Back to Bush's Regularly Scheduled Problems
It's back to the problems.
Recent events have once again proved the truism that it's easy to run for office, it's hard to govern – especially when you're an arrogant fellow pursuing bad policies. For George W. Bush, knocking off John Kerry was a swagger on the beach compared to dealing with the real stuff. All Bush had to do was lie about Kerry, deride him, make promises he can't keep, talk tough, and mount an under-the-radar effort to motivate millions of fundamentalist Christian voters who (for some reason) obsess over gay marriage. That's nada compared to, say, winning the war in Iraq.
Once the election dust settled, the Bush gang looked like country-bumpkin first-termers. It botched the appointment of one of the most important Cabinet members: secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. The Bush White House did this by racing ahead with Bernard Kerik, a former New York City police commissioner and a Rudy Giuliani crony. It's not only that Bush's vetters missed Kerik's nanny problem. They apparently did not even do a Nexis search on the guy. Had they done so, they would have learned he was a nomination disaster waiting to happen. As New York City prisoner commissioner, he had diverted rebates from cigarette sales in prisons to an obscure foundation he ran. He had been entangled with a New Jersey construction firm with alleged mob ties. His leadership of the NYPD after 9/11 was dubbed "scandalous" by John Lehman, a Republican member of the independent 9/11 commission. He had been in charge of police training in Iraq – hardly a triumph. He had an arrest warrant issued against him in conjunction with a civil legal dispute. He was sued, in separate cases, for retaliating against a corrections official who backed a Democrat and against others who were in disputes with a corrections official with whom he was allegedly having an extramarital affair. He had parlayed his political connections and received millions of dollars from a company that did business with the Department of Homeland Security. And there was more. He was lucky he had a nanny he could hide behind.
The Kerik blunder was not the White House's only Cabinet-level screwup. Bush officials sent clear signals they wanted Treasury Secretary John Snow to hit the road. Then Bush announced Snow was staying put. This was no way for a president to treat the head of his economic team. After all, this is the guy who has to come out before the press and the business community and perform an all-important task: fudge the numbers. Can he do so effectively if he's peeved?
Then Bush got caught tapping the phones of Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Come on. If you're going to play this game, do it well and don't be found out. Worse (for Bush), the taps produced nothing the White House could use to force ElBaradei out of his post. The Bushies consider him too soft on Iran, and some Bush aides have been angling for his ouster. But they are probably also mad at him because ElBaradei showed them up. Before the invasion of Iraq, ElBaradei and his weapons inspectors declared there were no indications that Saddam Hussein had been reviving his nuclear weapons program. Yet Bush, Dick Cheney and their posse had claimed Hussein had been "reconstituting" his nuclear program. Now it's clear the International Atomic Energy Agency was right and Bush was wrong. So the obvious response from Bush is, off with his head!
Bush is facing trouble in Iran. Military experts tell me there are few effective military options for the Bush hawks. The Iranian nuclear weapons program – to the extent it exists – is probably dispersed, based in civilian areas and located deep underground. It is no easy target. And Iran – bigger and stronger than Iraq – is not invasion material, especially when U.S. forces are stretched thin next door. So what's a saber-rattling pre-emptionist to do? Ditto for North Korea.
Meanwhile, Iraq is not getting any easier. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld became the administration's Bonehead Number One when he dismissed a soldier's question about the lack of armor for the troops. Throughout the election, the Bush campaign denied Kerry's charge that Bush had not provided enough armor for the troops. It's not too tough to spin reporters; it's more difficult to spin unprotected soldiers. And on the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein's capture – remember when war backers hailed that development as the beginning of the end of the insurrection? – eight U.S. Marines were killed in different battles in Iraq. In one piece of good news for Bush, this bad news was chronicled by the Washington Post in a brief story on Page A17. (Scott Peterson still rates more media attention than dead American GIs.) As the January elections approach, the security situation in Iraq appears to be worsening. And the six-mile stretch of highway from the Green Zone in Baghdad to the international airport remains too dangerous for U.S. officials to travel. Doom-and-gloom is the official position of the CIA. The agency's station chief in Baghdad sent a cable in late November – which was leaked within two weeks – that offered a bleak view, noting security in Iraq is likely to deteriorate further. Just in time for the elections. The intelligence reform bill passed by Congress will not be of much help.
Then there's Social Security. For some odd reason, Bush seems to be serious about his promise to partially privatize Social Security. That is, he's still talking about it after the election. There appears to be no way for Bush to enact such a scheme without racking up $2 trillion in transition costs. Bush's tax cuts for the rich are projected to yield trillions of dollars in national debt, yet this explosion of red ink never became a hot topic during the presidential campaign. Will another $2 trillion in Bush-created debt finally pose him political trouble? Perhaps. At the same time, the folks around him have started to hint that retirement benefits may have to drop by 6 percent, even after supposed gains from private accounts are added to the picture. So let's see: more debt, lower benefits. Sounds like a winner. No wonder several Senate Republicans have said they won't support any Social Security legislation unless it is also endorsed by Democrats. They want political cover. Yet the conservative House Republicans have expressed no interest in negotiating with their Democratic colleagues. Can Bush navigate the political land mines? I'd rather choke on a pretzel.
During the campaign, I happened to share a long airplane ride with one of Kerry's top advisers. Several hours into our conversation, he told me that every once in a while Kerry would ask him, "What the fuck are we going to do?" Kerry had in mind Iraq and a Kerry victory. Thanks to Ohio, he does not have the burden of devising an answer to his own query. But Bush does – and not merely on Iraq. He's facing a boatload of ugly challenges and dilemmas. Democrats ought not to be too giddy about this, for Bush has demonstrated that when the going gets tough he is perfectly able to commit gigantic blunders with bad consequences for all and no punishment for him. But he is not going to be able to escape his problems by hitting the campaign trail. As an in-over-his-head president once said, "It's hard work."