WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON in the White House? The past six months have been punctuated by a series of blunders, which is the last thing George W. Bush needs. Harriet Miers. Katrina. Scooter Libby. Jack Abramoff. Dick Cheney and the Armstrong Ranch. The Dubai ports deal. That list doesn’t even include the brouhaha over domestic eavesdropping by the National Security Agency or the impenetrable mess that is the Medicare prescription drug benefit program or the foolhardy decision to get in an argument with John McCain over the right to torture suspected terrorists. Nor does it touch other big issues that are not going the president’s way: the war in Iraq, energy prices, the deficit, nuclear threats in Iran and North Korea, Hamas heading the Palestinian government.
This is not a formula for a successful second term—not that many presidents have had successful second terms. They burn out, become isolated, wear out their welcome. Bush is showing signs of all three job hazards. In late February, in the wake of the Dubai deal, his job approval rating sunk to 34 percent in a CBS News poll, the lowest point in his presidency. Cheney’s approval rating is in so-low-you-can’t-get-under-it territory: 18 percent (that would be friends, relatives, Halliburton employees, and the population of Wyoming). Seven out of ten Americans disapprove of the ports takeover, including 58 percent of Republicans. Less than one third of Americans approve of the president’s handling of the war, the economy, and energy issues. His free fall could not have come at a worse time. Looming in November are the midterm elections, with 36 governorships and Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate at stake. If the Democrats get control of Congress, Bush’s presidency will effectively be over.
Of the blunders I mentioned, Katrina, Cheney’s hunting trip, and the ports deal are the most damaging politically. FEMA’s dilatory response to the flooding that destroyed much of New Orleans hardly needs recounting here. One example will suffice: FEMA planned to deliver 360,000 packaged meals to New Orleans, along with fifteen trucks of water, before the storm hit. The actual tally was 40,000 meals and five trucks. But those weren’t exactly glory days in the White House, either. During a presidential radio address almost a week after Katrina made landfall, the president, who famously resists admitting mistakes, appeared to blame the catastrophe on problems “that have strained state and local capabilities,” omitting FEMA’s role. No wonder that 67 percent of the respondents in the CBS poll, when asked, “Do people in the Bush administration take responsibility when things go wrong?” answered “No.”
Dick Cheney’s shooting of Austin lawyer Harry Whittington during a quail hunt shouldn’t have posed a problem for Bush. Accidents happen. But Cheney turned the episode into a public humiliation of the president. The information that eventually came out was embarrassing. Cheney didn’t call the president himself; he had an aide call the White House. The aide reported that a member of the hunting party had been shot but didn’t say who the shooter was. Karl Rove had to call ranch owner Katharine Armstrong to find out that Cheney was the triggerman. This was choreographed by a man thinking of himself, not of the president. No one outside the White House knows how long it took before Bush learned of Cheney’s involvement; after the incident became public knowledge, press secretary Scott McClellan declined to say. Doesn’t sound like the answer was “promptly,” does it? Meanwhile, Cheney and the White House punted the responsibility for telling the press about the shooting to Armstrong, who, unlike Cheney, could spin the story without consequences. Which she did. She told the Houston Chronicle that “[Whittington’s] pride was hurt more than anything else” and he was “bruised more than bloodied.” Some bruises! A collapsed lung, an injured trachea, and a pellet in the lining of his liver that required abdominal surgery, during which doctors checked his intestines by hand for perforations.
By the Monday press briefing after the Saturday shooting, it was clear that Cheney’s continued silence was causing problems for the president. The vice president behaved like a secretive, manipulative Rasputin who was flaunting his power to do as he chose, even when the entire country knew that Bush and his advisers wanted him to speak publicly. His refusal to do so (until the next day, when he chose the friendly venue of Fox News) was reminiscent of a spoiled child who knows that Daddy doesn’t want to make a scene in public. It made the president look ineffectual—and Cheney is too experienced a politician not to have known it.
