Knowing Not What They Do

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Bush Administration

Now and then we have a discussion in the comments threads about whether the Bushies know what they are doing. The “don’t know” argument points to the fact that everything the Bushies do gets bleeped. The “do know” argument says that allowing things to get and stay bleeped — New Orleans, for example — is part of the Master Plan to turn America into the sort of country the Right wants. And that country (ironically, considering the anti-immigrant hysteria on the Right) would be something like a big encomienda, in which the right-wing elite and its corporate cronies are the encomenderos and the rest of us are the peasants.

I acknowledge that the Bushies came into power with a plan, and they’ve put a large part of that plan into place. The Supreme Court now will more reliably protect the prerogatives of the privileged over the rights of citizens. The nation’s tax burden has been shifted almost entirely onto wage earners. The famous No Child Left Behind education “reform” has turned out to be a means by which public schools will be taken over by private corporations (all the better to prepare our nation’s youth for whatever McJobs they can expect in the future). Americans can be spied on without warrants and detained indefinitely without habeas corpus. Unions busted, public lands and resources exploited, federal agencies turned into Republican party machines. And don’t get me started on the military-industrial complex. We all worry that it will take years to undo the damage, and we all worry that Democrats in Washington are too compromised to do the undoing.

However, while the Bushies may have been largely successful in carrying out a plan, that’s far from saying that the Bush White House has been successful. Many of their objectives clearly have not turned out as they would have liked. Until recently they have been nearly invincible in achieving political objectives, yet it seems now that George W. Bush will leave office with no positive accomplishments in his “legacy.”

Some time back I wrote a post about the Bush Administration’s governing style, based on a Los Angeles Times article that is no longer online (for free, at least). Time and time again, the Bush Administration has stumbled because of three major flaws:

#1: They are utterly flummoxed by unexpected events that weren’t part of The Plan.

#2: They can’t communicate with each other.

#3: It’s hard to tell who’s really in charge.

I think points #2 and #3 are part of the same problem. Some parts of the Bush Administration may answer to Bush, but other parts answer to Dick Cheney, and much of it answered to Karl Rove. (For example, Sidney Blumenthal speculates that Alberto Gonzales chose to resign because he is lost without Karl Rove telling him what to do.) The Cheney contingent in particular seems to operate within its own loop and doesn’t play well with others. No clear lines of authority, no clear lines of communication. With Karl out of the White House this situation is likely to get worse.

Although the Iraq invasion for a time paid big political dividends for the Bushies, and allowed them to divert billions in tax dollars to its favorite contractor-cronies, I think it’s obvious they didn’t expect the war part to get so messy and complicated. Otherwise, they might have thought twice about the “mission accomplished” victory prance on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. And management of the war and occupation has amounted to one mistake after another. But at this point they may have given up actually managing the war and are merely playing a policy shell game so that Bush can avoid admitting to failure while he’s in the White House. So far, they’ve been successful at that. Barring some miracle out of Congress, about the only factor that might trip Bush up is the fact that he’s running out of troops.

Point #1, on the other hand, tells us that while they’re intensely focused on their plans, Bushies never got the hang of governing. I think this, more than anything else, is behind Bush’s sorry ass job ratings.

The failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina may have been deliberate, and it may succeed in turning New Orleans into a Republican voting block, but at a huge cost. Dan Balz writes that analysis of Bush’s job approval numbers reveals a lingering “post-Katrina hangover.”

Much more than Katrina explains the continuing drop in Bush’s support in the past 12 months, but there is little doubt that the hurricane crystallized negative perceptions about Bush’s performance that he never has been able to shake. And in the fallout from the Gonzales resignation on Monday, there were renewed complaints that echoed the criticism after Katrina, that the administration lacks basic competence in dealing with problems.

By now this is a fully developed critique. Republicans look at the Gonzales tenure and see incompetence at almost every level. They see an attorney general who, for all his personal attributes, lacked the competence to run the Justice Department. They see a White House that, faced with a revolt that began with Democrats but eventually included many prominent Republicans, waited months before taking action to bring an end to his tenure.

