About twenty years ago, I heard Sen. Gary Hart speak to a convention of community organizers. He said he had spoken to someone who was hoping for a scandal, like Watergate, to bring down the Reagan Administration. But, the senator declaimed, when President Reagan cuts spending on education, that is a scandal. And when he cuts such-and-such, that is a scandal. And when he does so-and-so, that is a scandal. (Wild applause from the audience.)
A few months later, Hart’s friend got his scandal: White House officals had sold arms to Iran and used the money to fund anticommunist insurgents in Nicaragua. And Reagan’s anointed successor, George H. W. Bush, still got elected.
Will the Plame scandal turn out the same way? After all the news stories and op-eds and televised hearings and indictments are over with, will the voters put Republicans back in the White House anyway? I have reason to hope otherwise.
Dubya has run for President, and maintained his power as President, by cultivating an aura of invulnerability. During the primaries, he quickly lined up endorsements and donations from the Republican establishment to position himself as his father’s anointed successor; after McCain won the New Hampshire Republican primary, Bush “waged one of the roughest primary campaigns in memory” to prevent the same thing from happening in South Carolina. During the Florida recount battle, while Gore’s partisans talked about making sure that every vote was counted and letting the recount process determine the victor, the Republicans portrayed Bush as the victor and the Gore/Lieberman team as “Sore/Loserman.” After his inauguration, some pundits expected Bush to make a special effort to cooperate with the Democrats in Congress, perhaps triangulating off of Tom DeLay; after all, he had portrayed himself as “a uniter, not a divider,” he had lost the popular vote, and the Senate was evenly split. Instead, he convinced Sen. Jim Jeffords to quit the Republican Party.
The 2002 electron returns and the current tax rates prove how effective this strategy has been. But it has one flaw: you can’t be mostly invulnerable. Once your opponents — or, more importantly, your wavering allies — discover that someone can defy you and live to tell about it, you can no longer keep them in line with a stern tone and a steely glare.
The most important sign of Bush’s infallability, of course, is his failure to uncover stocks of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq, even after declaring “Mission Accomplished.” Consider what this Administration has faced since then:
- They had to eat sixteen words in the 2003 State of the Union address.
- The Plame affair grew out of the White-House–vs.–CIA finger-pointing over the sixteen words.
- Bush, who had extracted authorization to use force in Iraq without submitting any budget for the Iraq war, came back to Congress asking for an additional $87 million. The American public has not taken the news well.
- The Senate passed the Harkin Amendment, supported by six Republican senators, blocking the Department of Labor’s new overtime rules.
- The House and Senate passed separate resolutions blocking new FCC rules, passed in June and endorsed by the President, that make it easier for one corporation to own a large number of TV stations. The outcry against the FCC’s rule change was joined by a number of prominent Republicans, including William Safire.
- An unemployment rate that is still higher than it was two years ago, when the recession officially ended.
- A steady decline in Bush’s approval ratings.
When he was President, Reagan faced political challenges that were at least as daunting: e.g., an unemployment rate over 10%, a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, and an Administration where, in Molly Ivins’ words, “half of it is under average and the other half is under indictment.” But Reagan was used to political challenges, and even losses. He had run in the 1968 and 1976 Republican Presidential primaries before finally winning the nomination in 1980. He knew how to charm the electorate in spite of his political setbacks.
Our current President may have Reagan’s ideology, but he’s not Reagan. And while neither Dean nor Clark have Clinton’s charisma, they’re not Mondale and Dukakis, either.