Like Reagan and Clinton, George W. Bush faces scandal and waning Influence
LUIZA CH. SAVAGENovember72005
SECOND TERM CURSE
Like Reagan and Clinton, George W. Bush faces scandal and waning Influence
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
BARELY A YEAR into his hard-won second term—the one his father didn’t get—George W. Bush’s presidency is being battered by one political hurricane after another, and it’s getting hard to see above the wreckage. One senior White House aide, Lewis (Scooter) Libby, chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney, resigned last Friday after being indicted for obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to the FBI. Karl Rove, Bush’s
chief political strategist, remains under investigation in the same case—the leak of the identity of a CIA agent whose husband challenged pre-war intelligence on Iraq— that dangles like the sword of Damocles over the White House.
And on the eve of the indictment, under siege from his own conservative supporters, the President cried uncle in an extraordinary faceoff over a Supreme Court appointment. The normally stubborn Bush, known for nothing if not fierce loyalty to his inner circle, reluctantly, and by all accounts bitterly, accepted the withdrawal of his White
House counsel, Harriet Miers, as his nominee to replace retiring Sandra Day O’Connor.
Bush is doing his best to brush off the troubles. He has warned against “self-defeating pessimism,” and dismissed the CIA leak investigation as “background noise” that would not distract him. “The American people expect me to do my job, and I’m going to,” he has said.
Such comments draw a chuckle from Leon Panetta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, who endured his share
ofWhite House scandals. “Somewhere in the White House there is a book that says to say that,” he says. “Bush is saying everything that Clinton said: ‘No, no, I’m not bothered by this, it’s background noise.’ ” But the effect of such scandals is always “debilitating,” Panetta adds. White House staff “are jittery and worried. You can feel the nervousness.”
Bush may well be falling prey to the curse of the second term. From Nixon’s Watergate to Reagan’s Iran-Contra and Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky, presidents have been plagued by scandals and controversy in their final four years that have overshadowed their policy agendas and shaped their legacies. The reasons, say those who’ve watched or been part of a previous collapse, are partly structural
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—allies are naturally less ready to defend a lame-duck president—and partly personal, in that second term presidents tend to be overconfident. But it’s rare, they say, to see a presidency suffer in so many ways at once.
In the withdrawal of the scantily credentialed Harriet Miers, whose track record includes statements calling Bush “the most brilliant man” she has ever met, the dearth of congressional support for the President’s choice was even more telling than conservative opposition. Rather than lap-dogging to his defence as they may have in the past, many GOP senators—some facing re-election in 2006 and well aware the President’s approval rating has fallen to about 40 per cent— initially reserved judgment, and then signalled to the White House that the nominee was either insufficiently conservative or simply too unqualified to draw their votes.
Replacing Miers poses another potential quagmire. Had she not withdrawn, wrote conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, Bush risked a “civil war” within his party. But now that he has backed out of that battle, he could face another in the Senate. Re-energized, organized and victorious, conservative groups are demanding that Bush live up to his campaign promise of moving the court to the political right by appointing a distinguished jurist in the mould of Antonin Scalia or Clarence Thomas, the court’s two staunchest conservatives. Some of Miers’ opponents, including the group Americans for Better Justice, created by former Bush speechwriter and Canadian, David Frum, went as far as to raise money to run television ads against her nomination. But to meet their demands may be to invite Democrats to tie up the confirmation process by filibustering against a judge they consider too “extreme.” Already Democrats are portraying the Miers withdrawal as a capitulation. “The radical right wing of the Republican party drove this woman’s nomination right out of town,” charged the minority leader in the Senate, Harry Reid
The Libby indictment is even more troublesome. It raises the prospect of a trial at which other officials, such as Cheney, could be called to testify. It would likely refocus public attention on the flawed intelligence presented by the administration in the run-up
to the Iraq war—a project that becomes more unpopular as American casualties mount. “It’s a terrible blow to have a prosecutor you can’t easily assail taking on top people in your White House. It cuts the moral high ground out from under you,” says Norman
Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Perhaps most damaging is the uncertain fate of the President’s most politically gifted adviser, Rove, known as “Bush’s brain” for engineering his rise to commander-inchief. A policy wonk, historian and political
mastermind, his distraction—let alone departure—would deal an incredible blow to the White House;
Add to all that such recent woes as high gas prices, mounting deficits, a foot-dragging response to the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, and a legislative agenda quickly going nowhere, and the view from the Oval Office can only be described as “bad—real bad,” as Ornstein says. “There is nothing good out there now.” The irony, of course, is that this was supposed to be Bush’s time. His first term in office was clouded by a contested election settled by the Supreme Court, but when voters brought him back into office last November by a clear if slim majority, his aides remarked that he had a new spring in his step. He had earned “political capital” in the election and was now going to spend it, he boasted. His White House had a plan to avoid the doldrums of past second term administrations. It included a high-energy campaign-style effort to promote an ambitious policy agenda: the reform of Social Security, overhauling immigration, and rewriting the tax code, not to mention the march of democracy in Iraq. He turned over more of his cabinet than probably any president this century. His inaugural address in January charted the theme he hoped would define his place in history: the “expansion of freedom in all the world.” “It was among the most aggressive, bold agendas for a second term president that I’ve ever seen,” remarks presidential historian Charles Jones.
