Knowing Not What They Do

Now and then we have a discussion in the comments threads about whether the Bushies know what they are doing. The “don’t know” argument points to the fact that everything the Bushies do gets bleeped. The “do know” argument says that allowing things to get and stay bleeped — New Orleans, for example — is part of the Master Plan to turn America into the sort of country the Right wants. And that country (ironically, considering the anti-immigrant hysteria on the Right) would be something like a big encomienda, in which the right-wing elite and its corporate cronies are the encomenderos and the rest of us are the peasants.

I acknowledge that the Bushies came into power with a plan, and they’ve put a large part of that plan into place. The Supreme Court now will more reliably protect the prerogatives of the privileged over the rights of citizens. The nation’s tax burden has been shifted almost entirely onto wage earners. The famous No Child Left Behind education “reform” has turned out to be a means by which public schools will be taken over by private corporations (all the better to prepare our nation’s youth for whatever McJobs they can expect in the future). Americans can be spied on without warrants and detained indefinitely without habeas corpus. Unions busted, public lands and resources exploited, federal agencies turned into Republican party machines. And don’t get me started on the military-industrial complex. We all worry that it will take years to undo the damage, and we all worry that Democrats in Washington are too compromised to do the undoing.

However, while the Bushies may have been largely successful in carrying out a plan, that’s far from saying that the Bush White House has been successful. Many of their objectives clearly have not turned out as they would have liked. Until recently they have been nearly invincible in achieving political objectives, yet it seems now that George W. Bush will leave office with no positive accomplishments in his “legacy.”

Some time back I wrote a post about the Bush Administration’s governing style, based on a Los Angeles Times article that is no longer online (for free, at least). Time and time again, the Bush Administration has stumbled because of three major flaws:

#1: They are utterly flummoxed by unexpected events that weren’t part of The Plan.

#2: They can’t communicate with each other.

#3: It’s hard to tell who’s really in charge.

I think points #2 and #3 are part of the same problem. Some parts of the Bush Administration may answer to Bush, but other parts answer to Dick Cheney, and much of it answered to Karl Rove. (For example, Sidney Blumenthal speculates that Alberto Gonzales chose to resign because he is lost without Karl Rove telling him what to do.) The Cheney contingent in particular seems to operate within its own loop and doesn’t play well with others. No clear lines of authority, no clear lines of communication. With Karl out of the White House this situation is likely to get worse.

Although the Iraq invasion for a time paid big political dividends for the Bushies, and allowed them to divert billions in tax dollars to its favorite contractor-cronies, I think it’s obvious they didn’t expect the war part to get so messy and complicated. Otherwise, they might have thought twice about the “mission accomplished” victory prance on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. And management of the war and occupation has amounted to one mistake after another. But at this point they may have given up actually managing the war and are merely playing a policy shell game so that Bush can avoid admitting to failure while he’s in the White House. So far, they’ve been successful at that. Barring some miracle out of Congress, about the only factor that might trip Bush up is the fact that he’s running out of troops.

Point #1, on the other hand, tells us that while they’re intensely focused on their plans, Bushies never got the hang of governing. I think this, more than anything else, is behind Bush’s sorry ass job ratings.

The failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina may have been deliberate, and it may succeed in turning New Orleans into a Republican voting block, but at a huge cost. Dan Balz writes that analysis of Bush’s job approval numbers reveals a lingering “post-Katrina hangover.”

Much more than Katrina explains the continuing drop in Bush’s support in the past 12 months, but there is little doubt that the hurricane crystallized negative perceptions about Bush’s performance that he never has been able to shake. And in the fallout from the Gonzales resignation on Monday, there were renewed complaints that echoed the criticism after Katrina, that the administration lacks basic competence in dealing with problems.

By now this is a fully developed critique. Republicans look at the Gonzales tenure and see incompetence at almost every level. They see an attorney general who, for all his personal attributes, lacked the competence to run the Justice Department. They see a White House that, faced with a revolt that began with Democrats but eventually included many prominent Republicans, waited months before taking action to bring an end to his tenure.

But they see this now not as an isolated example but as a pattern. Even among Republican loyalists, almost no one defends the administration’s management of the war in Iraq. They resent that Bush took so long to get rid of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. They recall his decision to nominate Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. They look at the midterm elections of 2006 and see a White House that, publicly at least, kept asserting that Democratic gains could be kept to a minimum.

What worries Republicans most is that the damage inflicted by the administration now costs them as much as it does the president, which has caused Republican elected officials, presidential candidates and GOP strategists to wish for a speedy end to the administration.

What does a party profit if it gains New Orleans but loses the majority of voters outside the South?

People are still calling the days after Katrina “the week that sunk the Bush presidency.” Michael Tomasky remembers the week and how stunningly tone deaf the Bushies were to the mood of the country. Bush wasn’t even bothering to go through the motions.

Bush still, dutifully, travels to New Orleans now and then for a photo op. On last night’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann asked “At this point, who does he think he is fooling? And why is he bothering to do it?” Jonathan Alter replied,

ALTER: That‘s a great question. All he has now is photo opportunities. His administration is basically over. He‘s just playing out the string here. And he does need to show up for a basic sense of respectability. He‘s gone several times recently.

Meanwhile, the job is not getting done. In most of the other areas there are huge bottlenecks. They are not doing anything about the particular canal that caused the flooding in the first place, which has many in Louisiana outraged that the source of all the damage has not been dealt with by the government. There has been a disproportionate share of the money that has gone to Haley Barbour, the lobbyist-turned governor of Mississippi. He has grabbed twice as much proportionally as Louisiana, even though it was New Orleans that was basically wiped off the map.

OLBERMANN: You hate to see states being pitted against each other about funding in this way. As you mentioned there and as the editorial mentioned today, but is that really materially true, even in this, the administration has rewarded Republicans and punished Democrats as if the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast was handing out postmaster jobs and not helping Americans?

ALTER: Politics got involved in this very, very quickly with the finger-pointing at the beginning. Haley Barbour has some problems. Some of his relatives got the contracts improperly in Mississippi. Mississippi has done much better than Louisiana, which has a Democratic governor. It is the overall level of attention and the overall failure to execute. And if that sounds familiar it is. The same thing that has bedeviled us in Iraq has been happening in the Gulf States. They are not getting it done. They are not interested in government.

Even at the most symbolic level, the failure to mention Katrina in the State of the Union address less than a year and a half after the hurricane was just outrageous. I have talked to friends in Louisiana who said that they were stunned as they listened to that speech that when he got to the end he had not mentioned Katrina they actually broke down in tears. They felt that abandoned by their own government.

Do the Bushies really know what they’re doing?