For the days dwindle down
To a precious few -
They woo you with words and a clover ring
But if you examine the goods they bring
They have little to offer but the songs they sing
And a plentiful waste of time of day -
And a plentiful waste of time.
Oh, it's a long, long while
From May to December.
And the days grow short
When you reach September....
by Maxwell Anderson (music by Kurt Weill).
As the nation recovers from the onslaught of 9/11 retrospectives, the photo of Bush on the phone to Dick Cheney from Air Force One, available to Republican party contributors in return for a $150 donation, remains a fitting memento of the Bush administration's galling and often blatant appropriation of the tragedy to justify and even accelerate their right-wing power grab. They have exploited the wounds and fears of a public reeling from the 9/11 tragedy and economic hard times, kicking the nation when it was down, to promote jingoism and unilateralism in foreign policy, defend crony capitalism in the economic arena, push industry-advocated rollbacks of regulation in environment and health care, launch a virtually unprecedented onslaught on basic civil rights, and blur the distinction between church and state. With congressional mid-term elections and their foreshadowing of the 2004 presidential election looming as inevitably as did the 9/11 anniversary, however, Democrats, some Republicans, the media, and the public may have begun to distinguish between appearance and reality.
Justifying administration and party objectives by linking them -- logically or not -- to 9/11 is only a special case of the more general principle of spinning issues in whatever way will capitalize on public sentiment of the moment. For instance, on April 3, during a press briefing on the Middle East, administration spokesman Ari Fleischer attempted to link the conflict there to the failure of the Senate to pass the Bush energy plan. Responding to a question about threats of an oil embargo, Fleischer said,
...[T]he President views this as an issue, specifically when it comes to our over-reliance on foreign oil, as a wake-up call, a warning, especially to the United States Senate, about the need for the United States to reduce our reliance on foreign supplies of energy. The Senate has an energy plan that passed by the House of Representatives that they are considering now, and the President urges the Senate to move with dispatch when they return from recess to pass the energy plan, which provides a long-term, comprehensive structure to reduce prices.
This is an issue that Americans confront seemingly every spring after spring after spring, from a variety of circumstances, both international and domestic. It's time to stop focusing on it as a short-term problem and enact a long-term solution so this won't become a repetitive short-term issue.
The problem with this response is that the administration's energy proposals, including the drilling of ANWR, would have at best a minimal effect on the volume of oil imports. The Kerry-McCain fuel efficiency legislation, opposed by the administration, would have saved three times as much oil as ANWR might produce. Current world oil production is approximately 75 million barrels per day, of which the U.S. consumes 20. ANWR might produce 1 million barrels per day.
The Politics of Vilification
In December 2001, Republicans had run a full-page ad in South Dakota newspapers featuring a picture of Saddam Hussein with the caption "Why is America buying 725,000 barrels of oil a day from this man?" Next to Hussein's photo was a picture of Tom Daschle with the caption, "Because this man won't let America drill for oil at home." This from an administration that promised to "change the tone" in Washington. Stymied by Daschle's effectiveness, and the popularity of his policies, as they did with Bill Clinton Republicans resorted to attacking Daschle personally.
The publication in March of David Brock's Blinded By the Right revealed that the "vast right-wing conspiracy" was, in Paul Krugman's words, "not an overheated metaphor but a straightforward reality." In politics as in the economy, small well-organized groups can prevail over the best interest of the majority. Thus a right-wing cabal financed by such fine citizens as the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and Richard Mellon Scaife were able to turn a bad $200,000 real-estate deal known as Whitewater into a colloquial synonym for scandal. $73 million of taxpayer money later, the politically motivated witch hunt found no evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons.
Yet the moneyed left seems incapable or unwilling to fund similar inquiries into the dubious business practices of Bush or Cheney. Krugman notes, "When billionaires do support more or less liberal causes, they usually try to help the world, not take over the U.S. political system. Not to put too fine a point on it: While George Soros was spending lavishly to promote democracy abroad, Mr. Scaife was spending lavishly to undermine it at home." Krugman himself was the victim of a modest right-wing smear campaign. Krugman's scathing indictments of Enron and its political cronies were ridiculed by voices on the right as hypocritical, because of past vaguely characterized "business transactions" with Enron. In fact, before he began writing his Op-Ed column for the Times, Krugman had done some consulting for Enron. End of story. Nonetheless, the mainstream media picked up the right-wing allegations and the implication that something unethical was involved.
