If you accept the judgement of the polls this summer, George Bush is a stricken president. Leave aside his now permanent sub-50 per cent status in popular approval. Take his favored calling cards, the war and Iraq and conduct of the “war on terror”. His status on the approval charts now shows him wallowing without mast or rudder in latitudes as low as the mid-30s. Honesty? Since Americans, with a race memory of fast talking snake-oil salesmen, often confuse honesty with inarticulateness and all round stupidity, Bush used to register well in this category. But even here he is bidding to join Nixon in the sub-basement of popular esteem, lodged at around the 40 per cent mark.
But hold! The measure of a stricken president is surely an inability to push through the legislation he desires. Remember Bill Clinton. By midsummer in his maiden year of White House occupancy, 1993, he was truly stricken and had to send a Mayday call for lifeboats, which duly arrived under the captaincy of Republican Dave Gergen, with Dickie Morris soon to follow. By July, 1993, as the receptacle of liberal hopes, the Clinton presidency was over. Look now at Bush. Stricken he may be in the popular polls, but his political agenda flourishes.
Start with his nomination of John Roberts to the US Supreme Court. As the career of this far-right jurist gets dissected, there’s surely rich meat for critics to feast on and even throw the nomination into doubt.
It turns out that Roberts’s judicial philosophy is as extreme in its right-wing tilt as that of Robert Bork, although the Roberts wears the bland mien of a cornfed Midwesterner and not the feral snarl that doomed Bork from the outset. The record shows that throughout his career Roberts has been a prime legal strategist for the subversion of constitutional rights and unbridled expansion of executive power.
But does Roberts face a gauntlet of ferocious interrogatories from Democrat senators? Hardly. The Democratic challenge to Roberts, such as it is, has mostly devolved into a pillow fight with the White House over the availability of records, the kind of procedural wrangle that drags on to the delight of political insiders, but to no useful consequence.
The necessary details are already there in full view, from Roberts’ legal assaults on the environment and on civil rights, from his stance on corporate impunity, and on the denial of fundamental human rights in the prosecution of Bush’s wars. Why the search for more records? Do the Democrats hope somehow to reveal some financial peccadillo or hint that this latecomer to marriage and student lover of Dr Johnson might actually resemble David Souter, if only in the true contour of his personal preferences.
The Democrats have long since lost the appetite to confront a nominee at the level of political philosophy, the terrain on which they defeated Bork in 1987, when Jesse Jackson was challenging the party’s credentials from the left. When it came to Clarence Thomas they opted for a probe of his sex life and Thomas turned the tables on them.
You can’t expect the Democrats to toast Roberts on the grill for his ruling upholding denial of any rights to “enemy combatants” when the Democrats themselves shunned torture at Abu Ghraib as an issue in the spring and summer of 2004.
Go now from Roberts to John Bolton and yes, we find another summer triumph for the stricken president. It seemed for a while that Bolton’s nomination was on its knees. The Democrats could have floored him on a number of issues, starting with his lies to Congress about the fact that he had been questioned by the State Department’s Inspector General in 2003 in the Plame inquiry. Bolton had stated under oath that he had never been interviewed by investigators in any inquiry over the past five years. But the Democrats let him struggle on, losing the initiative in another wrangle about records and now, with the recess appointment, Bolton is installed as US Ambassador to the UN till January, 2007.
Let’s move from nominees to legislation. In the past couple of weeks, as Bush draws howls of ridicule for his five-week vacation to Crawford, TX, his fiftieth as president, his energy bill sailed through Congress and he put CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement), which had seemed dead, over the top. Topping off these triumphs, Bush spun on a dime, deep-sixed his declared intent to veto the Highway Bill, and signed the $286 billion gift to the cement lobby and endangered Republican politicians.
The Democrats can win when they truly have to, as a matter of political survival. At least half of them would probably liked to have seen Social Security handed over to the mutual funds industry. It was their intellectual hero, Senator Pat Moynihan who co-chaired the commission, formed in 2001, which gave the bipartisan green light for “reform”.
But the Democrats know that if they throw Social Security over the side, they would be sawing through one of the two last remaining planks of their party’s substantive platform, Choice being the other. So they made a stand on Social Security, and won. It was the fight over Social Security which first pushed Bush’s popular ratings below 50 per cent.
Opposition to free trade is not part of the Democratic Party’s substantive political platform. No matter how close each fight over free trade has been ever since the NAFTA battles of the late 80s and early 90s, no matter how tense the cliffhanger, there have always been the Democratic votes necessary to win passage of those trade pact laws.
It was the same this time. In the wake of the 217-215 CAFTA vote in the House, Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi gave a press conference, charging the Republicans and the White House with arm-twisting, bribery and dirty tricks. To which the obvious answer was: Big deal. Remember Clinton’s tactics in the NAFTA and WTO fights? But where was the arm-twisting to keep those 15 pro-CAFTA Democrats in line?
The war in Iraq? It’s not popular and there is vocal and conspicuous opposition among the people, but not in the Congress. Cindy Sheehan, mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, draws national attention as she demonstrates outside the gates of Fort Bush in Crawford. Where are the Democratic politicians who should be standing beside her? Hillary Clinton has just put up a bill calling for an increase in troop strength by 90,000.
Confrontation on issues of principle are not doomed in the twenty-first century. The California nurses have shown that, as they send Schwarzenegger into the political twilight. But the Democrats have almost entirely shunned battles of principle in favor of some kind of futile rope-a-dope waiting game. What lies ahead? In 2006 the Democrats will be campaigning on a Stay the Course strategy in Iraq while the stricken president will be opting for a de facto cut-and-run policy as urged by Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Hagel-Paul in 2008! The dream peace ticket! Who needs Democrats.