Sunday, March 16, 2008
A Broken Presidency
Bill Kristol has a strong editorial in today's Weekly Standard
If you talk to people in the Bush administration, they know the truth about the report. They know that it makes the case convincingly for Saddam's terror connections. But they'll tell you (off the record) it's too hard to try to set the record straight. Any reengagement on the case for war is a loser, they'll say. Furthermore, once the first wave of coverage is bad, you can never catch up: You give the misleading stories more life and your opponents further chances to beat you up in the media. And as for trying to prevent misleading summaries and press leaks in the first place—that's hopeless. Someone will tell the media you're behaving like Scooter Libby, and God knows what might happen next.
This is all correct as far as it goes.
But it doesn't go far enough!
This is a psychologically broken administration: exhausted, passive, prematurely aged, self-defeated.
It is lying on the mat moaning as its opponents kick it, unwilling/unable to block a blow or raise a hand in self-defense.
The indifference to quality of personnel - always a problem - has now become the defining characteristic of the administration. The president continues to imagine he is pursuing one set of policies. But because he allows retiring principals to be succeeded by their deputies, and then those deputies to be followed by their deputies, he has passively acquiesced in allowing his administration to be staffed by people who regard his policies as at best impossible, at worst actively wrong. And then he is surprised when his administration does the opposite of what he wished! Of course it does! If you won't steer the car, it won't go where you want!
Where did things go wrong?
My own personal belief is that the first and most decisive error was the choice of Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser. The president chose two powerful national figures as Secretaries of Defense and State. (I often wonder whether it would not have been better to put Powell at Defense and a leading Democrat at State - if not in January 2001, then certainly after September 11.) Whoever the president chose, however, it was inevitable that State & Defense would clash. They always do. He needed a strong figure at NSC to broker those clashes. Instead, he chose the weakest NSC adviser in that institution's history. The result: a total breakdown of policy coordination. Millions of words have been written about hte bad planning of the Iraq war. To my mind, though, the real puzzle is the failure of the president to act to correct those errors after they were exposed. It was apparent as early as the summer of 2003 that the war had gone wrong. Yet not until the summer of 2007 did the administration act in a serious way to change course. Rumsfeld wouldn't rethink - and Rice was too timid and ineffective to force him.
Rumsfeld is now gone. Rice has been promoted. She has been succeeded by her own deputy, Steve Hadley - a man even more cautious than Rice herself. (Although lacking her almost super-human abilities in the art of boss-pleasing.)
I assume it was Hadley who was Kristol's source for that long exercise in it's-no-use handwringing quoted above. But really: If you cannot imagine any way to do your job successfully, it's time to quit and hand over the job to someone who can do it.
If the Rice hiring was a decisive error, however, the summer and fall of 2005 was the breaking point, the moment when things became irretrievable. The Katrina disaster, Harriet Miers, the collapse of the Social Security reform, the erosion of public support for the Iraq war (the summer of 2005 is the moment at which public disapproval of the administration's handling of Iraq crosses the lethal 60% line) - all together sapped the administration's capacity.
The president's personal willpower remained as strong as ever, strong enough that he could accept the surge concept when it was presented to him.
But his administration's ability to generate new initiatives, to respond to crises, to lead public opinion, even to manage the ordinary business of government effectively - that had departed, never to return.
Now the Bush administration has been stamped with the mark of indelible failure - even as, brutal irony, Iraq seems at last to be taking the upward path. This mark is not wholly just, but it is not wholly unjust either. The administration bears some of the responsibility for the gathering economic crisis at home. In order to claim the distinction of raising home ownership to an all-time high, the Bush administration favored and supported the loose home-mortgage lending practices that are now convulsing global financial markets.
President Bush insisted that his top priority was to help transform the "if it feels good do it" cutlure bequeathed by the 1960s to a personal responsibility culture: that was the main theme of the first conversation I ever had with him. Yet in practice, he chose to finance his war in exactly the same irresponsible way that Lyndon Johnson financed his - and with the same result, an acceleration of inflation and a dollar crisis.
Now Fed chairman Ben Bernanke faces exactly the same horrible unresolveable dilemma that Arthur Burns faced in 1970: cut interest rates to avert or mitigate the gathering recession (and accept deeper declines in the dollar and worsening inflation) - or raise interest rates to protect the dollar (and accept a savage economic downturn just in time for the next presidential election). It looks like Bernanke is making the same choice as Burns, cut interest rates, and you have to ask whether his choice won't have the same long-term bad effects.
The cynic in me has often speculated that governments worldwide might seek to escape their unpayable obligations to baby-boomer retirees the way governments historically have always sought to escape unpayable obligations: by inflating them out of existence. And indeed that does look to be precisely what is happening.
The political implications of these trends matter a lot less than the strategic and economic consequences.
However those implications are interesting enough. If I have observed the trends correctly, the Democrats stand on the threshold of their greatest opportunity since 1976 - despite their manful and womanful efforts to destroy themselves. John McCain's only hope is to separate himself far and fast from the Bush era, to play Sarkozy to Bush's Chirac. That however is precisely what he is not doing. He is instead bending before the awful advice from talk radio and (I am very sorry to say) opinion journals like this one to play to the dwindling conservative base of the party.
Is it too late to change course? McCain should be explaining how the success in Iraq has come from substituting his policy for Rumsfeld's. If he is entertaining the idea of Condoleezza Rice as a running mate, he should abandon it: the Peter Principle has already lofted her more than high enough.
McCain should run especially hard against the Bush economic record of stagnating wages, exploding healthcare costs, and accelerating inflation. It was a big mistake for him to pledge his support to the Bush tax cuts in their entirety: Tax cuts + war + big increases in domestic spending if accommodated by the monetary authorities = inflation. Selective tax cuts for business investment are more than justified under the circumstances, but the country needs higher taxes on upper-income consumption alongside spending control to bring the budget into balance and ease the difficulties facing the Federal Reserve.
Barack Obama may or may not be a mountebank. But in that single word "change" he has found a resonant theme. This next election will turn on whether John McCain can plausibly present himself as a force for change - or whether the ideological and political rigidities of the Republican party and the conservative movement will constrain him to follow conventional courses to his doom.
03/16 09:06 AM