The Frankenstein President

Last August, President Bush led Lance Armstrong on a two-hour bicycle tour of the Crawford ranch.

Bush stayed in the lead, mind you, by presidential order. Nobody passes Dear Leader on a bicycle. Most people would be thrilled to watch a world-class — nay, legendary — athlete in the practice of his sport. Most people would have wanted the athlete to show off his skill a bit, even for a little while. But nobody shows off in the presence of Dear Leader except, you know, Dear Leader.

I thought of that this morning when I read Thomas Friedman’s column, “Saying No to Bush’s Yes Men.”

It’s comical to think of this administration hoping to get a popularity lift from shaking up the president’s cabinet, considering the fact that it has kept its cabinet secretaries so out of sight — even the good ones, and there are good ones — so the president will always dominate the landscape.

When you centralize power the way Mr. Bush did, you alone get stuck with all the responsibility when things go bad. And that is what is happening now. The idea that the president’s poll numbers would go up if he replaced his Treasury secretary is ludicrous. Replacing him would be like replacing one ghost with another.

Even Friedman has his moments of clarity. Bush insists on dominating the landscape; on being the focus of attention. So since 2001, the whole world has been watching him. This amounts to a great deal more scrutiny than he’s ever gotten in his life. He was governor of Texas about as long as he’s been president, but a state governor doesn’t get the blazing spotlight than a president does. As governor, his every move wasn’t covered by news bureaus from all over the world. It was easier for Bush’s family, and then his loyal yes men, to cover for him and create the illusion of a decisive leader and competent executive that he very clearly isn’t.

And, as governor, he didn’t have the most powerful military the world has ever known at his disposal. He didn’t have a foreign policy. There was less opportunity to screw up.

Unfortunately for Bush, he bought into the illusion. He has no appreciation of his own limitations. He insists on dominating the landscape.

Dick Meyer of CBS:

Short of another disaster on the scale of 9/11, George Bush no longer has the power, credibility or ability to effectively govern for the rest of his term in office. Contrary to what you hear on television, governing remains more important than campaigning. Government is more important than elections — to the extent the two can be differentiated anymore.

Bush’s realm of efficacy will be limited to areas where he can make unilateral decisions, mostly in war and foreign policy. The tax cuts that oozed through Congress last week may well be his last “significant” piece of domestic legislation; I put quotations around significant because they are, in fact temporary. The entire menu of Bush tax tinkering is set to expire in 2010 on someone else’s watch, an apt metaphor for this administration.

The Bush administration is now locked in a triple-hammer hold that would defeat Houdini.

Long-time Republican Party leadership must feel like Victor Frankenstein when his monster broke loose to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting world.

In the late 1990s the Republican Party worked hard to promote Gee Dubya as a “centrist” candidate for the presidency. By 2000 they had successfully planted the meme that Bush was a “compassionate conservative,” not a hard-hearted radical. When John McCain became a serious threat and won the New Hampshire primary in 2000, the party saw to it McCain was kneecapped in South Carolina. The party threw every resource it had into, um, claiming the electoral win in Florida. The party and the whole VRWC echo chamber stopped at nothing to wrap their boy in glory after September 11. And Republicans in Congress dutifully took orders from Karl Rove and in effect became extensions of the White House staff. Bush wanted to dominate the landscape, and other Republicans stepped aside and let him do it.

Did they know they were creating a monster?

Dick Meyer continues,

The vaunted brilliance and corporate organization of Rove/Bush Inc. has been pretty much blown away in the second term. Rove is fighting off an indictment. From the Dubai deal to the Harriet Miers death march, the White House’s political ear seems to be getting tinnier. Porter Goss’ appointment to the CIA was a disaster not just politically but substantively. In his second term, the president has never reached outside his core circle for advisers, staff or ideas.

Of course not. New people might try to pass him.

In January Karl Rove proclaimed that the party would run on national security for the midterm elections, painting themselves as fearless defenders of the Homeland and Dems as weak, dreamy appeasers. But E.J. Dionne wrote yesterday that this plan may have changed. He wrote of Rove’s recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute:

In his speech yesterday, Rove shelved the world-historical perspective in favor of the staple issue of midterm politics, pleading with his audience to think kindly of the Bush economic record. He spoke at length about the mess the economy was in toward the end of Bill Clinton’s term (though he did not mention Clinton’s name), and how our economic problems were deepened by the consequences of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush’s economic policies, particularly his tax cuts, helped cure what ailed us, Rove said bravely. They “have strengthened the economy, increased productivity and created new jobs.”

That Rove needed to make this case in the first place tells you the trouble the administration faces. All the polls, which Rove played down but acknowledged reading avidly (“I love all these polls,” he said before dismissing the idea of poll-driven policies), show large majorities disapproving of Bush’s handling of the economy.

There is also a rather widespread sense that the economy did very well under Clinton — better than under Bush — and it’s doubtful that getting voters to think about the Clinton days will do Republicans much good in November 2006.

