Thursday, Jan. 25, 2007
No-Whip: Tuesday's lame-duck State of the Union may not have done much for Bush's domestic agenda, but it was a boon for mine. My daughter is studying American government this year, so a few hours before the president's speech, I spoke to a gymnasium full of eighth graders about how State of the Union addresses work. We discussed the various SOTU rituals, from the sound of one party clapping to the mystery guests in the first lady's box. As an incentive to watch the speech, I promised to buy every student a Frappuccino if the president didn't name some American hero, like the subway Samaritan from New York.
At the time, that seemed like a safe bet, even in front of 63 Frappuccino-loving teenagers who weren't about to let me off the hook. But 40 minutes into Bush's speech, as he droned on about special advisory councils, I began to worry. Any president with so little interest in attracting support from the country or even his own party might dispense with other quaint democratic traditions, like showing a decent respect to the opinions of mankind or showcasing heroes in the State of the Union.
Luckily, with time running out on his speech and his administration, Bush forgot that he's no Ronald Reagan and decided to embrace symbolic gestures with gusto. Suddenly, a Carteresque speech asking America to give bad news a chance began to sound like the spring lineup from Disney Pictures. Dikembe Mutombo, who rose from humble beginnings to stand 2 feet taller than the first lady of the United States. Julie Aigner-Clark, who made a fortune selling her toy company (to Disney!) and now makes videos warning kids about strangers—the perfect background to become Bush's next Homeland Security czar.
But Bush saved the best heroes for last. Sgt. Tommy Rieman, who earned a Silver Star in Iraq, and whose wounds sounded so extensive, it seemed a miracle that he could stand up. And of course, Wesley Autrey, the subway hero, who jumped onto the tracks to save a man from an oncoming train.
I don't know how the State of the Union fared with focus groups. But on my Frappu-meter, the last part of the speech was off the charts. Four heartwarming heroes in four minutes was more than enough to spare me from buying 63 $4 drinks. And by naming the subway Samaritan, Bush made me look a little like one of the eighth graders' favorite TV characters—the fake psychic on USA's *Psych.
Still, even someone with my psychic powers had to be surprised by the surge of heroes at the end of Bush's speech. According to a remarkable new interactive graphic from the New York Times, Bush hadn't used the word "hero" in a State of the Union since January 2002. On Tuesday, he called out the whole Fantastic Four.
Why the sudden outburst of heartwarming stories? Two reasons: First, after such a deflating speech, the president and his writers were desperate to end on a high note—or at least, higher than his 28 percent approval. The last time we saw such a parade of heroes in a State of the Union was 1995, when Clinton may have set the modern record with a closing flourish that singled out six. That year, we too were reeling from the loss of Congress and wanted to change a sour public mood. It's possible that Bush's speechwriters got the idea for multiple heroes from searching Clinton's 1995 speech for comeback clues.
More likely, the hero glut is just another symptom of a White House that has run out of good options and can't decide between them. A White House that is on its game makes choices; a struggling one runs in every direction at once, in hopes of finding something that will work. That may explain why Bush's entire speech resembled Noah's Ark, not just because it didn't try to stop rising sea levels, but because it offered two of everything—for every new applause line about finding common ground, an old standby to placate the conservative base.
You don't have to be a psychic to know the Bush White House is in desperate need of last-minute heroics. Yet while Wesley Autrey is every bit the "brave and humble man" Bush said, the subway Samaritan arrived too late: The train already flattened this president back in November. ... 12:41 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2007
No Huddle:On Saturday, the clock on Bush's presidency wound down to the two-year mark—but by then, both parties had already gone into their hurry-up offense. Three candidacies were announced in a single weekend, breaking the previous two-day record set by Mario Cuomo's 1991 campaign-in-waiting. If Republicans and Democrats maintain their current January pace (12 entries in 22 days), each party will have more than 100 presidential candidates by the Iowa caucuses.
For once, the American people are in an even bigger rush than the candidates. In the latest ABC-Washington Post poll, Bush's disapproval rating matched his personal best of 65 percent. CBS has his job approval down to 28 percent. That ought to be a weather advisory for tonight's State of the Union: When the political thermometer drops below freezing, the president can't stand still and expect to survive.
But precisely because Bush can't figure out how to wind down his long war abroad, the presidential candidates are rushing into a long war here at home. In past cycles, the press and the public alike have bemoaned campaigns that began a whole year before the first votes were cast. This time, the long campaign couldn't start soon enough.
For the country, a long, drawn-out campaign could turn out to be a good thing. With so much time to fill, candidates in both parties might actually be forced to turn their attention to putting new ideas on the table.
For those in and around the campaigns, however, a long war is a decidedly mixed blessing. Candidates will have to sustain a blistering pace for the next 51 weeks, and if they're successful, longer still. Because most of the candidates work in the Senate, even when they break from campaigning, they will get precious little break from one another.
Has-beens like me live for campaign season but dread long, drawn-out primaries. As any veteran political reporter or campaign junkie will tell you, presidential campaigns are the most dangerous addiction that doesn't violate the laws of this country. They're a habit that is impossible to resist, harder to quit, and if continued past your twenties, almost certain to kill you. Or worse: You might already be dead and not yet have noticed.
Back in 1972, The Candidate showed us a campaign that ended in victory but left its volunteers jaded and cynical. Presidential primary campaigns are often just the opposite—inspiring, idealistic, and ending in defeat.
That's what makes the lure of presidential primaries so dangerous. No matter how many races send us to rehab, most presidential campaign veterans never lose the idealism that led to our addiction in the first place. Even more than rookies, old hands still feel the magic of a presidential campaign, the one moment every four years with unlimited possibility to re-imagine America's future. To anyone who has ever worked on a presidential campaign, the snows of New Hampshire are as much a sign of eternal spring as the smell of fresh-cut grass at Fenway.
The curse of a long campaign is that it prolongs the temptation, even as it ups the dosage. Long campaigns favor the qualities that are the first to go—youth, stamina, and most important, the ability to convince loved ones that the campaign won't really be very long at all.
