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Bush at bay
Jun 24th, 2002 at 9:21am
Facing mid-term elections, the President's squabbling team has never looked so vulnerable
by Ed Vulliamy, June 23, 2002, The Observer

The invitation arrived at the White House a few days before last week's historic World Cup victory by the United States over Mexico.
It was from the Mexican President Vincente Fox, suggesting that President George Bush and he watch the game together, as a gesture of friendship between neighbouring nations. The reply came, from a member of Bush's staff: the President would be asleep at that hour of the night.

It mattered little, since most of his nation was likewise in slumber - but the rebuff spoke volumes to columnists and Washington DC observers about the clueless, crassly selfish quality of a President and a presidency which are suddenly lurching, rather than governing, at the apex of American power.

The wind behind George Bush's continuing personal popularity remains the carnage of 11 September and the ensuing slipstream of national unity around the Chief Executive - this in addition to the underestimated, tactile skills of a 'Mr Nice Guy' politician.

But behind the stage set a mesh of policy snags, befuddled contradictions and scandals threatens to ensnare a President whose shortcomings are not only being targeted by his opponents, but felt by many of those who serve under and stage-manage him.

Although Bush's poll ratings remain good, there are signs that the Americans who propelled his candidature and elected him into office now worry about - and do not trust - their President. Almost daily, new facts emerge in the shaming of a security apparatus apparently warned about the al-Qaeda attacks - the latest picked up by the National Security Agency on 10 September, that 'the match is about to begin'.

Meanwhile, The White House stumbles over itself: Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, insists that a crucial, overlooked memo passed to the President in August 2001 prompted an alert to the Federal Aviation Authority and all airlines.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, however, contradicts this: he had read it himself and found 'no actionable intelligence'. Cheney is said now to oppose any independent commission into the unheeded warnings.

The heaviest fire against these failures comes not from the Democrats, but from within the Republican Party's own senior ranks: conservative senators Richard Shelby of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Charles Grassley of the Judiciary Committee - are both demanding the resignation of the CIA Director, George Tenet.

'There is nothing this White House likes better than to paint any Congressional examination of what went on before 11 September as a partisan exercise,' said one Democratic senator, asking not to be named. 'Shelby and Grassley make that impossible.'

The administration is famously at its own throat over foreign policy - the war between Bush's White House and Colin Powell's State Department has never been more vitriolic, or its muddled consequences more starkly exposed as now, over the Middle East.

But sources in Washington told The Observer that even discounting Powell, there is squabbling about what to do over a matter of clear presidential resolve: Iraq. Civilian appointees at the Pentagon and the National Security Agency favour a limited plan using special forces on an Afghan model, says one senior Defence Department official.

Military leaders, however, say any comparison between Iraq and Afghanistan is naive, and an action should involve overwhelming force by some 200,000 troops or none at all. But the real stumbling for the Bush presidency - and the explanation for the continual language of war - lies in the neglected terrain of unpopular domestic policy in a mid-term election year.

'This has nothing to do with politics,' the President told a Cabinet meeting after 11 September. 'No one talk to me about politics for a while.' That was a good many months ago now, but the White House priority remains to keep political discourse to a minimum - for reasons other than national security.

Taking office after a disputed election, the Bush presidency set about reconciling the harsh ideology of its programme with the promises of a 'compassionate conservatism' agenda on which he was elected. On 10 September, the President's popularity had fallen to 50 per cent, the lowest on record for a President after that period in office.

All polls now show that, even if most voters support Bush (about 70 per cent), they tend to side with the opposition on single policy issues.

The campaign for November's elections to Congress and governorships nationwide kick-starts and stalls again, as real-life politics is interrupted by the latest suspiciously well-timed ' terrorist alert'. The White House message is that this is largely a Republican Party election campaign of state-by-state contests, not an endorsement of Bush's popularity.

But sources in Washington say an alarmed President and Vice-President have taken personal roles in recruiting candidates, forestalling damaging primary contests - and raising money. Most significantly, the election is being fought as an attempt to re-adopt the 'compassionate conservatism' label.

