Who the gods would destroy…


By Robert F. Seibert


It is now approximately six weeks since our national election. Ordinarily, by this time most of us would have come to terms with the outcome and be well on the way to acceptance and accommodation with the "will" of the people.

But not this time. This was no ordinary election, one that winners and losers can both let go of and move on. The bitterness in this election and its aftermath sets new standards for alienation (among the losers) and celebration (among the winners).

In an election where the losers lose everything: the presidency, the house and the senate: there are few consolations. And those that are credible are generally in the "deferred gratification" category. In other words, just wait until next time. Four long years.

For students of presidential politics, there is a shorter probable horizon for satisfaction. For in spite of the president’s "mandate" and his fund of "political capital" the administration is most likely in for a rough ride. Here are a few of the indicators that the winners in this electoral battle are likely to reap a bitter harvest over the next four years.

Hubris and Arrogance in the White House. There is ample evidence to suggest that the administration is likely to overplay its hand in the aftermath of the election. The recent nomination of Bernard Kerik for Secretary of Homeland Security is a case in point. Nominated by the president with all of the White House symbolism at hand, the president lavished praised on Kerik for his past service and future success. Four days later, Kerik removed his name from candidacy, bowing to a number of known vulnerabilities in his record.

These vulnerabilities include a "nanny" episode in which he employed a foreign national without a green card and failed to pay the payroll taxes on her salary; multiple marital affairs, two simultaneously; questions about his financial dealings with government contractors; alleged affiliations with organized crime; and a very spotty record of achievement in developing an indigenous Iraqi police force.

This catalog of problems didn’t dissuade Rudolph Giuliani from supporting and embracing Kerik’s nomination. And it leaves the White House itself, most spectacularly the president and his nominee for attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, with egg all over their faces.

This failed appointment is clearly a failure of the administration to engage in even the most limited investigation of their nominee’s record. This is most surprising in a White House notable for its attention to detail. So we must ask this question: what happened?

Most likely, what happened was a predictable exercise in hubris and arrogance. On a long standing political roll, enjoying their "mandate" and possessed of enormous capital, they (the White House staff) likely assumed that the normal and usual vetting of a candidate was unnecessary and so it was not done. If you can think of another explanation, please send it in to the attention of the editor, the Zephyr.

The political damage from this embarrassment is great, and will ultimately erode the president’s treasure trove of political capital, and remove some of the luster from his mandate.

And there are other indicators of trouble in paradise. Let me reference two others: the difficulties in passing the bill reorganizing the intelligence agencies; and the emerging liability of Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, now taking heavy fire from congressional critics.

In both of these cases, the administration is defending itself not against a Democratic opposition; but rather has problems with insurgencies within the ranks of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate.

In the case of the intelligence reorganization bill, the bill was stymied in the house by veteran Republican legislators with personal objections to inclusions and omissions in the bill. Only last minute intense personal lobbying by the president pushed the bill through to completion, and then with unknown costs to the president. Surely, the era of good feelings following the November election were substantially eroded. This mini-revolt and its resolution suggests that the president will have other difficulties in controlling the House, in spite of its strong Republican majorities.

And there is trouble in the Senate. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, already well known for his rhetorical gaffes, shot himself in the foot in Kuwait recently, fumbling pointed questions from servicemen about the deficiencies in their equipment and questioning troop levels. It is also of some note that the secretary had also refused to take questions from the press assembled for the meeting.

If that wasn’t damaging enough, a day or two later Senator John McCain, a likely Republican candidate for president in 2008, came forth with a heavy broadside against Rumsfeld, stating forcefully that he had "no confidence" in his management of the Pentagon and/or our armed forces. It will be hard to dismiss McCain’s criticisms as the ranting of an antiwar liberal. McCain is clearly in the tent of the Republican Party, making his criticisms all the more painful for the administration.

Please note that all of these problems come from Republican sources: Kerik, Giuliani, James Sensenbrenner, Dennis Hastert, Rumsfeld, Gonzalez and McCain. And, almost inexplicably, there is apparently no Democratic rush to capitalize on these difficulties. Dispirited and in permanent governmental minority, the Democrats can only gaze on in wonder as the Republican majority, flush with victory, infused with political capital, gorged on their electoral mandate, now damage themselves with internecine political conflict.

There is precedent for this, on both sides of the aisle. Lyndon Johnson’s mandate in 1964 dwindled down to a national political disaster, forcing the incumbent president to decline nomination for a second term. Richard Nixon won a "mandate" in 1972, only to see his administration end in resignation and disgrace. Ronald Reagan’s mandate in 1974 let to the Iran-contra scandal and many of his staff facing prison or disgrace. And Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 led to his impeachment and embarrassment. Plenty of squandered opportunities for all.

There are a large number of political land mines out there for the administration to stumble on. The Iraqi elections are only weeks away, and the violence in that benighted country is on the increase, not the decline. The rapid decline of the dollar, if not stopped, may result in serious stress on the U.S. economy. Attempts at Social Security reform will in great likelihood provide another opportunity for real division in the G.O.P., as will health care reform. Ditto for environmental and energy policy, intertwined in the Gordian knot of domestic and international politics. And finally, there are the likely vacancies on the Supreme Court that will undoubtedly lead to controversial and polarizing nominations, the kind that leave Bernard Kerik’s nomination as a warm and fuzzy memory.

There is nothing inherent in these issues that good, non-partisan inspired political leadership cannot solve. But such leadership cannot be embedded in invocations of mandates, in arrogance and hubris.

President Bush is now a lame duck. His hunters now are not dead-duck democrats, waiting for 2008. They are rather the predators in his own party and in his own coalition, looking for the trophies and rewards that their dedicated service entitles them.

In the paraphrased words of the late Walt Kelly, "we have met the enemy and they are us…."