Now, Social Security reform is all but dead, U.S. casualties in Iraq have surpassed 2,000 in an insurgency that shows no sign of slowing, and Bush is having to scrounge for the
GIVEN high gas prices, mounting deficits and a sluggish response to the Gulf Coast hurricanes, the view from the Oval Office can only be described as ‘bad-real bad’
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tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars needed to reconstruct the Gulf Coast.
There are several reasons why second terms are apolitical trap. “Number 1 is arrogance,” says Panetta. “When you are reelected, you tend to think there isn’t anything you can do that you can’t get away with. I’ve seen it. You got through a re-election. There is a high that goes with that and everyone on staff feels it. The American people are with you in terms of your agenda and what you are trying to accomplish. You think that somehow you don’t have to be as careful.” Certainly the appointment of Miers, who has never sat as a judge or worked in any depth on issues of constitutional law, struck many conservatives as the crony pick of an overconfident leader who ignored candidates who had been groomed by the conservative legal establishment for years. Or, as Buchanan put it, “He walked down the hall looking for a woman.”
There are other, structural aspects to a second term that make it a more treacherous time than the first four years of any presidency—beginning with consequences. “The policies that you planted in your first four years are coming home to roost. In the first term you can blame the previous administration. In the second term you have a record,” says Panetta. In Bush’s case, it includes the Iraq war and a large federal deficit fuelled by large tax cuts and lavish spending. Then there are the diverging interests of the President and Republican lawmakers. With looming mid-term elections, congressmen have a calculation to make about how much the President will help or hurt their chances.
Historically, voters tend to punish lawmakers from a president’s party when they are dissatisfied with his performance. Republicans have every reason to distance themselves from Bush at this moment. “It’s not a question of him as much as everyone looking ahead to the next election,” says Jones, a scholar at the Brookings Institution and a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
And then there is the term-limit effect. Knowing that Bush cannot by law run again, congressmen, interest groups, lobbyists and pundits are looking over his shoulder to potential successors. “Even without disasters or investigations, you’ve got for the incumbent a less advantageous position,” says Jones. For this, presidents have Franklin Delano Roosevelt to blame. The only president in history to win a third term—and then a fourth during the Second World War, Roosevelt served so long he became the second president since George Washington to appoint an entire Supreme Court. The fear of a benign dictator led to ratification in
1951 of the 22nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, limiting presidents to two terms in office.
It is still early to write Bush’s political obituary—he has three years left to manoeuvre himself out of his troubles. Nixon may have resigned over his second term scandal, but
other presidents have shown it is possible to persevere. Despite the Iran-Contra debacle, in which his administration illegally sold arms to Iran to obtain the release of U.S. hostages in Febanon, then illegally funnelled the proceeds to rebels in Nicaragua, Reagan managed to leave office with a higher approval rating than he had in his first term. His White House drew lessons from the Watergate scandal and quickly appointed a special commission to investigate Iran-Contra and pre-empt Congressional hearings. The panel issued its report before hearings on the Hill were complete, and Reagan then fired key actors and brought in a fresh team. In a speech before the nation, he also accepted “full responsibility” for the activities, despite saying he was not aware of what had gone on. “The Reagan folks tried as much as possible to get on top of things, and so he came out alright,” says Jones.
Clinton too was able to maintain high job-approval ratings despite his personal scandals (although his imbroglios hurt the presidential campaign of Al Gore and allowed Bush to make “character” and “restoring honour and dignity to the White House” election issues). And voters were content with a booming economy and record low unemployment, returning more lawmakers from Clinton’s Democratic party to Congress in mid-term elections—a historical rarity in a second term. But while Clinton’s difficulties were stricdy personal, Bush’s straddle a variety of policy areas. Gas prices and deaths in Iraq touch families more directly than an Oval Office romp.
Bush can take solace in the fact that history takes the long view. Harry Truman had one of history’s lowest approval ratings— 24 per cent in 1951, after removing Gen. Douglas MacArthur from commanding troops in Korea, and remained unpopular when he left office. But Truman paid no attention to polls and did not seek admiration. As he put it, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Today, historians, political scientists and newspaper readers rate him among the most admired presidents of all time—due to his difficult decisions to drop the atom bomb on Japan to end the Second World War, create the Marshall Plan, and promote NATO, among others.
As he takes stock of his second term, George W. Bush can only hope that he doesn’t have to wait half a century for his own fortunes to improve. ilil
ARROGANCE is one political trap.
‘When you are re-elected, you tend to think there isn’t anything you can do that you can’t get away with,’ says a former Clinton aide.
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