Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Things go Pearshaped for George Bush

US Politics: George Bush’s Travails

A short time after the head of government’s historic election win, his political capital and his authority had drained away and the air was thick with accusations of perceived ‘lame ducks’. And that was just Tony Blair. His friend, the US President, faces even worse problems. The Guardian editorial page led on 28th October on US politics with the headline, ‘What a difference a year makes’. Indeed, the contrast between Bush’s victory in 2004 where he won the seventh victory out of the last ten for his party polling more votes than any other candidate in history, and now, is dramatic. A year on and problems swirl around him like avenging furies.

This situation is great for those (like me) who enjoy such Schadenfreude at Bush misfortune, but less so for certain sections of US society. The Democrats should be exploiting Bush’s discomfiture but seem not to be quite up to it, as yet. Many newspapers dubbed last week Bush’s ‘week from hell’ but the trouble started some time before then, months ago in fact.

The Economist on 1st October, ran through some of the tensions underlying the surface unity of America’s conservative movement.

i) Small government v big-government conservatives: from ostensibly championing small government Bush has introduced huge spending programmes in education and Medicare drug entitlement which more than outweigh his first term tax cuts.
ii) Faith v doubt: ‘doubters’ oppose the federal government telling states what to think on issues like euthanasia or marijuana for medical purposes. Those of ‘faith’ want the government to actively intervene on issues too important to be left to individual conscience.
iii) Insurgent v establishment conservatives: conservatives, deriving their power from the south and the west have long been hostile to Washington DC. Bush has created a new establishment in the capital city, wielding ever increasing financial federal power. Bush’s pose of being ‘anti-Washington’ has lost its credibility.
iv) Business v religious conservatives: business conservatives are concerned the religious element is assuming too much influence. Bush’s stance on stem cell research for instance threatens to deny the USA a stake in bio-medical technology research. Business and religion are seldom easy bedfellows and many businessmen are fed up with the high sounding moral stance of the Bush administration.
v) Neo-v- traditional conservatives: the former have somehow assumed a world vision, including spreading democracy to the Middle East. Latter distrust government at heart and doubt whether it can ever achieve the transformations envisaged.

Republican Scandals and Failures
Tom Delay
On 28th September delay, Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, was indicted by a grand jury in Texas for alleged breaches of the campaign finance law. He was accused of creating a Political Action Committee -Texans for a Republican Majority- to circumvent the ban on corporate donations to individual candidates. If he is found guilty, he faces up to two years in jail or a fine of $10,000. His pursuer is Ronnie Earle, a liberal Democratic district attorney. Delay is legendary in US Congressional politics for his vote-whipping skills- his nickname is ‘The Hammer’. His special skill is assembling just enough votes for a majority meaning thus minimizing the federal handouts needed to push legislation through. His role has been assumed by three other Republican but few expect them to be as effective.

Bill Frist
The Senate majority leader is accused of making a killing on the stock market via possible insider trading. He owned substantial stock in HCA, a hospital chain founded by his family. Aware that a conflict of interest might arise if the Senate considered health-care, he put them in a blind trust, thinking this would insure him sufficiently. But as a presidential aspirant he decided it wiser to sell them. He did so shortly before the firm announced losses which caused the shares to fall drastically. He claims he has e-mails proving he planned to sell them months before and the Economist thinks he’ll be ‘exonerated’.

Jack Abramoff
This former lobbyist is close to Republican big hitters and so the investigation into his affairs has implications for the party. He is accused of bank fraud and of receiving ‘millions of dollars… from casino owning Indian tribes’. The problem for the Republicans is that such financial scandals within the ruling elites tend to spread and expose wider involvement. The party faces a long period of exposure to questions, court cases and skeletons being found in unwholesome cupboards.

Supreme Court Nominee: Harriet Miers
The loss of his nominee was a major blow to Bush. Social conservatives regard the legal opinions of Supreme Court judges to be of key importance as they affect the long term. Many feel the constitution has been subverted, for example, to allow abortion on demand and the banning of prayers in schools. Gay marriage, allowed in some states like Massachusetts is another hot issue. Some conservatives fear it will spread to other states and undermine the institution of marriage which they regard as providing the essential moral glue of society. Harriet Miers was nominated on 3rd October to occupy the seat in the Supreme Court vacated by Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate ‘swing’ voter who had voted against certain key moral issues dear to the heart of god fearing Republicans.

