And yet they have done more to undo the inexplicable glue that has bound Americans' eyelids shut for five years than any mountain range of evidence that there is something fundamental about the Bush administration, alright -- something fundamentally wrong.
All six people and the incidents surrounding them have contributed to a permanent change in the level of (non)scrutiny enjoyed by the Republican Party at large, and the Bush administration in particular.
It's a badge that Americans (an increasing number of them Republicans, too!) are starting to cast aside and stamp their feet upon.
All six events surrounding our nominees were initially assumed to be strong cards dealt to strong (Bush) players in The Game.
All six hands went bust.
1. Terri Schiavo.
We're fighting a war on terror against zealots at home and abroad, alright. The en masse attack on the judiciary and rule of law by Republicans at the state and national level was first noted by the media as a strong 'values' play, then once the widespread affront of the American people was too obvious to ignore, covered as a dangerous overplay in the culture war.
I'd call the SchiavoClypse the Culture War's equivalent of the Battle of the Bulge: a very well-orchestrated, well-financed bet that the losers (the right) could not afford to cover, because for the right it was just one more of the sort of gambles that they (and their antecedents from long ago) were accustomed to making and winning, every time.
Nowadays, any high-profile presence of the religious right in politics is subjected to more scrutiny than before...not much, but prior to the Schiavo showdown, the legitimacy of bearing the cross in triumph in the halls of power wasn't second-guessed, ever. Leastwise, not on the Bush watch.
2. Casey Sheehan.
The sight of a real live war protest intruding on the private vacation time of a wartime president had the conservatives licking their chops. The Republicans looked at the crusade of Cindy Sheehan and saw a moonbat California liberal, halfway through a divorce, daring to speak for her heroic son who volunteered to defend America. Why, Republicans even had other family members contradict her story. Thanks, lefties! They were thinking. Sure, we'll let the media cover this story...it'll be a great chance to get that Terri Schiavo monkey off our backs.
Oops. The Americans on the other side of the one-way television conversation saw someone different: They saw a military mom asking aloud the same questions that many Americans had been asking in private all along, questions that Bush had never been asked, never mind answered, and refused to answer when confronted. The only people who came forth to answer were counter-protesters who, to put it in their words (and spelling!), were a bunch of 'morans'.
Cindy would ask an important public policy question. The right answered back: Shut up, traitor. And America took issue with the insult, and once again, the Bush administration was slapped around because it picked a fight with a lone woman.
Nowadays, any comment made by the Bushies on the War in Iraq is treated with skepticism. In fact, the very subject has become so embarrassing to the Bush administration that they do their utmost not to talk about it, that is, unless something even more embarrasing is afoot.
For example, partying with friends while a great American city died on live TV.
3. Michael Brown.
Now, if there was ever an opportunity for the Bushies to bounce back, surely it was showcasing their flagship project, the Department of Homeland Security, in time of disaster. The press said it, conventional wisdom conceded it, having only the singular example of 9/11 to go on.
Hurricane Katrina was a Bush bounce begging to happen.
Hurricanes are as close to routine disaster response opportunities as you can find; there is no major calamity for which the American civil defense apparatus is better practiced and by implication prepared, at least on paper, than for hurricane evacuation, rescue, recovery and repair.
Recordings of conversations of pre-Katrina planning sessions in Louisiana mention FEMA often and favorably. Many requests had been made of FEMA; all of the answers given were positive and presumed credible. The new DHS was going to work for Gulf States, same as it worked for Florida the year before.
In the days after Katrina made landfall, the tone of the recordings shifts from a can-do optimism, grounded in decades of expertise and Federal-state-county-local cooperation in such matters, to shock, astonishment and anger: FEMA is AWOL. It's not a question of DHS answering extraordinary needs. It's not a question of DHS being asked to do tasks that are outside of its brief. Promises made a week ago aren't being honored.
And this in the context of real-time images of the jewel of the Gulf, New Orleans, dying right before the eyes of billions worldwide.
Even then, the opportunity for Bush to turn lemons to lemonade existed...except for one thing.
The realtime images of a city dying were juxtaposed in real time with images of Bush cutting birthday cake, smiling with friends, and playing guitar.
