A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Getting Back To Reality

One of the things I frequently run into jousting with my friendly adversaries over on Conservative blogs is the complaint that the Democrats are "always negative" in their chronic opposition to George W. Bush, that they are, in other words, mere "Bush haters".

I must admit some truth to this. The private character of the President, which he takes no trouble to conceal, is sometimes a matter of scorn and derision among his Liberal opponents. I do think, however, that my Conservative friends might consider the possibility that even Liberals, in fact even Democrats, might have abstract beliefs and principles to hold onto by which they judge both the President and his works.

I must also admit that the rhetoric on the blogs I blogroll as Left Voices can get to be quite overheated to the point of appearing to be a chronic ad homenium attack on the President. However, I think any fair reading of them would find that even the most shrill of them are also animated by the same abstract beliefs and principles.

Now they might be bad principles, though I don't think so, they may be wrong beliefs, though I [with some reservations] also don't think this about them. But that does not mean such beliefs and principles do not exist. And I think that most Conservative bloggers are disingenuous when they claim that they do not exist. After all, if they don't exist, you don't have to take the trouble to refute them or propose beliefs in opposition to them.

If I were to strip the overheated rhetoric from the writings of some of my fellow Democrats and state the fundamental beliefs behind their attitude toward the President there would be five essential ones:

1) That this country has been forced to contend with 5+ years of simple, total, and objectively discernible, bad governmental management.

2) That much, if not all, of the call for bipartisanship by our good Conservative friends is plain bad faith because our friends have so many non-negotiable agendas.

3) That by assuming extraordinary executive war powers in the name of the War On Terror, this President is essentially making such powers permanent. There is no conceivable way a War On Terror, as the President has defined it, can ever come to an end.

4) That this transformation of America has also been undertaken in bad faith by the President and his advisors to strongarm this country about many, if not most, of the non-negotiable agendas, whether most of the country believes in them or not.

5) That the net effect of this will be to transform this country into a garrison state of permanent war powers which will be democratic in outer form, but essentially authoritarian in actual practice. The contemporary model for such a state is Israel, and the vanguard model of the transformation has become Tony Blair's Britain.

Of these, the first belief is the primary one which is likely to have an influence on electoral politics. We are an evenly divided country, with half of us leaning Democratic, when we are not solidly Democratic, and half of us leaning Republican if we are not solidly Republican. The real conundrum for either party is how to persuade the leaners, one way or the other. And I would argue that whatever reservations I might have about the other beliefs, the first one is largely correct. The President has been an objectively bad manager of his office.

He can continue to make himself a law unto himself for the duration of his presidency, and no one will seriously bring him to book. But he will not accomplish much with it, as he has not accomplished much with it. Things actually get accomplished in this country only through compromise and negotiation, not by asserting that Presidential power is beyond the law. George Bush truly has no notion of what the words "compromise" and "negotiation" mean, even within his own party, and in such matters where, long ago, the opposite party actually tried to negotiate with him, he blithely screwed them over.

Consequently, the public is not going to change its opinion of the President much one way or the other, no matter what happens. Close analysis of the professional polling being done makes it very clear that the only real movement in his poll numbers since the hurricane Katrina debacle has been among members of his own party. And this is where his support is now slowly eroding with patent political foolishness on his part like the Dubai business. The only place the President will lose any more support is among members of his own party. He has virtually no support to lose from anybody else.

This will significantly change only if something the President now does is a roaring, unqualified, and unequivocally large success, on the order of his deposing of the Taliban. There is now very little on the horizon which could ever become so. Most of these options have simply been played out. So he will accomplish little or nothing during the rest of his term, and I confidently expect him to be an immense liability in the 2006 Congressional elections. But even if he isn't, and Republican losses are minimized, he will not accomplish much more.

In all frankness, and stepping beyond my own partisan beliefs, no President since Lyndon Johnson has had a better hand of political cards to play and none has played them so ineffectively. Despite the wailing of my Conservative friends, this is not because the "Liberally Biased Mainstream Media" has stopped him, or because Democrats have stopped him. It is because he will not negotiate and compromise and he insists on ruling above the law rather than governing within it.

Bush is the first Republican President in my lifetime to have majorities in both houses of Congress, to have all the members of his own party in Congress completely under his thumb, to have won two terms, and to be able to exercise Presidential power untrammeled even by the law itself. He also had the highest poll ratings for any President, ever, immediately after the fall of the Taliban. What more did he need to accomplish anything?

So how much has he really accomplished? Try it for yourself. Try to make a list of the things he has genuinely accomplished that are likely to outlast his term in office. Lyndon Johnson left this country's domestic life completely transformed. Most people I encounter born after 1960 simply do not understand how utterly different this country was before 1964 and the Johnson Administration. We are still living in the social welfare state which Johnson created. Determined and systematic political Conservatives have frayed it some around the edges, but it still largely exists intact.

George Bush's accomplishments: Medicare Part D? No Child Left Behind? The Patriot Act? The Bankruptcy Bill? An unfinished war in Iraq and another one in Afghanistan? The successful appointment of two judges to the Supreme Court? A "balanced budget"?A "reduction of government"? A resolution to the illegal immigrant problem?