But they see this now not as an isolated example but as a pattern. Even among Republican loyalists, almost no one defends the administration’s management of the war in Iraq. They resent that Bush took so long to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. They recall his decision to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. They look at the midterm elections of 2006 and see a White House that, publicly at least, kept asserting that Democratic gains could be kept to a minimum.

What worries Republicans most is that the damage inflicted by the administration now costs them as much as it does the president, which has caused Republican elected officials, presidential candidates and GOP strategists to wish for a speedy end to the administration.

What does a party profit if it gains New Orleans but loses the majority of voters outside the South?

People are still calling the days after Katrina “the week that sunk the Bush presidency.” Michael Tomasky remembers the week and how stunningly tone deaf the Bushies were to the mood of the country. Bush wasn’t even bothering to go through the motions.

Bush still, dutifully, travels to New Orleans now and then for a photo op. On last night’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann asked “At this point, who does he think he is fooling? And why is he bothering to do it?” Jonathan Alter replied,

ALTER: That‘s a great question. All he has now is photo opportunities. His administration is basically over. He‘s just playing out the string here. And he does need to show up for a basic sense of respectability. He‘s gone several times recently.

Meanwhile, the job is not getting done. In most of the other areas there are huge bottlenecks. They are not doing anything about the particular canal that caused the flooding in the first place, which has many in Louisiana outraged that the source of all the damage has not been dealt with by the government. There has been a disproportionate share of the money that has gone to Haley Barbour, the lobbyist-turned governor of Mississippi. He has grabbed twice as much proportionally as Louisiana, even though it was New Orleans that was basically wiped off the map.

OLBERMANN: You hate to see states being pitted against each other about funding in this way. As you mentioned there and as the editorial mentioned today, but is that really materially true, even in this, the administration has rewarded Republicans and punished Democrats as if the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast was handing out postmaster jobs and not helping Americans?

ALTER: Politics got involved in this very, very quickly with the finger-pointing at the beginning. Haley Barbour has some problems. Some of his relatives got the contracts improperly in Mississippi. Mississippi has done much better than Louisiana, which has a Democratic governor. It is the overall level of attention and the overall failure to execute. And if that sounds familiar it is. The same thing that has bedeviled us in Iraq has been happening in the Gulf States. They are not getting it done. They are not interested in government.

Even at the most symbolic level, the failure to mention Katrina in the State of the Union address less than a year and a half after the hurricane was just outrageous. I have talked to friends in Louisiana who said that they were stunned as they listened to that speech that when he got to the end he had not mentioned Katrina they actually broke down in tears. They felt that abandoned by their own government.

Do the Bushies really know what they’re doing?

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13 Comments

  1. felicity  •  Aug 30, 2007 @2:46 pm

    I’m weeping my way through the Blackwater book – and drinking an awful lot of wine – and if Bush doesn’t know what he’s doing it doesn’t really matter because the Bushies, and there are a lot of them in and out of government/governments, know what they’re doing and they’re running the national and international shows. I’m afraid that the Bushies know exactly what they’re doing.

    Does Bush know what he’s doing? It may be that his remark that being president was ‘a lot of hard work’ is about as deep as Bush can get into the presidency. Chopping wood is hard work too and I would imagine that Bush weighs the two jobs as being of fairly equal importance. And because he’s a narcissist, knowledge of failure at either job is here today but gone tomorrow so weighs little when measuring job performance.

  2. Jonathan Versen  •  Aug 30, 2007 @4:18 pm

    “#1: They are utterly flummoxed by unexpected events that weren’t part of The Plan.

    #2: They can’t communicate with each other.

    #3: It’s hard to tell who’s really in charge”

    I agree with the broad outline of your thesis, but also wonder if an additional part of the problem with BushCo is an arrogant faith that they can wreck everything they touch with impunity because they’re so sure they can spin everything into either a positive or the at worst being the fault of their political adversaries. (I don’t know how you can otherwise explain Junior’s recent comments on the Vietnam war.)