The vilification of Saddam Hussein himself is worth examining. As we've noted elsewhere, the Reagan administration initially sought to improve relations with Iraq, and some have charged that "Poppy" Bush "lured" Hussein into attacking Kuwait. Dubya's zeal to include Hussein in the war on terrorism has been variously ascribed to his father's failure to oust him at the conclusion of the Gulf War, and the failure of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."
In any case, some time after September 11, 2001, a report attributed to the Czech minister of the interior claimed that hijacker Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi agent earlier that year in Prague. An intensive investigation found evidence that Atta, in fact, may have been in Virginia Beach, in the U.S during the time of the alleged meeting. But the joint resolution authorizing the president to use force against nations found to have aided terrorists, passed shortly after 9/11, specifies that such a finding fulfills the requirements of the War Powers Act. So if Iraq can be found to have supported al-Qaeda, the administration would not require congressional approval to launch an attack. Al-Qaeda members recently reported as being in Iraq are actually in an area of the country controlled by Kurdish groups the U.S. is "courting as allies against Hussein and who operate in northern Iraq under the protection of U.S. fighter planes," according to the Washington Post.
In March, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia, Dr. Paul Pillar, gave a speech at Johns Hopkins University, in which he said that Iraq does not pose a threat to the United States, especially in a one-to-one confrontation. Former U.N. weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, has pointed out that a "pre-emptive" invasion of Iraq would "put us outside of the international law, outside the U.N. charter and on a short list of countries that include North Korea when it invaded South Korea and, sadly, Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990," adding "That's not a list I want my country on.... We have killed almost six times as many Iraqis trying to eliminate weapons of mass destruction programs, than the weapons of mass destruction have killed in the entire 20th century."
Ideology Über Alles and the 'Imperial' Presidency
The administration's treatment of the annual trustee's report on Social Security offered further evidence of their preference for ideology over reality. Normally released at a morning press conference and posted on the web so as to allow reporters to review and analyze it before filing their stories, this year's report was made available only late in the afternoon. The apparent reason for trying to make timely analysis difficult was that the report concluded that Social Security was actually in good shape -- a conclusion inconsistent with the administration's position that the fund was in crisis. The administration had tried to promote the fiction that the giant tax cuts weren't really connected to impending government deficits, but that Social Security was in poor shape. In fact the opposite is true. The entire projected shortfall of the Social Security system over the long term is less than half of the lost revenue due to last year's tax cut.
But that conclusion runs counter to the conservative ideology propounded by, among others, the Heritage Foundation, another conservative project funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, which provides guidance counseling to the Bush administration. The Heritage Foundation web site once trumpeted a quote from Karl Rove, saying "We stole from every publication we could; we stole several key staff persons; we want to steal more of your ideas." Heritage Foundation president Edward Fuelner wrote, "... today's policies are a product of the Great Society of the 1960s, which grew out of the New Deal of the 1930s, which was an assault on founding principles articulated in the 18th century.... Connecting the historical dots is no small task." To Fuelner and his minions Medicare and Social Security are to be similarly opposed, as "an assault on founding principles."
Also in March a visible rift developed between the administration and Republicans in Congress over Bush's attempts to expand his authority. "There's been disappointment that Republicans haven't been out there both publicly and privately standing behind the White House's attempts to reinvigorate the prerogatives of the president, which were badly damaged during the Clinton years," a Bush adviser told the New York Times. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who rarely has anything critical to say about the White House, reportedly "bristled" at questions about White House criticism of G.O.P. members of congress failing to support the administration's resistance to Vice President Cheney or domestic security director Tom Ridge testifying before congress.
Labeled "imperial" by some commentators, the Bush administration's efforts to expand powers of the executive branch have come under criticism from a variety of quarters. John Dean, in an open letter to Karl Rove published in his regular column for FindLaw.com warned against repeating mistakes of the Nixon era.