Her qualifications for the role were instantly questioned, not just by Democrats but by Republicans too. She had been a close friend and legal counsel of Bush for many years and it was embarrassing for Bush when letters were released from Miers to the president which lavished praise upon him e.g. (when he was governor of Texas) ‘You are the best governor ever’. The accusation of cronyism was instant and indignant. Also important to moral values advocates was her ambivalent stance on abortion- she had been against it and apparently for it too in the past.

More measured and damaging criticism was leveled by those with legal backgrounds. Ms Miers had no track record as a judge and her only public office was as the head of the Texas lottery. However, it got worse. Ms Miers was obliged to fill in a questionnaire on legal issues but the senators who perused them, many of them well versed in the law, were acutely under-whelmed. Nor were they especially reassured by Ms Miers’ promise to ‘bone up’ on such issues. They felt, with some justification, that a member of the highest court in the land should not need to work at acquiring familiarity with the major legal debates of the day.
Finally, the new member read the signals- assisted maybe by the White House which had arrived at the conclusion before her- and she declared she was withdrawing from the nomination. As the Guardian commented:

‘The withdrawal of a nominee before confirmation is embarrassing enough. Dropping her after repeated personal endorsements, in the face of rancorous opposition from the president’s own party, is an unprecedented humiliation.’(28/10/05).

The eventual nomination of Samuel Alito, in place of Ms Miers was judged by most commentators to be a huge improvement.

Hurricane Katrina
The bearing down on Louisiana of Hurricane Katrina, had been well charted and predicted, yet the effects on the city of New Orleans, once it struck, seemed to catch all the organs of government, from the city level up to the White House, completely by surprise. The city was quickly flooded and thousands were placed at risk. While the world watched those too poor to flee-mostly blacks- at the mercy of the elements, and roving gangs of rapists and criminals, it seemed US government agencies were paralyzed. Four days after the disaster there were still no troops available to bring order to the anarchy. By contrast, in 1906, aid reached San Francisco two hours after the earthquake. Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday Times, (4/9/05) quoted Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) in 2001 which cited a hurricane hitting New Orleans as one of the three major catastrophes which could hit the USA- the other two were an earthquake in San Francisco and a terrorist attack on New York. It predicted the city could be inundated by 20 feet of water with possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Rather than increase spending on improving the levees the Bush government slashed spending- the money apparently moved into homeland security and the war on Iraq. Even worse thousands of Louisiana National Guardsmen, who could have helped in the disaster, had been deployed in Iraq. Despite the fact that the levees had been perceived as inadequate for decades, this had not been taken on board by a government preoccupied elsewhere. Thousands were marooned in public buildings with no food or water or protection from brutal attack. The water stunk from multiple contaminations not least from the floating dead bodies. The vast majority of those stranded and needy were the poor black residents of the city- 50% of children in the city live below the poverty line. Wealthier whites had made good their escape, for the most part, before the storm struck. The scenes were nightmarish- reminiscent of floods in Bangladesh rather than the backyard of the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.

The first public contribution to the aftermath by Bush was that he thought the rebuilding of the house of Senator Trent Lott, demolished by the storm, would turn it into a wonderful thing and he looked forward to ‘sitting on the porch’. Laughter followed this humorous quip. Lott was forced to resign as Majority Leader in the Senate a few years ago when he said he regretted racial desegregation had occurred in the Deep South in the 1950s and 60s. Eventually Bush was forced to say the response to the storm had been ‘not acceptable’. Michael Brown, the head of FEMA tried to mobilize aid but seemed unable to make things happen. Bush responded by telling him he was doing a ‘heck of a job’. Soon afterwards Brown was revealed as someone with no experience of disaster management and had been put in place purely through his contacts with a close associate of Bush in the Republican Party. He was replaced but not before the damge was done. While attitudes among white Republicans were mildly critical those of Democrats and blacks were extremely negative as the Pew Centre survey, taken in mid September shows on the last page of this briefing. It is clear from the poll that black Americans are angry at what they see as racism in the way aid was eventually disbursed. Blacks are also the most critical of Bush’s efforts to initiate attempts to assist those suffering from the hurricane.

