Utter Incompetents

Ego and Ideology in the Age of Bush

Thomas Oliphant

Thomas Dunne Books

Utter Incompetents
1
SCREWING UP
We've done a lot of hard work together over the last three and a half years. We've been challenged and we've risen to those challenges. We're climbing the mighty mountain. I see the valley below and it's a valley of peace.
--President George W. Bush, first debate with John Kerry, September 20, 2004
 
 
 
 
IN THE BEGINNING, there was an orgy of order, or so it seemed at the time.
The third conservative government since Ronald Reagan's ascension in 1981 prepared to take office deeply committed to a style of leadership befitting the first president to enter the White House with a master's degree in business administration under his belt.
In election campaigns, scores of presidential candidates down through the years, Democratic as well as Republican, had found utility in the hoary notion that running a government like a private business was not just good politics but the essence of successful leadership. George W. Bush, who had known disorder and chaos intimately in his life, was unusual in that he actually believed in it.
It fell to his diligent chief of staff--in the campaign of 2000 and then in the White House--to work out the details, taking advantage of what was universally believed to be a unique asset, and then communicating his design in a message of reassurance to a country that had just been through a bitterly contested election that did not end until the Supreme Court stopped it.
Andrew Card was the ideal chief for a Bush White House staff. He had been the deputy for Bush's father in a very different White House, working for John Sununu, an autocrat and self-promoter who eventually bombed out. He had worked in Bush politics for twenty years, from the bottom up. He had briefly run a department (Transportation) and then ably represented the automotive industry in Washington for nearly a decade. He lacked both the pretense and the background of a policymaker or spokesman and took pride in his relentless attention to detail.
In conversations before and after Bush became president, Card described a smooth, humming governmental system openly drawn from corporate models, in a message amplified throughout the administration and the Republican Party. The president, he said, would be the kind of chief executive officer who leads--his own organization as well as the country. He would decide the broad contours of foreign and domestic policy and then bring opinion, from the public to the congressional kind, along with him.
The operational mechanics of the administration would be delegated, scrupulously. Card enjoyed summing up his own responsibility as making sure that Bush got everything he needed and nothing he didn't; that he saw the right people at the right time on the right issues; and that the necessary communication of orders and decisions from the top was handed down the power ladder crisply and then carried out efficiently. At all levels, administration officials and staff members could recite the mantra of their smooth, relentless system--strategy, operations, and implementation.
To oversee the operational functions of his administration, Bush had already committed himself to empowering the most significant vice president in American history--Dick Cheney. His surprising choice as running mate the previous summer (surprising because Cheney had been running the selection process) had been among the handful of campaign decisions that put him in position to become president--a major, reassuring move for a rookie running against anexperienced, knowledgeable public figure in national life, Vice President Al Gore. As Bush prepared to take office, Cheney's presence was widely seen to be as reassuring as Gore's. He had been a boy wonder chief of staff himself in Gerald Ford's brief presidency, a heavyweight congressman, a defense secretary, and then a CEO in the energy and government contracting business.
As Card outlined it, Cheney would control the development of major policies as well as relations with Congress. His uniquely powerful office would also make sure that the administration was not caught unprepared, that information was collected and analyzed thoroughly, and that the decisions made in the White House were faithfully implemented down the chain of command.
The repeated use of the corporate model, in practice and in propaganda, was illustrated by the presence of four former CEOs in Bush's cabinet, including: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (G. D. Searle and Co., the drug giant, as well as General Instrument Corp.), Commerce Secretary and close friend Donald Evans (Tom Brown, Inc., a large, independent energy company), and Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill (Alcoa); the fourth was Cheney himself, fresh from a company called Halliburton.
Every presidency, especially since the modern era of media politics began in the twentieth century, has functioned as the stylistic antithesis of its predecessor. Bush famously recoiled at the imagery of disorder often conveyed by Bill Clinton, neglecting its substantive successes. No late-night pizza runs. No late-starting meetings. No informality in dress. No undisciplined leaking of backstage chatter. And no collegiality, either. This was always going to be a conservative government, but it was designed to work, to accomplish things for the country, even to change the tone and lower the temperature in national affairs that had become so divisively partisan and so hot for at least a decade.
It didn't. Not even close. It flopped--early and often. It messed up virtually everything it touched.
The Bush self-destruction was vividly on display more than fifty months into his presidency during one of the odder flights in the history of Air Force One.
