Friday, April 21, 2006
Here's something we all learned in the schoolyard: If you're the guy who says, "I'm the decider," you're not the decider. Deciders just decide. It's like the guy who says, "I'm the boss around here" -- he protests too much. Bosses just boss. If you have to say it, you're already in trouble.
The Bush administration used to understand that. (I almost typed "George W. Bush used to understand that," but then I realized there is not enough evidence to support that. Who runs the Bush administration? I'm not sure of the answer to that question, but I do know that George W. Bush is way down on the list of probable candidates.) The Bush administration embraced the arrogance of power with gusto. Its motto was "Never complain, never explain," which morphed into "Never explain, frequently complain," which morphed into "Always complain, pretend to explain."
"I'm the decider" is not an explanation. It may not even be a statement of fact.
It used to be that there was only one constituency George W. Bush did not ignore: the religious right. His dad got in trouble by ignoring "the base," as it's often called, and it was just not going to be like father, like son. No one was going to out-Jesus the president, and no one has. But suddenly he has to pay attention to another constituency: congressional Republicans. They're worried about losing their majority in the House. They're worried about the folks back home. They're worried about the down-ticket Republicans, the state candidates who may feel the heat, who may experience the wrath.
They're all fine when commie pinko lefty atheists attack the Bush administration; commie pinko lefty atheists are fun to run against. Thanks to the Karl Rove ad hominem playbook, Republican pols are able to paint people in the opposition as traitors and cowards and socialists.
What happened to former Ambassador Joseph Wilson is just the most public example; the Rove machine has been leaking lies about opponents forever. Ah, the greatest hits: John McCain has an illegitimate black child. Max Cleland wasn't really a war hero. Anthony Zinni is an embittered careerist.
But now, alas, it's a bunch of officers who served in Iraq saying the plan for the war was flawed from the get-go, and the flaws were never corrected because Donald Rumsfeld never listens to anything except the voices inside his own head. Hard to say they're not patriotic. Hard to say they're not in possession of the facts. Not that the Rove machine didn't try: The dissenting officers were just chewing sour grapes; they're mad that their pet programs were not authorized; they're mad because their branch of the service was passed over.
This line of slander is not flying, and everyone knows it's not flying. But Rumsfeld has been loyal (except, thinking long-term here, that leading your commander in chief into an unwinnable war is hardly the highest form of loyalty), and George Bush rewards loyalty. He says he reads the front pages -- according to reliable reports, he does not actually read the front pages, but let's call it a metaphor -- and he knows what people are saying, and he's the decider: Rumsfeld stays.
Meanwhile, the administration has spent a week putting out the fire-Rumsfeld fires, almost as though it had nothing else to do. This administration used to understand how to control the news cycle, but it can't do that anymore. It has to play the chat show game. Last week, it sent representatives scurrying to dismiss reports that it planned to bomb Iran as "wild speculation" -- not untrue, mind you, just not proved. This week it's devoting its resources to protecting Donald Rumsfeld.
This would all be gratifying in a "see Spot run scared" sort of way, were it not for the reality on the ground, the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the obstructionism in the United Nations, the poisoned waters and the hungry children and the despairing immigrants, all put on hold by George "The Decider" Bush.
Not that the Bush administration is without power -- it is still much feared in Washington and elsewhere. As you read the news stories, see how many people ask to be quoted anonymously "for fear of retaliation." One Associated Press story last week quoted two Republican members of the House of Representatives who sought anonymity in exchange for candor. Presumably, they have home districts and political supporters and their own long-cultivated bases, but the big Bush whirlwind can come and knock them down anyway, and they know it. It's a cowardly form of dissent, but at least it's starting to happen. Who knows -- maybe even Democrats will join the chorus.