The media continued to play up the Bush-as-leader in times of national crisis, right until the point where it Americans' outrage was so pronounced that there was no ignoring the story -- the Republicans had badly mishandled yet another challenge, this time for no apparent upside. The country walked away feeling that either the Bush admnistration and wider Republican leadership were either criminally negligent, dangerously distracted, egregiously incompetent or against all writ of statute and every promise made -- the resources to help after Katrina simply weren't there, diverted to other pursuits.
The twin denouement in Hurricanes Rita and Wilma have only exacerbated the situation; a critical eye is now turned the Bushies' way whenever a disaster strikes. Or not; the media are now afraid to cover hurricanes in a way that they were once afraid to cover Iraq: It might make the president look bad.
The only problem with that approach: public interest generates public action in a democracy: Either government responds, or the voters in affected areas (which now include the huge-EV states of Texas and Florida) vote in government that will obey its own laws and honor its own promises. The situation in Florida, while not so devastating as in Louisiana, is sufficiently bad that Bush brother, Governor Jeb(?), is taking one for the only team that matters, on account Bush visiting a disaster area on American soil is no longer a valuable use of his time.
4. Tom Delay.
By Republican wisdom (cough choke gag chuckle), no one messes with the Hammer, and walks away unscathed. He's the guy the GOP goes to, to Get Things Done. He skirts the edges of campaign finance law, and gets away with it. He wants more Texas Pubs? He forces a reapportionment war, practically shutting down the state government in the process, and gets away with it. Need money? He gets it to your campaign, all clean and proper like. He has a bad reputation, many, many MANY political enemies, none of them his equal.
Surely, DA Earle picking a fight with the House Majority Leader will fail, as well. That Dem activist rumormonger hasn't a prayer!
Or maybe he does.
This battle is still in play, but DeLay's sudden change in fortune, from untouchable to reach out and touch me (all Personal Jesus like) has come against the backdrop of many allegations of corruption and cronyism against the Republican Party at all levels, including a Republican fundraiser (Noe), a Republican lobbyist (Abramoff), not one but three Republican governors (in Kentucky, Missouri and Ohio), and the office of the Vice-President of the United States. And this is just the beginning.
One Watergate's an incident. Two's a trend. Three's a party, and that's bad news for the Republican party.
The accusations against Tom DeLay hold water for the very reason that the actions at the center of the charges are not only credible -- they have been proudly lorded over the Democrats for years by the accused himself, as well as his fans. The same holds true for charges delivered to another doorstep this very week -- but that's a nominee of a different number.
What Tom DeLay has managed to do is provoke a much wider and more hostile awareness that the Republican party values getting its tribute more than upholding American values.
What paying attention to Tom DeLay, hero of the right, accomplishes is to remind Americans that Tom DeLay isn't a liar or an outlier -- he's typical, he's admired, he's exemplary of the best that the GOP has to offer.
And that's just not acceptable.
5. Harriet Miers.
Following on the heels of now-Chief Justice John Roberts, the Republicans were expecting this to be a layup. Fears of a tough confirmation battle dissipated like bad gas in a fresh spring breeze. Nuclear option? Hahahahahaha... Wider consensus amongst SCOTUS scouts was that, despite execrable approval ratings and a renewed willingness of both media and masses to criticize George Bush, in this venue Bush could have his way. The White House could send Felix the Cat to the Senate and he'd be confirmed the next day.
Social conservatives were ecstatic -- they liked Felix. Rather, they liked the idea that were Felix dedicated to the Bible-mandated right of the male to own his own body and that of any females in his power, too, that he be made part of SCOTUS.
The press saw it as fait accompli. The right saw it as a birthright, and laughed at their clever pun. The left saw it as the inevitable consequence of Senate Dem cowardice; if Bush wasn't weak enough to challenge now, then when? The overall American public weighed in with Whatever. Gas prices are high. Do something about that, how 'bout it?
Then along came Harriet.
It was the Gape Heard 'Round The World.
In all fairness, Miers had a tough row to hoe. Like him or lump him, John Roberts is a tough act to follow. He is a top-shelf justice, one that just happens to play for the other team. And outgoing justice Sandra Day O'Connor has nearly untouchable qualificatons, including her record on the bench.
