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Bush Administration

Don’t miss Bob Geiger’s Saturday cartoons.

If you’re near a newstand today, look for the September 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (cover art: gray storm clouds over the White House). This is the “Lessons of a Failed Presidency” edition. I haven’t read it all yet, but I assure you Joshua Green’s “The Rove Presidency” by itself is worth the price of the issue. (If you’re already a subscriber, you can read it online here.) A few snips:

The story of why an ambitious Republican president working with a Republican Congress failed to achieve most of what he set out to do finds Rove at center stage. A big paradox of Bush’s presidency is that Rove, who had maybe the best purely political mind in a generation and almost limitless opportunities to apply it from the very outset, managed to steer the administration toward disaster.

In a nutshell, Rove believed he could create a political realignment like the ones brought about by the Civil War and the Great Depression.

Rove’s idea was to use the levers of government to create an effect that ordinarily occurs only in the most tumultuous periods in American history. He believed he could force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies. Rove’s plan had five major components: establish education standards, pass a “faith-based initiative” directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population. Each of these, if enacted, would weaken the Democratic Party by drawing some of its core supporters into the Republican column. His plan would lead, he believed, to a period of Republican dominance like the one that followed McKinley’s election.

You’ll notice that most of these initiatives never came to pass, and the ones that did (like No Child Left Behind) are increasingly unpopular and will likely be axed once the Bushies are gone.

Rove’s vision had a certain abstract conceptual logic to it, much like the administration’s plan to spread democracy by force in the Middle East. If you could invade and pacify Iraq and Afghanistan, the thinking went, democracy would spread across the region. Likewise, if you could recast major government programs to make them more susceptible to market forces, broader support for the Republican Party would ensue. But in both cases the visionaries ignored the enormous difficulty of carrying off such seismic changes.

Green writes that Rove has vanity and hubris on an oceanic scale. In Rove’s World, his knowledge is infallible, his ideas are the only true ideas, and he demands deference even from senior members of Congress.

Rove’s behavior toward Congress stood out. “Every once in a while Rove would come to leadership meetings, and he definitely considered himself at least an equal with the leaders in the room,” a Republican aide told me. “But you have to understand that Congress is a place where a certain decorum is expected. Even in private, staff is still staff. Rove would come and chime in as if he were equal to the speaker. Cheney sometimes came, too, and was far more deferential than Rove—and he was the vice president.” Other aides say Rove was notorious for interrupting congressional leaders and calling them by their first name. …

… A revealing pattern of behavior emerged from my interviews. Rove plainly viewed his standing as equal to or exceeding that of the party’s leaders in Congress and demanded what he deemed his due. Yet he was also apparently annoyed at what came with his White House eminence, complaining to colleagues when members of Congress called him to consult about routine matters he thought were beneath his standing—something that couldn’t have endeared him to the legislature.

Rove pretty much had a free hand to run Bush’s domestic agenda — Rove’s agenda, really — just as Cheney was in charge of foreign policy while the Boy King rode his bicycle and took naps. But Rove ran White House policy like he ran his political campaigns, and that was his undoing. His style in campaigns was to be nasty and divisive, and that’s how he pushed the Bush domestic agenda — by division.

Rove, forever in thrall to the mechanics of winning by dividing, consistently lacked the ability to transcend the campaign mind-set and see beyond the struggle nearest at hand. In a world made new by September 11, he put terrorism and war to work in an electoral rather than a historical context, and used them as wedge issues instead of as the unifying basis for the new political order he sought.”

“Rove’s style as a campaign consultant was to plot out well in advance of a race exactly what he would do and to stick with it no matter what,” writes Green. Going into Bush’s second term, Rove charged ahead with his well-plotted strategy and pushed Social Security reform. As support for the Iraq War soured, the Bush White House continued to put all of its energy into Social Security reform, utterly tone deaf to the changing national mood.

“The great cost of the Social Security misadventure was lost support for the war,” says a former Bush official. “When you send troops to war, you have no higher responsibility as president than to keep the American people engaged and maintain popular support. But for months and months after it became obvious that Social Security was not going to happen, nobody—because of Karl’s stature in the White House—could be intellectually honest in a meeting and say, ‘This is not going to happen, and we need an exit strategy to get back onto winning ground.’ It was a catastrophic mistake.” …

… The Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio says, “People who were concerned about the war, we lost. People who were concerned about the economy, we lost. People who were concerned about health care, we lost. It goes on and on. Any of those things would have helped refocus the debate or at least put something else out there besides the war. We came out of the election and what was our agenda for the next term? Social Security. There was nothing else that we were doing. We allowed ourselves as a party to be defined by—in effect, to live and die by—the war in Iraq.”

