Ankle Deep and Sinking

Ankle Deep and Sinking

The first 100 days of Bush’s second term.


One hundred days ago, George W. Bush was boasting that he had earned “political capital” from the election returns and that he intended to spend it. Well, he did invest in some grand ventures, but the market went south on him, along with the Dow Jones index. Tom DeLay, the House majority leader fondly known as The Hammer, has been taking some hard blows to the head as he tries to perfume over the foul odor of corrupt dealings with lobbyists. Bill Frist, the surgeon/senator who leads Senate Republicans, is looking a bit wobbly, too, as he threatens to launch a parliamentary jihad on behalf of right-wing preachers demanding a Jesus-friendly federal judiciary.

Meanwhile, Bush’s great crusade to “reform” Social Security by gutting it didn’t find many buyers. His carefully orchestrated democracy in Iraq is falling victim to political realities and a bitter insurgency. And John Bolton, Bush’s stand-up tough guy, is being assaulted by fellow Republicans not sure they want someone who tries to destroy people who disagree with him representing us at the United Nations. And gas prices are at $2.50 a gallon. And hourly workers’ wages are still falling. And the economy is softening. And so are Bush’s poll numbers. A second 100 days like this and Bush will begin to look in danger of bankruptcy.

Think of these events as a salutary lesson in political hubris. Three months ago conservative pundits were discussing whether the 2004 election heralded a historic realignment in American politics–right-wing government as far as the eye can see. Now, Charles Krauthammer thinks attacks on the judiciary threaten “necessary checks” on tyranny, and David Brooks fears the Frist anti-filibuster gambit will destroy the Senate as a deliberative body.

While Bush is ankle deep in muddy ground, however, he will still be President for another three and a half years (barring new disclosures about who was responsible for under-investigated war crimes in Iraq). And the White House is working on fallback positions that may allow it to claim “victory” (the President’s handlers have proved adept at redefining the terms of combat).

In these new circumstances, it may be more useful to watch how other Republicans respond to these negative turns than how Bush deals with bad news. The GOP’s rise to power was predicated on a most unnatural ideological coalition: cosmopolitan corporate suits arm in arm with rancid right-wing populists. These events are straining the alliance. When DeLay summons a lynch party to go after federal judges, many other conservatives get nervous. And who wants to grab the “third rail” of cutting Social Security benefits on behalf of a lame duck President, especially if Bush loses the aura of lucky invincibility?

Democrats may have learned some lessons themselves–coming to understand that it’s OK to talk back to the man in the White House. But they’re still capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: At the moment when polls were showing Americans opposed 2-to-1 to changing the filibuster rules, the Democratic leadership proposed a “compromise” with the GOP. Playing insider political deals on a matter of supposedly high principle is not the road back to majority status. The gesture was rejected but is a reminder that a broad yellow streak of accommodationism still lurks in the Democratic caucus. Rank-and-file progressives should pound–hard–on weak-kneed senators until this issue is settled. Backing off in the face of un-Christian zealotry will only encourage the frothers.

Events of recent weeks–the Schiavo spectacle, DeLay’s ethical embarrassments, Frist’s pandering–have finally awakened Americans to the fact that theocratic legislators who believe they are above the law are threatening to spin out of control. And Americans don’t like it. Bush’s overall job-approval rating is now at 47 percent, matching his all-time low in ABC News/Washington Post polls. This is the time for Democrats in Congress to stand tall in defense of justice, common sense and the Constitution.

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