Second-Term Blues and the War

Democrats are touting Tuesday’s election results, in which Democrats won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey and Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger got trounced on the four ballot initiatives he had embraced as essential, as a sign of disillusionment with and even repudiation of President Bush. "Clean sweep," said perky Katie Couric on NBC. "Democrats win the governors races in Virginia and New Jersey. Are President Bush’s second-term troubles to blame?" Over at ABC George Stephanopoulos was insistent that if the president couldn’t get his own poll numbers above the 35 percent level "Republicans might have an even worse night a year from now."

Even though Bush is still suffering second-term blues – as most recent president have – and seems unlikely to come back anywhere near close to all the way – with all due respect it’s hard to see the signs of Bush or Republican demise from these election results only. But there are plenty of signs of trouble, both in present problems and those on the horizon, to bedevil the administration, and Republicans in Congress are already starting to worry about their prospects for 2006. But it’s hard to find reliable tea leaves in this week’s results.


It was hardly a big surprise, for example, that New Jersey would elect a Democrat as governor, especially one with enough personal funds to outspend his zillionaire Republican rival. And while Virginia has been a fairly reliable Republican state in national elections recently, it has been known to elect moderately moderate Democrats to the governor’s mansion. In fact, it had one in office (in Virginia governors can serve only one term) who was still quite popular even after being in office for four years. In addition, the pattern in Virginia, going back a couple of decades, is for the party that didn’t win the White House to win the governorship in the next state election. So Tim Kaines’s election was hardly a shocker.

To be sure, President Bush made a last-minute campaign stop in Virginia on behalf of Republican Jerry Kilgore, which didn’t seem to do him much good and might even have hurt. Out in California, however, Ahnold kept the president at arm’s length, discouraging him from coming into the state and even letting it be known that he was disgruntled on an occasion when Bush flew in for an evening of fundraising. The Republicans lost in both instances, so it’s difficult to see whether a Bush appearance was decisive in dragging down Republican chances.

In Ohio, a generally Republican state rejected a batch of election-reform measures backed by Democrats. In California a generally Democrat state rejected a bunch of reforms (including one redistricting plan virtually identical to one in Ohio, interestingly enough) backed by Republicans.

What we got Tuesday – especially in view of the fact that most incumbents were reelected and 16 of 18 ballot initiatives nationwide were rejected by the voters, was a reinforcement of the status quo. Voters may be uneasy just now, but in this election apparently preferred the evil they knew to the evil they knew not of.

Part of the reason, of course, is that state elections tend to be dominated by state-level issues. National issues, about which governors can do nothing more than an average citizen, and even general perceptions of the parties at a national level, often play little role in the results. So the spin that this election presages the demise of the GOP or the end of the administration as an effective institution that can wield power is a little premature. Those tempted to see it that way might ponder the fact that one of the ways presidents suffering from unpopularity at home often try to regain their stature is through adventures overseas.


If the election does not furnish proof positive that Bush’s second term is doomed, however, there are plenty of other indicators. They say a year is an eternity in politics, and a rejuvenation is possible. But rarely has a president fallen so far so quickly.

Whether Hurricane Katrina was really as massive a failure by the federal government as it seemed at the time might be debatable; certainly there were failures at the state and local levels as well, and there have even been complaints about the Red Cross. But it did provide an insight into a Bush characteristic that in certain circumstances might be deemed laudable: loyalty to old friends and associates. Bush appointed an old crony, or to be more precise the former college roommate of an old crony, to one of the few positions in the federal government that requires more knowledge of actually getting a job done than political savvy or connections – and one in which failure is public and evident rather than hidden in files deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy.

And he reaped the whirlwind. Gone were the people who might say something like, "Well, I don’t like that war much and he ain’t much of a talker. But he does have a Harvard MBA and he seems to run the White House as a tight ship and can get things done.

Bush compounded that mistake – cubed it, perhaps – by appointing his former personal lawyer and White House Counsel, Harriet Miers, to the Supreme Court. That not only alienated Supreme Court junkies and the small but influential groups that actually follows constitutional law, it alienated the bulk of the conservative "base" that Bush has been able to flummox for much of his time in office.

