Monday, May 02, 2005

Campaigning vs. Governing
In a sense, maybe the second-term blues President Bush is experiencing shouldn't come as a surprise. To find a presidential second term that wasn't a disaster in some obvious sense or other, you have to go back at least to Dwight Eisenhower, and arguably to FDR; since then, we've seen Nixon's resignation, Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal, and the Clinton sex witch hunt. While the personal or political scandals that precipitated all three of those episodes haven't yet erupted from the White House--and aren't likely to do so, owing to the absence of both a hostile Congress (Democrats pushed Watergate and Iran-Contra, and Republicans blew Blow-Gate into the grotesque spectacle it became) and a mostly cowed and corporate-owned press corps, the underlying arrogance and disconnectedness that begat those scandals is present in spades.

Watching Bush's press conference last Thursday night, I got the sense of a man running a different country than the one I live in (and in this case, I'm not talking about Brooklyn). There's just no public drumbeat for blowing up Social Security, passing a bloated energy bill that does little more than reward campaign contributors, removing the few remaining procedural barriers to total Republican control, or confirming a UN ambassadorial nominee who comes off as the dickish, contemptible boss all of us have had at some point in our working lives. Absent any policy rationale for these things, the mere fact that Bush has the votes in Congress to do whatever he likes won't always be enough.

But what I find really interesting about this is that Bush himself has changed tactics hardly at all from what he did, successfully, in last year's presidential campaign. He's still sticking to a few scripted points and blunt themes, still speaking to politically pre-screened audiences (of which more below), still trying to move ahead by dragging his opponents down. The only difference is that now much less of it is working. Even some of Bush's congressional allies are questioning the practice of closing taxpayer-supported rallies--excuse me, "Town Hall-style" meetings on Social Security--to all but political loyalists, as The Carpetbagger Report has faithfully detailed. The Social Security "plan," lacking obvious applicability to either the problem of long-term solvency for the program or how to better ensure financial security in old age, and bearing obvious potential political costs, is all but dead; the only question is when Karl Rove will pull the plug. On the social issues currently front and center in the nation's political life, including the related efforts to remove the filibuster and stack the courts with religious absolutists, Bush--a canny politician--realizes that he can't get out in front of the culture war; in the press conference, he all but rebuked the Dobson/Perkins/Moehler line that opponents of his judicial nominees are "anti-Christian." (Of course, it was still him who re-nominated these judicial zanies, knowing full well what would result.)

The triumphalist refrain of "lame duck" is already being sounded, which I think is both premature and foolish. Until the day a president leaves office, he has tremendous power to set the country's political and legislative agenda, and the appointive power of the executive branch is largely unaffected by the political timetable. Besides, Bush's domestic priorities have never been especially popular with electoral majorities; his successes on that front have much more to do with his ability to leverage what has generally been high approval on foreign policy/defense, and the super-gerrymandered nature of the House of Representatives than the intrinsic appeal of tax cuts for millionaires, radical deregulation, weakened environmental protections or what have you. So what seems like a political reversal of fortune is probably better described as a shift in perspective; with foreign policy matters less front and center, and the undeniable fact that Bush's political fortunes are now less connected to those of his congressional allies, he's playing from a position of relative weakness for probably the first time since September 10, 2001.

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