Returning to Washington, at the end of a five-week vacation at his sprawling ranch near Waco, Texas, the president's plane took a detour. As the luxury airliner cruised northeast at 29,000 feet, Air Force Colonel Mark Tillman, the chief pilot, diverted to the south so the president could view firsthand (and be seen viewing) the unprecedented horrors Hurricane Katrina had visited on the Gulf Coast. As the huge plane approached New Orleans at 1,700 feet, a stone-faced Bush sat alone on the left side in a section normally occupied by his Secret Service detail.
Off the cuff, the president is often inarticulate and malaprop-prone, and on this occasion his press secretary, Scott McClellan, passed on a classic Bush-ism to traveling reporters: "It's devastating. It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground."
Months later, it was still not clear whether--and if so, exactly when--Bush appreciated the extent of the devastation. Below him was a ghastly human toll that included well over one thousand lives lost to raging waters that breached New Orleans' fragile levees, laid complete waste to outlying communities as far as the eye could see, and wrecked the Gulf Coast as far east as Mobile, Alabama. What was clear that day, even from the air, was that the Bush administration was frozen in the ice of its own ignorance and inability to process information and act. Looking down, Bush could only see one of the Coast Guard helicopters hovering over a flooded dwelling as the pilot tried heroically to rescue one of the tens of thousands of people trapped in the city. He could see few signs of activity over Mississippi as the occasional C-17 cargo plane landed in Pascagoula to deliver supplies. Mostly he saw nothing but water and ruin.
The vaunted corporate model of effective efficiency was nowhere in evidence. Before the storm hit, the White House and Bush himself had access to information about its extremely dangerous potential as well as information going back years on what a powerful hurricanecould do to the New Orleans levee system. And while the hurricane was making landfall early Monday morning, there was information he should have received, but didn't, that the levees were being breached; and immediately after the storm passed there were reports of the catastrophe that was unfolding. But there was virtually no evidence of this information being processed by policymakers, much less received, analyzed, and acted upon by top officials. The president continued to vacation and make public appearances in the West for two more days; his vice president was vacationing in Wyoming; and his chief of staff was vacationing in Maine. Essentially, nothing of consequence happened while the country sat glued with horrified fascination to its television sets.
The astonishing bungling of the Katrina disaster showed Bush couldn't handle a disaster created by God; but when God didn't hand him a crisis, he was perfectly capable of creating one. He'd demonstrated this knack earlier that wretched month on two fronts--the war in Iraq and the government's most important domestic program, Social Security.
Throughout his vacation, Bush and his top advisers managed to make a cause célèbre out of a barely known Gold Star mother of one of the roughly four thousand Americans killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that had unfolded in every way contrary to the administration's detailed plans and expectations. Cindy Sheehan is a person with an unspeakable burden of grief; but she is also an activist with marginal, leftist views. Her publicized efforts to win a personal meeting with the president (she had seen him in a small group of other grieving families after her son's death), and his petulant refusal created a bizarre scene in rural Texas that lasted for days. It could have been defused with, at most, thirty minutes of Bush's vacation time; what the president's fabled political team could not grasp was that Cindy Sheehan was important not as a solitary figure, but as a symbol of the ongoing, murderous mess in Iraq that seemed to have no worthwhile end in sight--and seemed especially so that summer. The mishandling of Sheehan also provided symbolic fodder forBush's increasingly focused image as a stubborn, out-of-touch president who radiated indifference to other people's views and feelings as the war dragged on.
The second example of his uncanny knack for leaving a situation worse than he'd found it was just as egregious--the mishandling of Social Security.
Bush had begun his vacation in humiliating retreat from what had seemed for months to be the singular domestic policy initiative of his second term--a long-sought, huge change in one of the pillars of retirement in America. With the program facing the challenges of navigating the costly retirement of an immense chunk of the country--the generation born after World War II--while avoiding insolvency, Bush had long sought to give workers the option of diverting a portion of their payroll taxes to private investment accounts in order to accumulate wealth, as well as pension rights, in return for acceptance of reduced direct benefits.
More than twenty years before, a top aide to the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Kirk O'Donnell, coined a famous phrase about Social Security, calling the public pension system the "third rail of American politics." O'Donnell, who has also since died, never meant that politicians can't ever touch it, but that it takes broad consensus, meaning important figures in both parties working together, to do so successfully--whether to broaden the program's coverage and increase its benefits or to slow the growth in its expenditures. Though Bush first started talking about his imperfectly framed notions as a presidential candidate in 1999, he never succeeded in moving the issue beyond partisan, ideological politics. Circumstances (the bursting of the high-tech bubble and a sinking stock market against a background of major corporate scandals) blocked him during his first term in office, as did his inability to extract a consensus proposal from a commission he himself established.
