The same holds true for nations. History has taught
us that sometimes when a leader has made catastrophic choices, others –
from within the ruling elite or from without – must do something to
shatter the old paradigm of normalcy and protect the nation.
The United States may have found itself in such a
predicament. Figuratively at least, the flood waters are surging through
the first floor and – while some say the water won’t rise much more –
others think it’s time to grab the kids and seek higher ground.
The stark question now before the country is:
Should it sit still for the next three-plus years of George W. Bush’s
presidency or demand accountability, including possibly the removal of
him and his political team from office?
Though it’s true that impeachment of both President
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would be an extreme step, this
constitutional option must be judged against the alternative of a
continued national leadership that is facing worsening crises while
known for a trademark refusal to admit mistakes or to make meaningful
adjustments to its policies.
Over and over, Bush has made clear that he has no
intention to reverse himself on any of his core decisions, which include
the Iraq War, tax cuts weighted toward the upper incomes, tolerance of
record budget deficits and rejection of the chief international
agreement on global warming, the Kyoto Treaty. (Bush even questions the
overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming.)
So, the hard choice is whether the country would be
better off starting this political battle now with an eye toward a
change in control of Congress in 2006 or simply waiting for the next
presidential election in 2008.
At this point, the Washington consensus is that
Bush’s impeachment or a forced resignation is unthinkable. Even
columnists, who judge Bush as unfit – both by intellect and temperament
– to lead the country, refuse to entertain the notion of impeachment.
For instance, New York Times columnist Frank Rich
wrote that the Katrina disaster had exposed Bush’s incompetence and
phoniness, but Rich still wouldn’t take the logical next step and urge
Bush’s removal from office.
“Once Toto parts the curtain, the Wizard of Oz can
never be the wizard again,” Rich wrote. “He is forever Professor Marvel,
blowhard and snake-oil salesman. Hurricane Katrina, which is likely to
endure in the American psyche as long as L. Frank Baum’s mythic tornado,
has similarly unmasked George W. Bush.
“The worst storm in our history proved perfect for
exposing this president because in one big blast it illuminated all his
failings: the rampant cronyism, the empty sloganeering of ‘compassionate
conservatism,’ the lack of concern for the ‘underprivileged’ his mother
condescended to at the Astrodome, the reckless lack of planning for all
government operations except tax cuts, the use of spin and photo-ops to
camouflage failure and to substitute for action.” [NYT, Sept. 18, 2005]
But Rich’s column – like similar ones – avoids the
question of what it means for the United States to leave Professor
Marvel in the Oval Office for more than three years pulling the levers.
Political moderates also are having second thoughts
about Bush. Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who has supported the
Iraq War and other elements of Bush’s foreign policy, concluded that
Katrina has left Bush’s ship of state rudderless and its sails in
tatters. He wrote:
“Katrina deprived the Bush team of the energy
source that propelled it forward for the last four years: 9/11 and the
halo over the presidency that came with it. The events of 9/11 created a
deference in the U.S. public, and media, for the administration, which
exploited it to the hilt to push an uncompassionate conservative agenda
on tax cuts and runaway spending, on which it never could have gotten
elected. That deference is over.”
Friedman said Bush’s only chance for recovery is a
“Nixon-to-China” policy reversal, such as imposing a 50-cent-a-gallon
gasoline tax to finance rebuilding New Orleans and achieving American
energy independence. But Friedman acknowledged, “I know it is a
stretch.” Indeed, Bush has already ruled out any tax increases. [NYT,
Sept. 21, 2005]
Yet, to follow Friedman’s reasoning, the United
States will be faced with more than three years of a government adrift
in the doldrums as conditions grow more desperate and possible solutions
recede over the horizon.
Doubts on the Right
Even some conservatives appear to have grown weary
of defending Bush and his ham-handed handling of Iraq, the federal
budget and the Katrina disaster.
Right-wing columnist Robert Novak said he was
stunned by the Bush-bashing that he encountered at an annual conference
in Aspen, Colorado, sponsored by the New York investment firm Forstmann
Little & Co.
“The critics were no left-wing bloggers. They were
rich, mainly Republican and presumably Bush voters in the past two
elections,” Novak wrote. “Longtime participants … told me they had not
experienced such hostility against a Republican president at any of the
previous events.” [Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2005]
The Katrina crisis also brought into the light many
of Bush’s unpleasant personality traits that had been hidden behind the
P.R. curtain during his first term.
In a retrospective on the Katrina disaster,
Newsweek’s Evan Thomas disclosed “it’s a standing joke among the
president’s top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty
in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes
cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or,
as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS.”
On Aug. 30, after Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New
Orleans’ levees and flooded one of America’s preeminent cities, the
White House staff was in full cringe-mode because someone was going to
have to tell Bush that he needed to cut short his five-week vacation at
his Texas ranch by a couple of days.
Though Bush readily agreed to return to Washington,
he remained in a protective bubble about how bad the Katrina news really
was. Before devoting his attention to the catastrophe, he fulfilled
speaking commitments in San Diego and Phoenix – even clowning with a
gift guitar – before heading back to Washington.
Since Bush famously shuns reading newspapers or
watching the news, his staff decided that the best way to clue Bush in
on how bad things were was to burn a special DVD with TV footage of the
flood so he could watch the DVD on Air Force One, Newsweek’s Thomas
“How this could be – how the president of the
United States could have even less ‘situational awareness,’ as they say
in the military, than the average American about the worse natural
disaster in a century – is one of the more perplexing and troubling
chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great
generosity, ranks as a national disgrace,” Thomas wrote. [Newsweek,
Sept. 18, 2005, issue]
Despite the DVD, Bush treated his first trip to the
stricken Gulf region on Sept. 2 as a chance to pat his disaster team on
the back and chat up the locals about how everything was going to turn
out just great.