For the last five presidential cycles, I have been haunted by a story I heard my first time out in 1988, from a legendary policy wonk named Bill Galston. Bill was an ex-Marine, a political science professor, and then as now one of the finest minds in the business. About this time in the 1984 cycle, he had given up his dream job—a tenured position at the University of Texas—to begin a two-year stint as Walter Mondale's policy director, a job so draining its only redeeming quality was that it lacked tenure. The way Bill told the story, he woke up one morning on the Mondale campaign, looked in the mirror, and realized that his entire head of hair had suddenly turned white. Yet there he was, back in the fray the next cycle and the cycle after that, with yet another tenured university post to keep from losing and no gray hairs left to give.
George Bush's hair hasn't turned white; he has made the rest of us do a lot of the graying for him. But tonight's State of the Union could well be Bush's rite of passage from president to has-been. Perhaps it's fitting that Bush plans to call on the country to use less fuel, because the gauge on his White House reads empty. Nothing he says will stop or slow the long war to take his place. ... 5:35 P.M. (link)
Vive La Synergie: Just when we thought the Bush White House had run out of options in Iraq, the BBC uncovered secret documents on perhaps the boldest Hail Mary by an embattled leader in the 20th century. Fifty years ago, with his country in the midst of losing a civil war in the Middle East, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet proposed a breathtaking blockbuster merger with Britain. Just as remarkably, the British almost said yes. The BBC says Prime Minister Anthony Eden was cool to an outright merger, but "surprisingly enthusiastic" about Mollet's fallback proposal to let France join the British Commonwealth.
These days, with the entire world trapped in ancient hatreds, the near merger of two historic foes is strangely heartening. If it took France only 150 years to forgive Admiral Lord Nelson, and England was willing to bury the hatchet nine centuries after the Norman Conquest, peace in the Middle East may be a mere millennium or two around the corner.
But the merger plot is also a reminder that desperate leaders resort to desperate measures. Mollet made the offer in the midst of mishandling the war in Algeria, which would drive him out of office nine months later. Eden had troubles of his own, with the Suez crisis that would cause his government to fall even sooner.
Given his abysmal standing in the polls and in the world, perhaps we should worry that President Bush will be forced on bended knee to make a similar offer. Forget the surge – what if Bush wants to merge?
We already know that Bush harbors a secret desire for America to be the next France. Could Bush be deliberately forcing us into the very type of national embarrassment in the Middle East that has prompted merger offers in the past? Like Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights, who loses his NASCAR crown to a gay Formula One racecar driver from France, could Bush subconsciously be steering us into the wall on purpose as the only way to escape the haunting sense that "if you ain't first, you're last"?
Like the cake and the Bible in Iran-Contra, the pieces start to fit together at last. Merger kingpin Henry Paulson's baffling decision to leave one of the largest deal-making firms on earth to come to Washington, where there are no deals in sight. The until-now-unexplained fit Bush threw when reporter David Gregory might have uncovered any merger talks had he been allowed to keep speaking French to Jacques Chirac. And of course, Bush's sudden and otherwise inexplicable interest in Albert Camus, history's most famous French Algerian.
Before, no one could understand why Bush would read an author often credited with the un-Bushlike words, "Don't walk behind me, I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me, I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend." Behind the guise of poster-ready pacifism, Camus's real meaning is now clear: that's how a merger proposal sounds in French.
Bush defenders will be quick to point out that in today's flat world, companies merge all the time. Why can't countries do the same? Nations could achieve enormous savings by streamlining their combined overhead, and no longer having to maintain two bureaucracies, two armies, and two Olympic teams.
A merger with France would be the kind of doomed masterstroke that has been Bush's trademark. While France and the United Kingdom are themselves products of ancient political mergers, modern political pressures run the other way. The Soviet Union broke apart. Iraq may do the same. Even the UK, which was forced to spin us off long ago, is losing its grip on Northern Ireland and Scotland.
M&A experts at State and Treasury can no doubt draw up the prospectus of what U.S. and France would bring in common to a merger: the revolutionary backgrounds, the fervent cultural chauvinism, the head-butt diplomacy. Vive la synergie!
But if Bush is desperate to merge, let me suggest a different target: Canada. The benefits to us are obvious: massive natural resources, low health care costs, a safe haven from global warming. Merging with Canada would be like merging with Britain and France at the same time – and Quebec offers the taste of France without all the fat. Bush could finance the whole deal with the border control savings from the first year alone.
For a president at 30% approval, a U.S.-Canada merger (under the new name "AmeriCan") can only help. Conservatives will be thrilled to learn that Tom Tancredo was wrong – Bush's merger isn't with Mexico. Liberals will admire Canada's stance on same-sex marriage. Best of all, every American will welcome the hope that comes with any merger: the 50-50 chance that your chief executive will be the one to go. ... 4:05 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Jan. 11, 2007
In Search of the Holy Grail: It's a shame that American politics doesn't have splashy trade shows like MacWorld and the Consumer Electronics Show going on this week in San Francisco and Las Vegas. Of course, that would require new products – and President Bush's speech last night showed nothing new in the pipeline anytime soon.
In contrast to the high-tech future gazing of MacWorld, politics has the feel of Tomorrowland at Disney World – displaying different visions of how the future looked in America's past. Republicans long for the '80s, Democrats miss the '90s, and both parties endlessly relitigate the '60s. The Bush administration has sought to recreate the decade nobody else wanted, the '70s, when being unpopular was the only thing presidents were good at.
White House aides had hinted that as a sign of his bold new course, Bush might break with the clichéd Oval Office address by delivering his speech from the Map Room, where FDR plotted America to victory in World War II. Instead, Bush's "New Way Forward" was down the hall in the Library, which appropriately enough once served as the White House laundry.