After his narrow reelection, Bush ran with the issue again--straight into a wall. After six years of rhetoric, he and his advisersremained unable and unwilling to develop a specific proposal, especially one that explained how the government could finance the diversion of payroll tax revenue without adding to Social Security's financial challenges. In an astonishing display of political and policymaking ineptitude throughout 2005, Bush appeared to increase the opposition to his vague stance on the issue the more he talked about it, and he talked about it dozens of times. By the time he retreated to Texas for vacation, his administration and its allies in the Republican Congress were at work on the thankless task of burying his initiative for the second time.
Following his defeat of Democrat John Kerry in 2004, the president inflated the scope of his victory beyond the facts, speaking constantly of the "political capital" he said he had earned, capital he intended to spend in alliance with the clear, if narrow, majorities his party had won in the Senate and House. But he and his allies then proceeded to waste whatever resources they had in the war-without-end in Iraq, and the president's inability to move the Social Security discussion his way.
For those addicted to opinion polls, Bush presided with a slender majority of the country inclined to his side as his second term began. In short order, however, he lost the inroads he had made among relatively conservative Democrats who had been in favor of his invasion of Iraq and supported his conduct of the battle against terrorism. Then he lost much of his support among those Americans who consider themselves as having moderate views, with no strong allegiance to either party. Then he lost significant support from the people who vote more regularly than any other demographic bloc--those who are above the age of sixty. Then, depending on the issue, he managed to lose support from the foundation of his once slender majority--10 to 20 percent of fellow Republicans and conservatives. Then, as 2005 ended, he managed to lose even more support from that foundation, from those Americans who had previously believed (by large margins) that the struggle with terrorism was going well,was being run by a likable president who at least talked straight with them, and was a strong, purposeful leader.
American history contains few examples of such a pervasive, systemic, persistent record of blunders by a national administration, much less an equally persistent record of a myopic refusal to face the facts. As the sixth year of Bush's presidency unfolded, serious historians were indulging in something much more than a parlor game, debating which presidencies equaled Bush's in its astonishing ineptitude in the face of major challenges across the range of domestic and foreign policy. The tentative nominees for this dubious, damning distinction included the passivity of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan as the forces building toward civil war gathered momentum and the choking by Herbert Hoover in the face of the Great Depression's enormity.
Ever since Bush's contested Electoral College win over Gore, he and his political advisers had come to believe that he could get reelected as well as press a conservative agenda with only a slender majority of support in a divided country. The belief strengthened as the Republicans slightly increased their majorities in Congress because much of the country was still consumed with fears of terrorism and because there remained issues involving modern American culture (the hot one in 2004 was whether gay people should be allowed to get married) around which conservatives would mobilize. At various times, but especially after the off-year elections in 2002 and Bush's reelection two years later, his top political aide, Karl Rove, acquired guru status.
In American politics, however, the political pendulum is always moving, which makes adaptability an underappreciated skill in government. Slender majorities by definition can become minorities very quickly. What looks like principled leadership one year can morph into recalcitrant stubbornness the next. A relatively simple proposition--like invading a weak, broken country--can turn into a hideously complicated quagmire if the appropriate attention is not paid to the cost and the aftermath. The consequences of inattention,or worse, in the face of a plethora of serious domestic and foreign policy issues can be avoided in the short run, but eventually reality always trumps the mix of propaganda techniques known in modern America as spin.
The modern conservative movement has been an awesome election-winning machine for a generation, fueled by an intense ideology among its most important coalition partners--fervent believers in tax-cutting as the engine of minimalist government and economic growth, and equally fervent dissenters, almost all of them fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, from many of the elements of modern American culture. Even a partial list of their grievances hints at the power of this movement--taxes, regulation, crime, welfare, sexual permissiveness. As Reagan ran for president in 1980, hatred of communism was the movement's driving force in foreign policy, but under the second President Bush, conservatism found fresh fuel in the shock and then the anger felt in the wake of the horrific attacks on this country by international terrorists in 2001.
At every stage of its development, moreover, conservatism has benefited from the uncertain stances of the post-Lyndon Johnson Democratic Party; still groping for a fresh, unifying vision for a changing America in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and what amounted to a second New Deal in the 1960s, it was a party that relied excessively on the constituency-driven politics of its ossifying majorities in the House of Representatives.
