Two years and nine months to go. How much more can George W. Bush take? More important, how much more can we?
Bush’s approval rating is bottoming out. Retired generals have launched a media coup against his Secretary of Defense. Republican strategists have actually started to consider the unthinkable: Their party could lose control of the House. (That does not yet seem likely, but the consequences are frightening for GOPers: Congressional investigations and subpoenas.) Bush’s best pals in the “coalition of the willing” are not faring well: Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was defeated in Italy, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair is once again on the ropes. The war in Iraq continues to get uglier–perhaps morphing into intractable sectarian conflict–and progress on the political front there seems elusive. And let’s not forget, no WMDs have been found.
Worse (for Bush), it seems that every few days there’s another news story–some related to the prosecution of accused liar Scooter Libby–that reminds the public that Bush’s primary case for the now unpopular war was based on bunk and that he overstated that bunk. A coming-to-an-end (or a chickens-coming-home?) feeling has enveloped the Bush White House that no staff shuffle can puncture. (Will the American people cry, “Hooray! There’s a new press secretary and Karl Rove has a different job title”?)
Bush’s approval ratings in recent polls have dropped into the mid-30s–twenty to thirty points lower than Bill Clinton’s ratings during his tawdry Monica scandal. Bush may say he doesn’t care about the polls, but other Republicans do, fearing that Bush has become a pair of concrete shoes for Congressional candidates running in November–some of whom are running away from joint appearances with Bush. Accompanying Bush’s decline is a drop in Republicans’ overall numbers. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that registered voters favor a House Democratic candidate over a Republican by 55 to 40 percent–the biggest Democratic edge since the mid-1980s. Given the gerrymandering of House districts and the GOP’s ability to raise a tremendous amount of money and to demagogue Democrats on national security issues, Republicans don’t need to panic yet. But any party would rather be swimming with the current than staring at an incoming wave. The only good news for Bush, poll-wise, is that he’s ahead of Dick Cheney.
The retired generals’ revolt has raised questions about the Commander in Chief, such as: How come he’s the last person in the room to know the war is going poorly and that the guy he picked to run it has screwed up royally? The White House had Bush speak out in defense of Rumsfeld, but did they really believe the public would take the word of a onetime MIA National Guardsman over that of the generals–especially when Bush’s credibility, because of those missing weapons of mass destruction, is shot? Bush and his White House tacticians don’t seem to get it: It doesn’t matter what he says anymore. He’s delivered a series of we’re-making-progress speeches to rally support for the war, but there has been no discernible impact on the public’s attitude. He’s busted in the rhetoric department. Reality, for the moment, has trumped his spin.
There’s still plenty of time for him to make things worse (see Iran). But the Rumsfeld imbroglio is a pointed reminder that this is a man stuck too much within himself and his world of distortion. And relying on false or disingenuous assertions is not working for him the way it once did. So finally–years too late–he is paying a price. Alas, so is the rest of the world.