You can count on one thing. All over Washington, Republicans are at least as capable as I am of watching and interpreting the polling version of the smash-up of the Bush administration. With each new poll, the numbers creep lower yet. Presidential approval in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll dropped another 3% in the last month and now sits at 38%, while disapproval of the President continues to strengthen — 47% of Americans now “strongly disapprove” of the President’s handling of the presidency, only 20% “strongly approve.” (62%, by the way, disapprove of the President’s handling of the war in Iraq.)
Behind these figures lurk worse ones. When asked, for instance, whether they would vote for a generic Democrat or Republican in the upcoming midterm elections, those polled chose the generic Democrat by a startling 55-40%, the largest such gap yet. In addition, Democrats have now become the default party Americans “trust” almost across the board on issues, even in this poll edging the Republicans out by a single percentage point on the handling of terrorism.
Commenting on a recent Ipsos-AP poll showing Democrats and Republicans in a tie on the question, “Who do you trust to do a better job of protecting the country,” GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio said: “These numbers are scary. We’ve lost every advantage we’ve ever had. The good news is Democrats don’t have much of a plan. The bad news is they may not need one.” Surprisingly, despite the way Democrats have shied off the subject, a near-majority (45%) of those polled were also in favor of some kind of Feingold-like censure of the President for listening in on citizens without prior court approval.
The words connected to almost any new poll these days are “hit a new low.” Other recent new lows were reached by that AP-Ipsos poll and by a Fox News poll where presidential approval was at 36%. Or take a recent state poll in California, where Bush has admittedly never been a popular figure. Still, a 32% approval rating? Or check out the trajectory of Bush polling approval numbers from September 11, 2001 to today. Despite various bumps and plateaus — including a conveniently engineered, Karl Rovian bump just before election 2004 — it’s been a slow, ever-downward path that, in early 2005, dipped decisively under 50%; by the end of 2004 had crossed the 40% threshold; and is, at present, in the mid-30% range.
There’s no reason to believe that the bottom has been reached. After all, these polls precede the recent disastrous flap over the Patrick Fitzgerald federal court filing on I. Lewis Libby and the various “declassification” admissions of the President and Vice-President (of which there is guaranteed to be more to come); these figures arrived before the (retired) generals revolt against Donald Rumsfeld, which is still spreading and to which the President’s staunch defense can only contribute fuel (“Secretary Rumsfeld’s energetic and steady leadership is exactly what is needed at this critical period. He has my full support and deepest appreciation.”); these figures precede by a couple of months the beginning of the next hurricane season along the never-reconstructed Gulf Coast; they precede any indictment of Karl Rove or of other Bush administration figures in the Plame case, and further even more contorted presidential (and vice- presidential) fall-back positions in the same case; these polls come before the predictable happens in Iraq and the sectarian war there worsens while the American position weakens as well as before the Iranian situation really kicks in; they arrive before summer gas prices head above $3 a gallon aiming for the stratosphere; before any real economic bad news comes down the pike; before other as yet unknown crises hit that the Bush administration predictably just won’t be able to get its collective head or its waning governmental powers around.
This is the situation before some future round of hideous polling figures sets off a full-scale panic in the Republican Party, leading possibly to a spreading revolt of the pols that could put the present revolt of the generals in the shade. Given the last couple of years, and what we now know about the Bush administration’s inability to operate within the “reality-based community” (as opposed to spinning it to death), there is no reason to believe that a polling bottom exists for this President, not even perhaps the Nixonian Age of Watergate nadir in the lower 20% range.
Toppling the Colossus of Washington
A revolt of the Republican pols, should it occur, would highlight the essential contradiction between the two halves of the Bush administration’s long-term program, until recently imagined as indissolubly joined at the hip. Domestically, there was the DeLay-style implanting of the Republican Party (and the ready cash infusions from lobbyists that were to fuel it) at the heart of the American political system for at least a Rooseveltian generation, if not forever and a day. This country was to be transformed into a one-party Republican democracy, itself embedded in the confines of a Homeland Security State. Abroad, there was the neocon vision of a pacified planet whose oil heartlands would be nailed down militarily in an updated version of a Pax Romana until hell froze over (or the supplies ran out). If in 2002 or 2003, these seemed like two perfectly fitted sides of a single vision of dominance, it is now apparent that they were essentially always at odds with each other. Both now seem at the edge of collapse.