As tens of thousands of mostly poor and black
citizens were trapped in fetid waters sloshing through New Orleans – and
while hundreds of bodies rotted in the heat – Bush praised his inept
Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael Brown.
“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush
famously remarked, just days before Brown was relieved of command and
resigned from FEMA.
Bush also consoled Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who
had lost one of his homes to the flood. “Out of the rubbles of Trent
Lott’s house – he’s lost his entire house – there’s going to be a
fantastic house,” Bush joshed. “And I’m looking forward to sitting on
Even as he was departing, Bush still wasn’t
connecting to the magnitude of the horror. At a press briefing before
boarding Air Force One, Bush recalled his past hard partying in New
Orleans, which he called “the town where I used to come … to enjoy
myself, occasionally too much.”
Only after his approval ratings dove to record lows
did Bush revise his approach to the crisis, ordering up more trips to
the region, posing with more African-Americans and vowing a vast
rebuilding project on par with what he has promised for Iraq.
Trying to regain his Sept. 11, 2001, magic, Bush
gave a nationally televised speech in shirt sleeves in New Orleans’
Jackson Square with special generators and lighting flown in to give the
president a dramatic backdrop.
“We will do what it takes. We will stay as long as
it takes,” Bush declared on Sept. 15, 2005, in phrasing reminiscent of
his pledges about Iraq.
But his poll numbers continued to fall and he
returned to the scene again to demonstrate more concern and compassion.
“There’s nothing more pathetic than watching
someone who’s out of touch feign being in touch,” observed New York
Times columnist Maureen Dowd. “On his fifth sodden pilgrimage of
penitence to the devastation he took so long to comprehend, W.
desperately tried to show concern. He said he had spent some ‘quality
time’ at a Chevron plant in Pascagoula and nattered about trash removal,
infrastructure assessment teams and the ‘can-do spirit.’
“‘We look forward to hearing your vision so we can
more better do our job,’ he said at a briefing in Gulfport, Miss.” Dowd
wrote. “The more the president echoes his dad’s ‘Message: I care,’ the
more the world hears ‘Message: I can’t.’” [NYT, Sept. 21, 2005]
Future historians will face the task of explaining
how and why the world’s supreme nation of the late 20th
Century – at the height of its power and affluence – put itself into
this fix. Why were the reins of national power turned over to a man who
possessed so few qualifications for the job? [For my perspective on how
it happened, see
Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]
But the more immediate question for Americans now
is what to do next. Should the nation drift for three-plus years while
Bush and his allies continue their strategy of consolidating political
power (in large part by installing likeminded individuals in the federal
judiciary)? Or should the country begin, as best it can, demanding
For the second option to be viable, however, a
number of changes would be necessary.
1. Bush’s critics must finally take seriously the
need to build a media infrastructure that can explain to a broad
cross-section of the American people why they should strip the
Republicans of control of Congress in 2006. While progressive talk radio
and liberal Internet bloggers have advanced this process, more resources
would be needed if the nation’s current media imbalance, heavily tilted
to the Right, is to be corrected.
2. The Democrats must lay out a national vision for
Election 2006 that is based on the principle of public accountability,
not just a potpourri of issues aimed at finessing their way to
incremental gains. The Democrats would need to make clear that they want
a decisive congressional majority so they can investigate the Bush
administration – and act on whatever wrongdoing is discovered.
3. The part of the American electorate that is
outraged by Bush’s actions over the past five years must get engaged in
the political process and show both consistency and toughness. If the
nation’s future is indeed at stake, then the intensity of the political
participation must match the importance of the goals.
Even with these steps, the task of holding the Bush
administration accountable would be daunting. The conventional wisdom
may well be right, that the idea of impeaching Bush and Cheney is simply
After all, the Right possesses a huge media
infrastructure built over the past three decades and now rivaling the
mainstream (or corporate) media in political influence. Despite some
recent cracks, the Republicans have long demonstrated a lock-step
discipline, especially when the party’s institutional power is
threatened. Much of Bush’s base also remains intensely loyal, with some
viewing him as a messenger from God.
But the stakes are high as well for the majority of
Americans who disapprove of Bush’s performance in office. One only need
consider what might have been if all the legally cast votes in Florida
were counted in 2000 and Al Gore became president. [For details on the
election results, see Consortiumnews.com’s “So
Bush Did Steal the White House.”]
Gore was a leading advocate in the fight against
global warming and for alternative energy sources; he was an experienced hand on the dangers of
international terrorism and a supporter of multilateral strategies to
address international problems; he played a key role in using technology
to streamline government and to create new economic opportunities; he
was part of an administration that was running surpluses so large that
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan fretted about problems that
might arise from paying off the entire federal debt.
Despite the shortcomings of Gore’s campaign and
the goofiness of the U.S. news media’s coverage, the American voters
did choose Gore over Bush both nationally and in the swing state of
Florida. The reversal of that outcome put the nation on its present
In contrast to Gore, Bush disputed the science on
global warming and rejected the Kyoto Treaty; he ignored warnings about
an imminent attack on the U.S. mainland from al-Qaeda terrorists; he
chose unilateralism over multilateralism in asserting U.S. supremacy; he
placed political loyalists in key government jobs; he advocated major
tax cuts even if they would balloon the federal debt; he pushed for a
faith-based approach to problems.
In the past few months, some of the consequences of
Election 2000 have become painfully apparent. One after another,
catastrophes have swept across America’s political landscape. The
question now before the nation is whether it will shed the old paradigm
of normalcy and act with urgency and creativity.