Another factor: I’ve thought many times that the Bush White House has a weird inability to respond to unexpected events. Whenever something happens that was not on the schedule — like 9/11 or the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or Dick Cheney’s hunting “accident” — they are flummoxed. Often they are slow to recognize the significance of an event until after everyone else on the planet has recognized it first. They are so focused on their pre-planned agenda they can’t see anything else. Green suggests this blinkered view is mostly Rove’s doing. In fact, Rove may have advised Bush to blow off Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina clearly changed the public perception of Bush’s presidency. Less examined is the role Rove played in the defining moment of the administration’s response: when Air Force One flew over Louisiana and Bush gazed down from on high at the wreckage without ordering his plane down. Bush advisers Matthew Dowd and Dan Bartlett wanted the president on the ground immediately, one Bush official told me, but were overruled by Rove for reasons that are still unclear: “Karl did not want the plane to land in Louisiana.” Rove’s political acumen seemed to be deserting him altogether.

Most of all, Rove never seems to have figured out that at some point the White House had to put aside campaigning and start governing.

“It is a dangerous distraction to know as much about politics as Karl Rove knows,” Bruce Reed, the domestic-policy chief in Bill Clinton’s administration, told me. “If you know every single poll number on every single issue and every interest group’s objection and every political factor, it can be paralyzing to try to make an honest policy decision. I think the larger, deeper problem was that they never fully appreciated that long-term success depended on making sure your policies worked.”

And, of course …

Rove has no antecedent in modern American politics, because no president before Bush thought it wise to give a political adviser so much influence. Rove wouldn’t be Rove, in other words, were Bush not Bush. That Vice President Cheney also hit a historic high-water mark for influence says a lot about how the actual president sees fit to govern. All rhetoric about “leadership” aside, Bush will be viewed as a weak executive who ceded far too much authority. Rove’s failures are ultimately his.

Now Rove and Bush are reduced to whining about how history will vindicate them. As if.

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16 Comments

  1. Donna  •  Aug 11, 2007 @8:38 am

    My deepest hope for my country is that what you have written and quoted is a lesson learned, i.e. really understood by more and more citizens. We do not need to replace one ‘image’ presidency with another. Bush/Rove has taken us too far off the path, and dueling images won’t suffice.

  2. c u n d gulag  •  Aug 11, 2007 @9:24 am

    Shrub, Cheney, Rove and AG should be memorialized on a Mount Rushmore of their own. Their heads would represent failure, corruption, evil and ineptitude. A fifth head that could be added on the monument (Rummy), can represent either stupidity or arrogance. Your choice.
    They are the polar opposite’s of Washington, Jefferson, Adam’s and Madison. Somewhere, Lincoln is weeping… And Delay is laughing.
    Government is about working FOR the people. Rove missed a key word. He believes that government is about “Workin’ the people.” Thus, we no longer have any working government for the people. We have politicians workin’ the crowd . Until this stops, our nation is lost.
    I don’t know if there is any hope for this country anymore. We may be so deep in the crap that conservatives have shat, that we are now a Banana Republican nation.
    If a Democratic President and Congress are elected in 2008, Republicans will do what they have done best for over 70 years: They will stand around as the minority party, and fling ocean’s of feces at any attempt by Democrat’s at progress. And the media will be there to document every hit. And they will be known as the “Opposition Party,” and lauded for their conservative value’s. They will both scream at Democrat’s and call them Communist’s and Socialist’s, and David Broder will be there, in his blue-veined senility, to chronicle all of this and wonder why we can’t all just get along…
    Rove isn’t the disease, he’s just the biggest symptom. And there are other tumorous Rove Doppleganger’s strewn out throughout the political system. The division of the country, that which defines the modern conservative movement, has metastized throughout he body politic. And it may be to late to save the patient – our country.
    Democrat’s can’t continue to fold like they did on FISA last week. If they continue to do so, then there is no hope. You can’t govern if all you’re doing is dodging feces.
    Let us hope it’s not too late… It will take each and every one of us to stop it. I wonder if we have the will.

  3. myiq2xu  •  Aug 11, 2007 @12:00 pm

    I’m not sure where the quote originated, but I first read it in Molly Ivins column:

    “The Republicans don’t want to govern, they want to rule.”

    Rove has confused politics with policy, focusing on winning the job and forgetting completely about doing the job.

  4. MetaData  •  Aug 11, 2007 @12:46 pm

    Where’s the inverse-rove from the Dem side?