The bookshelves behind Bush looked like a fake Nightline backdrop. But Bush was eager to show his resolve in the battle that consumed him throughout 2006 – to read more books than Karl Rove. Besides, the Library is the entrance to the men's room, and like the Map Room, gave the White House the picture it deserved: a president stuck in his own basement.
Earlier in the week, another Republican looked backward to roll out a completely different way forward. Arnold Schwarzenegger made headlines for two decisive breaks with conservative orthodoxy. On Monday, he proposed a pay-or-play plan for near universal health care that echoes Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign proposal. On Tuesday, he channeled Al Gore and Tony Blair as he pledged to cut the state's auto emissions of greenhouse gases by 10 percent and require refineries to reduce the carbon content in fuels.
Last year, Schwarzenegger was accused of political expediency for becoming a centrist after seeing the voters trounce his agenda in the 2005 election. This year, he looks more like an action hero. Unlike Bush, Schwarzenegger seems to understand that stubbornness and irrelevance are a sign of weakness, and that leaders are stronger for being what the California governor calls "post-partisan."
State of the State addresses usually invoke a few pioneers and the occasional Founder. The governor from Hollywood drew more of a big-screen historical parallel. "We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta," Schwarzenegger said. "California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta." Compare that to Bush, who has the prospects of 4th century Rome.
After their tragic encounters with national government, Republicans might be wise to go back to the city-state model. Bush seems to view every decision as a choice between the bold path and the smart one. Josh Levin explained last week why a tiny school like Boise State could surprise the football world and end up the only undefeated college team in America – when you're outnumbered, you have to be bold and smart.
Imagine, for example, if Athens were in charge of our national security policy. Athens didn't have the horses to go off and conquer the ancient world on its own. Instead, it managed to create the Athenian Empire by forging one of history's first great alliances, the Delian League, which served Athens' interests by getting other city-states to act in their own.
Likewise, when the combined forces of Athens and Sparta were mired in a seemingly endless war in the Middle East, the Greeks didn't pretend they could end the siege of Troy using the same battle plan and a few more troops. They won the way BSU did – with a really good trick play. The Trojan Horse – now there was a so-called surge worth the gamble.
Alas, bold-and-smart is not in the Bush playbook. Last night, the president admitted that his whole Iraq strategy came from Monty Python: he sent in the Trojan Rabbit and only later realized he forgot the men. ... 5:30 P.M. (link)
Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007
Word Surge: Despite voters' best efforts in November, the Bush administration didn't get the memo about finding common ground. The gulf between the president and everyone else couldn't be wider: For the Democratic Congress, success means passing the Hundred Hours' Agenda; for a Republican White House, the spread to beat is the Hundred Years' War.
At times, Democrats and Republicans sound like Americans and Brits—two peoples divided by a common language. To be sure, it has never been clear just what dialect George Bush is speaking—but whatever it is, Democrats are determined to speak something else.
The first great battle of the word wars broke out this week between surge and escalation. So far, the semantic skirmish mirrors the real war it is trying to affect: Nobody's winning.
Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute, a leading architect of the surge, helped put the word on the map in the Weekly Standard in late November. A week earlier, Kagan and Bill Kristol had called for a "heavier footprint" in Iraq, in a piece that made no mention of surge. In Kagan's second piece, the footprints were gone. Instead, he mentioned surge a dozen times—twice in quotation marks, 10 times without.
By the end of December, however, Kagan and retired general Jack Keane worried that the word surge was spinning out of control. In a Washington Post op-ed called "The Right Type of 'Surge,' " they wrote:
"Reports on the Bush administration's efforts to craft a new strategy in Iraq often use the term 'surge' but rarely define it. Estimates of the troops to be added in Baghdad range from fewer than 10,000 to more than 30,000. Some 'surges' would last a few months, others a few years. We need to cut through the confusion."
In their Post op-ed, Kagan and Keane put quotation marks around surge five times and omitted them 10 times. Counterinsurgency theory dictates 2 troops for every 100 residents. Judging from the Post and the Standard, surgency theory must dictate two quotation marks for every three to five uses of surge.
As John Dickerson points out, Democrats can't agree on how to stop Bush's surge. But the party is united in a rearguard action to rename it. In recent weeks, Democrats from across the spectrum have gone after the term to say that the Bush plan isn't a surge at all—it's an escalation. They argue that surge has a more positive connotation than escalation andleaves the misleading impression that troop levels will rise only temporarily.
If the word surge were so compelling, we wouldn't all spend good money, no questions asked, on surge protectors to prevent it, and you wouldn't have to go all the way to Norway to find the green caffeine drink Surge that Coca-Cola discontinued everywhere else. But on the vagueness charge, Democrats have a point: Even Keane and Kagan fear that surge can mean many different things to different people.
Still, if the best alternative Democrats can come up with is escalation, we have to wonder whether the urge to purge surge—like the surge itself—is really worth it.
If surge is too vague, the word escalation is too clinical. It's the mother of all euphemisms, often used during Vietnam as code to avoid saying "more troops."
Consider this Joint Chiefs of Staff memo from January 1964, urging the Pentagon to stop fighting the Viet Cong with one hand tied behind our back: "A reversal of attitude and the adoption of a more aggressive program would enhance greatly our ability to control the degree to which escalation will occur." In that memo, using escalation instead of a simpler phrase like "more fighting" made it easier to ignore the (now-all-too-familiar) inconsistency of what was being said—that if our side were allowed to fight harder, we'd be able to keep the fighting from getting out of hand.
Some opponents of the war obviously welcome the Vietnam imagery: Last week, Cindy Sheehan and others interrupted a Democratic press conference with chants of "Deescalate!" But to the average American, escalation remains as numbing and bureaucratic a word today as it was in the 1960s. The fog of war has Latin roots and too many syllables.
Democrats' rechristening effort—again, like the Bush plan itself—would seem to be too little, too late. Time dedicated its first Friday cover to "The Surge"—a higher profile than escalation can hope for, no matter how often Democrats repeat it. So far, the main result of the Democratic counteroffensive has been to make newspapers put surge in quotation marks—except, of course, when proponents of the idea beat them to it.