The dismantling of the domestic half of the Bush program is embodied in the tale of Tom DeLay. Not so long ago, “the Hammer” (“If you want to play in our revolution, you have to live by our rules…”) was a Washington colossus in the process of creating a Republican political machine built in part “outside government, among Washington’s thousands of trade associations and corporate offices, their tens of thousands of employees, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in political money at their disposal.” With his K Street Project, he had transformed the generally “bipartisan” nature of money- and influence-peddling in Washington into a largely Republican funding machine. Meanwhile, with the gerrymandering scheme he rammed through the Texas legislature, which chased local Democrats all the way to Oklahoma and back, and added six seats to the Republican House majority in 2004, he seemed to be setting the course of the ship of state for the foreseeable future.
Astride the political world, DeLay then looked invulnerable, while the well-hammered Democrats seemed consigned to the status of a minority party for decades to come. Who could have imagined that, less than two years later, DeLay would be indicted for money-laundering in Texas and, faced with the unraveling Abramoff case, resign his House leadership position, then withdraw from the reelection campaign for his House seat, and finally, with his top staff aides going down, find himself possibly on the verge of indictment in Washington?
Delay’s project was meant for life, not for a life sentence. And if you’re honest with yourself, a couple of years back I’ll bet you didn’t expect anything like this either. You can certainly bet that, when they created those fabulous fictions about Iraq and then invaded, it never crossed the minds of George, Dick, Don, Condi, Paul, Stephen and the rest that anything like this might ever happen — not just to DeLay or to the Republican Party, but to them. Think of it this way: They were never putting forward the “unitary executive theory” of government and launching a commander-in-chief state in order to turn it all over to a bunch of Democrats, no less the thoroughly loathed Hillary Clinton.
How time flies and how, to quote Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous phrase about looters in Baghdad, “stuff happens.” Looked at in the light of history, the incipient collapse of the Bush project seems to have occurred in hardly a blink. Its brevity is, in a sense, nearly inexplicable, as unexpected as water running uphill or an alien visitation. We are, after all, talking about the ruling officials of the globe’s only “hyperpower” who have faced next to no opposition at home. In these years, the Democratic Party proved itself hardly a party at all, no less an oppositional one, and the active antiwar movement, gigantic before the invasion of Iraq, has remained, at best, modest-sized ever since. At the same time, in Iraq the administration faced not a unified national liberation movement backed by a superpower as in Vietnam, but a ragtag, if fierce, Sunni resistance and recalcitrant Shiite semi-allies, all now at each other’s throats.
What makes the last few years so strange is that this administration has essentially been losing its campaigns, at home and abroad, to nobody. What comes to mind is the famous phrase of cartoonist Walt Kelly’s character, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Perhaps it’s simply the case that — in Rumsfeldian terms — it’s hard for people with the mentality of looters to create a permanent edifice, even when they set their minds to it.
And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that every step the Bush people took on either “front” came up dazzling code orange, brilliantly staving off rising political problems. As a result, it took just short of five miserable years, which seemed a lifetime, to reach this moment — years which, historically, added up to no time at all. Is there another example of the rulers of a dominant global power — who fancied themselves the leaders of a New Rome — crashing and burning quite so quickly? In less than five years, Bush and his top officials ran their project into the ground. In the process, they took a great imperial power over a cliff and down the falls, without safety vests, rubber dinghies, or anyone at the bottom to fish us all out.
This process, though hardly noticed at the time, began early indeed — and at its corrosive heart was, of course, Iraq. How can you explain the way the leaders of the world’s preeminent military power were chased through the night by Iraq’s unexpected set of rebellions and its no-name resistance? How quickly — though, unfortunately, not quickly enough — their various elaborate tales and lies, their manipulated intelligence and cherry-picked stories of Iraqi WMD and Saddam’s nefarious links to al-Qaeda were dismantled — a process that has yet to end. Only last week, another little tale of fraud was done away with by the Washington Post.