    If the Rove’s coalition or policy-package was fragmenting on Social Security, Iraq, NCLB, Katrina, Immigration, etc, why were the Democrats just sitting in watch-and-wait mode. The inverse of rove would be to understand the polling and the various interest groups from the other side, and implement policies or at least PR campaigns to pick up the pieces.

  5. moonbat  •  Aug 11, 2007 @1:36 pm

    I’ve thought many times that the Bush White House has a weird inability to respond to unexpected events. Whenever something happens that was not on the schedule — like 9/11 or the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina or Dick Cheney’s hunting “accident” — they are flummoxed. Often they are slow to recognize the significance of an event until after everyone else on the planet has recognized it first. They are so focused on their pre-planned agenda they can’t see anything else.

    Recall the rights’ defining characteristic is their lack of empathy or feeling for others. They’re dead to the feelings of others, as well as to most of their own feelings, save for their extreme need for security. They’re sociopaths to varying degrees, IOW.

    I knew a self-admitted sociopath who told me that the way sociopaths get on in the world is through mimicry – they learn to act like normal people. They learn to act like they care. This is the cruel joke behind the phrase “compassionate conservative”. This is exemplified by Bush’s performances at various disaster scenes: When meeting with disaster victims, he can talk about his own feelings, but he can never empathize or talk about the feelings of others – the victims of the disaster, fer crissakes – because he simply cannot feel them.

    And so it’s no surprise that these people have no idea how to react to unscripted events. They are constantly caught flat-footed by a change in the music, revealing themselves as unfeeling and callous. This just screams how utterly tone deaf, crippled and unfeeling these people are. And how utterly insecure they are, because life becomes terrifying if you cannot handle change.

    Their intense inner insecurity leads to their fear-based need to form tribes, and to dominate everyone and everything. Hence the Big Plan To Dominate Everything, which they have worked on for years, while trying to muscle their way into power. The PNAC represents this same Big Plan for The Entire Earth. Once in power, they relentlessly push this agenda, and ruthlessly crush all opposition. As #3 pointed out, it is not about governing, it is about ruling, because inside they are so utterly insecure.

    When unpredicted events do come up, they seize on them not to respond to the country’s needs (because they cannot feel them) but rather they find ways to capitalize on these events, to advance The Big Plan. And so New Orleans becomes both a way to reward GOP cronies and also a way to turn Louisiana permanently red – a great twofer, in their eyes.

    The relentless push behind tax cuts was promoted at various times as necessary 1) to revive the economy 2) to keep the economy strong 3) to prevent a stall in the economy. The main goal had nothing whatsover to do with “the economy”, it was to get the tax cuts by whatever means necessary.

    There are countless other examples, but you get the idea.

  6. WereBear  •  Aug 11, 2007 @2:32 pm

    “I think the larger, deeper problem was that they never fully appreciated that long-term success depended on making sure your policies worked.” Bruce Reed, the domestic-policy chief in Bill Clinton’s administration

    There isn’t a font big enough for me to use. But, you know, well… how can I put this eloquently… DUH!

    I always felt that, without Cheney’s war, the Bushies would have been skulking around, messing things up, for a lot longer. The war meant they got called on it that much sooner.

    And now, on the domestic side, there’s Rove with his special math, completely blind to the fact that the electorate might notice they left an entire city to rot, among other things.

    As a novelist, I always have a rule for my villains: Evil sows the seeds of its own destruction.

    Works in real life, too.

  7. Swami  •  Aug 11, 2007 @10:38 pm

    Maybe if Regnery Publishers writes the history Bush might be vindicated, but launching a preemptive war based on lies and deceptions isn’t gonna find vindication in real history. Bush might be able to get away clean from an immediate accountability, but his legacy won’t. History will judge him as an incompetent fool who wasn’t up for the game in leadership.

    History will vindicate Pol Pot before it vindicates George Bush.

  8. J. Dunn  •  Aug 12, 2007 @7:50 am

    He believed he could force a realignment himself through a series of far-reaching policies. Rove’s plan had five major components: establish education standards, pass a “faith-based initiative” directing government funds to religious organizations, partially privatize Social Security, offer private health-savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and reform immigration laws to appeal to the growing Hispanic population. Each of these, if enacted, would weaken the Democratic Party by drawing some of its core supporters into the Republican column.