    Given how suppliant the press and the opposition party has been this is partially understandable, if no less disgusting.

    I’m struck, however, by an irony: as another labor day weekend approaches, that if the Bushies had been slightly less greedy, that if, in January of 2004 shortly after Saddam was captured (12/2003), Bush had announced a full withdrawal from Iraq by Labor day 2004, and of course actually done it, he might’ve ended up as a popular president.

    The war would still have been wrong and unnecessary of course, but you’d hardly hear anybody in the mainstream press saying so.

  3. Jonathan Versen  •  Aug 30, 2007 @4:23 pm

    “Given how suppliant the press and the opposition party has been this is partially understandable, if no less disgusting.”

    oops– I wrote has because I meant to take out the opposition party (not because it doesn’t necessarily belong, but I think only w/ extensive qualifications which I didn’t want to get into here…)

    Given how suppliant the press has been this is partially understandable, if no less disgusting.

  4. Steve M.  •  Aug 30, 2007 @6:10 pm

    As far as Bush is concerned, every time the world has said he screwed something up in his life, in short order he was better off than he’d been. That includes screwing up Iraq — especially Iraq. (He had been screwing up the war for a year and a half by Election Day ’04 and he got 25% more votes than in ’00 as a result.) So his rule of thumb is that either everyone who says he’s screwed up is wrong or screwing up is good.

    I really think he sees life this way.

    You’d think he might occasionally ask himself whether his screwups hurt other peeople, but he’s far too narcissistic for that. All that matters is that he’s never had to suffer any real consequences no matter how many times he (according to the world) screwed up, and, in fact, his life has been pretty darn good. So why argue with success?

    And as far as who’s in charge, I think Bush is. Cheney or (occasionally) Condi or (until now) Rove could manipulate him, but he is the decider. Problem is, he decides based on absolutely no normal standard of pursuit of success/avoidance of failure — to him, what normal people call failure simply isn’t bad. That’s why his White House seems to be run in a lunatic way.

  5. czrpb  •  Aug 30, 2007 @7:02 pm

    I am going to have to go with: Their public statements are not their objectives and they are indifferent to the human consequences of their actions.

    Plus I agree with Authur.

  6. MarktheSpark  •  Aug 30, 2007 @9:10 pm

    Interesting post. I haven’t checked out this website in some time, but may be more in the future

    One problem of fact in an otherwise accurate assessment. Their reign of tError is far from over. Chimpy’s addicted to power and won’t accept lame duck status. Expect an attack on Iran to liven things up and further spread their clusterf*ck in the Middle East. And expect the Demos to go along for this part of the game plan

  7. khughes1963  •  Aug 30, 2007 @9:18 pm

    Maha-I think you nailed it-we are headed to Encomienda Nation. We are already living through the Second Gilded Age, which might have fairly said to have begun with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Unlike a lot of people in my age bracket, I was under no illusions about St. Ronald of Reagan, and I have always voted for the Democratic presidential candidate since I was first able to vote in a Presidential election in 1984. Unfortunately, much of what I’d anticipated twenty years ago has come to pass, some things fortunately did not (we didn’t get involved in a shooting war in Central America,) and other things that I didn’t anticipate happening occurred (for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite governments in Eastern Europe.)

    To your comments, I would also add that Glenn Greenwald has accurately nailed Bush’s black and white world view, where Bush believes that lack of endorsement constitutes enemy status (remember if you aren’t with us, you’re against us in the War on Terror,) and Bush never, ever admits that he or any of the decisions he’s made are wrong.

  8. myiq2xu  •  Aug 31, 2007 @2:12 am

    The argument that the Busheviks know what they are doing and everything they did was part of a plan assumes that they are competent, and there is simply no evidence of that.

    If they were so diabolically clever, they wouldn’t have made themselves look so bad. They would have engineered it so that Democrats looked like they were at fault or they would have set up other patsies to take the blame.