Some critics have started calling it the "so-called surge." Unfortunately, if surge is misleading, "so-called surge" is even more so—leaving the unintended impression that perhaps Bush won't be increasing troops at all. (Then again, as Fred Kaplan has warned, that may be an entirely accurate description of Bush's plan: more troops than we can mobilize and fewer than we'd need to win.) Richard Cohen managed to cram everything into a single sentence: "A so-called surge is a-coming, an escalation all decked out with an Orwellian-sounding name."
Meanwhile, watchdogs on both the left and right have started counting the use of surge and escalation to determine whether news organizations are biased for Bush or against him. At Tuesday's White House press briefing, one beleaguered reporter asked Tony Snow about the "troop increase/surge/escalation."
Ironically, the man sometimes credited with popularizing the term escalation is one of the most ambitious euphemists in history: Herman Kahn, whose 1965 book, On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios,included an "escalation ladder" of the 44 steps to mutually assured destruction. Kahn was a military theorist at RAND, and an inspiration for the character of Dr. Strangelove. Louis Menand of The New Yorker called him "the heavyweight of the Megadeath Intellectuals."
Menand writes that although Kahn was a staunch supporter of escalation in Vietnam, he was especially proud of coining the term Vietnamization, which gave the Nixon administration what the Bush lexicon apparently lacks—a face-saving euphemism for throwing in the towel. To Kahn's ear, Vietnamization was better than de-Americanization, although today both sound like two steps high on the escalation ladder toward mutually assured linguistic destruction.
A few years ago, in the depths of Democratic despair, Berkeley professor George Lakoff convinced many Democrats that word control was the only way to snap the country out of some Rove-induced hypnosis. Our side has spent countless hours pontificating about "frames" and "memes" ever since.
The pounding Republicans took in the midterm elections shows that the American people are a lot smarter than Lakoff thinks. A recent CNN poll that described the Bush option as simply "send more troops" got the answer Democrats want: only 11 percent support. That suggests the winning strategy in the word war is, get out now! The way to doom Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq is to call it exactly that. ... 12:29 P.M. (link)
Friday, Jan. 5, 2007
Why the Long Face?: The best talking points are the ones that go without saying. Since November, Democrats haven't had any trouble convincing the political world that the midterm elections were a resounding vote for "a new direction for America." Today, Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson of New Mexico even borrowed Democrats' slogan for her speech on "A New Course for Iraq."
But the Bush administration has never been good at asking directions, or taking them. So for the moment, the most visible new direction in Washington can be found in the expressions on congressional faces: one side of the aisle has remembered how to smile, while the other side has its turn to do the frowning.
When Nancy Pelosi rose to the speaker's podium after 12 years in the minority, she might well have kissed the ground, if it weren't covered with children. Meanwhile, press accounts portrayed a range of House Republican emotions: "visibly glum," "noticeably glum," "glum," and "glumly."
You can't blame Republicans for the long face, because the minority can be a miserable life, especially in the House. Yesterday, the Democrats with the biggest spring in their step were the 80+ members who were around back when Democrats lost the majority. In their first week in the wilderness, House Republicans have already figured out that the winner-take-all nature of House rules means that the principal role of the minority is to complain about being in the minority.
House Republican leader John Boehner gamely acknowledged that turning the gavel over to the first woman Speaker was an historic occasion that transcends party. But if the new division of power in Washington feels familiar, there's a reason: A Republican president with a Democratic House is the modern historical norm. We've had that combination for 20 of the past 38 years since 1969. All the other combinations – Democratic president and Republican House, Democratic president and Democratic House, Republican president and Republican House -- have been the case for only 6 years apiece.
Indeed, the danger for both parties may be the sheer familiarity of the current arrangement. In the early 1970s, Republicans were so resigned to the inevitability of winning only the White House that the late Gerald Ford happily gave up his lifelong dream of being Speaker to settle for replacing Spiro Agnew as VP. In the 1980s, Democrats grew so accustomed to winning the House and losing the White House that we had trouble adjusting to the new landscape after we won both.
At the moment, Republicans seem more at risk of falling back into that rut than Democrats. The current Democratic glee masks a bitter determination to recapture the presidency, because the Bush years have demonstrated how powerless we are without it. By contrast, for all the glum faces in the House Republican caucus, rank-and-file Republicans have such a bad taste in their mouths from their years in control of Congress that it's hard to see them going all out to win it back. In 2008, beleaguered Republicans may well make the same choice Ford made in 1974, and so many Senators in both parties are making this time around: White House or bust. ... 2:59 P.M. (link)
Monday, Jan. 1, 2007
Modesty Is the Best Policy: For all its trappings, the presidency is a humbling experience. No job on earth comes with greater power or more frequent reminders of that power's limits.
Yet while the White House may be ever so humbling, not all its occupants are so humble. The generous outpouring of affection for the late Gerald Ford is a tribute to a genuinely modest man who rose to the highest office but wasn't afraid to acknowledge his stumbles.
That humility, more than anything else, was Ford's contribution to the nation's recovery from Watergate. As the unelected successor to a failed president who had overreached in every realm, Ford had the good sense not to presume a mandate nor pretend he was the people's choice.
The Bush administration, another accidental and accident-prone presidency, could have used a measure of Ford's humility. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld may have made their names as Ford's right-hand men, but Bush didn't hire them for their modesty. Far from modeling themselves after their old boss, Cheney and Rumsfeld chose to go the other way—spending the Bush years feasting madly on the executive power they felt deprived of in their younger days in the hamstrung Ford White House.
In the eyes of history, Cheney and Rumsfeld have been badly humbled, but there is no sign they see humility as the cure. At Saturday's memorial service, Cheney suggested that what united America after Nixon's imperial overreach was not Ford's restraint, but Ford's own act of executive excess—the Nixon pardon. "It was this man, Gerald R. Ford, who led our republic safely through a crisis that could have turned to catastrophe," Cheney said. "Gerald Ford was almost alone in understanding that there can be no healing without pardon."