    Y’know, when you see it plainly written out like that, it becomes clear that this master plan of his was just astonishingly dumb and halfassed. “If we enact all of these arcane longtime conservative hobby-horses in the place of popular longstanding entitlements and social services, voters who didn’t give us the time of day before will suddenly like us, for no apparent reason!” The only even plausible plank in that is the immigration one, and he should have known better than anyone that their racist base wasn’t going to swallow that one. If it wasn’t Dubya doing the buying, there was no way he could have sold this to anyone. Hell, even the most slavishly pliable Congress in history wouldn’t really go along with most of it. Why were we so scared of this man’s supposed political genius for the better part of a decade again?

  9. felicity  •  Aug 12, 2007 @2:24 pm

    From what I’ve read about Rove, Bush, Rumsfeld, Gingrich… they all seem to suffer big-time from ADD. People who’ve worked for them, people who’ve observed them through the years all agree that follow-through on much of anything is rare. Our misfortune is that any of them ever got into positions of power in the first place.

  10. gmanedit  •  Aug 13, 2007 @11:36 am

    ” “The great cost of the Social Security misadventure was lost support for the war,” says a former Bush official.”
    Josh Marshall deserves a lifetime-achievement Koufax award.

  11. skyreader7  •  Aug 13, 2007 @5:24 pm

    Things Fall Apart. Why for Bush? He screwed almost every group in America except for the filthy rich: teachers and students, soldiers, the poor, the old, parents who had to get education loans from Sallie Mae, car owners who need to put gas in their cars, people who have to drive over bridges, all of us who breathe air, and on and on. All the while enriching his favorite groups: the Haves and the Have Mores.

    He forgot that he was a servant of the people; not a “his royal highness” above law and man.

  12. Sully18  •  Aug 13, 2007 @6:00 pm

    “In a nutshell, Rove believed he could create a political realignment like the ones brought about by the Civil War and the Great Depression.”
    Rove actions may yet facilitate this realignment,but in the opposite direction.With recession on the horizon and impeachment “off the table,” but not yet shredded, there probably will be a massive shift toward the Dems.
    I see that Michael Chertoff has the ICE-men in striking distance to start rounding up the Mexican immigrants who forgot to get their Green cards.We should be used to Mexican-Americans who have poor memories,as in AG Gonzalez,and we should leave them alone as we have him.
    Seriously,I do think there is something going on here that isnot what we`re seeing.Remember the Rethug bait and switch.

  13. BlueKnuckle  •  Aug 13, 2007 @6:07 pm

    Simply brilliant piece. Rings true at every turn. Incisive. A great piece of analytic and didactic journalism.

  14. Steve J.  •  Aug 13, 2007 @6:26 pm

    I think meddling in the Schiavo case should also be considered one of Rove’s failures.

  15. seena1313  •  Aug 14, 2007 @4:26 am

    Since day one this administration has been more interested in helping big business rather than the public. One of the major things that got the WH into trouble in Iraq: they never made it about the Iraqi people — the same thing in Afghanistan and likewise in America.

    Politics and policy are two different things. Rove may not know anything about governing, but he knows a lot about politics. Rove is a political operative, period. Rove’s agenda was seeing that republicans became a permanent majority. Therefore he knew the political landscape of America had to change. By hook and crook he managed to legitimize the unacceptable.

    Rove spent the past 6.5 years actively expanding the republican influence in every aspect of government. [It is presumed] He is responsible for placing inexperienced political “operatives” in lower and upper positions within the various departments including the legislative and judicial branches of government. It did not matter that by doing so it rendered an effective government impotent.

    Knowing the dialogue had to change in order to marginalize dissent Rove introduced talking points and slogans that would effectively dumb down public discourse. Turning logic on its head equating criticism with hatred reduced debate to nothing more than illogical and unreasonable arguments while intelligence all but disappeared. E-motions replaced common sense when wedge issues, 911 and terrorism became the topics du’ jour.

    Rove’s strategy to divide and conquer was not workable. Yet no one in the media bothered to analyze his strategies. Most journalists were too focused on Rove’s success at winning elections. They were too busy showering him with accolades to realize after the elections the effect it had on the public. Rove never paid attention to the people’s needs nor what it means to govern. Instead it was relegated to political maneuvers to ensure republican victories.

    Rove, with Bush’s blessings, will be remembered for leaving the nation divided and bi-partisanship a thing of the past. He may be gone, but his imprint will be felt for a long time.

    Equally important with dangerous men at the helm without a clue how to lead, the nation is rudderless drifting in a sea of incompetence.

    Meanwhile we have a lot of healing to do. Rove has a lot of answering to do — that is if Leahy walks his talk. Rove cannot continue to evade the law and expect not to get caught. Otherwise it legitimizes breaking the law and that is unacceptable.

  16. serena1313  •  Aug 14, 2007 @4:27 am

    correction: serena1313

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