I haven't been following national politics in detail lately. Every once in awhile you need to check out and just skim the headlines. Obviously I followed the Cheney story, and I've read a bit on the ports deal. And I'm disheartened to learn that, with Bush having been exposed in yet another blatant lie (this one his declaration following Katrina that he didn't think anyone anticipated a breach of the levees in New Orleans), the leading newspapers failed to connect the dots properly (and I'm afraid at this point, given that multiple papers were guilty of the error, there's no avoiding the cynical view that this was at some level an intentional omission, a reflection of the limp caution that grips these papers like a disease).
But the one thing that's really struck me in the weeks since Bush's inaugural address is how incapable this administration is now of controlling the news. The White House has been slowly losing its death grip on the national discourse for a couple years, because its message machine has been thwarted by outside events, but now the administration appears to have become incompetent at the one thing it really knew how to do well.
Last year Cindy Sheehan dominated August, then Katrina struck. Then there was the Harriet Miers debacle, though the White House recovered with Alito. Then there was the Scooter Libby indictment and the Fitzgerald investigation, which is ongoing.
But if the administration thought it would be able to come out of the holidays, clean the slate and reset the agenda with the State of the Union, it was dead wrong. First, Dick Cheney shoots someone. And if he had handled the thing properly, by coming out immediately with the news, by not blaming the victim, if he had come out that Monday and acknowledged how terrible the accident was and how it was his fault, it wouldn't have dominated newspaper headlines for an entire week.
Then the Dubai ports deal, which demonstrates how blindly stubborn Bush is (and makes you wonder at the circumstances that have kept this flaw from having already been fatal to his presidency). He didn't know anything about the deal but after being briefed stated he would veto any efforts to undo it. Like Stephen Colbert, I am "passionately ambivalent" about the ports deal, except without the "passionate" part, but it's clear that the UAE is not Belgium and that the arrangement should be vetted as thoroughly and transparently as possible. If Bush would simply acknowledge this, rather than trot out his patently false and self-contradictory argument that we have to be nice and polite to a regime that has cozied up to Osama bin Laden, the controversy would head back to the middle of the news page.
And of course now Iraq threatens to descend into full-blown civil war.
Have you heard anything about Bush's private medical accounts recently? Of course not.
The administration has lost all control over the national agenda. I wouldn't be surprised at all if we never get a substantive debate on the health care accounts. And with mid-term elections nearing, Bush is already close to lame-duck status. (Can you believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel of the Bush presidency? Hallelujah.)
The bottom line is that Bush now faces the prospect of accomplishing precisely zero on the domestic front during his second term. Social security privatization failed, though you could argue that he has done the kill-government forces a service by softening the public for the next big battle. Health care accounts are DOA.
The only things he has accomplished then, domestically, over the course of his entire presidency are a) relegitimizing the idea of supply side economics b) massive tax cuts c) massive debt d) No Child Left Behind and e) making Medicare drug coverage for seniors much more complicated and enriching pharmaceutical companies,
The tax cuts were the hallmark of his first term. But tax rates are cyclical. Despite his talk of making his tax cuts "permanent," tax rates will come back up eventually. They won't count as a lasting legacy.
His biggest "accomplishment," really, is getting John Roberts and Samuel Alito onto the Supreme Court. (With a majority in both the Senate and House of Representatives, it doesn't take much political skill to get a hard-right jurist onto the bench.) The Supreme Court and tax cuts are where he really came through for the religious and fiscal conservatives who backed his presidency.
Even though he did three things that warmed the heart of conservatives -- the Court, taxes and Iraq -- you could argue Bush will leave the conservative movement in worse shape than when he took over, because he has abandoned in so many instances the concepts of small government, fiscal restraint and the individual right to privacy that supposedly animate the Republican Party. I don't think there's actually a category yet that would adequately describe the philosophy behind the Bush administration's policies. Suffice to say, it's singular enough in its origins and the way it succeeded (from 9/11 and the administration's ability to yell "terror" to keep people in line to the perfect storm of Karl Rove's dark genius and Bush's pseudo-populist, born-again Christian personal appeal), that nobody will be able to duplicate it.
In a sense, Bush may wind up with a legacy similar to that of Lyndon Johnson, another president whose ill-fated, unpopular and ultimately immoral war destroyed his ambitions for social and economic reform at home. Bush was foolish enough to think he could do it all: cut taxes while spending more, invade Afghanistan and then Iraq, and effectuate a host of sweeping domestic reforms, including the dismantling of arguably this country's most trusted social program, Social Security.
It turns out he can't even handle the Iraq part, and probably wouldn't have been able to do so had he devoted every waking minute to making it work (now that's a remarkable concept). He and the ideologues in his administration thought Iraq was something they could do quickly and then shift to auto pilot and turn their attention elsewhere. It's hubris, but unless the Democrats gain control of the House or Senate this year and open investigations that at the very least lead to the president's public disgrace, Bush won't pay the price for it. He'll dodder off into a state of deluded retirement, never shaken from the conviction that war in Iraq was the right choice. It's the American people who will pay the price for the chaos still to come in the Middle East, the damage done to the environment, the attack on the value of science, the administration's inaction on global warming, America's loss of stature in the world, the weakening of America's fiscal status due to mounting national debt and the culture of "truthiness" that regards facts as mere obstacles to the exercise of power.