On May 29, 2003, in a television interview, the President described two mobile trailers found in Iraq by U.S. and Kurdish soldiers as “biological laboratories” and said: “We have found the weapons of mass destruction.” This claim would be cited by senior administration officials for months thereafter and yet, on May 27, a “Pentagon-appointed team of technical experts had strongly rejected the weapons claim in a field report sent to the Defense Intelligence Agency,” as would other reports to come.
Most Americans are now aware that the administration’s various pre-war tales have evaporated, including presidential howlers like the possibility that Saddam would place (nonexistent) unmanned aerial vehicles off our East coast (in some unexplained fashion) to spray (nonexistent) chemical and biological weaponry over Eastern cities. (Maybe this was just some sort of displaced Sunbelt wish-fulfillment fantasy.)
We think less, however, about the way another set of tales — heroic yarns of battlefield derring-do and American-style shock-and-awe triumph — dissolved almost as they were created. Just two weeks short of May 1st, it seems appropriate to glance back at a moment I’m sure no one has quite forgotten, though the Bush administration would undoubtedly prefer that we had. I’m thinking of May 1, 2003, which David Swanson of the After Downing Street website recently labeled M (for Mission Accomplished) Day, a holiday that, he points out, lasted not even a single year.
Let’s return, then, to the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier whose planes had released over a third of the three million pounds of ordnance that had just hit Iraq. It had almost reached its homeport, San Diego, the previous day, but was held about 30 miles out in the Pacific because the President, as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would point out, chose to co-pilot an S-3B Viking sub reconnaissance Naval jet onto its deck rather than far less dramatically climb stairs.
That day certainly seemed like the ultimate triumphalist political photo op as well as the launching pad for George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign. British journalist Matthew Engel referred to the President then as “the stuntman in the bomber jacket.” It was actually a flight suit, but the phrase caught something of the moment. The Tom Cruise film Top Gun — made, by the way, with copious help from the U.S. Navy — was on everyone’s mind in what Elizabeth Bumiller of the Times called “one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history.” It seemed to confirm that George Bush was a more skilled actor-president than Ronald Reagan had ever been.
Unlike his father, the younger Bush was visibly comfortable in the business of creating fabulous fiction. We know that Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer, “embedded” himself on that carrier days before the President hit the deck. Along with Bob DeServi, a former NBC cameraman and lighting specialist, and Greg Jenkins, a former Fox News television producer, he planned out every detail of the President’s landing, as Bumiller put it, “even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ‘magic hour light,’ which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.”
So, on that thrilling day, the President landed on what was essentially a movie set. After carefully taking off his helmet in private — no goofy Michael Dukakis moments here — he made a Top Gun victory speech, avoiding Vietnam as politicians had largely done for two decades. The speech had World War II on the brain right down to the cribs from Churchill. (“We do not know the day of final victory, but we have seen the turning of the tide…”) The President cited “the character of our military through history — the daring of Normandy, the fierce courage of Iwo Jima…” Given his frame of reference, he probably meant from The Sands of Iwo Jima to Saving Private Ryan. Then he spoke of “the decency and idealism that turned enemies into allies [and] is fully present in this generation.”
He also delivered his now-infamous almost-victory line against the background of that Mission Accomplished banner, claiming that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”
Give George Bush credit: When it came to not-quite-battle footage, he proved he could don a military uniform, get in a military vehicle, and carry it off with panache. His on-deck Tom Cruise “swagger” would be a staple of press coverage for weeks. And above all, he clearly loved landing on that deck, wearing that outfit, making that speech. He was having the time of his life.