I was taken aback, however, to read your response to what might be learned from the Nixon presidency. "Is there something specific that we've drawn from Nixon? I'm not aware," you are reported as telling Richard Berke of the New York Times, a reporter not known for misquotes. I can understand why you want to keep your distance from Richard Nixon. But I hope that you're not truly ignoring him.
No president has abused his powers as Richard Nixon did, often acting under the color of "national security." The business of national security has always been a bit hazy, but clearly what was legitimately national security, and what was not, got a bit confused during the Nixon presidency. September 11th has created a new set of national security problems. It's long been said that studying history prevents repeating it. While trite, it is surely true.
Despite evidence of discord within the ranks, Republicans have nonetheless sought to present a unified front. Members of congress need Bush's help in campaigning and raising funds, and the administration needs congress's help in passing its legislative agenda. But Republican Marge Roukema of New Jersey, while not criticizing Bush directly, expressed annoyance with the administration. "The president has reached out, but I haven't seen any evidence that the staff up there has been very responsive."
Democrats, predictably, were less charitable. "There is not a sense that the president feels that this institution is terribly important," Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut said. "He's not building the kind of relationships with Congress that you need when the weather is bad. When the storms hit, you can find yourself very alone — even in your own party." Some White House advisers complained that congressional Republicans tried to pull the administration too far to the right, on issues ranging from education, to the economic stimulus package, to prescription drug benefits. But another official conceded that a right-leaning congress could be helpful, saying, "Bush benefits every time the Republicans in Congress try to push him to the right because it pushes him more firmly planted to the center."
Winning By Losing?
In a similar vein, commentators have speculated recently that the administration could benefit from Democratic gains in congress. Unidentified "prominent Republicans, including some of President Bush's most faithful backers" are quoted as suggesting that Bush's re-election may be more likely if Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress. Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign told the New York Times, "Many Republicans have thought all along that there will be crocodile tears shed if they don't succeed in taking over the Congress.... But in a way, it guarantees easier re-election." Reed cites as an example Bill Clinton's political maneuvering after Republican congressional victories in 1994, charting a course midway between the Republican congress and the liberal wing of his own party.
Already Bush can safely appease members of his own party by supporting ultra-conservative positions (e.g. on abortion or tax cuts) that would never be passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Some Bush advisers fear that the presence of a Republican majority in congress might lead to unrealistic expectations about how much of the Republican agenda might be enacted into law. Others see the potential for Bush to continue to be pulled to the right (and by implication, away from mainstream American political sentiment). Democrats counter that portraying them as extremists would be more difficult that it was for the Clinton administration to turn Gingrich-era Republicans into stereotypes. Donald A. Baer, a senior Clinton adviser, said, "I don't think the Congressional Democrats will be as intemperate as the Congressional Republicans were during the Clinton presidency, where they provided an incredible foil for the Clinton administration to play off of. That's a critical component for making it work."
What is clear is that Bush's über-objective is his own re-election. That objective can come into conflict with those of Congressional Republicans. One example emerged in late August when it was revealed that White House lawyers invoked executive privilege to keep secret details of Clinton pardons before he left office. Conservative Clinton-haters were incensed, but apparently the White House lawyers were anticipating protecting Bush from embarrassment after he leaves office.
Running against a Democratic congress would allow Bush to continue to present himself as an outsider to Washington. And it would allow him to continue drawing a parallel that he has already employed -- comparing himself to Harry Truman, who won re-election in 1948 running against a "do-nothing" congress. The difference, of course, is that Truman was a Democrat, who characterized Republicans in ways appropriate to the current climate of corporate corruption "predatory animals who don't care if you people are thrown into a depression...."
Unlikely Allies and Loss of Control
Yet the dissension within Republican ranks may be exploitable. In the same way that Ralph Nader's candidacy crucially diluted Democrats' votes, Republicans of the Christian Right and libertarian persuasions might be enticed away from mainstream Republicanism by 2004. Christian conservatives are already irked by the administrations failure to deliver on school vouchers, or to get the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives off the ground (recent announcements about regulatory changes notwithstanding). Republican pursuit of the Hispanic vote is repugnant to "white first" factions, and the low-key outreach to the gay communities is anathema to many on the Christian Right.
