Bush's Biggest Risk Is the 'Credibility Gap'
In the wake of the terrorist attack on September 11, Americans rallied around George W. Bush. Bush's Democratic foes - even Tom Daschle, Bill Clinton, and Al Gore - rushed to embrace him. Democratic critics bit their tongues. And Bush's approval ratings surged over 90% - the highest in the history of polling.
Bush's soaring approval was pure luck. Bush received fewer votes than Al Gore, and millions of Americans still believe Bush stole Florida's 25 electoral votes. Bush's tax cut was never really popular, and lost its superficial appeal when the resulting deficits became real. Just before September 11, the economy was sliding, and Social Security was under attack. The long-awaited Florida recount was due, threatening to expose Bush's electoral crime. Bush's approval rating was barely above 50%, and likely to fall.
Of course, September 11 changed everything. But even so, Bush's astronomical approval ratings conceal grave dangers, both to Bush and the nation.
Personally, Bush faces the law of political gravity: what goes up eventually comes down. George Bush Sr. discovered this after his slam-dunk victory over Saddam Hussein - the Osama bin Laden of 1990 - in the Gulf War. Bush Sr.'s popularity soared to 90%, but a year and a half later he barely received 37% of the vote.
Still, Bush Jr.'s political future is mostly a personal question. The fate of America hangs on Bush's leadership in war, and the danger that he will revive the devastating "Credibility Gap" of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnam War left very deep wounds. An entire generation was transformed, as young Americans were forced to choose between their country and their principles. Those who fought were exposed to death, devastation, corruption, and drugs; survivors came home to alienation and scorn. Those who refused to fight were condemned and forced to live in hiding or abroad. One way or another, almost every young American was scarred.
But the damage to America's soul was even deeper. President Johnson refused to hear his critics, and his beloved War on Poverty ended in defeat. President Nixon cynically campaigned on peace, but deliberately widened the war, resulting in the devastation of Cambodia as well as Vietnam. And Nixon's hatred of his domestic opponents led him to create the secret "plumbers" and to corrupt the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA - which produced Watergate.
As a result of both failed Presidencies, Americans lost faith in their government and the broader "establishment" - the media, academia, and corporate America. This profound alienation from - and hostility towards - the nation's leadership was the "Credibility Gap."
It has taken a generation to repair the damage. Jimmy Carter whacked away at corruption and advocated human rights as an alternative to anti-communism and imperialism. Ronald Reagan proclaimed America's pride and cheered the Soviet Union collapse. Bill Clinton turned the economy around and made America popular around the world.
Even so, the credibility of America's leaders was never fully restored. Carter never fully redeemed his promises of honesty and respect for human rights. Reagan's trickle-down economics transferred wealth from the poor to the rich and exploded the national debt, and his covert wars led to Iran-Contra and created the seeds of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Bush Sr. broke his promise of "no new taxes." And the 8-year Republican assault on Bill Clinton took a tremendous toll.
But Bush's "War on Terrorism" threatens to destroy the nation's limited gains and reopen the Credibility Gap.
The main reason is George W. Bush himself. Bush's personal credibility has always been in doubt.
Bush ran on "integrity," but carefully scrubbed important details of his life. This included three arrests, the last for DUI - which was revealed days before the election and caused Bush to lose the popular vote. It also included his military service - Bush insisted he served his six-year tour in the National Guard, but never explained his grounding from flight after four years, or the testimony of commanding officers who say they never saw him again.
Bush failed in business, except for bailouts and giveaways by his father's rich and powerful friends. He claimed policy triumphs as Governor of Texas, but left the state near last in every category, with a massive deficit. He promised the moon and the stars in his campaign for President, but never offered a realistic plan. And he claimed a 537-vote victory in Florida by suppressing 175,000 uncounted votes.
Despite these profound character flaws, Bush's credibility was never really tested. Thanks to one-sided coverage by the national media, it was the credibility of John McCain and Al Gore - not George W. Bush - that was put on trial in the 2000 campaign.
Thus, September 11 became Bush's moment of truth.
1. September 11 - Where's W?
When the planes hit the World Trade Center, George W. Bush was reading to a second grade class. He heard the first report before he entered the classroom; after the lesson began, at 9:05, he received the second report, confirming a deadly terrorist attack. Bush blanched, but carried on with the lesson. It was not until 9:30 that he spoke to the nation, and that was remarkably brief.
Bush then flew to Louisiana. Once again he spoke to the nation, but this performance was even worse. He then flew to Nebraska, as Americans wondered: where is our President?
Pressed for an explanation, the White House said Air Force 1 had been the target of threats. This story was embellished for a few days. Finally, they claimed confusion; in fact, the story was a lie. Given the White House's previous lies about Clinton staffers trashing the White House, this was an inauspicious way to start a war.