But even as his advance men were bringing it off, even as he was glorying in his color-coded tale of battle triumph, something was beginning to devour that moment of presidential glory. A headline that went with the CNN account of his landing that day caught this well: “Bush calls end to ‘major combat,’” it said, but there was also a subhead, little noted at the time: “U.S. Central Command: Seven [American soldiers] hurt in Fallujah grenade attack.” Those two headlines would struggle for dominance for the next couple of years, a struggle now long over.
Let’s consider the odd fate of the perfect fiction Bush’s men put together on the Abraham Lincoln, because it was typical of what has happened to administration image-making and story-telling. Only six months later, Time magazine was already writing, “The perfect photo-op has flopped,” and claiming that, shades of Vietnam, the President had a “growing credibility problem.” By then, instead of preparing for a series of Top-Gun reelection ads, the President and his advance men were busy bobbing and weaving when it came to that fateful “Mission Accomplished” banner. By then, those Iraqi grenades had multiplied into a Sunni insurrection and Fallujah had morphed into a resistant enemy city that, in November 2004, would be largely destroyed by American firepower without ever being fully subdued; and the President was already pinning the idea for creating that banner on the sailors and airmen of the Abraham Lincoln; only to have the White House finally admit that it had produced the banner — supposedly at the request of those same sailors and airmen; and then, well … not. Long before May 1 rolled around again, “mission accomplished” would be a scarlet phrase of shame — useful only to Bush critics and despised Democrats.
By July 2003, as we now all know, top Bush officials were in a panic, already sensing that the other part of their victory story — their far-fetched set of explanations for why we had to invade Iraq — was being gnawed away at. That was why, when Joseph Wilson, who had emerged as a potentially dangerous administration critic, published his famed op-ed on Niger uranium in the New York Times that July 6th, the administration gathered its forces to whack him and his wife, and so offer a warning to others — with all the disastrous consequences for Bush and his key officials with which we now live.
By November 2003, George Bush’s presidency was already beginning to be eaten alive by a growing, if chaotic, Iraqi rebellion; while the movie version of Bush’s War was already guaranteed never to make it into DVD. All its mini-tales — of the Jessica Lynch rescue, the tearing down of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square, Pat Tillman’s last stand in Afghanistan — would, like those missing weapons of mass destruction, like the American occupation of Iraq itself, crash and burn. In most cases, this happened almost as the stories were being created.
Take Private Lynch, who was “rescued” by American Special Forces arriving at the hospital where she was being treated by Iraqi doctors armed with night-vision cameras and a flag to drape over her. They shot their film of the rescue, and transmitted it in real time to Centcom headquarters in Doha, where it was edited and released. The result was a dreamy media frenzy of patriotism back home, complete with a wave of Jessica T-shirts and other paraphernalia and an NBC movie of the week. And yet Jessica Lynch’s story, like the story of that toppled statue in Baghdad, like the story of Saddam’s vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, was soon in tatters. An unheroic version that lacked gun or knife wounds, mistreatment, or even Iraqi captors from which to be rescued, practically galloped onto the scene. By the time Lynch herself more or less rejected the story told about her in a book, I Am a Soldier, Too, it was too late. It almost immediately hit not the bestseller lists but the remainder tables because her story had already evaporated.
Americans, of course, like victory. We prefer to be in a triumphalist culture and undoubtedly much of the turn of events of the last couple of years — including the recent revolt of the generals along with those sagging presidential polling figures and the multiplying conversion experiences of all sorts of conservatives and even former neocons — can simply be accounted for by the resulting not-victory in Iraq.
Undoubtedly, the Bush administration is not yet out of ammunition, either figuratively or literally. Even as they stand in the rubble of their world, top Bush officials remain quite capable of making decisions that will export ruins to, say, Iran and create further chaos in the oil heartlands of the planet as well as here at home. I don’t sell them short, nor do I see a Democratic Party capable of taking the reins of the globe’s last standing imperial power and doing a heck of a lot better. Still, there’s something consoling in knowing that history remains filled with surprises and that the short, rubble-filled, disastrous career of the Bush administration looks likely to be one of them.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), where this article first appeared, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War. His novel, The Last Days of Publishing, has recently come out in paperback.