It's one thing, now that both men are dead, for revisionists to conclude that a disgraced Nixon suffered enough for his crimes and Ford suffered enough for the pardon. But as Tim Noah and Christopher Hitchens have pointed out, the Nixon pardon did little to heal the nation; it didn't even heal Nixon. If it helped heal the country at all, it did so in the opposite of how Cheney described: Nixon's sudden resignation meant Americans wouldn't have him to kick around anymore, but the pardon gave voters the chance to unite in meting out their punishment at the polls.
The Nixon pardon was out of line for an unelected president, and Ford was deservedly unelected for it. But the nation healed anyway, and Ford's unassuming manner was a welcome tonic after the Nixon era. Ford's greatest achievement was simply not being the kind of president Nixon had been.
George W. Bush now finds himself in much the same position that Ford inherited when he took office in 1974—preparing to serve out the unexpired two-year term of an extraordinarily unpopular president. The only difference is that Bush himself is the extraordinarily unpopular president.
As Bush decides how to spend those two years, Ford's legacy offers two distinct, opposing choices: flagrantly ignore the will of the country (as Ford did by pardoning Nixon) or make modest attempts to heal it (as Ford did by not governing like Nixon).
Bush and Cheney would no doubt prefer to ignore the country's wishes, and regard the Republican defeat in 2006 as sufficient punishment for their mistakes. But that's the same undemocratic route that got Bush into trouble in the first place.
The better path is Ford's more appealing legacy: his refreshing awareness that Americans put up with him only because he was better than the last guy. Bush's goal for his presidency is now exactly the same as Ford's: to prove he's not as bad as Nixon.
"In 1974, America didn't need a philosopher-king," Dennis Hastert said Saturday. "We needed a rock." In 2007, our expectations are equally modest. After six years of George Bush, we'd settle for anyone who isn't a philosopher-rock.
Americans admired the 38th president's candor when he called himself "a Ford, not a Lincoln." It may be too late, but that may be the 43rd president's last best hope as well: "a Bush, not a Nixon." ... 1:22 P.M. (link)
Friday, Dec. 22, 2006
George Has Two Fathers: Like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," George W. Bush seems doomed to wake up every morning in the same Maureen Dowd column about a father's shadow he can darken but not escape. Bush 43 owes much to Bush 41 – his name, his VP and half his Cabinet, his fateful obsessions with Iraq, taxes, and the Republican base. And for his father's troubles, the current president has been singularly ungrateful. The elder Bush handed his son the keys to the car, and the Daddy Party has been paying for it ever since.
Bush the younger watched his father lose the presidency over a brief moment of responsibility, and vowed to avenge the family name by never governing responsibly again. Bush 43 seems to view Bush 41's administration as a zero-sum game: He is willing to add one old Bush hand (like Robert Gates), so long as he can dismiss another (like James Baker). He has dealt with the Iraq Study Group report the way stubborn sons usually deal with parental advice – once they hear something is supposed to be good for them, they'll never do it.
Less has been made of Bush the younger's rebellion against another father figure, his silver-haired predecessor, Bill Clinton. Although the same age as Bush 43, Clinton has a temperament more like his new friend and fellow elder statesman, Bush 41.
While the younger Bush would never admit it, he owes much to Clinton 42 as well. As governor, Bush stole his campaign slogan – "Opportunity and Responsibility" – from Clinton's campaign speeches. In 2000, Bush ran for president as a different kind of Republican, stealing a page from Clinton's '92 New Democrat playbook. No father in history has left behind a bigger inheritance than Clinton: a $5 trillion surplus with no strings attached.
Of course, Bush rebelled against Clinton in just as self-defeating a fashion as against his own father. Within a year of taking office, he squandered the entire surplus. In every possible way, he styled his presidency to be the opposite of Clinton's, even when it meant failing where Clinton had done well.
As Mark Halperin and John Harris point out in their book, The Way to Win, Bush's whole approach to politics is the opposite of Clinton's. Clintonism stresses common ground, evidence, and results. By contrast, Bushism eschews common ground in favor of sharp partisan and ideological differences. This year, Bush proved that when winning elections becomes the only result you value, it's bound to elude you as well.
Bush is a famously stubborn man, and never more so than in his insistence on throwing over the conservative achievements of his predecessors. Clinton kept the elder Bush's pay-as-you-go rules to ensure that government didn't try to do what it couldn't pay for; Bush ditched pay-go so he could spend and give away money with abandon. Clinton renewed confidence in government that had been waning since the '60s. Bush shattered confidence in government by reviving the double-barreled spending of the '60s.
In perhaps the most telling rejection of Clintonism, Bush dismantled the COPS program, which had helped communities put more police on the beat and helped cut violent crime by a third nationwide. Not having enough troops turned out to be a losing strategy here at home, too. This week, the FBI announced the sharpest increase in violent crime since 1991.
Under Clinton, the nation's police forces produced the longest sustained drop in crime on record. Now many cities are becoming murder capitals again. In 2006, robbery went up 9.7% -- the fastest rise in at least the past quarter century.
A Justice Department spokesman said the administration will wait for an ongoing study to determine why crime is going up. But the International Association of Chiefs of Police and other leading crime experts pointed out the obvious: Just as more cops on the beat led to less crime, fewer cops on the beat is leading to more crime.
In fact, the current crime wave represents a convergence of Bush failures. The Post notes that an influx of residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina helped produce a 28% surge in the crime rate in Houston. With many police officers serving extended tours with the National Guard and Reserves in Iraq, the war has further depleted the thin blue line here at home.
The more the son rebels, the more prodigal he becomes. Bush 41 and Clinton 42 look better than ever, while Bush 43 never looked worse. Bush is not the sort to learn from his mistakes. But by now, he ought to realize that resisting his elders is yet another rebellion he's not winning. ... 12:14 P.M. (link)
Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006
Dangerous Liaisons: If you're tired of buying presents for the people you work with, be glad you're not Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. This holiday, he has to find white-elephant gifts for 180,000 employees.