The reality since Bush took office has been some distance from the 'compassionate' platform, the consequences of which his party is bracing for. Among Bush's election promises was, for example, to put a 'lock box' on the social security fund. In reality, he has raided the trust fund to pay for tax cuts, and has now established a presidential commission, under Time Warner chief executive Richard Parsons, to examine privatising the system.

A number of Republican representatives and senators have tabled Bills to that effect, but are now scrambling to avoid having them come onto the floor of the House. 'They do not dare have it on the record that they voted for their own measures, because they know that, if they do, they would probably not get re-elected,' said one Washington insider.

Democrats are anxious to force the social security privatisation vote, with a 'discharge petition' to get the proposed legislation out of committee and into the cold light of a floor debate. Corporate sleaze - highly unpopular after the Enron scandal - is becoming a hallmark of the Bush presidency.

More companies emerge as closely entwined with the administration and Bush's own policies, after it was revealed that the national energy plan was drafted entirely as a payback to big oil and power companies which had backed Bush for the White House.

After the passage of a senior citizens' prescription package that hugely favours drug companies - and can be interpreted as penalising pensioners - few were impressed last week by the spectacle of a fundraising gala with the President as guest of honour at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, with GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Bayer and Merck among the companies paying up to $250,000 for a table.

At the other end of the age scale, Bush's policies on children are unpopular. He pledged he would 'leave no child behind' - stealing the slogan the Children's Defence Fund has had for 30 years. Since the promise was made, the fund has become so appalled by the President's track record, it prints its slogan with a registered trade mark symbol.

In office, however, Bush has frozen money for the popular 'Head Start' programme for children in poor districts, and all funding for child care. He has backtracked on a bipartisan deal increasing federal funds for public schooling, in exchange for the testing programme and a controversial system of tuition vouchers for parents.

Although Bush respects the senior women in his Cabinet - the resignation of Karen Hughes providing a model blend of career success and commitment to family- women voters, who tend towards the Democrats anyway, do not like such sweeping measures as the crippling of the Department of Labour's women's bureau, abolishing its regional office, or the continuing barriers to reproductive rights and sex education.

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg, who edits the Rothenberg Political Report , believes that, for the moment at least, the Republican Party can still 'take the moral high ground' in the afterglow of 11 September, and Bush can 'revert to that time-honoured position of complaining that this is a time for national unity and his critics are being partisan'. But, he adds, 'by August, September or October, the desire for national unity will not be nearly as strong. Voters will be ready for partisanship - voters expect elections to be partisan'.

Meanwhile, the presidency is simply becoming less credible, after months of apparent unassailability. The President is making gaffes that are not those old 'Bushism' jokes, but seriously political. Among the current irregularities, defending his Budget plans, he insists over and over that he said on a campaign stop in Chicago in 2000 that he would countenance a deficit under three exceptional circumstances: war, national emergency and recession.

All attempts to dig out the reference have failed, including calls to the White House. Faced with a challenge to provide it, the man in charge of the Budget, Mitch Daniel, snapped: 'I'm not the White House librarian.'

But Bush remains strong because of 11 September and also because of the formidable triad that sponsors his presidency: his father, Vice-President Cheney and the mysterious figure of Karl Rove. Rove is his senior policy adviser, the man who managed and raised the money for all the President's election campaigns, the Svengali of the administration, long-time friend and adviser to Bush Senior and his ambassador in the present White House.

Rove is at the centre of the wheel, adapting America's response to every world event to the domestic electoral agenda. It was his decision to impose huge tariffs on steel imported from Europe and the East, to protect steelworkers in electorally crucial states.

It was Rove's choice to send Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to a massive pro-Israeli rally - giving it (and the Jewish vote) the administration's stamp of approval. It was his decision to halt the test bombing of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, concerned about alienating the Latino vote.

Crucially, Rove is tireless in his work with core Republican and Bush supporters, endlessly working the governors' mansions, the industrial and commercial interests that back the President financially and politically, and groups such as the National Rifle Association.

In the parlance of Washington, the Republicans have a word for this constituency, which slips off the tongue without regard to what it has come to mean given recent events. They call it 'The Base', which in Arabic translates as 'al-Qaeda'.
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