‘Plame Gate’
This is the one scandal George Bush did not want to emerge during his second term. Its connections hearken back to the muddled and duplicitous reasons for going to war in Iraq; cast a jaundiced light on the ethics of the White House and threaten to involve not only his vice President but his beloved so-called ‘Brain’, his political adviser, the man who discovered and then made him: Karl Rove. The story goes back to January 2003 when a former ambassador to Gabon, Joseph Wilson, was sent to Niger to see if Saddam had tried to buy uranium there- the implications for Iraq’s possible nuclear weapons program being obvious. His report was that there had been no such overtures. However, in his State of the Union message in January 2003 the president said that he had. In an article in the New York Times 6th July 2003 Wilson effectively accused him of lying and ‘twisting’ the evidence on Iraq’s WMD. It is alleged that this article provoked the White House staff into leaking to the press that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame was a CIA operative. In the US such a leak is against the law in that CIA agents, by the nature of their work, have to be covert. The apparent aim of the leak-though the reasoning seems opaque on this side of the Atlantic- was to suggest that Wilson’s wife had secured her husband the job. Such a claim was duly made in a column by rightwing columnist Robert Novak. A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald-was appointed to investigate the claim that Plame had been ‘outed’.

Patrick Fitzgerald
The son of a Manhattan doorman, from poor immigrant stock Fitzgerald earned his spurs by taking down mobsters in New York and is known as ‘Elliot Ness with a Harvard law degree’. He is so hardworking it is said that he went for 14 years without having the gas connected to his apartment as he was never at home, keeping clothes in drawers in his office where he also showered and ate. While Kenneth Starr, Clinton’s nemesis, was a staunch Republican, Fitzgerald has no affiliations. The White House’s fears were fulfilled on 28th October when Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney and arch neo conservative, was indicted on five counts of perjury, making false statements and obstructing justice. Fitzgerald’s investigations continue and the White House fears both Cheney and Karl Rove might end up being indicted as well. Though the fact that they have not been so accused is seen as a huge bonus.

Public Finances: Republican conservatives have had more than Supreme Court nominations to incense them. Committed to less government and low taxes they have had to impotently observe the president spending like a Democrat on amphetamines, more so, in fact, than any president since Lyndon Johnson. Critics point to his open-ended pledge to ‘spend what it takes’ to restore New Orleans (some estimates exceed $200billion); to allocate $223m for a bridge to an Alaskan community numbering only 50 and £231m another to a place where no-one lives at all. Questions are asked about why cuts have not been considered to finance the cost of Katrina though Republicans favour cuts in Medicaid while most Americans think the Iraq war effort should be slimmed down. Overall Bush’s administration has managed to run up a deficit of $60 billion, a worrying, yawning gap despite an economy which continues to show resilience and an annual growth rate of 3%.

Iraq does not Improve Matters
Invading Iraq was never wildly popular in USA but it was sold as a measure of self defence and as a bold move in the war on terror. However, most people have now realized that Al Quaida had little or nothing to do with Saddam or Saddam with the 9/11 attack. Antiwar campaigns led by parents of killed soldiers began to penetrate the national consciousness earlier in the year and last week’s 2000th victim was well noted in the US media
This war was plunged into perhaps as a knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 or maybe, as has been long suggested through a preconceived plan. Much has been made of a document produced by the Project for the New American Century, written by Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush, Rumsfeld, Libby and Wolfovitch , which advised that the US should exert control over the Gulf region even without the need to replace Saddam Hussein. This theory still rumbles around US political culture though the recent book by Sir Anthony Meyer, UK ambassador to Washington at the time when the war was being planned, suggests there was no prior plan whatsoever and that all parties were keen to avoid war. However, he argues that: the assumption that Iraqis would welcome ‘liberation’ was naïve in the extreme; and that no real planning was put into what happened after the invasion. Whatever the reasons for war- and these are now being revisited courtesy of ‘Plamegate’- the present state of the occupation does not inspire confidence. Despite the election of an interim government- more elections will take place in January- and the approval of a new constitution, the country seems a long way from being both democratized and pacified. Monday 7th November brought reports of insurgents fighting 3500 Iraqi and US troops along Iraq’s border with Syria. While the Shia majority and the relatively separate Kurds seem to favour a federal style form of government, the once all powerful Sunni grouping from whence sprang Saddam Hussein, are strongly opposed and provide the recruitment pool for the forces which attack US, UK and (US trained) Iraqi troops- augmented, as they constantly are by ‘jihadi militiamen’ from all over the Muslim world. The scandal of Abu Ghraib prison badly scarred the worldwide reputation for ethical behaviour which the US has so assiduously sought to foster. Within the US disputes rumble on between those who want to send more troops to complete the task of pacifying and democratizing Iraq and those who urge an immediate or as soon as possible withdrawal.
The result of all these failures has been a steady toll of US servicemen and a collapse in support for the war at home where ‘bring the boys home’ is now a cry with nationwide resonance. 70% now disapprove of the US involvement in the Iraq war and still there is no sign of its being resolved. The suggestion that the president took the country to war on false premises is a serious accusation that has not yet resounded properly in US politics, in the way it has and still does in UK politics. Slowly then issue is being articulated and the damage is potentially vast. Already the Democrats have insisted on a closed session of Congress to discuss the issue and Senator Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader is intent on pursuing the issue of the war’s inception. ‘How did the administration manufacture intelligence?’ he asks; the media, emboldened by poll evidence are seeking answers more insistently than when Bush wielded more power.