  9. myiq2xu  •  Aug 31, 2007 @2:39 am

    Just another thought to add: If the Busheviks really knew what they were doing, why would they do nothing for so long after Katrina hit NOLA?

    They have used the disaster for nefarious purposes, but they could have done the same things while giving the appearance of trying to help. Bush could have showed up days earlier, they could have evacuated the (mostly black) residents to other areas sooner, and lined the pockets of their cronies, etc., while appearing to look competent.

  10. Kevin Hayden  •  Aug 31, 2007 @6:18 am

    We can only guess of course, but I think there’s multiple factors at work that cause the failures. It’s a common mistake for governments to fight the last war in the current war. We took Iraq in Gulf War I with massive overkill, for example, so Rummy tried to lowball his way through this one, though the generals protested.

    A lot of the rest appears to be delegating away duties, outsourcing and privatizing government. Much of that is patronage with too little oversight.

    The things you describe as part of the plan has been pandering to their cultural base.

    The only overriding ideology they’ve foisted on anything with a focused intent has been expanding the power of the executive in every way possible so nobody anywhere can tell them ‘no’.

    Taken together, it’s a commitment to a management style ahead of measurable results. Government by untested theory and a hands off style has proven as dysfunctional as it gets.

    But if their financial patrons are satisfied, they feel they’re succeeding. Until the peasantry starts lighting torches, that is.

  11. Sachem  •  Aug 31, 2007 @12:34 pm

    Every miserable policy and mistake to date is mere prelude to the legacy of this administration. I wish Alter were right that this administration is “basically over”, but the ramifications of the IRAN debacle will be what this administration is remembered for.

    Messianic idiots make me crazy.

  12. Altoid  •  Sep 2, 2007 @1:36 am

    They may or may not know what they’re doing, but for damn sure they know what matters to them.

    And what matters to them is not the lives of ordinary people, nor is it ordinary political calculation of the kind most media types are addicted to and that Dems can’t seem to lift themselves out of.

    I think the tenor of what you’ve been saying here can be distilled to a very basic observation– for these people, government exists as a tool to funnel (sluice, really) money *from* those who can’t avoid paying *to* those with the right connections. And almost nothing more.

    They don’t particularly care whether the money that comes from the chumps is tax money or money that the legal regime requires them to pay (those are called “franchises” in business jargon and are remarkably like the East India Company’s special subsidies in 1774). They just want the money. It’s a way to deny self-direction to everybody else.

    They’re willing to spout any amount and kind of pious nonsense that most don’t even pretend to believe. They’re sure they control everyone else’s perception of reality– after all, they include some of the heaviest hitters in the PR game and bring those skills to the task.

    It’s simply not possible for normal people to be cynical enough about what these people do.

    Some of them appear to be actually cynical. Some, and particularly bush, have never thought about any disjunction between what they say and what they do. He, though, seems to be the Chauncey Gardiner of our age.

  13. LongHairedWeirdo  •  Sep 2, 2007 @6:26 pm

    Kevin:

    We can only guess of course, but I think there’s multiple factors at work that cause the failures. It’s a common mistake for governments to fight the last war in the current war. We took Iraq in Gulf War I with massive overkill, for example, so Rummy tried to lowball his way through this one, though the generals protested.

    That’s not exactly what happened. The issue in the current war is that we knew we could fight the “overthrow Saddam” part trivially easily, and we did have enough force to do that. We destroyed the ability of the entity known as Iraq to make war upon us, and destroyed the government headed by Saddam.

    But that type of war making is very different from a military mission to provide security, and that’s what the Bushies fouled up. You can have the military might to level an entire city block, but if you do that, the family and friends of everyone who used to live there will be angry with you, and much more willing to fight you or shelter those who do. You have to be constrained in your use of force, and that’s why you need a lot more boots on the ground… a soldier hauling away a single insurgent is much better than a bombing run.

    They didn’t lowball the forces needed for military victory; they lowballed the security needs.

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