Six months after a re-election that strengthened his forces in both houses and left Democrats wondering whether they had irretrievably lost Middle America, George W. Bush is mired in a Slough of Despond.
The salad days of the second Inaugural, the Iraqi election, and State of the Union are receding into memory, as his approval rating sinks to the lowest depths of his presidency. It is hard to see what turns it around. As Claudius lamented in Hamlet, “when troubles come they come not single spies but in battalions.”
At this writing, it is 50-50 the president can save John Bolton, his nominee to be UN ambassador, and the media wolf pack is in full howl in pursuit of Tom DeLay. Even if Bolton survives and DeLay eludes his media pursuers and ethics committee and Justice investigators, Bush is bleeding from both battles.
But it is on the great issues—war, the economy, the budget and trade deficits, and immigration—that his presidency could be imperiled.
After the Iraqi elections, the morale of that tormented people soared and the Sunni insurgency seemed to have lost the initiative. Enemy attacks diminished along with U.S. casualties. And with anti-Syrian demonstrators rallying in Beirut, and Cairo and Riyadh talking of elections, it seemed that the Bush Democracy Crusade was carrying the day in the Middle East. On the “Daily Show,” Jon Stewart wailed that his son would probably now be going to a high school named after George W. Bush.
But three months after the Iraqi elections, a new government was not in place. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was being daily discredited as too weak to halt Sharon’s seizures of West Bank land. Hamas had swept elections in Gaza. Hezbollah had called out half a million anti-American protesters in Beirut. In the largest rally ever held in a free Iraq, hundreds of thousands congregated in Baghdad to demand that U.S. troops go home.
Looking eastward in that arc of crisis, Iran has refused to shut down its nuclear program, Afghanistan is a narco-democracy, North Korea may be about to explode a nuclear device. “We will not allow the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons,” said Bush in his “axis-of-evil” address. But the Bush Doctrine is being daily defied by Kim Jong Il.
With a $400 billion deficit last year, President Bush proposed an austere budget. But every major cut he requested—in warships, the F/A-22 Raptor, farm subsidies, Medicaid—has been rejected. With U.S. taxes now consuming 16 percent of GDP and U.S. spending 20 percent, and the big ticket items—Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, defense and interest on the debt—all rising in cost, exploding deficits are America’s indefinite future.
Meanwhile, as oil and gas prices rise and the Dow suddenly sinks, pointing to a downturn, confidence in Bush’s management of the economy dissipates. The Jan.-Feb. trade numbers suggest this year’s trade deficit will exceed the $617 billion record of 2004—by $100 billion.
With Chinese textile imports rising, factories closing, and the dollar down against every major currency, Bush intends to run through Congress his Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA. House Democrats will almost unanimously oppose this clone of NAFTA and the White House has not yet lined up the Republicans to enact it. Understandably, for a vote for CAFTA could be a career-ender in 2006.
As the Democratic defections demonstrate, the momentum on trade has shifted away from the Davos Republicans who believe America is best served by having the necessities of her national life made more cheaply in Guangdong province to America Firsters who want to protect U.S. jobs.
But it is on the issue of illegal immigration that the White House seems to have put ideology and corporate interests ahead of homeland security and the political interests of the GOP.
Bush contemptuously dismissed as “irrational vigilantes” those Middle American Minutemen who volunteered to go to the border at Douglas, Arizona, to focus attention on the invasion. But, as April ends, the Minutemen are going home with universal praise for the peacefulness of their protest and the astonishing success they had, sitting in lawn chairs with binoculars and cell phones, in curbing the invasion of their country.
Last night on Fox News, this writer heard Bill O’Reilly and Congressman Tom Tancredo use the I-word, impeachment, should terrorists detonate a terror device they smuggled over the border President Bush refuses to defend.
The president’s problem is this: a conviction politician, he believes deeply in his ideology and policies. But the country is coming to believe neither is working for America. Either he makes a mid-course correction, or the country will make it for him in 2006.