Karl may be some kind of political genius, but he’s not in Texas any more.

Karl’s new tactic is to emphasize the president’s likability. At the American Enterprise Institute he claimed that “some polls” show that up to 60 per cent of the people like the President. These polls must be highly classified, since no one has found them in the public record; maybe they exist only in Karl’s head. Lance Mannion suggests that Karl tried to copy the success of Ronald Reagan, who got away with just about anything because he was so darn likable:

It’d be no wonder if Karl Rove concluded from that likeability in a political leader was all, and no wonder yet again when he discovered that young George Bush was “likeable” that he decided that here was the man to take Karl Rove to the White House.

What Rove forgot to take into account was that he himself was warped.

What he found likeable was probably not going to be the same things that most normal people liked.

They don’t like bullies. They don’t like sarcastic twerps who can’t be bothered to remember their names and cut them off short whenever they try to say something. They don’t like angry drunks. They really don’t like angry dry drunks. They don’t like snotty rich kids who screw up again and again, blame everybody but themselves for their screw-ups, and let their daddies and their daddies’ friends clean up after them while they go on to make another mess somewhere else.

What will the Republicans do? They created the monster, but now the monster is running wild and wreaking havoc on an unsuspecting world. He wants to dominate the landscape, after all.


Richard Morin and Dan Balz write in today’s Washington Post:

Public confidence in GOP governance has plunged to the lowest levels of the Bush presidency, with Americans saying by wide margins that they now trust Democrats more than Republicans to deal with Iraq, the economy, immigration and other issues, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll that underscores the GOP’s fragile grip on power six months before the midterm elections.

Dissatisfaction with the administration’s policies in Iraq has overwhelmed other issues as the source of problems for President Bush and the Republicans. The survey suggests that pessimism about the direction of the country — 69 percent said the nation is now off track — and disaffection with Republicans have dramatically improved Democrats’ chances to make gains in November.

Democrats are now favored to handle all 10 issues measured in the Post-ABC News poll. The survey shows a majority of the public, 56 percent, saying they would prefer to see Democrats in control of Congress after the elections.

The catch, say Morin and Balz, is that the voters aren’t all that wild about Democrats either. There is widespread dissatisfaction with incumbents of all species. The numbers reflect a backlash against right-wing mis-government, not a conversion to the Democratic Party vision, whatever that is. Of those surveyed, 52 percent said they didn’t see much difference between the two parties.

Meanwhile the alleged front-runner for the 2008 Dem nomination, Senator Hillary Clinton, cautiously practices “tactical bipartisanship” to win approval of some mythical “center.” Robert Kuttner writes,

With the Republicans in free-fall, national problems continuing to mount, and a rising national chorus begging the Democrats to stand for something, Senator Clinton has come to epitomize why the Democrats may yet fail to rise to the occasion and lead. …

… If she keeps transparently cozying up to the right, Senator Clinton could easily lose what faltering affection she retains from Democratic voters, but without impressing the center. Democratic operative Donna Brazile contends, too charitably, that Murdoch’s support shows that Hillary has ”crossover appeal” (sure, as in crossing over to grab whatever isn’t nailed down).

Back to Morin and Balz. “The public mood indicates that the midterm elections are likely to be a referendum on the president and his party,” they write. But the GOP still has more than five months in which to demonize their opposition, a tactic that has worked brilliantly for them in the past. Once again, the Dems’ failure to define themselves give the GOP the opportunity to define the Democrats.

On the bright side, today the Hartford Courant is running an op ed by Lowell Weicker endorsing Joe Lieberman’s challenger, Ned Lamont. (Yay!) Writes Weicker,

The majority of Democrats say they support Sen. Joe Lieberman in spite of his backing the war, since Iraq, after all, is only one of many issues facing voters.

Hello! To characterize the most monumental screw-up of our times as “only one of many issues” is like admiring the theater marquees on Broadway with King Kong on the loose.

And here’s a big ray of hope — last night brother blogger Chris Bowers of MyDD won election to the Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee. Chris’s election means that an establishment Democrat has been replaced by a sure-enough leftie blogger. “The city, the state, and the nation will change as a result,” writes Chris. “I promise everyone that. … We will all win, eventually.” We just have to keep pushing.

Lowell Weicker quoted a couple of lines from the abolitionist poem “The Present Crisis” by James Russell Lowell, written in 1844. (Some readers might recognize the poem as the lyrics for “Once to Every Man and Nation,” sung to the tune of a Welsh hymn, “Ton-y-botel.” I think “ton-y-botel” means “tune in a bottle,” but I’m not going to swear to that.) If you think “Iraq” where Lowell wrote “slavery,” some of these lines seem appropriate now:

Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood,
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have drenched the earth with blood,
Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our purer day,
Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable prey;-
Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless children play?

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ‘t is prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Cowards, stand aside.

Update: They’re starting to sound like us — this guy (a rightie) thinks it would be better for Republicans in 2008 if Dems take back Congress in 2006. Heh.