How quickly things change in politics.
In February and March 2005, GOP-leaning scholars surveyed by James Lindgren of Northwestern University implausibly rated President Bush the sixth-best president in US history.
Even on Sept. 7, almost two weeks after Katrina hit, Fred Barnes published an op-ed quoting a Bush aide who touted the President's low approval numbers as proof that the administration is "changing history." "The difference is between polls in the 40s and changing history and being in the 60s and twiddling your thumbs," he said. "We'll take the 40s. That's our motto."
And according to Rep. Tom Reynolds, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Social Security privatization -- the centerpiece of Bush's second term agenda -- is dead in this Congress.
As The Note pointed out yesterday, Bush is an unprecedented situation:
He has never seen his poll numbers take this kind of hit among Republicans before.
He has never seen his poll numbers on "strong leader" and "can handle a crisis" take such a hit before.
...He has never had to take "responsibility" for such death-infused tragedy before.
...He has never been perceived as such a potential liability by others in his party looking to hold their seats before.
He has never lacked The Other -- an enemy to demonize and to contrast with himself and his policies in the eyes of the media and the public before.
So what's the plan? First, lots of spending. And as Josh Marshall has emphasized, Bush has put Karl Rove in charge of reconstruction, which will likely turn the disaster zone into a playland of patronage and half-baked conservative policies.
At a deeper level, though, it's not clear the Bushies know what to do. Due to the approval boost provided by 9/11, they've never had to play by normal political rules. Many of the tactics that worked when Bush was at 60 or 70 in the polls are a flop at 38 or 41. Similarly, the President has never had to moderate his hard-edged pseudo-conservatism. What this means is that the administration is unlikely to adjust quickly enough to reverse its political fortunes, especially given that the economy may tip into recession before Bush leaves office.
The shocking result is that it's actually possible to imagine President Hillary. Democrats are unlikely to pick up more than a few seats in 2006 due to gerrymandering, but they will be well-positioned for 2008. It's hard to remember the last two-term president who left office as unpopular as Bush will likely be. Bush's ratings are far below those of Clinton and Reagan at this point in their second terms. Aside from Richard Nixon, no modern two-term president has left office with these type of numbers. Of course, Bush has more than three years left, but the dynamics of the situation are all tilting against him going forward.
Meanwhile, conservatives are desperately trying to point fingers elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that, "[w]ith media help, Democrats and the left have used Katrina to portray a systemic collapse of 'conservative' government. It was certainly a collapse of government, but more accurately of bureaucracy and the welfare state." And, via Brad DeLong, James Pinkerton is blaming the press explicitly for the drop in Bush's approval ratings:
[T]he MSM is still out there, and it's having an impact.
How much impact? Let's look at the polls, which show that Bush's approval rating has dropped three or four points, to between 38 and 42 percent...
So what happened? To put it plainly, the substantial pro-Bush contingent of the New Media -- that is, cable news, talk radio, and the Net -- was overwhelmed. Yes, the blogosphere could take down Dan Rather, but that was a dry and slow process of threshing out real and counterfeit typewriter fonts, military phraseology, and antique zip codes.
By contrast, Katrina is wetly overwhelming; even Fox News is in high dudgeon. So while a few bloggers are hacking away at the accreting conventional wisdom that Everything is Bush's Fault, that battle is being lost even before Bush's big "I take responsibility" concession on Tuesday.
In other words, the MSM got there firstest with the mostest.
Constantly finding excuses for the administration's policy failures is an ugly habit of mind. As I've mentioned, National Review's Rob Dreher has knocked down the idea that the administration didn't screw up during Katrina:
It would be very wrong, I believe, to let the ignominious Michael Brown be the scapegoat for FEMA's sins. Check out this front-pager from the WaPo. Turns out that a raft of FEMA's top leaders have little or no emergency management experience, but are instead politically well connected to the GOP and the White House. This is a scandal, a real scandal. How is it possible that four years after 9/11, the president treats a federal agency vital to homeland security as a patronage prize? The main reason I've been a Bush supporter all along is I trusted him (note past tense) on national security -- which, in the age of mass terrorism, means homeland security too. Call me naive, but it's a real blow to learn that political hacks have been running FEMA, of all agencies of the federal government! What if al-Qaeda had blown the New Orleans levees? How much worse would the crony-led FEMA's response have been? Would conservatives stand for any of this for one second if a Democrat were president? If this is what Republican government means, God help the poor GOP Congressmen up for re-election in 2006.
Perhaps today's astounding DeLay quote about how there's no way to cut the federal budget will offer a useful reminder to conservatives that while they may be aligned with Republican Congressional politicians, Republican Congressional politicians are just that -- politicians first. There is too often a rush on to defend any and every GOP pol by conservative bloggers and e-mailers on the grounds that if they're being attacked by the MSM, they're victims of injustice. Sometimes, though, they're just...indefensible.
The larger problem is that Republicans at the elite and mass levels have routinized the process of excusing President Bush for every screwup and mistake, as Matthew Yglesias notes in pointing to the findings of a CBS poll:
How is it, then, that Bush is rated so much better than the federal government he heads, and the disaster agency run by his appointee, the much-beloved "Brownie?" This is part-and-parcel of a very frightening cult of personality that's been erected around the person of George W. Bush ever since 9/11 with the effective complicity of the rightwing media.
I'm constantly reading Weekly Standard articles about how Don Rumsfeld or someone is messing something up and betraying Bush's pure and awesome vision, or seeing National Review writers talk about how Bush is a great president and it's too bad he doesn't care about limited government. Meanwhile, we've seen huge numbers of mainstream media types accept the view that "strong leadership," "moral clarity," and "bold vision" are the proper metrics for evaluating the performance of an elected official rather than actual policy results. The view that it's his fault when bad things happen -- or, at a minimum, that it becomes his fault when he refuses to take corrective action -- doesn't seem to occur to a very large number of people.
For democracy to work, we need to hold government accountable. And between the mishandling of Katrina, failing to capture Osama Bin Laden, a disastrously executed war in Iraq, and huge deficits looming in the future, there's a lot to hold President Bush accountable for right now. I hope that's something every American can recognize.