From the beginning, the Bush administration has never wavered in its message about the true meaning of homeland security: keep shopping. So it's fitting that Chertoff chose the holiday rush to deliver his own State of the Union's security speech.
From Katrina to the Dubai Ports World fiasco, Chertoff has endured a rocky tenure at DHS. You have to feel for a guy who gave up a lifetime appointment as a federal appeals court judge for a four-year stint as America's least successful management consultant. On Thursday, he talked about "total asset visibility" and "metrics of progress." If only America's borders could be as impenetrable as our speeches.
#1: Look out for "dangerous people."
#2: Look out for "dangerous things."
#3: Resist an attack if we fail to stop dangerous people with dangerous things.
#4: Respond to disaster if we fail to prevent an attack by dangerous people with dangerous things.
#5: "Unify the department into a seamless whole, one in which people are both parts of proud components with real legacies, but also working together to build a visionary new 21st century government organization." In other words, look out for dangerous departments who are supposed to protect us from dangerous people with dangerous things.
Chertoff lavished praise on most of his agency. But like Cinderella's cruel stepmother, he berated his unhappy stepchild, FEMA. "We have to make sure that FEMA does not become so enmeshed in its own bureaucratic processes sometimes that they lose sight of the need to have simple common sense," Chertoff said. "We've embarked on a very ambitious program of retooling FEMA to make it a 21st century response organization."
Chertoff has it backwards: FEMA's whole problem is that it was swallowed up by the bureaucratic processes of a 21st century response organization. Back in the late 20th century, when FEMA was independent and capable, director James Lee Witt could call the White House about an impending disaster and speak directly with the president. After FEMA was swallowed by the DHS whale, director Michael Brown's calls to the White House might as well have been forwarded to a call center in India. Or as Chertoff would say, "a 21st century response organization."
The trouble with DHS is that its primary mission is now responding to its own size. Something is wrong when the need to "unify the department into a seamless whole" is as urgent as the need to "protect Americans against dangerous people." If Osama bin Laden runs out of caves in Afghanistan, he might try hiding in a cubicle at DHS.
The sheer size of the department suggests that our survival strategy is modeled on the way the penguin masses endure winter storms in Antarctica – huddle together by the thousands, then move those at the outer edges to the middle when they've been exposed for too long.
Chertoff touted 20 new "intelligence fusion centers," which for a mere $380 million will bring us "embedded DHS analysts in state and local offices and also state and local analysts at DHS, improving the flow of two-way information and fusing our intelligence - not only horizontally across the government, but vertically at all levels, as well." We have embedded the enemy, and it is us.
On the same day Chertoff spoke of his dream of a seamless whole, the Government Accounting Office released a survey of the 1,800 agricultural specialists who became DHS employees as part of the merger with Customs. Earlier this year, the GAO issued a report on the ag specialists entitled, "Management and Coordination Problems Increase the Vulnerability of U.S. Agriculture to Foreign Pests and Disease."
In this week's report, the agricultural experts complained more about the domestic pests they're embedded with at DHS. The GAO asked the specialists what was going well. Their second most frequent response was, "Nothing is going well."
DHS has succeeded in streamlining one mission: handing out contracts. A tab on the front page of the DHS website declares, "Open for Business." Presumably, that message is meant for prospective contractors, not terrorists, but the jury is still out. Chertoff's speech was overshadowed by this week's decision to ditch a costly system to track the departure of foreigners at U.S. borders. Since 2004, the program has recorded 61 million foreigners entering the country, and only 4 million people leaving. That means DHS spent $1.7 billion to lose track of 57 million foreigners in two years. In the Bush administration, these are called metrics of progress.
Sadly, all his organizational jargon makes Michael Chertoff sound more and more like Michael Scott with a really big branch of "The Office." At least the Scranton branch of Dunder-Mifflin doesn't pretend to be a seamless whole. When it comes to shaking things up at DHS, Michael Scott's management philosophy might make him the better choice as Secretary:
"I'm friends with everybody in this office. We're all best friends. I love everybody here. But sometimes your best friends start coming into work late and start having dentist appointments that aren't dentist appointments, and that is when it's nice to let them know that you could beat them up." … 12:02 P.M. (link)
Snowflakes on Falling Leaders: Donald Rumsfeld's last memo enjoyed quite a run, from lead story in Sunday's New York Times and Washington Post to Slate Hot Document to welcome harbinger of a leaky new era. Amid all that attention, one aspect went overlooked: After half a century in the nation's service, Donald Rumsfeld still can't write a memo to save his political life.
Rumsfeld is not alone—for a variety of reasons, most Cabinet memos aren't very good. Cabinet secretaries are busy people, so their memos are often written by committee. A Cabinet member's world revolves around his or her agency; a memo is an attempt to make the president feel the same way. As a result, Cabinet memos are almost always too long. No president could read 20-page memos from two dozen Cabinet members, but the Cabinet churns them out anyway—and the White House staff secretary dutifully boils each down to a one-graph summary.
Two other flaws plague the Cabinet memo genre. First, White House advisers usually have a better idea what the president needs to learn from a memo, because they spend more time with him—and hear back from him whenever their efforts don't measure up. Cabinet members often have to guess what the president knows or thinks and, unless they really screw up, rarely hear an honest appraisal of what he thinks of their work.
Second, White House advisers can afford to be candid. Their advice is privileged, they can't be hauled before Congress to testify about it, and internal presidential memos rarely leak unless the White House does so on purpose. A presidential memo from a Cabinet member is privileged, but an agency's internal memos are less protected. At a more basic level, the White House hates Cabinet memos because they are usually unsolicited and always a risk to leak. That's a deadly combination, and not unrelated: the less the White House wants a memo in the first place, the greater the chance they'll see it on the front page.