As for Libertarians, some have already spoken out against the "Patriot Act" with its Orwellian name, key components of which are curtailment of civil liberties. Bush's imposition of tariffs on steel imports, a reversal of his campaign promise to promote free trade, has aroused the ire of some Libertarians, many of whom are also free marketeers. And the Campaign Finance bill is regarded by Libertarians as curtailment of free speech. Some have already gone to court to argue their case. As Patrick Ennis pointed out in an article for the DemocraticUnderground, "The likelihood of luring the Christian Right and the civil libertarians into the Democratic fold is practically nil. But that is not necessary. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. If Democrats can just get them to vote for somebody - anybody! - other than Bush, they'll likely win a plurality in a 4-5 way race. Just as Nader in 2000 pulled votes from the left, Buchanan or Browne (or whoever represents their factions) in 2004 will pull votes from the right."
As happened with "Poppy" Bush, problems with the economy, and a persistent impression that he's out of touch with common people threaten to remove Dubya's political initiative. He promised to "clean up Washington," but finds his press conferences dominated by questions about his own corporate misdeeds and those of other administration members, especially the Vice President. Economic reality has forced him to abandon some of his conservative ideals; from prescription drugs, to farm aid, to domestic security, all the proposed legislation will make government bigger. The Economist, which endorsed Bush's candidacy in 2000, now calls his economic policy "amateurish and rigid," and derides his fiscal policy for focusing on making tax cuts permanent after 2010 rather than any real effort at stimulus now. With a European perspective, the Economist terms the Bush trade policy, especially steel tariffs and farm subsidies "discouraging." And the Economist calls Bush's foreign policy "needlessly self-centered," criticizing what they consider pointless antagonism of allies, craven indulgence of domestic lobbying groups, and subverting the U.N.
'Faith-based' Charities, but Not U.N. Health or Human Rights
In July the State Department said it would withhold $34 million from the U.N.'s Family and Population Fund (UNFPA). The announcement came in response to unsubstantiated claims by anti-abortion Republicans that the fund supported sterilization in China. The Family Research Council is one of the groups that lobbied to prevent the U.S. contribution. The organization wrote to Bush in May claming that supporting UNFPA "is tantamount to U.S. support for China's coercive 'one-child' abortion policy." A three-person State Department team traveled to China to investigate, but found no evidence to support the claims, and recommended funding UNFPA. Susan A. Cohen, of the Alan Guttmacher Institute, told the Washington Post that, while the U.N. agency "will survive" without the U.S. contribution, "It's the women in 142 developing countries including Afghanistan, which the White House purports to care about so much, who are going to suffer as a result of $34 million less going to prevent maternal death, infant death and abortions."
Later that month, after ten years of debate, the U.N. human rights commission passed an addendum to the 1984 convention against torture that would allow international observers to visit prisons in nations that subscribed. The U.S. tried to send the document back to the group that drafted it, saying that mandatory inspections were intrusive, and too difficult to implement in a federation of states where prisons were under local control. Critics suggested the U.S. delegation was worried about visits to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. was joined in its opposition to the prison visits by Cuba and Iran.
Ironically, while opposing human rights initiatives at the U.N., the Bush administration has decided to move ahead on its "faith-based initiatives" without congressional approval. A key Bush campaign promise, regarded by critics as a program to funnel government funds to his supporters on the Christian Right, the administration represents the faith-based initiatives as a new way of thinking about social welfare. "Particularly in a time of a soft economy, it's even more important to take action to help those in need," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said recently. The House has already passed the administration's version of the faith-based initiatives bill, but the senate version has significant differences. Critics have argued that the House bill will undermine civil rights legislation by making it easier for religious organizations to discriminate when hiring. The House bill also contains language that would likely lead to significant increases in government funding of religious organizations. The Senate bill says only that an organization cannot be disqualified for federal funding because it has a religious name, religious language in its charter, or religious icons in its facility.
Representative Robert C. Scott, Democrat of Virginia, who worked on the House bill labeled the administration push as another instance of overreaching by the executive branch. "They're going to war without legislation, they're eliminating attorney-client privilege without legislation, they're arresting people and holding them without charges without legislation," he said.