Of all the incidents that have damaged the president, the most serious is the ports deal. Perhaps it is as innocuous as he insists it is, but his ardent defense of it—to the point of saying that he will veto any effort by Congress to overturn it—is the worst political decision he has made. Has the White House gone tone-deaf? Has Bush forgotten one of the first lessons he learned about politics, dating back to his race for governor against Ann Richards? Stay on message. The central theme of his presidency, since September 11, has been that he will go to any length to make America safe. After arguing that the Patriot Act is essential to our safety, that the war in Iraq is essential to our safety, that eavesdropping of questionable legality is essential to our safety, that his reelection is essential to our safety, he can’t expect the public and the Congress to accept that the ports deal has no impact on national security—especially when the Democrats have been saying all along that port security is our biggest problem. The merits of the deal don’t matter; this is political dynamite. If the deal goes through, the midterm elections are lost, which is why the GOP-led Congress will never allow it.
The time has come to put my cards on the table—or, I should say, put them on the table again. It’s no secret that I have always found a lot to like in George W. Bush. I thought he was one of the best governors this state has ever had. I have spent my entire adult life watching Texas politics, and only two governors measured up as great leaders, John Connally and Bush. They could work with the Legislature and push it further than it wanted to go. Bush was able to work with Democrats as well as—and on some issues, like tax reform, better than—Republicans. When he decided to run for president, he could legitimately position himself as “a uniter, not a divider” and a “compassionate conservative.” I want him to succeed as president. I voted for him in 2000, with enthusiasm, believing that he would turn out to be the same kind of leader as president that he had been as governor. I was wrong. By 2004 the politician I had known as Governor Bush had all but disappeared, to be replaced by a stranger named President Bush, who bore little resemblance to his alter ego. The president was a divider, not a uniter. He placed himself in thrall to the extremists in his own party.
In February of that year, I wrote a story about the president under the headline “The Man Who Isn’t There.” The missing person was Governor Bush, an effective, competent, engaging, uniting centrist. An image of the president appeared on the cover, accompanied by a single word: “Maybe”—an expression of my ambivalence. In the conclusion, I explained why I would vote to reelect the president despite the concerns I had set forth in the article: “It will really be Governor Bush who gets my vote. Why? Because hope springs eternal: my hope that in a second term, free from worries about reelection and with an undisputed electoral victory, he will reappear after a four-year sabbatical. I’m betting he’s still around; we just haven’t seen him for a while.” Snake eyes!
In trying to reconcile the two Bushes, I have come to realize that there are at least two similarities—and this is bad, not good. One is a narrow focus. Governor Bush picked out a few issues and pressed for their passage, leaving the rest of the field to the Legislature. This was good politics, and it also suited his personal style; the things he cares about he really cares about, while the things he doesn’t care about (in Texas, these included higher education and the environment) aren’t even on his radar screen. As governor, he didn’t like to make a big deal of disasters, because it seemed like profiting politically from human misery. But when you’re president of the United States and the Mississippi coast is in ruins and New Orleans is under twenty feet of water, you’d better care about it, and the country will notice if you don’t. In the CBS poll, 64 percent disapproved of his response to the needs of Katrina victims. Understandably, Bush’s main concern since September 11 has been national security, as it should be. But I wonder whether one of the consequences of Bush’s intense focus on the war and terrorism has enabled Cheney and other ideologues in his administration to expand their influence over policy areas that the president cares less about.
The other worrisome trait is his management style, which as governor consisted of surrounding himself with people he trusted (the “iron triangle” of Joe Allbaugh, Karen Hughes, and Karl Rove) and taking positions (on such issues as clemency, managed care, and air pollution) that he never rethought in the face of criticism or changing circumstances. This worked well in Austin, where his agenda and the agenda of his aides were one and most of his policies weren’t controversial, but it isn’t working in the White House, where his advisers are Washington lifers like Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who have their own agendas, as does Rove, whose zeal to create a permanent Republican majority sometimes does Bush a disservice by forcing him to kowtow to his religious-right base (Terri Schiavo, stem cell research). I’m hardly the first to suggest that the president has isolated himself in an ever-constricting bubble of confidants from which those with contradictory opinions are excluded. It could still be fixed. Go outside the bubble to talk to elder statesmen who have the national interest at heart—starting with your own father. Call on James A. Baker, who saved your presidency at the very start and might save it at the end. Colin Powell, who was a prophet without honor in the first term. Joe Lieberman. John McCain. Listen and learn. Send Cheney on a two-year world tour of state dinners and fact-finding missions. Get a Secretary of Defense who will listen to the generals. That’s my dream, but this time I’m not betting on it.