In many an election after the 1970s, the contest appeared to be between Republican clarity and Democratic laundry lists--and the list of successes is remarkable--the presidency in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004; the Senate in both 1980 and 1994; at last the House in the tumultuous second earthquake of 1994, and then the strengthening of these congressional majorities after 2002 and 2004; plus a majority of the nation's governors after 1994. There were setbacks along the way--the congressional campaigns of 1982, 1986, 1990, and 1998, not to mention Bill Clinton's two-term presidency between Bushes. But the underlying record of conservative success is undeniable.
The movement, however, has consistently stumbled on the day after its electoral triumphs. Compared to campaign politics, governance is never easy. But conservatism has had a constant problem fitting the square peg of its clear ideology into the round hole of actual programs. Nothing has symbolized the problem more dramatically than the adage: Nothing is easier in American politics than cutting taxes, and nothing is more difficult than adjusting government expenditures accordingly so that the country's finances don't hemorrhage.
Conservatism is often an inflexible, even radical, ideology that, beginning with Reagan, has had trouble adjusting to the realities and inevitable compromises of responsible governance. On more than one occasion, Republicans have split bitterly over difficult but unavoidable decisions involving domestic policy. The most memorable include the mix of spending restraints and tax increases that righted the Social Security system in 1983, the attempt at budget deficit restraint initiated by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, and despite a chance at one-party government from the right in 2001, the difficult issues of trade, the creation of a new benefits program covering some prescription drug expenses, and the control of surging illegal immigration. These post-election difficulties have been a recurring theme ever since Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, discovered in 1981 that he could not make his tax cut and spending numbers add up credibly or responsibly. The crucial difference is that Reagan and Bush's father were as famously adaptable as George W. Bush is famously rigid.
Through a combination of good fortune and first-rate political skills with continued Democratic disarray and the country's renewed concern with security, the electoral consequences of these difficulties have frequently been avoided. But every chicken appeared to come home to roost during George W. Bush's horrid second term.
The list is breathtaking. In the political media culture, it is common to claim that all of the president's severe difficulties stem fromthe frustration and anger over what has become at least the country's biggest foreign policy error since the decision to transform a civil war in Vietnam into an American war in 1965--the decision to invade and conquer Iraq in 2003 without a coherent plan to deal with the unavoidably murderous aftermath. There is no question that the intractable war lies near the core, but it doesn't come close to explaining the long list of major messes that have caused about two-thirds of the country to believe that the nation is heading in the wrong direction.
In addition to the loss of American lives and more than $400 billion so far in Iraq, the president's inattention and ineffectual stewardship has left a host of major issues on the table. Each is a major concern to a significant chunk of the country: the cost of energy and its availability; the cost of health care and its availability; a uniquely unbalanced economy; a huge shift of the tax burden away from capital and toward working families; the condition of family as well as government finances; the financial security of retiring workers; protecting Americans from terrorist threats under the law; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; the country's standing in the world and its military preparedness; relief from natural disaster; the environment; protection of public health; and the control of America's porous borders.
Bush has made a mockery of that long-ago effort to organize his administration along the hyper-efficient lines of a successful corporation. It brings to mind a long-ago moment at the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta in 1988, when the presidential nominee and governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, insisted on the insertion of a sentence in his acceptance speech that reflected his rich experience in government and his belief that governing effectively is as much a function of hard, wise work as it is of conviction.
With a passion he rarely exhibited, Dukakis's voice rose as he declared, "This election is not about ideology, it's about competence."
Throughout the political world, regardless of ideology, the cognoscenti clucked knowingly. On one level, Dukakis was simplyincorrect; that election, like all elections, was not a Scholastic Aptitude Test; ideas, character, and, yes, ideology matter to voters much more--and they mattered much more in 1988. But all these years later, the context of the colossal mess George W. Bush has made of his presidency suddenly produced a rediscovery of Dukakis's famous line within the public forum. Only a modicum of attention was paid to Bush's organization of his administration in 2001. Questions of "competence" in regard to his presidency were nonexistent. But by early in 2006, as the list of foul-ups seemed to grow weekly, the word "incompetence" was suddenly everywhere, and not merely on partisan lips.
In the Democratic world, a competition developed over incompetence rhetoric, especially after polling data showed that the word resonated with most of the public.
