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October 25, 2005

Bush's Presidency ends...and our challenge begins
Posted by Derek Chollet

With Washington swirling in scandal and a seemingly endless barrage of bad news at home and abroad, it is time to focus on a fundamental fact: the Bush Presidency is over.

Ok, that’s an intentional overstatement, because of course George W. Bush will be President for another three years – and that gives him plenty of time to do a lot of good things, and bad.  According to today’s Washington Post, his team is scrambling to figure out how to move forward after this week’s amazing confluence of crises – there’s a lot of talk about “compartmentalization.”  But events of the past few months – Katrina, the Iraq quagmire, the exploding deficit, the conservative infighting the Miers nomination has exposed, gas prices, concerns about runaway government spending, the criminal indictments of key figures within the Republican establishment (and the possibility of more to come) -- have damaged his leadership in a way that is beyond repair.  When combined with the crucial fact that he has no successor-in-waiting with any interest in defending this embattled legacy, this means that Bush has already run out of the political capital that, only months ago, he believed he had in abundance to spend (remember the social security roll-out?).

Second terms are often seen by the political class as a countdown to the next campaign, and as such, this one is going to be defined by an historical anomaly: because neither Cheney nor anyone from Bush’s Cabinet is running, the next election will be the first truly open campaign in 56 years – since Eisenhower and Stevenson campaigned to replace Truman in 1952.  This fact isn’t just some piece of political trivia; it will completely change the political dynamic of the 2008 nominating process on both sides, as well as the general election.   

The potential Republican nominees can try to choose what part of the Bush legacy they can embrace and what part they can distance themselves from.  If Bush were riding high, we’d see a competition for who could carry the mantle (and a massive effort to court his endorsement).  But the way things are going, it is hard to imagine any Republican trying to stake a claim to be Bush’s “successor” – who would want to carry all his baggage on Iraq, the incompetence of the Katrina response, the massive deficit, the energy crisis, or (for social conservatives) his recent Supreme Court nomination?  This distancing has already begun – and it is not just a McCain thing. 

Many of the Republicans thinking seriously about running in 2008 (including two of the most formidable, George Allen and Sam Brownback) have begun to tack away, and as we get closer to the 2006 midterms, when Republican members of Congress are going to be increasingly worried about reelection and unwilling to defend a lame-duck President, this will only get worse.  Without any Bush heir to defend the legacy – and impose discipline to ensure that the intra-party criticisms don’t ramble out of control -- there is little left to regenerate the President’s political capital.  The only thing that I can think of is the desire not to have him leave office as a universally despised and failed President – but that’s hardly a ringing endorsement or anything a potential Republican candidate would want to run for office on.

For progressives, this means that the next few years present a different kind of challenge.  Rather than simply stand against the incumbent or rail against the status quo – which was the prevailing political dynamic in 2004, and I think still today – progressives must prepare for an opponent that, to a certain degree, will also be running against the old order.  In 1952 both Stevenson and Eisenhower worked to distance themselves from Truman's legacy.  So it won’t be enough to make the next election a referendum on the incumbent – because there won’t be an incumbent or anyone who was part of the prior Administration in the race (no, Condi is not running).  This means, as we’ve often said here at DA, that progressives have to do more than stand against things, and that a political strategy has to be more than just bashing Bush.  We have to have positive ideas about how we are going to move the country forward.

This is especially true when it comes to America’s role in the world and how we are going to meet the global challenges we face.  We not only need to show that we have better ideas – but that we have the creativity, guts, and vision to carry them forward.  And, as Richard Cohen writes today, we can’t allow our anger about the way Bush has governed – and our rush to embrace his critics from within his own party (like Scowcroft) – drive us into positions that move us away from our traditional progressive values (like, for example, standing up for promoting democracy), ceding our idealism to conservatives.


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Very insightful post. In one way it might be best for Dems if Bush does not fail entirely because if he does the GOP may turn to McCain as their only hope of retaining the White House. If Bush is seen as a moderate success by the Republican base they may go with Allen or someone else who is not as much of a departure. Obviously that would be an easier mark for Hillary or whoever the nominee is. Actually, I find it hard to see how McCain could be beaten by any Democrat; his biggest problem is with his own party.

I appreciate Mr. Chollet's call for progressives to articulate "positive ideas about how we are going to move the country forward" especially in the realm of foreign affairs. However, I disagree with the premise of his post, that due to the recent flood of bad news and the lack of an apparent heir, "there is little left to regenerate the President’s political capital."