Falling Ratings
The net result of all these scandals, shortcomings and incompetence has been a plummeting of ratings for the president. Recent polls show only 39% approve of the way Bush is doing his job. Only 40% consider him honest and trustworthy- this especially hard for a man who promised high ethical standards in the wake of the louche Bill Clinton. Even worse: 70% think the nation is being led ‘seriously off course’; 6 in 10 say Rove should resign following Plamegate; and, despite economic growth, 60% are ‘disappointed’ with the economy.

Repairing the Damage
The Economist, (5th November), suggests Bush has time to recover as these crises have occurred in his first year, unlike the second year of second term problems encountered by Reagan (Iran-Contra) and Clinton (Lewinsky). The journal suggests Bush has been completely out of touch, protected from reality by a sycophantic staff. He needs to rebuild his links with the conservative movement (where his ratings have fallen from 82% in 2003 to 69% now); continue his more sensible policy on nominations (e.g. Alito to Supreme Court and Bernanke to head to Federal Bank); and recreate the sense of an ‘energetic executive’ which he established in his first term by rolling out tax cuts and educational reforms.

‘If Mr Bush can seize the moment, he can turn the second term around. If he dithers, as he did during Katrina, things will get a lot worse.’

Torture Allegations: The leaking of the CIA Inspector General’s report on 9th November embarrassed Bush a few days after he declared ‘we do not torture’. John Helgerson criticized in particular the practice of ‘waterboarding’ whereby a detainee is strapped to a board and then submerged until he believes he is drowning. Such a technique was used on senior al Quaeda prisoners. The CIA is also reported to use detention centres on Eastern Europe to carry out interrogations outside the USA jurisdiction. A new law supported by senator John McCain, himself a former Vietnam POW who was tortured, seeks to ban inhumane treatment and oblige the USA to recognize international law. This is the law from which Vice President Cheney seeks to exempt the CIA and Bush has threatened to use his veto if the law remains unchanged.

Latin American Summit. At Mar del Plata, 34 countries met to discuss common problems but Bush found himself isolated at the discussions and attacked at demonstrations in the streets. The whole sub continent faces eleven elections for presidents over the next two years and already a leftward shift is clear. Hugo Chavez, a bitter critic of the Bush White House is one example, President Lula of Brazil, much courted by its major trading partner, China, is another. Several like minded candidates, who might well win will be facing voters over the next twelve months. A widespread perception of US policy is that its embrace of free trade and globalization has advantaged itself while poverty in the region has not been alleviated.

Gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey saw Democrat candidates elected in October. Also Governor Swarzenegger’s attempt to pass a series of proposals to reform the state’s government, were rejected by voters. Mayor Blomberg held new York however. Republicans must be very worried that the mid term elections for the Congress might see heavy losses which will lose them their majorities in both houses. The democrats, moreover, are excited at the emergence of Senator Mark Warner, a charismatic Virginian who might well challenge Hilary Clinton’s assumed leasehold on the Democratic candidacy.
‘If a politician cannot write or speak fluently, you can bet he or she is not thinking fluently, perhaps not thinking at all.’ Henry Porter, Observer, 13/11/05


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