2. Who's in Charge?
While Bush was flying around the country, Dick Cheney was in the White House - calmly running the show. How do we know this? He told us himself, five days later on Meet the Press.
Cheney's calm and commanding TV appearance outraged Bush's imagemakers, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove. They ordered Cheney to stay away from the cameras, so Bush could appear to be in charge. But Bush's numerous statements consisted of scripted platitudes; anyone with a brain could see that Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Powell were really in charge.
3. Is Bush a Legitimate President?
Despite the unrelenting efforts of Republicans - and the corporate media - to convince Americans that George W. Bush really won the election, millions of Americans continue to disagree. As recently as June, a FOX poll showed that 58% of Americans were still angry over the way votes were counted in Florida.
The nation's leading news organizations formed a consortium to count 175,000 uncounted votes in January, and promised to finish the job by April. But the deadline kept getting pushed back, until word went out that the results would be published in mid-September. But as soon as the terrorists attacked, consortium members pulled their reporters off the election story and onto the war.
The consortium promises that the results will someday be published. But what if they show Gore won? What if Bush's Presidency is illegitimate?
4. What Are We Fighting For?
From the outset, Bush declared war against "terrorism." But "terrorism" is not a real enemy, just a strategy. Its practitioners do not wear uniforms or form battalions. Their land cannot be occupied, their commanders will not surrender. How can we know if we actually defeat "terrorism"? Unfortunately, we cannot.
Bush's "War Against Terrorism" resembles the War in Vietnam - it lacks a clearly defined goal, and a viable "exit strategy." It also resembles our more recent "War on Drugs," which has been a failure - just like Vietnam.
Phase I of Bush's war is directed against Afghanistan. Bush's goal there is to replace the Taliban with a government that will not harbor terrorists. But this is no easy task. There have been a few defections, but most of the Taliban appears determined to fight. And the ranks of the Taliban are swelling with volunteers from Pakistan and throughout the Muslim world. If we do not score a quick victory before winter comes, we could get bogged down for a year or even more. How long will Americans tolerate a difficult war?
And if we do beat the Taliban, we will have to put a government in its place. This is already proving difficult, as the anti-Taliban factions are deeply divided. Even if we create a viable government, we will have to leave troops there to sustain it through the very "nation-building" that Bush despises. Those troops will be subject to terror (as in Beirut, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia) or vulnerable to crossfire amidst civil strife. If Bush does not show a greater understanding of - and respect for - "nation-building," this effort will fail.
Phase II of Bush's war will be fought against Al Qaeda allies and terrorists all around the world. This challenge is so complex that one hardly knows what questions to ask. At a minimum, Americans are likely to become terrorist targets whererever such campaigns are being waged. Will the entire world become a battlefield in the War Against Terror?
5. A Legal Declaration of War
The War Against Terrorism shares another unhappy parallel with the Vietnam War - a questionable declaration of war. The Founding Fathers gave Congress, not the President, the power to declare war. Other Presidents have ignored that requirement, but always at their peril.
In Vietnam, Congress never declared war. Instead, it seized upon a supposed unprovoked assault on the U.S. destroyer Maddox to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was used by Presidents Johnson and Nixon as justification to send 500,000 U.S. troops into battle. Throughout the war, critics claimed the attack on the Maddox was misrepresented, and historians now agree.
Interestingly, George Bush Sr. did not repeat this mistake during the Gulf War. Although he threatened to ignore Congress if it voted against a declaration of war, he neverthless permitted the vote to go forward, and received formal authorization for war.
This time around, George Bush Jr. seems to have taken direction not from his father, but rather from LBJ. Soon after the attack, Congress overwhelmingly approved a resolution on the Use of Force, which was not quite a Declaration of War. The resolution specifically cites the War Powers Act, which requires a real Declaration of War within 60 days or troops sent abroad must return home. But Bush has refused to ask Congress for a declaration of war, and his spokespeople insist they don't need one. When the going gets tough, this issue will return with a vengeance, as it did during Vietnam.
During Vietnam, reporters told the truth - unpleasant as it was. As a result, Nixon waged war on journalists, conducted by ideologues like Spiro Agnew, Pat Buchanan, and William Safire. Determined to prevent a repeat of honest war reporting, Reagan and Bush Sr. exercised absolute control over the press during their wars in Central America, Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf.
Bush Jr. wants to do the same. His spokesman, Ari Fleischer, warned journalists to "watch what they say." When Congressional Republicans leaked a terrorism warning to the Washington Post, Bush was enraged. When a tape of Osama Bin Laden appeared on American television, Condoleezza Rice told network executives to keep him off the air.
The U.S. media has been eager to support Bush's war effort, and has largely censored itself. But cheerleading is no substitute for journalism, and Americans can tell the difference. And thanks to the Internet, Americans can get the truth for themselves, even if they have to search abroad.