However, Bush did not need to nominate an Übermensch to the bench. All he needed was to find one of a possible several hundred conservative justices on the Federal bench, a short list for which was already in hand from the last vetting process.
The notion that Harriet Miers was the second best-qualified person on that list was incredible from all sides. It was not a question of ideological vetting, which Miers would have never survived. It was not a question of nominating a personal friend, which hot on the heels of FEMA's Michael Brown, gave special distaste to anything that smacked of cronyism. It was not a question of qualifications, given that Miers had never served as a justice at any level and had, in fact, very limited experience as a trial lawyer.
These questions were addressed, of course, in systematic if desultory fashion. The big question, of course, is best known by its acronym: W.T.F?!
I have my own opinion on the WTF-ness of the selection: Panic -- panic in the face of impending indictments from the Special Prosecutor. A fervent desire to have a SCOTUS in place that would be willing to support any and every action that an Executive Branch on the defensive would implement in defense of incumbency. A fear that even the GOP Congress could turn, and begin to reassert the prerogatives of the Legislative Branch.
Yet again, what should have been a feather in the cap of the Bush Administration was turned into a goose egg.
And yet again, the media did its utmost to apologize away the instant avalanche of second-guessing that came from almost every coordinate of the opinion grid, up to the point at which it was clear that in this case, Bush's nominee was patently unqualified, professionally and politically, to be up for consideration. And again, it was a Hobson's choice as to what would be less damaging: to pull the nomination and show weakness, or to suffer a humiliating defeat in the straight up-or-down vote that all Bush nominees deserved.
The consequence of the Miers nomination is that not only the qualifications but the motivations behind all future Bush nominees will be placed under even more intense scrutiny -- or, if the media opts to protect the administration with silence and unconcern -- generic suspicion of the administration will increase.
One thing is for sure: Where lies, failure, corruption, cronyism and just plain being mean have not deterred the GOP faithful from cleaving to Bush, his defeat in the Miers nomination (even more than the issue of Miers' inadequate chops) has alienated his base. They wanted a strong candidate, competent and uncompromisingly conservative, and got stiffed twice -- once on Miers, twice on Miers being defeated without a vote, which forced the extreme right to not only brandish its mailed Crusader fist, but use it in plain sight, weakening both its frontman and its own influence in the process. Better that, though, than have a fool in SCOTUS, one with insufficient ideological purity, and a fool at that, and give the Democrats a campaign issue for the next twenty or thirty years, and themselves nothing in return.
All of this occurred in plain sight. That's bad for business.
6. Scooter Libby.
As with Tom Delay, this story is not wrapping up, but is just beginning. Again, Republicans are touting to anyone that will listen that the Bush administration has been vindicated -- that, alternately, Libby was a lone gunman, out of touch and out of control, a good man who inexplicably lied to a grand jury, or was (bless his heart) a bit slow and couldn't remember events and order of same well, or in fact did nothing wrong, because espionage charges weren't issued, and In your face, liberal Bush-haters!
For Pubs, the exultation is that this is it, no conspiracy, here. Nothing to dwell upon, loyal media. Move along, citizens. Back to high gas prices and uncritical acceptance of the 9/11-Iraq mantra, thank you.
But most Americans are already seeing something a bit different. The background theme music of corruption and betraying American intelligence operatives as part of sick exercise in partisan gamesmanship doesn't fly. The Libby indictments are stunning in how tight and well-documented, even incontrovertible they are. It is highly unlikely that Libby will dare challenge them, given the scope of... inconsistency in his statements and the intransigence of same, despite multiple opportunities to clarify the record, opporunities, it can be inferred, that others (Miller, perhaps Rove) took, saving themselves from criminal charges, leastwise for the time being.
It gets worse, much worse, for the Pubs. Majority public opinion was that something fishy went on regarding the outing of the covert status of Valerie Plame, that this was especially egregious in the context of national security, and Patrick Fitzgerald, Special Prosecutor empowered by the Bush Administration itself, was thwarted in investigation of this very thing by, you guessed it, at least one member of the Bush Administration itself.