Public opinion is a fickle thing and political memory even more capricious. History shows us that presidents can often rebound from failure, reinvigorate their supporters, and regain their influence. Consider Ronald Reagan. During his second term, the Iran-Contra scandal posed a serious threat to his presidential leadership, but by fashioning a series of diplomatic agreements with Mikhail Gorbachev that hastened the end of the Cold War, he emerged stronger than ever before. His influence on his party and American politics, at large remains substantial, over a year after his death.

President Bush may also learn to his relief how quickly the American people forget past mistakes in the face of current successes. If the President withdraws harried Harriet Myers' Supreme Court nomination, as is increasingly likely, and nominates a genuine conservative to fill Sandra Day O'Connor's seat, it stands to reason his right-wing base will become reinvigorated, as committed to his Administration as before. Further, if the situation in Iraq betters, or if the Administration finds success elsewhere in the war on terrorism -- if, for example, Pakistani or American troops arrest Osama bin Laden -- Bush's political coattails will grow accordingly. Much as Richard Nixon realized in 1972 when he offset losing Vietnam by opening China, George W. Bush may find that success in one area can compensate for failures elsewhere.

In short, it is far too early to write the Bush presidency's epitaph. But that fact only emphasizes Mr. Chollet's larger point: To succeed politically, progressives must do more than criticize the current administration; they must develop, through reasoned, perhaps wrenching, debate viable alternatives that bridge the divide between ideals and reality, principles and action.

Now is the time for "progressives", including some Democrats, to go for the jugular.

Progressive Dems must articulate a realistic and quick exit from Iraq (pull out all troops not involved in training and set up permanent bases in Kurdistan - maybe a subject of discussion during Barzani's visit to DC?) Dems must jettison any notion of staying in Iraq beyond 2006 and must mercilessly hammer the GOP and anyone in their own party who suggests otherwise. The "centrist" wing of the party has thoroughly discredited the whole party by blindly supporting Bush on Iraq.

The progressives must hammer on the GOP's lack of ethics and leadership, especially moral leadership.

They must hammer their failings to respond to disasters despite enormous investments in Homeland Security.

They must hammer on the wholesale destruction of environment by corporate interests allowed to rewrite regulatory statutes.

They must hammer on the fiscal irresponsibility of the GOP.

But most importantly, they must unite around an individual candidate who will articulate these objectives who is not tarnished by collaboration with the GOP.

We must be unrelenting in kicking these scum while they're down. Nothing short of total humiliation and/or prison will do. They can still do a hell of a lot of damage in three years, and a cornered, wounded animal is always most dangerous.

Captain Morgan: funny thing is that such a move would probably cause most people (Dem voters) I know to vote for a moderate Republican like McCain. The key to winning is not just to convince the public that the GOP isn't working or to forward a positive agenda, but to do so in a way that allows the center to feel safe with a Democratic administration (and I don't just mean this in a security sense). Clinton's DLC leanings allowed him to do this. Continually moving toward the center remains the way forward. The alternative, 'the Gingrichization of the Democratic Party' is both bad policy and a surefire way to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory.

Observer: It's hard to disagree with the logic of swinging moderates, but isn't this the same miserable strategy which failed Kerry and sort of failed Gore? And Gingrich never held the moral high ground like some "clean" progressive might in the wake of scandals tainting every corner of the GOP establishment. Please explain why a centrist Dem would pull support from McCain if they didn't articulate vastly different views, especially on security, a domain in which McCain would likely get the benefit of the doubt among voters confronted with two candidates with similar views? It seems to me that only someone who can draw on the growing disgust many Americans feel towards the GOP could pull from McCain, who while perceived by some as clean, is unlikely to mount a morals-based attack on his own party.


Because the Dems are just as dirty as the Republicans?

(Before you dispute this, may I note the state-level corruption hell in New Jersey among other Dem strongholds?)

Really, Observer has it right.

If you want to impress independents, the apathetic, or anybody beyond your "deep blue" wings...Please don't do what you suggest.

That'll have me flipping the Republican lever (or scribbling the Republican circle, depending on whether or not I vote absentee) in a heartbeat.

There's nothing wrong with trying to tie Bush's coattails around McCain's neck. It can't hurt. Assuming the candidate is McCain and not some state governor nobody's paid much attention to so far. It isn't enough by itself to win.

About iraq, "Never bet against yourself.". If we haven't suffered catastrophic losses by 2008, a candidate who proposes that we accept defeat is going to have a big problem. So I'd suggest the following proposal: Ask for a report from every american who has spent time in iraq within the last 4 years and who can speak arabic, to make their suggestions about what the USA should do. Also ask the advice of any iraqis who can get their message across. Get a team to sort the responses, counting the ones that support common choices and paying special attention to the ones that propose something unusual. And our candidate would make a choice, informed by that.