"The worst president of my lifetime," said baby boomer John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was Kerry's running mate in 2004, adding that what stunned him was that "when I talk about his incompetence it runs across the board."
"I really think he shatters the myth of white supremacy once and for all," said Harlem's congressman, Charles Rangel.
The word appeared again in a passionate screed days after Katrina belted the Gulf Coast. Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu, decrying "the staggering incompetence of the national government," noted Bush's claim that "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees during the storm." Actually, she said, "everybody anticipated the breach of the levees, Mr. President, including computer simulations in which this administration participated."
Even more noteworthy was the extent to which the president became the butt of competence jokes in the popular culture. Said the singer Linda Ronstadt, "If I did my job the way he does his, I'd be fired and so would you."
Added novelist Philip Roth, "He is a man unfit to run a hardware store, let alone a nation like this one."
"President Bush said catching a seven-and-a-half-pound fish inhis lake was his best moment since becoming president," said late-night comedian Jay Leno. "You know the sad thing, a lot of historians would agree with that."
Garrison Keillor of NPR's Prairie Home Companion was talking about Minnesota's former governor, the loudmouth Jesse Ventura, but his shrewd observation cut equally to the president's quick: "After four years of him, it was a relief to go back to politics as usual, where soft-spoken people with ordinary chest sizes sit down and negotiate and get the job done."
Incompetence is a delightful pejorative, but it is also misleading and a stretch. It is a word that mixes images of inherent inability and disqualification with ineptitude, and in the Bush administration's bizarre case that goes way too far. The president can be a dim bulb at times, especially extemporaneously, and he has lived an often aimless life, but the fact remains that he was an intelligent, shrewd, and successful governor of Texas. And his most senior advisers were, without doubt, people of significant training, qualifications, and, above all, accomplishments.
But behind the increasingly closed doors of the Bush administration, with ideology and interest group politics (and on occasion corruption) as the driving forces, it was easy for inept, ineffectual governance to flourish--from the beginning, and not simply in 2005.
Quite possibly the finest appointment President Bush ever made elevated John DiIulio from academic to government life, to run one of Bush's singular initiatives--figuring out a way to funnel large sums of money to poverty-fighting programs operated by religious organizations that (unlike long-established religious charities) do not employ staff outside their particular religious affiliation. DiIulio is a recognized intellectual giant--a product of the tough South Philadelphia streets who ended up on the Princeton University faculty and spent much of his time toiling on the vexing problems associated with poverty among youth. Though he is a social conservative, DiIulio's appointment was widely hailed outside the conservative movement because of his famous propensity for good-naturedinclusiveness. But he was gone before the end of Bush's first year, dismayed at what he saw close-up in the White House.
He did not spend the next few years publicly ratting out his former colleagues and boss, but in a little-noticed letter--to the writer Ron Suskind, the author of an important, early work about the Bush administration, based largely on the private, detailed disillusionment of Treasury Secretary O'Neill (gone after 2002), DiIulio described the Bush-Cheney-Card system:
In eight months, I heard many staff discussions but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions. There were no actual policy white papers on domestic issues. There were, truth be told, only a couple of people in the West Wing who worried at all about policy substance and analysis ... .
This gave rise to what you might call Mayberry Machiavellis--staff, senior and junior, who consistently talked and acted as if the height of political sophistication consisted in reducing every issue to its simplest, black-and-white terms for public consumption, then steering legislative initiatives or policy proposals as far right as possible ... .
DiIulio's devastatingly shrewd observations were not intended to be public. A decorous man, he was genuinely shocked when they appeared, very briefly, on the Internet shortly after he wrote them. But they stand years later as a definitive portrait of the Bush administration in operation--the perverted triumph of ideological politics and interest group service at the expense of governance.
In an atmosphere like the one he so accurately described, superficially organized but in fact warped in its incurious insularity, the wheels come off the machine easily. The so-called outside influences that are routinely resented by insiders constitute "reality," and a diligent and wise president and his most important advisers take special care to respond. Politics can delay the impact of underlyingreality, even past elections, but in the end reality will overcome the most creative fog machine.
Because of the enormity and the enduring shock of the attack on this country in 2001, the new era it ushered in, and the ongoing wars it spawned in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is an understandable tendency in Washington to focus on security issues to the exclusion of everything else. It is understandable but unfortunate, because the bumbling that has hurt the long-term confrontation with terrorism and produced the catastrophe in Iraq is itself symptomatic of a deeper problem that has affected every aspect of national life.