In late August, the image of Bush as out of touch with the common man was given new momentum when he vetoed $5.1 billion in homeland security spending that would have improved veteran's health care and provide firefighters with new equipment, including what the New York Times called "communication systems that could have saved lives on Sept. 11." In responding to Bush's veto the head of the International Association of Firefighters noted that Bush's photo-ops with firefighters were a major factor in raising his poll numbers, saying, "Don't lionize our fallen brothers in one breath, then stab us in the back."
Similarly, observers noted that despite Bush's photo-ops with mine workers following the successful rescue in Somerset, PA, administration policies call for increased mining of coal but reduced funding for mine safety. As Paul Krugman put it,
Mr. Bush is a master of photo-op populism; his handlers seek out opportunities to show him mingling with blue-collar workers. But the reality is that this administration loves 'em while the TV crews are around, then leaves 'em when it comes to actual policy. And that reality is becoming ever harder to conceal.... [B]ehind the photo-ops, the administration is busy squeezing programs that benefit firefighters, police officers, coal miners, veterans and other 'humble people of America' ..., in order to make room for tax cuts that mainly help a handful of not at all humble people. That's not demagoguery, it's the plain truth. And it's a truth that will become ever harder to disguise.
In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks spokespeople and pundits of various persuasions could be heard warning that if some particular objective they advocated was not achieved, "Then the terrorists win." One commentator quipped, "If I hear 'If we don't blah blah, the terrorists win' one more time, then the terrorists win."
With the perspective of a year's history, it would seem the real terrorists -- at least intellectually and politically -- have been the members of the Bush administration themselves. Some would argue that policies that reduce funding for worker safety, or relax regulations on industrial pollution that has been correlated with health problems, are their own kind of terrorism. Others note that the U.S. military killing of civilians in Afghanistan would fit more traditional definitions. But, writes Tristram Hunt of The Observer (UK), "Bush is endangering a greater legacy: the revolutionary idealism of George Washington and the enfranchising liberalism of the founding fathers, who sent the language of autonomy and self-respect around the world.... America's legacy of civil society, of environmental activism, women's rights and identity politics will count for nought with a President who snubs the Earth summit while unilaterally planning war on Iraq."
Using the photo of Bush on Air Force 1 on 9/11 as a fundraising device, trying to capitalize on the emotions and reflexive patriotism that accompanied the attacks and their aftermath, represents perhaps the ultimate example of photo-opportunism. This is especially true in light of subsequent revelations that, rather than boldly taking charge, Bush was likely running scared at the time. But increasingly the gap between image and reality in the Bush administration has been exposed. Let's hope it continues. Otherwise, of course, "the terrorists win."
Hunt, Tristram "A Puritan on the warpath" The Observer (UK) 1 Sep. 2002
Berke, Richard L. "Why the President Can't Lose in November" NY Times 1 Sep. 2002
Allen, Mike "'Faith-Based' Initiative to Get Push" Washington Post 31 Aug. 2002
Struck, Doug "Al Qaeda in Iraq Likely in Kurdish Area, Official Says" Washington Post 29 Aug. 2002
Schorr, Daniel "Commentary: US Efforts to Link Iraq to 9/11 Terrorist Attacks" All Things Considered. NPR. Washington, D.C. 5 Aug. 2002
"It's the economy, boss" Economist 25 Jul. 2002
"UN-nerving" Economist. 25 Jul. 2002
Eilperin, Juliet and Dana Milbank "Bush May Cut U.N. Program's Funding" Washington Post 29 June 2002
Dean, John W. "IGNORE NIXON AT YOUR PERIL: An Open Letter To Bush Advisor Karl Rove" FindLaw.com 10 May 2002
Fleischer, Ari. Press briefing. White House. 3 Apr. 2002
Krugman, Paul "Connect the Dots" NY Times2 Apr. 2002
Ennis, Patrick "Help from an Unlikely Source" DemocraticUnderground.com 30 Mar. 2002
Krugman, Paul "The Smoke Machine" NY Times 29 Mar. 2002
Berke, Richard L. "G.O.P. Lawmakers and White House Cite a Growing Rift" NY Times 29 Mar. 2002
Aydintasbas, Asla "Scott Ritter" Salon.com 19 Mar. 2002
Press, Bill "Republicans aim to smear Tom Daschle" CNN.com 24 Dec. 2001