And that's the meme du jour: The administration thwarted its own investigation. That's just messed up, people.
The media, unsurprisingly, is remembering who its masters are yet again, and playing the sheet music given it. And, you guessed it, it is fighting the same tsunami of public outrage that has overwhelmed it five times already.
Dropping dimes on Americans on the line is crime, it's espionage and it's treason. If you or I were to have placed Libby's phone calls, we would be on our way to a resort in Kazakhstan or Saudi Arabia or Morocco, where our hosts could entertain us in very special and endearing ways, as we did our part to make America a safer place -- by screaming a whole lot.
Libby should be grateful that he is getting a fair trial under the American system of law, on account he is too high-profile and too well-connected to receive anything but the best justice that he's got coming to him, from a system of justice that Libby appears to have despised so much, that it was profitable for him to damage, rather than honor, and do so not once but five times in succession.
This, too, Americans now notice about the Bush administration.
So, when critics of the Bush administration lament that nothing has gone their way this year, that the right is out of control and the media is giving it every pass it can print, they are quite correct -- the administration is out of control, and the media is doing its utmost to prop up its partnership in power.
Why the media is doing so, even traditionally-liberal icons, is a question unanswerable in particulars, but easily resolved in generalities: Despite the legend of the free press in early American history, the backbone of 20th Century totalitarianism was a controlled media...and the press does not need to be state-owned to be tractable.
And yet, as in all the now-dead examples of totalitarian and quasi-autocratic regimes, human beings develop skepticism as a survival strategy, when it becomes apparent that authority is no longer interested in their well-being, that those who are in power and speak for power can no longer be fully trusted.
This trust is eroded in increments, as qualms become doubts become concerns become manifest distrust. At that point, the paving-stones start to be rooted up, one issue-area at a time.
Six major erosions have occurred by my count so far this year.
- Terri Schiavo showed us that the Republican leadership is more concerned about its revolution than in the Republic, that those values are offensive even to many evangelicals, and the means by which the GOP sought to exploit and deny the privacy and dignity of the preserved remains of a long-since-dead woman were poisonous to rule of law and public safety. Terri showed us that we truly are fighting religious extremism at home and abroad, and the ones on the home front are well-connected and have friends at the utmost levels of power in our country, and this is a bad thing.
- Casey Sheehan's memory revealed that the Bush administration does not consider itself answerable to the American people concerning matters of war and peace, and if not the single most important issue facing any republic, then when?
- Michael Brown revealed that the current Department of Homeland Security does not consider itself bound by its own charter under law, or by its own many promises made to state and local disaster response teams before Katrina struck, and reneged in the aftermath.
- Tom Delay reveals such contempt for rule of law, based on the de facto power currently enjoyed by the ruling party in his preferred haunts, that he and his supporters have openly bragged about his accomplishment for years. That he is received indictments is not being taken seriously, even now. That many of his kindred are receiving similar letters or are currently under investigation has not fazed him a bit. This arrogance, however, is noted and uncharitably by the American people, who now have a very clear idea of the contempt with which the Republican leaderships holds laws that it passed, and rules that it passed to police its own conduct.
- Harriet Miers, thin resume and all, revealed something altogether different: that the Bush administration is capable of fear, and making self-destructive decisions out of panic, to the point that Bush's longstanding backers from the religious extreme had to triage the actions of the White House by undercutting George Bush ruthlessly, and openly. It is now apparent to the American people that the imago of Bush as a confident, strong, decisive leader is like a reflection on still water -- easily disturbed, easily set into chaotic and ruinous motion.
- Scooter Libby reveals that high level officials in Bush Administration hold the values of truth, justice and honor in such low esteem that they repeatedly deny them, presumably in the name of some greater value -- or avoidance of greater damage. Libby's obstructions of truth and justice damaged an investigation into a serious point of fact -- the outing of a valuable secret agent's identity and significant damage to national security values during wartime. And the coup de grace: Libby obstructed an investigation that the Bush Administration authorized.
And I suspect the God they claim to honor is not appreciative of what they have done with their lives, and with the lives of those under their power.