Thursday, April 27, 2006

L'Enfant President

Generals criticize Donald Rumsfeld and he doesn’t blink. People take shots at Dick Cheney, he shoots back. Why then do Republican Wise Men continue to treat the President as if he is a china doll?

With his popularity at its lowest point and turmoil in the ranks of Republicans who fear the loss of Congress in the fall elections, George W. Bush has agreed to bring in his father’s long-time consigliere, former Secretary of State James Baker, to embark on a fact-finding mission and advise the President on Iraq. Apparently, the decision to bring in Baker––the ultimate fixer whose last and only role in the Bush 43 presidency was to lead the successful Florida recount war in 2000––was a touchy one agreed to collectively by the father, the son and Condaleeza Rice. According to the New York Times, Baker accepted the charge reluctantly, as he was concerned that any criticism of Bush’s Iraq policy could be seen as second-guessing the President. Accordingly, his recommendations will focus solely on how to move forward, and not touch on the past.

How did we come to this? President Bush is now well into his second term––an accomplishment that eluded his father––and yet his father’s advisors continue to view him as the son whose independence needs to be nurtured along. Worse yet, these advisors––truly some of the political wise men on the American scene––feel more duty bound to protect the son’s ego than the nation’s future.

George W. Bush continues to struggle to escape from the shadow of his father. There is some irony in this, as George H. W. Bush himself struggled with the shadow of his own powerful father, Republican heavyweight and Senator Prescott Bush. President Bush 41, who had served in Congress, had run the CIA, and served two terms as Vice President––and by most measures had little left to prove––reportedly thought to himself upon taking the Presidential oath of office, “I wonder what the old man would think of his boy now?”

Like the protagonist of a Shakespearean tragedy, George W. Bush has defined his political persona in direct contrast to his father. He eschewed the family’s core political values of fiscal discipline, internationalism and quiet religious faith as he embraced the evangelical constituency new to the Republican Party, threw fiscal caution to the wind, promulgated a doctrine of unilateral war, and pronounced his direct and personal relationship with a God who he suggested put him in the White House to lead the millennial struggle with the evil forces besetting America.

For his own part, Bush 41 has made every effort to stay in the background. Even as Bush 43 publicly embraced his father’s rival and predecessor, Ronald Reagan, evinced barely concealed contempt for his father’s politics and presidency and wielded his religion as a rapier in political debate, the elder Bush bent over backward to be supportive of his son.

The tension between the two Bush camps only briefly came into public view during the run up to the Iraq war, as the elders of the former Bush administration opposed the direction of the new administration’s foreign policy and march to war in Iraq. Within the new Bush administration, only Bush 41 holdover Colin Powell argued the internationalist stance in opposition to the rising tide of unilateralism, until he finally played the good soldier and made his ill-fated presentation to the United Nations Security Council––a presentation that drew down the last reserves of his hard-earned credibility and effectively marked the end of his public life.

The final effort of the Bush 41 inner circle to forestall the Iraq invasion came as Bush 41 alter ego––and Condi Rice mentor––Brent Scowcroft published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that argued against the looming war and the notion that Saddam was an imminent threat or linked to the 9/11 attacks. Immediately following the publication of that piece, however, Scowcroft and the Bush 41 posse went silent, as the word came down that the former President was concerned that they had overstepped and would be seen as undermining his son’s presidency.

By all accounts, Bush 43 gave little heed to his father’s views. Asked later by Bob Woodward if he had consulted with his father––a man of experience and wisdom––as he contemplated an invasion of Iraq, the President demurred and suggested that he had looked instead to “a higher father.”

What is James Baker to make of this? In defiance of the better judgment of his father’s inner circle, George W. took the nation to war, and the outcome that they foresaw came to pass. But there are no judgments to be made on the decision itself, as that might undermine the President’s credibility and damage his presidency.

Undermine the President’s credibility? Damage his presidency?

The President is at 33% in the polls. He took the nation into an unnecessary war that has cost hundreds of billions of dollars and cost thousands of lives. His administration is scorned internationally and has destroyed America’s credibility in the world. The Iranians are effectively calling his bluff as they seek to become a nuclear power. Gasoline is heading over $3.00. He has lost control of the Republican Congress, foresaken his second-term agenda, bankrupted the nation’s treasury and destroyed the last vestige of fidelity of the Republican Party to its own core principles. Somewhere in a dark cave in Waziristan, Osama is laughing, and James Baker is concerned that he might undermine the credibility and stature of his friend’s son?

The President made a mockery of himself this week when he went before the cameras and claimed, “I am the decider, and I decide what is best.” Like a parent scolding a child, he asserted his authority. But that authority ultimately rests on the consent––and the respect––of the governed, and that assertion quickly became fodder for late-night comics.

James Baker’s challenge is a tough one. Presidents can recover from bad decisions and from political hostility, but ridicule and contempt are tougher. The President's problem is not that he has failed to win the respect of his father, but that he has lost the respect of the nation. James Baker is a tough and smart man, and there are three long years left in this presidency. It is time to take off the kid gloves, stop thinking about protecting the son and worry instead as Brent Scowcroft did four years ago about the interests of the nation.

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