Aside from the leak, Rumsfeld avoided some of these problems. His memo is short, and written in his own pull-up-your-socks tone of voice. But it's still a lousy memo, and a telling one. If, as the Duke of Wellington once said, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the war in Iraq may have been lost on the memo pads of the Pentagon.
Consider another famous "leaked" Rumsfeld memo, which made headlines in October 2003. That memo didn't exactly sneak out the secretary's door; as USA Today reported, Rumsfeld sent it to top defense officials and handed it to congressmen. In the span of 13 paragraphs, the memo asked 16 often-unrelated questions, including this impenetrable gem: "Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection and confidence in the US?" I don't begin to understand the question, but I'm pretty sure the answer is "no."
"Memos have one purpose in life," according to the award-winning Online Writing Lab at Purdue University, "Memos solve problems."
As a former White House chief of staff, Rumsfeld should know that most basic of rules. Presidents don't read memos for pleasure; for that, they have Albert Camus. A memo reaches the president only when the stakes are high, the choices are difficult, and all other means of resolution have failed.
That makes Iraq a good topic for writing the president. But the Rumsfeld memo doesn't do the one thing a presidential memo is supposed to do—help the Decider decide. Instead, Rumsfeld's "recommendations" are more confusing than the Iraq debate itself.
The Post called it an "unusually expansive memo," but national security adviser Stephen Hadley's term—"laundry list"—seems more on point. Rumsfeld offers 15 "Above the Line" options, and six "less attractive" ones. He says many of the above-the-line options "could and, in a number of cases, should be done in combination with others"—but he doesn't say which ones, or why. He doesn't make a case for the above-the-line options, or against those below the line.
Not only does the memo fail to give the president any clearer idea what to do in Iraq, it doesn't give a clear idea what the secretary of defense thinks. Rumsfeld's memo is a blue-ribbon commission report gone bad—the septuagenarian without the executive summary.
In contrasting Rumsfeld's memo with "the lawyerly memo" from Hadley, the Times says:
At the Pentagon, Mr. Rumsfeld has been famous for his "snowflakes"—memos that drift down to the bureaucracy from on high and that are used to ask questions, stimulate debate and shape policy.
Friday, Dec. 1, 2006
Republicans have been practicing all week long. On Iraq, James Baker has generously offered to hold the sword; all President Bush has to do is fall on it. Bill Frist changed his mind about doctor-assisted suicide, pulling the plug on his presidential bid rather than pretend a miracle would revive his chances. Yesterday, it was RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman's turn, in a speech to GOP governors about how Republicans had offed themselves in the midterm elections.
Mehlman is a master of apologies. Last year, he told the NAACP how sorry he was for Republicans' divisive, racist Southern strategy of the last three decades: "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." In yesterday's speech, he was so busy atoning for Republican losses, he forgot to apologize for the divisive, racist Southern ad that helped Republican Bob Corker hold the Senate seat in Tennessee.
As Bush's former campaign manager, Mehlman was careful to honor his role as presidential apologist. He praised the Republican ground game for winning 13 of the 22 closest races, even though the dismal performance of the president and Congress deserve most of the credit for making what should have been cakewalks so close.
Mehlman also repeated the White House line that they'd beaten the historical spread: "Since the 1860s, the party of the incumbent President has lost an average of 45 House seats and five Senate seats during the second midterm." Don't despair, Mr. President: Ulysses S. Grant lost 96 seats in his sixth year, but he still got to be buried in Grant's Tomb.
But after running through the customary excuses, Mehlman made a damning admission: "If 2006 taught us anything, it is that a good ground game alone cannot be depended upon to push us over the top. We need to remember … all of us … that it is good policy that makes good politics." From a longtime disciple of Bush and Rove, that is the ultimate denunciation of the Bush administration and Rovism: Bush and the Republicans lost because their policies didn't work.
Mehlman claimed that Democrats, not Republicans, are supposed to be the ones who think government is the answer to every problem: "We Republicans don't believe that … but sometimes, over the last few years, we've behaved as if we do. What does that lead to? It leads to defeat, and it leads to temptation, and it leads to a government that is bigger and more intrusive than any of us would like."
The saddest part of Mehlman's speech, in fact, was his struggle to name a single Bush accomplishment worthy of Republicans' own mythical tradition. Reagan, he says, made Republicans "the party that would change government, not sustain it." Gingrich offered "a detailed list of congressional and governmental reforms that took power away from the smoke-filled rooms and returned it to the people."
And what has Bush done to make Republicans the party of reform? Mehlman's answer:
"President George W. Bush reorganized our entire security system, creating the Department of Homeland Security."
No wonder Republicans feel like killing themselves. The only hope their own chairman can give them that they're not the party of government is that Bush created the largest, costliest new federal bureaucracy in American history.
When the GOP's cheerleader thinks a bloated bureaucratic nightmare with 170,000 employees is a shining example of "limited government" and "our Party at its best," even Republicans seem to be saying sayonara to conservatism. Stick a sword in it—it's done. ... 1:48 P.M. (link)
Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006
Traitor to His Class: As they survey the ruins of the conservative movement, Republicans ponder what might have been, if only Bush hadn't blundered so often and Congress plundered so much. A study in today's New York Times provides shocking evidence of the latest conservative betrayal. According to the latest available IRS data, the richest Americans have fared worse under Bush than any other income group.
If the Republican revolution promised anything, it was that after years of oppression and neglect, rich people would finally have the chance to get ahead. But the Times reports that life is tough on Easy Street:
"Incomes after 2000 fell the most among those at the top of the income ladder. The top one-tenth of 1 percent, about 130,500 taxpayers, reported their average income fell almost 17 percent, to just under $4.9 million each in 2004."
Even Bush's harshest critics would have to concede that the president has done everything in his power to help the rich. He cut tax rates for the upper brackets. He cut the capital gains rate from 20 percent to 15 percent. He gutted the estate tax and virtually eliminated the tax on dividends.
