same effect that Democrats' refusal to take a break had in August 1994: It just reminds people that they have to keep worrying, because the job isn't getting finished. Between the war abroad and the scandals back home, August has been no rest for the weary. ... 6:49 A.M. (link)
Bruce Reed, who was President Clinton's domestic policy adviser, is CEO of the Democratic Leadership Council and co-author with Rahm Emanuel of The Plan: Big Ideas for Change in America.E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his disclosure here.
Photograph of President Bill Clinton and James Lee Witt by Hector Mata/AFP Photo.