They discovered that when they criticized the Bush administration, not only did the sky not fall, given that this was a weakened administration already afflicted with second-term blues, but they felt better. They started to remember that they weren’t too crazy about all the spending the Bush administration had been doing, how it had forced them to compromise what they viewed as their principles when they first got into the dirty game of politics. And then they won, at least on the Miers nomination. That felt even better

Bush may have mollified this core constituency somewhat with the appointment of Sam Alito, who appears to be a reliable conservative (subject to the caveat that due to the easy resort to opposition to "activism," a subjective term, there are several varieties of conservative judicial philosophy, some inconsistent with others) with judicial credentials coming out of his ears. But the core will never be as loyal as once it was. They know Bush can’t run again and a struggle is already shaping up for the future shape of the Republican Party. As Thursday’s vote on a modest reduction in future projected spending increases suggests, the administration has neither effective sticks nor attractive carrots to keep Congress in line.

And we haven’t even mentioned Plamegate and the indictment of Scooter Libby, the upcoming AIPAC influence-peddling/espionage case, or the leaks about overseas CIA prisons alleged to practice torture.


If the Iraq war were going reasonably well – with declining levels of violence, say, and a widespread perception that a hand-off to the Iraqis would increase stability rather than promote chaos – the president could probably have ridden out most of these problems with no more than a temporary dip in popularity and annoying bur survivable typical second-term problems. But the Iraq war is not going well, and even if things improve (from the administration’s perspective) in the next few months, significant numbers of Americans will probably doubt it. Bush has lost the image of competence and the concomitant credibility, and it will be difficult if not impossible to get it back.

The Iraq war is therefore at the root of many of Bush’s other problems and his point of greatest vulnerability. Most Americans now think it shouldn’t have been started and an increasing number are convinced it was begun under false pretenses. Those who seek to prevent an unlikely comeback by Bush the Lesser would be well advised to remember this and keep hammering away at their criticisms, demanding a withdrawal of U.S. troops at the earliest possible date. It will help to keep the administration back on its heels.

I mentioned that presidents often seek to burnish their images during a second term with foreign involvement. The ideal kind of involvement, however, is something that creates an impression of being in charge and widely respected while carrying little or no risk of failure.

Thus a president will go to gatherings of the floating international crap game the media choose to call the "international community," get photographed with other presidents smiling and fawning, and issue bold proclamations or even sign treaties promoting some perceived international good, like reducing global warming, promoting human rights, working for economic development in "developing" countries, or confronting a global problem like AIDS or avian flu. Such activities look good on the surface and will not be widely perceived as failures that produced only hot air and mutual preening until the president in question is safely out of office, writing his memoirs.


Even if that were Bush’s style, his war has reduced the likelihood of such activities burnishing his image. He is more likely, as he found out in Latin America, to run into a buzzsaw of criticism than a gaggle of leaders eager to demonstrate their affection and esteem.

There is some evidence, in the president’s apparent decision to distance himself from Vice President Dick Cheney, that he may be dimly aware that commencing another foreign adventure is not exactly the smartest thing he could do to redeem his image. Even if he were to think a glorious small war would be a good idea, he will find that because of prior commitments he probably doesn’t have the resources to prosecute them – perhaps the only silver lining in the Iraq imbroglio.

The weakness of the American president has certainly not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world. Leaders overseas, however, are familiar with this syndrome. The Nixon-Ford presidency found its hands tied as Vietnam wound down, for example. But despite periodic problems the objective power of the United States relative to the rest of the world continued to grow, and given the extraordinary productivity of the American people, despite the best efforts of its politicians to handcuff it, it is likely to continue to grow.

So while other countries – Iran, China, Russia, others – may seek temporary advantages in situations where they perceive their interests not to coincide with U.S. interests, a major challenge is unlikely. There could be another catastrophic terrorist strike within the United States, but even that would be unlikely to topple the regime or short-circuit the market system.

This would be a good time to reassess our latest imperial adventure and think anew about the proper role of the United States in the world. Among the options should be a return to our roots – with specific policies updated to current circumstances – as the friend of freedom everywhere but the guarantor only of our own. This country was born in a revolt against empire and its founders understood the dangers of embarking on such an enterprise.

In the wake of the most recent validation of their wisdom it should be time – perhaps not to study war no more, for understanding is important to intelligent avoidance, but to eschew the lures of empire. Americans can be stampeded into enthusiasm for a specific war, but for complex historical and sociological reasons they are not suited for the long-term burdens of empire.

I don’t expect such introspection from the current occupant of the White House, but it should be a theme of the 2008 election, with variants of the lessons learned most recently coming from candidates of both parties.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).