Don't say what to do, say what you'd do to find out what to do. At present it looks most realistic to accept defeat. But that isn't something a candidate can do unless the public has overwhelmingly accepted defeat. And who knows, maybe there are people who know iraq who can present a workable plan, a plan that's gotten no attention so far.

About foreign relations in general -- say we'll do the right thing regardless but we'll carefully consider the opinions of other governments and other populations, and we'll do our best to be friendly to all -- but a little standoffish about special relationships. "Choose your friends carefully, your enemies will choose themselves." A successful candidate mustn't look like he'll let other nations dictate to the USA, but Bush has already run the Lone Marshal approach into the ground.

Nonproliferation. I personally claim that nuclear nonproliferation is dead. It got us a good 40 years, now we have to live in the world we have. Cut back our nuclear arsenal to something like 500 missiles, we have far more than we need for missile MAD. Cut back most nuclear weapon research -- we don't need it. But keep the people we now have working on it busy doing some sort of peaceful nuclear work, so if we change our minds before they get too rusty we can switch back. For things like special tactical nukes, we should keep our intelligence services active finding out what other nations are doing, and we should strive to quickly be the second to develop each new capability. I tend to doubt that this is a winning campaign plank, but if it can win I'd want to see it.

Promoting democracy. We respect any government of any sort that has the support of its people. Democracy is one good method to encourage governments to get their people's support. When a foreign government lacks popular support we might help their people use nonviolent methods to oppose the policies they object to. We will never support violent overthrow of a foreign government unless they violently suppress nonviolent opposition. (I think something along these lines would be a good idea. But would it sound too idealistic? And is there a way to state it that doesn't sound too paternalistic to foreigners?)

Disinformation. No agents of the US government will knowingly spread information they know is false. This specifically includes USIA and CIA. When people see that what the USA says is reliable, that gives us an advantage that far outweighs the temporary benefits of convenient lies. And disinformation discourages foreign democracy. The more that foreign public opinion is based on lies, the more unworkable democracy becomes. (Would this seem too idealistic too?)

Imports/Exports. The USA currently imports more than it exports, for too much and for too long. This must be corrected. The current approach, devaluation of the dollar, is unethical and it hurts america's international standing. We must look for ways to do some combination of: encourage export of surplus food but not other raw materials, encourage export of manufactured goods, discourage imports beyond our ability to pay, and discourage foreign "investment" that replaces exports. If necessary we will look for ways to devalue future dollars without devaluing current dollars. (Too wonky, maybe too divisive. Not a good campaign plank, and yet we have to do something.)

John Penta, from your other comments I see no reason why anyone would think you might vote Democratic in any case. You might be a good one to tell us what moderates think, by observation, but you can hardly pass for a moderate yourself.

There are currently many polls suggesting the electorate and the people of the USA are fed up with the Republicans.
At New Donkey here: for example. Despite this discontent the Democrats have been unable to take advantage of this situtation. The reason remains the same. The Democratic Party can not convince the electorate to vote for them unlessthey can convince them that Democrats will protect them from our enemies.

Here it is the Jihadists, the schoolyard bully. They do not want people whom handle bullies by suggesting you go and talk to them. They recognize that to stop it you fight back otherwise it will never stop. These bullies are prepared to kill themselves to win. The only way you stop that is to kill them and their faciliators. They do not want to be co-dependent on these people.

So until the Democratic leadership says, we are going to win the battle in Iraq and the GWOT because we do not want anybody killing people just because of who they/we are, no one is going to change their position and vote for the Democrats except the base. It is just that damn simple and it has to be said over and over again.

Robert M, I'm afraid it's even worse than that. The Democrats haven't convinced the electorate that they'll protect them from the bigger enemy, the Republican Party.

It might turn out that the american public still wants to be told that we'll win the war in iraq and win the GWOT by killing all the potential terrorists and facilitators before they attack. It looks to me like the majority of americans are thinking that doesn't work for us. If it was only, say, six million potential terrorists then we could manage it. But it's just too many. We have to find another way.

And the problem isn't to win the battle in iraq. We've won every single battle there. In every single battle (not counting a few accidents with lost supply trucks) we have killed more iraqis than they have killed us. Our war has been an unbroken string of successes, including Fallujah and Karbala and Tal Afar and you name it. Wherever we go our armor makes it hard for them to kill us while our airstrikes make it inevitable that we will kill them. We have always won the battle in iraq. But we're more and more seeing that our victories don't get us anything worth the cost.

So I'm afraid it just isn't that simple, regardless that you say it over and over and over again.

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