The truth is that government has stumbled and fallen down across the full range of domestic and international challenges facing the country in the first decade of the twenty-first century.
The list of ignored or messed-up situations is astonishing if perspective is broadened beyond terrorism, homeland security, invasions, and military occupations: Energy costs. Energy supplies. Health care costs. Insurance availability. The modern economy. The national tax burden. Public, family, and national finance. Retirement security. The law and personal rights. Nuclear proliferation. The country's international clout and military preparedness. Disaster relief. The environment. Public health and safety regulation. The control of America's porous borders.
There has never been an American government that didn't stumble badly at times. During the last two years of his time in the White House, Jimmy Carter often seemed a straw in the winds of energy crisis, ruinous inflation, the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, and the seizure of American hostages in revolutionary Iran. During his second term, Ronald Reagan was staggered by the revelation that senior officials had traded arms sales for other hostages with that same Iranian regime and used the proceeds illegally to aid guerrillas in Nicaragua. And Bill Clinton produced chaos instead of change during the first year of his presidency and paid for it dearly in the Republican congressional landslide and takeover of 1994.
What distinguishes the Bush administration is the breadth of its failings, the fact that they extend from the beginning to the present day. Even more stunning is the fact that they have not produced a recognition of, or a true response to, its abiding, underlying problems.
Just as war and terrorism have tended to obscure a much more extensive compendium of failures, so the dramatic combination of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 tended to obscure the entire record of the administration--as if the principal problem was that President Bush simply had a bad fifth year in office, a rough patch seemingly made worse by the fact that so many of his most publicized woes occurred during a single month. In fact, the administration's problems have been apparent from the beginning. The same administration--and in many cases the same people--that chose not to assign the highest priority to defending against terrorism before the September 11 attacks also chose to remain passive in the face of international pressures on energy supplies and prices; the same administration that planned a ninety-day, in-and-out, oil-financed invasion of Iraq also chose to remain passive in the face of ruinous increases in the cost of health insurance; the same administration that chose to yield to private sector blandishments to limit certain key industries' precautions against terrorist attacks also chose to yield to other private sector blandishments and transform a broadly supported effort to include prescription drug coverage with Medicare's services to the elderly into a fresh round of subsidies to the pharmaceutical and insurance industries that nearly foundered in its initial months.
The temptation is to restrict an analysis of these breakdowns to their separate parts. It is a more than useful exercise, but it risks creating the false impression that the foul-ups, screw-ups, and breakdowns that produced a murderous, expensive, and open-ended occupation of Iraq are entirely distinct from those that contributed to soaring gasoline prices and health insurance costs.
They are not. The trick is to search for common threads. Thedanger is that this becomes the political equivalent of the fabled search for a unified theory in physics--the effort to unite all of nature's fundamental relationships and forces in one overarching theoretical construction, sometimes derisively referred to as the Theory of Everything. The term unified theory was coined by Albert Einstein, who famously regretted his inability to develop one.
Dangers and pitfalls aside, the fact remains that there are indeed several common threads to an analysis of the combination of grand electoral success and major governance goofs that has distinguished the modern conservative movement, culminating in the Bush administration. They could just as easily apply to governments by progressives.
The ingredients for trouble on a grand scale are several: tight ruling circles; a strong penchant for insularity and secretiveness; intense ideological motivation with a strong mixture of hubris; strong ties to demanding interest group supporters; and an obvious backseat for the habits of traditional policymaking that emphasize transparency and the give-and-take of consensus-building compromise. All have been present throughout the Bush presidency from health care to Iraq.
The costs to the country and to the grand designs of modern conservatism have been considerable. Terrorism and war peaks aside, President Bush has on his best days governed with the support of a narrow majority of Americans. Since his reelection, however, he has steadily lost ground. At 40 to 45 percent in the public opinion polls of his job approval ratings, he had lost the support of moderates and people with weak partisan affiliations; at barely 30 percent, he was facing erosion from his base of Republicans and conservatives.
The collision between reality and strategy is a reminder that, in the United States, politics is almost always dynamic and almost never static; the pendulum is never stationary and an election victory is a beginning, never an end. Except in very rare cases of landslides, election victory does not change a single policy effectively or enact a single piece of legislation. The Bush record in the aftermath of twonarrow personal victories and two narrow congressional election successes is an epic example of how political success can be squandered by governmental failure.
There are many more elegant ways to summarize what happened, but sometimes the simplest explanation suffices--they screwed up.
UTTER INCOMPETENTS. Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Oliphant. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.