From 2001 to 2004, Bush gave the rich a new tax cut every single year. Yet as the Times points out, even with all those trillion-dollar tax cuts, the richest Americans saw their after-tax incomes plunge by 12.1 percent.
In his 2004 campaign, John Edwards called Bush's economic theory "the most radical and dangerous economic theory to hit our shores since socialism a century ago." It's now clear that for the very rich, even socialism might have been a better deal.
This is shattering news for Democrats and Republicans alike. What is the point of supply-side conservatism if it can't even make the rich richer? For that matter, where is the joy in railing against it? Supply-side economics never made any sense to begin with, but now its logic isn't worth the napkin it was written on. Trickle-down theory turned out to be no trickle, just down.
President Bush is famous for setting big goals and failing to meet them. Now we know he can't meet the easiest of goals, either. The rich have been getting richer for centuries. Moreover, in contrast to its other pursuits, the Bush administration's efforts to help the rich were a model of persistence and consistency. No pesky resistance tried to stop them; no clumsy Rumsfeld botched the execution. They did their best, yet still they failed.
In response, the rich are voting with their feet—or perhaps their footmen. In 2004, Bush carried voters with incomes above $200,000 by 63 percent to 35 percent. This year, the Republican margin shrunk 20 points, to 53 percent to 45 percent. That was the sharpest Democratic gain of any income category. More and more rich people are coming around to Bill Clinton's view that "if you want to live like a Republican, you have to vote like a Democrat."
While the very rich keep seeing their incomes go down, the cost of being rich keeps going up. The PNC Christmas Price Index, which tracks the price of everything from 12 drummers drumming to a partridge in a pear tree, reported this week that the cost of the 12 days of Christmas has jumped to an all-time high of $18,920. PNC says that a tight labor market means wages for piping pipers and other skilled workers are up, while the burst in the housing bubble "has dampened demand for luxury goods, such as gold rings."
Ronald Reagan used to say that in the 1960s, Democrats fought a war on poverty, and poverty won. In this decade, Republicans fought a war on rich people's poverty, and poverty won again.
Once upon a time, the United States was the world leader in making people rich. Not anymore. The annual World Wealth Report keeps track of High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs), otherwise known as millionaires. According to the 2006 report, South Korea, India, and Russia are producing new millionaires three times faster than we are. Last year, the United States even fell behind Canada.
By examining "how much it costs HNWIs to live extremely well," the World Wealth Report shows just how hard it can be to keep up with the Gateses:
"HNWIs around the world have two things in common: a deep concern about preserving their wealth and an abiding desire to ensure growth of their wealth for the benefit of future generations and benefactors. … The 'admission and maintenance charges' to a life of privilege cannot be overlooked when discussing impacts to HNWI wealth."
While the gap has shrunk in the past two years, the report says that in 2003, the inflation rate for luxury goods was 5.5 percent higher than the Consumer Price Index. The report monitors an annual basket of luxury goods—including "5-star hotels, spa visits, and boarding school tuitions." As a percentage of wealth, rich Americans pay 60 percent more to live like Paris Hilton than Asian-Pacific millionaires do.
As they look toward 2008, that gives Republicans a new mantra: Stop the class warfare! Let Democrats whine about the middle-class squeeze. The upper-class squeeze—now that's an issue that Bill Frist and Mitt Romney can run on. ... 4:33 P.M. (link)
Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006
Crystal Ball: Move over, Mort Kondracke. You heard it here first: as predicted, Flyer and Fryer held on to defeat Plymouth and Rock, 27 percent to 22 percent, in this year's White House turkey naming contest. Corn and Copia, the other food item on voters' menu, finished third with 21 percent, ahead of deserving founder Ben and Franklin at 18 percent. Washington and Lincoln ended up first in war, first in peace, and last in the turkey standings, with 12 percent.
In what may be an early glimpse of a kinder, gentler Bush, the president dispensed with his annual neck-and-neck joke. He has given up pretending the election was close. Instead, Bush joked that it was probably better to be called Flyer than Fryer. He said the turkeys' owners "did a fine job raising these birds," then petted Fryer's neck and called it "a fine-looking bird."
Bush also revealed that although Barney had enjoyed chasing Flyer around the Rose Garden, his favorite toy is a soccer ball. That makes the president an honorary soccer dad, too late to win back any suburban swing voters.
Bates Motel: Flyer and Fryer have flown off to greener, Barney-free pastures in Disneyland. They don't know how lucky they are. With no help from Washington, some states are finding their own ways to reduce the turkey retiree burden. The Montgomery Advertiser reports on Alabama's solution: coyotes.
Every November, Bill Bates, a leading Republican who runs the largest turkey farm in the state, brings the best bird from his flock of 20,000+ to Montgomery for the governor to pardon. Bates, who has been doing this since segregationist days, doesn't need an online naming contest. He gives his best bird the same name every year: Clyde.
While a pardon may be the dream of every turkey worth his salt, the Advertiser's account suggests it's not easy being Clyde. The paper reports that many of Bates's prized turkeys "ate so much and got so fat that they had a hard time even waddling around the farm." Others apparently "have been known to drown during storms when they lift their beaks to the open sky."
But the pardon of Clyde '05 proved to be the cruelest hoax of all. After being honored by the governor, Clyde '05 went on display at a farmers' market in Montgomery. PETA complained about his shabby treatment, so Bates brought him back to the farm. A few months ago, a coyote got into his pen and had an early Thanksgiving dinner. "Poor Clyde never had a chance," Bates told the paper. "There wasn't much left but feathers and bones."
Since then, Bates has installed a new security system—barbed wire. But if more coyotes had time to read blogs, they might have left Clyde alone and followed this hot tip from Huffington Post:Tofurky. Made with "organic, non-genetically engineered soybeans," Tofurky has been "America's Leading Turkey Alternative Since 1995."
The 2007 "Gobble the Vote" naming contest is 364 days away, but we already have a frontrunner: Tofurky and Clyde. You heard it here first. … 1:27 A.M. (link)