Last November, President Bush celebrated a successful re-election campaign by telling reporters: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.”
In barely a year, that political capital has been exhausted. While the Republicans still have the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress, the party no longer has iron-clad control. It’s time for Democrats to speak out on behalf of an American majority, and become equal partners in Washington once again.
How did Bush fritter away his political capital? Let’s take a look back at the last year:
The president earned his capital by waging what Al Franken calls a campaign of “fear and smears.” Under the guiding hand of Senior White House Advisor Karl Rove, the Bush team was able to convince Americans that John Kerry (D-MA) was soft on terrorism, misleading the American people with their “wolves in the woods” advertising campaign, speeches by Bush and Vice President Cheney, and the conservative noise machine. Kerry wanted to cut intelligence spending in the 1980s, the Bush spin team cried, conveniently forgetting that Arlen Specter (R-PA) proposed similar cuts in the Senate, and Porter Goss (R-FL) proposed deeper cuts in the House. Kerry got smeared. Goss got promoted to CIA chief.
After the election, Bush pushed a number of ideas, notably Social Security privatization. Americans were told that Republicans were the party of ideas, and Democrats were the “all-criticism, no-solutions” party. But this empty conservative spin was on its last legs.
As JABBS pointed out in June, the house of cards was falling. Republicans broke ranks on judicial filibusters and U.S. treatment of Guantanamo detainees. As Rove and others became further embroiled in Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation into the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the administration suddenly seemed to struggle with spin.
The wheels started coming off the bus — and Bush’s popularity sank to new lows — with the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Conservative Sens. Rick Santorum (R-PA), Trent Lott (R-MS) and Sam Brownback (R-KS) withheld their endorsements, while pundits like Bill Kristol called for Miers’ withdrawal. At the same time, there were other embarrassments, like the slow federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and the scripted teleconference between Bush and U.S. soldiers stationed in Tikrit, Iraq.
Soon thereafter, Fitzgerald indicted Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, while leaving open the possibility of future indictments against Rove and others in the administration. Some have suggested Cheney himself may be in trouble.
Yes, it’s only been a year. But then again, when you build a house of cards — a house built on fear-driven, smear-driven spin — you have to expect that house to fall.
President Nixon won re-election in 1972, in the midst of a war, with a unified party behind him. His electoral mandate was far greater than Bush’s. But Watergate overwhelmed the administration, and ultimately, members of Nixon’s own Republican Party told Nixon that the votes were there to impeach him. Nixon instead resigned.
President Reagan won re-election in 1984 in the same lopsided fashion as Nixon. But it wasn’t long after that the Iran-Contra Affair took center stage, and Reagan’s appointed commission, led by former Sen. John Tower (R-TX), uncovered wrongdoing in the administration and its National Security Council team. Reagan had lost the broad support of the American people, and his second term was ineffectual.
Bush doesn’t have to travel the same road.
Unlike Nixon and Reagan, Bush’s party has control over both Congressional houses — at least until November, 2006. Unless Plame-Gate becomes Watergate — with Republicans agreeing that impeachment is necessary — Bush’s presidency is safe.
But the balance of power has clearly shifted. Just as 14 moderate Senators — seven Democrats and seven Republicans — joined forces to sidestep the administration and its lackey, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), and preserve the filibuster, it’s time for Democrats to join their moderate Republican friends to speak out for the majority of Americans who want their government to work for them.
There are more than enough sane Republicans in the Senate. And even the fringe Republicans — like Santorum — are distancing themselves from the Bush spin machine and its ever-shrinking coattails. Bush’s popularity has never been lower, even among party faithful.
For conservatives, now is the time to move to the middle. For moderate Republicans, now is the time to make friends across the aisle.
Democrats have not led as legislators under Bush’s helm because they haven’t controlled the House or Senate — or the decision-making on what legislation is voted on and when. When Democrats have brought forth legislation, they have had two choices — find a Republican co-sponsor, or be ignored. Bush’s spin team has spent five years saying Democrats have “no ideas,” even though they knew better.
The ball remains in Bush’s court — the luxury of having majority rule in politics. But the rules of the game have clearly changed.
It’s time for the Democrats to be a unified party, and speak out for an American majority. The Bush spin team won’t have the “capital” to stop them.
This item first appeared at Journalists Against Bush’s B.S.