Thursday, November 09, 2006

Bush: playing politics

I found this via Pajamas Media today, with the following tagline: Question: “If President Bush had [fired Rumsfeld] two, three, four months ago would [the midterms] have been different?” (RCP)

I clicked on the link, hoping to find a discussion that might be a jumping-off place for a post of my own about the subject. But all I saw there was a single sentence, an echo of the question.

So I'll take up the gauntlet and give a nice, hedgy answer: maybe.

I don't think things would have been substantially different. Despite the sound bite of "this was all about the war," it really wasn't. It was about the war and the people's perceptions of it, to be sure. But it was about a lot of other things as well, including corruption in Congress and inadequate handling of it (so, what else is new?), conservative disgruntlement with the current administration and Congress, the usual historical change of Congress during a President's second term, relentless media spin, and Britney Spears's impending divorce (oops, I guess that didn't get announced till after the election. My bad.)

But if Bush had canned Rumsfeld earlier, it might have made a partial difference, and that might have been enough to change the outcome of a few close races here and there.

I don't think it's because of Rumsfeld himself, either, although he certainly had become a highly criticized and polarizing figure. I think it was more the perception given by Bush's retention of Rumsfeld--and I believe it's a correct perception--which is that Bush is one stubborn and unresponsive fellow.

That's not just a perception; it appears to be the truth, a truth that's been known for a long time. Bush digs in, he is very loyal to people and doesn't switch horses easily, and of course he's not the great communicator. That stubbornness of his is a double-edged sword; it makes him resolute but inflexible. He is the antithesis of someone like Clinton, for example, who almost never met a principle he couldn't change if the polls indicated it might be politically expedient for him.

Bush's natural tendency towards stubbornness and decisiveness--not a bad thing in a leader, unless it's carried to extremes, as it has been at times in his case--may also be a reaction to Clinton, and reflect Bush's deep desire to be the Un-Clinton. That he is, but it's an overcorrection. And almost nowhere is that fact in greater evidence than in his handling of the timing of the actual Rumsfeld firing.

Not only did Bush not do what would have been politically expedient, which is to have gotten rid of Rumsfeld at least three or four months ago (to go back to RCP's question), but he didn't even let the press and the people know that Rumsfeld was on his way out even after it actually had been decided, which was apparently before this election.

This is, if you believe Bush's story; I'm sure many don't. I do, because it's consistent with his personality. It tells you that Bush was willing to shoot himself (and his fellow Republicans) in the foot in order to demonstrate both loyalty and his un-Clintonian, non-pandering-to-politics, bona fides. That sort of behavior has cost him votes, approval ratings, the epithet "nonresponsive," and the ire of fellow Republicans.

Now that the other shoe has dropped and the Democrats are in charge of Congress, Bush seems to have changed his tune a bit. So has the media, in a subtle but noticeable way. Now that they have gotten what they wanted--a Democratic victory--they can afford to be ever so slightly magnanimous towards Bush, who's seen as mortally wounded. At least, that's what I discern in articles such as this one form today's San Francisco Chronicle, entitled, "An immediate and dramatic change in Bush's tone." The article states:

In words and tone, Bush conveyed an unfamiliar flexibility and rare willingness to work with his political adversaries Wednesday on his war strategy.

It goes on:

On Wednesday, [Bush] lamented that "somehow it seeped into (people's) conscience that, you know, my attitude was just simply stay the course.''

It could be because Bush himself used the phrase "stay the course'' dozens of times to explain his administration's steadfast determination not to abandon the mission in the face of catastrophic circumstances in Iraq.

These two sentences sum up the problem between Bush and the people, and between the media and Bush. It's true that it did seep into people's conscience (sic: consciousnesses?) that Bush was inflexible. The problem wasn't so much his oft-repeated desire to stay the course, but the perception that he couldn't (or wouldn't) adjust the details of that course in order to find a more effective way of getting from point A to point B. The media had a role in getting that perception across, but Bush didn't do anywhere near enough to counter it.

And then there's the phrase "catastrophic circumstances in Iraq." The Chronicle takes it as a given that the situation in Iraq warrants that particular adjective rather than one a bit less--well, less catastrophic. I'd hate to have seen how the current-day writers and editors of a paper such as the Chronicle would have dealt with the early years of World War II, or the Civil War, or any number of other conflicts. Fortunately, they weren't around then.

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