IT WAS LESS than a month ago that President Bush and his Republican allies were celebrating a string of legislative triumphs, once again demonstrating Bush’s near-infallible ability to get his way. This seems so strange because a virtual consensus has developed that the administration has been utterly incompetent in its planning and execution of the war in Iraq.
So, what gives? How can an administration be so masterful in the way it campaigns and shepherds its legislative agenda, yet so blundering in its conduct of a war?
The answer is that Bush’s political successes all have three main elements in common, none of which translates well into fighting a war.
The first is massive partisan discipline. Bush’s ability to persuade fellow Republicans to swallow their misgivings and back his agenda is uncanny. Fiscal conservatives may balk at huge spending hikes like his 2003 Medicare bill, and deficit hawks may blanch at repeated tax cuts in the face of deficits. But when the vote is on the line, they always capitulate.
In 2003, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, a traditional fiscal conservative, asserted that rising red ink would “undermine our economy instead of stimulating it,” and then proceeded to support a $350-billion tax cut. And even that concession was soon nullified. Republicans bragged about how easy it was to cook the books to comply with Voinovich’s limit -- “Numbers don’t mean anything,” scoffed Tom DeLay -- and yet Voinovich remained on board anyway. In 2001, one GOP representative, Robin Hayes of North Carolina, actually cried after the leadership forced him to vote for a trade bill he disdained.
ELEMENT NO. 2 is massive giveaways to well-organized lobbies. Bush’s string of midsummer triumphs -- the energy bill, the transportation bill, CAFTA -- were larded with special provisions for sundry lobbyists. The same holds for Bush’s tax cuts, Medicare bill, farm subsidies and various other elements of his agenda. It’s easy to get things done if you’re willing to empty the federal Treasury and enrich everyone who can afford a K Street lobbyist.
The third element is -- how should I put it? -- lying. The corollary to No. 2 is that a platform of massive tax and spending giveaways to the rich and powerful does not have wide public appeal. Therefore, Bush and his allies have had to systematically misrepresent basic facts about their policies.
Bush insisted that the majority of his tax cut would go to the lowest-earning taxpayers, which is untrue by any definition. He and his administration have repeatedly low-balled the cost of their initiatives. One Bush flunky threatened to fire a government actuary who wanted to release the true cost of the Medicare bill. Thus many Republicans voted “yes” on the strict assurance the bill would not cost a penny more than $400 billion, while the administration knew the real price tag would be about double that.
Alas, none of these tools work as well in Baghdad as they do in Washington. Promising to build a bridge in Muqtada Sadr’s district or funnel cash to his campaign is unlikely to mollify the Shiite strongman. Iraqi democracy, in its primitive state, has yet to develop the equivalent of K Street.
When it comes to crafting policies that are good, rather than policies that merely seem good to an inattentive public, the Bush administration turns out to be awful. You can insist that 125,000 troops are enough to reconstruct Iraq, just as you can insist that $400 billion is enough to pay for the Medicare bill. The difference is, the effects of higher federal debt can be obscured for a long time. But when Iraqi reconstruction has essentially halted, some two-thirds of the population lacks employment and terrorists and other armed thugs are roaming freely throughout Iraqi cities, lies can get you only so far.