However biased newspapers and news channels may be, they can't operate by voodoo to stop anyone with so many political advantages as George has had. He and his people, in Congress and out, are simply inept. They can win elections, but they can't intelligently exercise the power it brings to successfully do anything else.

Do you disbelieve this? No politician of the 20th century, Republican or Democratic, would ever have missed the political potential for the Dubai deal to blow up in his face. Whatever the abstract merits of the deal, it was clearly and unequivocally a major political accident waiting to happen: "Turn our ports over to the AAA-rabs?!! Have you lost your mind???" Really.

Now my good Conservative friends, particularly the Christian or "social conservative" ones, are in constant expectation that "the public" or the "real America" will someday finally rise up, overwhelm the New York Times and all the rest of us, and sweep away "the Left" into the dustpan of History.

But these are the real facts: For all the blandishments of Karl Rove; for all the smearing of John Kerry's war service; for all the waving of the overwhelming threat to our shores in tandem with the red, white, and blue of our flag; and for all the rest of it, fifty percent of this country still voted against George Bush. And they didn't do so merely because the New York Times told them to do so.

The core of people who are "social conservatives" is no larger than 35% of the public in the country as a whole, and no larger than 45% of the public even in the reddest of Red States. That 35% now constitutes the bulk of the continued support for the Bush Presidency.

Frankly, the Social Conservatives have had a genuine, though small, political advantage in this country since 1980, but it has not come from numbers. It has come from unwavering political solidarity and consistency of issue identification which is "non-negotiable", such as opposition to Roe v. Wade. But that is only enough to win elections. It is not enough to accomplish much after you win them. Such accomplishment requires compromise and inclusion, rather than ideological purity and the absolute repudiation of input from those who don't display it.

That's how America works. Really.

I repeat, the Bush Administration is politically inept. In January of 2003 they had enough cards in their hand to accomplish virtually any agenda, had they played them with any degree of intelligence. Unfortunately, George and the boys made three fatal errors.

First, they failed to capture Osama Bin Laden because they did not order our troops into the front of the battle of Tora Bora, and they did nothing to cut off his escape route into Pakistan. The escape of Bin Laden was the first major victory in the War on Terror. It wasn't ours. It demonstrated to every potential terrorist around the globe that it was possible to outwit and evade the United States, and, actually, to do so rather easily. Had we captured or killed Bin Laden immediately after kicking the Taliban over like a rotten puffball, we would have appeared invincible, and left the other potential terrorists worldwide completely demoralized. Instead, we gave them great hope. The terror attacks which have occurred since are the result.

The second of these fatal mistakes was the disbanding of Saddam's army and the six month neglect of the occupation of Iraq between May and November of 2003. George and the boys virtually solicited the Iraqi insurgency to develop and allowed it to steal most of Saddam's small arms right out from under American noses. Had they really taken control of Iraq and run it properly from the beginning--and they could have easily used Saddam's army to do it--none of the other bad news, such as failure to find WMD's, would have mattered a jot. And they would now have the American army available, with secure forward bases in Baghdad, to forstall Iranian nuclear ambitions. At the moment, they don't have either of these. They have a mess in Iraq that will not be straightened out until after the Iranians go nuclear.

The third fatal mistake was immediately after the 2004 election. The issue George chose for the first showdown with his new "political capital" was Social Security. And the way he went about it made defeating him almost too easy. If he had had the brains to push his tax cuts first, and really push them intelligently, he would have won the first political battle handily, and probably every subsequent one after that, including Social Security. The way he went about trying to win on the Social Security issue was absolutely laughable. He went on the road making speeches in cities across the country!

Why was this inept? First, nobody is ever allowed into a Bush speech except people who already completely agree with him, so nobody sitting on the fence is going to be persuaded by a speech that he can't attend. All anyone not already convinced that the President can walk on water ever heard about the speech was two paragraphs at the bottom of Page 1 of the local newspaper and 15 seconds of soundbite on the local TV news.

The content of none of those speeches ever made the national media. And there was every excuse available to the national media not to cover them since they were only targeted to local markets. So what does George do to pump his Social Security proposal in the face of a "liberally biased" national media? He gives them genuine reasons not to bother to cover his views! This was stunningly stupid.

Moreover, he never even bothered to make a major, televised, national speech about Social Security or to be interviewed on national television about it! The only time he said anything about it to the country as a whole was in a single Saturday radio address on April 30, 2005. Hardly what you would call penetrating the American political consciousness, now is it?

The opposition campaign spoke to the national audience and easily defeated him. This demonstrated immediately and unequivocally by doing so that the President's "mandate" from the people, and his "political capital" was a joke. He simply couldn't make decent use of the overwhelming advantages that the 2002 and 2004 Republican victories had given him.

He still hasn't. I repeat, try it for yourself. Just try to list the things his Presidency has done that will endure after he leaves office. My best guess is that there will be only two: deposing Saddam Hussein, and allowing the Iranians to develop a nuclear bomb.

This last, of course, is horrible. But there is probably not enough time now to turn it back and, as with any President, we all must endure the consequences of his errors in our name, whether we voted for him or not. I certainly didn't. But the simple ineffectiveness of George W. Bush is cause for hope that his attempt to transform this country functionally into a Garrison State, will pass.

If it does, we must marvel in awe at those grave 18th Century men who built a government "conceived in Liberty", whose stability and endurance is still the wonder of the world.