7. Mixed Messages
During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt declared "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." But as Americans lurch from panic to panic, Bush refuses to draw a line. On the one hand, he wants us to "go about our business." But on the other, he tells us further terrorist attacks are practically certain.
Bush and Cheney themselves live in fear. The Secret Service insists they be physically separated, so both cannot be harmed. As a result, they rarely sit together in the White House. Cheney spends most of his time in a secret bunker.
Even the TV networks noticed this contradiction. Given these contradictory messages, what are Americans actually supposed to do? Bush and Cheney said we should report suspicious behavior to the police. Americans do not seem reassured, and better answers will soon be required.
8. Raw Partisanship
Bush's popularity soared mainly because Americans put aside partisanship to unite behind the President. Of course, it was the Democrats who made the political sacrifice, since Republicans already supported Bush.
Unfortunately, the generosity of Democrats was met with contempt. Within days, Republicans began hijacking bipartisan legislation to promote their right-wing agendas on missile defense, bailouts for airlines and insurance companies, tax cuts for the wealthy, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, fast track trade authority, judicial appointments, and taxpayer support for evangelism.
For a couple of days, Bush tried to embrace bipartisanship himself. One day, he even signalled opposition to excessive GOP tax giveaways, and endorsed Democratic spending for the newly unemployed and the working poor. But this produced a revolt in conservative Republican ranks, and Bush quickly returned to partisan Republican ranks.
Bush cannot play partisan politics while leading Americans into battle. He cannot give greater tax breaks to the rich while sending the children of America's working families to fight and die. He must tell Congressional Republicans to put America first, and keep America united behind our common goals.
9. Hidden Agendas
The attack on America cost us hundreds of billions of dollars. But not everyone suffered economic pain. Days before the attack, mysterious investors bet the price of key airline and brokerage stocks would fall. Who were these investors, and what did they know?
A more obvious beneficiary of this war is Unocal, which has been trying to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea through Afghanistan to Pakistan. This project was blocked by the political instability in Afghanistan, including American attacks using cruise missiles. In 1998, Unocal told Congress they could not proceed until Afghanistan had a stable government that was recognized by the U.S. Is this war really about oil?
10. Limits to Freedom
During the 2000 campaign, Bush responded to a satirical Web site by declaring "there ought to be limits to freedom." This was apparently no idle threat.
After September 11, Attorney General John Ashcroft asked for practically unrestricted police powers. Faced with a hidden enemy in our midst, Americans were willing to sacrifice some freedoms for the sake of safety. But we did so reluctantly and with doubts.
Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Congressional Republicans did not heed those doubts. Instead, they ran a steamroller over the Constitution, crushing many precious rights. Now the government can listen to any phone conversation, read any e-mail, and search any home if it claims to be chasing "terrorism." Is that really what Americans want?
11. Body Counts
In the end, war is about death. Nearly 6,000 people died on September 11, so Americans were willing to tolerate a certain number of foreign civilian deaths in the course of our war.
But a theoretical willingness to accept the deaths of innocents is different from seeing villages accidentally leveled by bombs, or hospitals filled with the wounded and dying.
Moreover, Afghanistan is on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of Afghans have left their homes, and relief workers are overwhelmed trying to deliver basic food. U.S. bombing has hampered food deliveries, airborne food drops are useless, and winter is coming soon. How many civilian deaths can Americans stand to see?
Finally, U.S. troops are preparing for combat on the ground. The British and Soviet empires marched into Afghanistan, only to face cruel and bloody defeat. The Taliban appears determined to fight, and the country is littered with deadly mines. How many sons and daughters are Americans really willing to lose?
12. A Wider War
Following the terrorist attack, Americans were prepared to fight. But even at the height of our anger, most Americans were unwilling to engage in bloody reprisals. Americans want justice, not blind vengeance.
But that feeling was not embraced by conservatives. Columnist Ann Coulter wrote, "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." Right-wing warmongers urged Bush to use nuclear weapons to show his resolve. And an influential group of conservatives led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz demanded a region-wide war against Iraq, Syria, Sudan, and other American foes.
During the Vietnam War, protests really exploded when Richard Nixon ordered the bombing of Cambodia. Student protests at Jackson State and Kent State were met by National Guard bullets, resulting in numerous deaths.
What will happen if Wolfowitz gets his way, and America finds itself engaged in a wider war, with no one but Britain at our side?
These are just a few of the challenges that threaten Bush's credibility. Bush has successfully persuaded America to go to war, but does he have the wisdom, judgment, and character to guide us through a war? Millions of Americans have doubts, and those doubts are certain to grow.
Franklin Roosevelt was beloved while leading America towards victory in World War II. But Richard Nixon was despised after lying his way through America's defeat in Vietnam. George W. Bush faces many perils as we head into a prolonged war. His greatest challenge is to preserve his own dubious credibility, and to prevent a revival of the Credibility Gap.